The call from the Metropolitan Opera came one afternoon in early March.
Liudmyla Monastyrska, a soprano from Ukraine, was in Poland shopping for concert dresses ahead of a performance. His phone rang, and it was Peter Gelb, the Met’s chief executive, on the other end. He was frank: his company was at an impasse.
Ukraine had recently been invaded and the Met had parted ways with Russian soprano Anna Netrebko over her previous support for Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. Gelb wanted Monastyrska, a charismatic singer known for her lush sound, to replace Netrebko in a cover of Puccini’s “Turandot,” which debuts Saturday.
Monastyrska, 46, was reluctant. In 2015, after a difficult career at the National Opera of Ukraine in kyiv, she had sworn never to interpret the title role of “Turandot” again, worn out by her demands. And she feared getting caught up in the politics of the Russian invasion and alienating Netrebko, one of opera’s biggest stars, whom she has known for seven years.
Gelb reassured Monastyrska, promising that her appearance would help bring attention to the plight of the Ukrainian people.
“I was surprised, but I felt it was important for me to sing,” Monastyrska said in an interview. “I wanted to help however I could.” She still felt uneasy, however. “I don’t like singing about other people’s contracts,” she said.
Throughout her career, Monastyrska has made a studied effort to avoid politics. She doesn’t have a Facebook page and tries not to read the news, preferring to focus on her family, her faith (she is Ukrainian Orthodox) and her artistic talent.
But in recent weeks, as the war in Ukraine has escalated, she has found a political voice. She criticized Netrebko’s meandering statements about the invasion, saying Netrebko’s opposition to the war and attempts to distance himself from Putin came too late. She railed against the Russian government (“They kill people for no reason,” she said in the interview) and denounced artists who continue to support Moscow.
His profile will likely increase in the coming months. Next season, she will replace another artist who has come under fire for her ties to Putin, replacing Russian soprano Hibla Gerzmava in a Met cover of “Tosca”, the company announced Thursday. (Gerzmava had been criticized for signing a letter of support for Putin in 2014.)
And the Met announced this week that Monastyrska will be front and center when the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, a newly formed ensemble of Ukrainian musicians, tour Europe and the United States this summer. She will sing “Abscheulicher”, an aria from Beethoven’s “Fidelio” which addresses the themes of peace, injustice and humanity.
“She’s a powerful vocal symbol of the Ukrainian cause,” Gelb said in an interview, “and that will come through every night of the tour, when she sings Beethoven’s words against oppression and the call for freedom. The opening recitative of the aria she sings could be addressed directly to Putin.
Gelb said he chose her for “Turandot” mainly because of her “very beautiful and incredibly powerful voice”.
“It’s a voice that can knock ‘Turandot’ out of the park in a house like the Met,” he added. “The fact that she is Ukrainian is an added element of poetic justice that certainly did not go unnoticed.”
Born in kyiv, Monastyrska trained in Ukrainian conservatories and spent much of her early career in opera houses there. Her breakthrough onto the world stage came in 2010, at age 35, when she was asked to sing, with just a week’s notice, the title role in Puccini’s ‘Tosca’ with the Deutsche Oper Berlin. .
She made her Met debut in 2012, taking the title role in Verdi’s “Aida.” In The New York Times, critic Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim described her performance as a “triumphant start at home”, saying she arrived at the Met as a “fully mature performer”.
“She is gifted with a round, luscious soprano that retains its sparkle even in the softest notes,” da Fonseca-Wollheim wrote.
Monastyrska has become known for her sensitive interpretations of opera’s most famous characters, including Lady Macbeth, Manon Lescaut and Abigaille in Verdi’s “Nabucco,” which she sang at the Met in 2016. Her blossoming career has taken her in the same orbit as Netrebko, who is four years old. years older. She described Netrebko as a “very warm person” and a “fantastic singer”; once, Monastyrska was invited to Netrebko’s apartment in New York for a party around Thanksgiving.
Shortly before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the two crossed paths in Naples, Italy, where they appeared on alternate nights in the same production of “Aida.” During a rehearsal, Monastyrska said, Netrebko approached her and told her that she opposed the idea of a war between the two countries.
Later, Netrebko came under pressure to publicly denounce the war and Putin, whom she had supported in the past. She had endorsed her re-election and was pictured in 2014 holding a flag used by Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine.
After condemning the war but remaining silent on Putin, Netrebko saw his commitments in Europe and North America evaporate. She released a new statement last month seeking to distance herself from Putin, saying she had only met him a few times and was “not allied with any leader of Russia”.
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Monastyrska said the statement was insufficient. “She is No. 1 in the world of opera; he’s a very public person,” she said. “Why did she wait so long to say anything?” It’s intolerable.
“He’s a normal person; it is not an animal,” Monastyrska added. “But she should say, ‘I don’t support Putin.'”
Netrebko did not immediately respond to a request for comment through its representatives.
Monastyrska is still reluctant to replace Netrebko. “It’s not very good for me; I don’t feel good here,” she added, placing her hand over her heart. “This is not mine.”
Monastyrska said it was a complicated time for Russian and Ukrainian artists. She said she didn’t think it was appropriate for Ukrainian singers to appear in operas by Russian composers now, but she thought many of those works should still be performed.
She had mixed feelings about the attention given to a video of her hugging Russian mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Gubanova after a recent performance of “Aida,” which was widely shared online shortly after the start of the invasion and considered a symbol of peace. She said she was happy to embrace Gubanova as a friend, but she also understood that some might find it inappropriate for Ukrainian singers to perform alongside Russians during wartime.
In the halls of the Met during rehearsals for “Turandot,” she met Ukrainian bass-baritone Vladyslav Buialskyi, who played the Ukrainian national anthem at a concert last month in support of Ukraine at the Met. She asked about her family’s safety and told them to be strong.
“She’s a star everywhere, here and at home,” Buialskyi said in an interview. “She’s an incredible singer and an equally incredible person.”
Monastyrska worked to overcome her hesitations with “Turandot”, her first Met engagement in five years. She practiced the intricate choreography of Franco Zeffirelli’s extravagant 1987 production, an audience favorite.
Sometimes she had trouble concentrating, she said. His parents, son and brother remain in Ukraine. “I think about them every minute and every second,” she said. During breaks at the Met, she messages her friends and family back home.
Right now, “it’s almost impossible to sing,” she says. “But I pray all the time. I try to be strong.”
Anna Tsybko contributed reporting.