Russian Opera Star Sues the Met for Her Ousting over Ukraine War

REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger
Opera singer Anna Netrebko reacts during the opening ceremony of the traditional Opera Ball in Vienna, Austria February 28, 2019.

Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, one of opera’s biggest stars, sued the Metropolitan Opera and its general manager Friday, alleging discrimination when the company dropped her after Russia invaded Ukraine.

The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, includes claims of national origin discrimination, breach of contract and defamation. Netrebko is asking for at least $360,000 in damages, citing lost performance and rehearsal fees.

The Met severed its relationship with Netrebko in March 2022, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine the previous month. Met general manager Peter Gelb said at the time she “is one of the greatest singers in Met history, but with Putin killing innocent victims in Ukraine, there was no way forward.” Netrebko had made several statements opposing the war and violence at the time of her ouster, but did not agree to Gelb’s request that she specifically condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to her suit.

“Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Met and Peter Gelb have used Anna Netrebko as a scapegoat in their campaign to distance themselves from Russia and to support Ukraine,” a statement from Netrebko’s management sent to The Washington Post reads.

“Ms. Netrebko’s lawsuit has no merit,” the Met’s press office said Friday in an unsigned statement.

Julie Ulmet, Netrebko’s lawyer, said the singer decided to file suit after a labor arbitrator ordered the Met to pay her more than $200,000 this year for 13 performances in which she would have starred. The arbitrator left open “whether the Met’s termination of certain other contracts violated state law,” Ulmet said.

The suit cites agreements Netrebko and the Met had made for performances through the 2025-26 season, including productions of “Tosca” and “Macbeth.” The Met told Netrebko in 2022 it was canceling “all holds for future seasons” in addition to her 2023-24 contracts, per her lawsuit.

Before Russia invaded Ukraine, Netrebko had been one of the Met’s marquee names. Beginning with her 2002 Met debut, she averaged ten shows a year at company, including multiple starring roles, her lawsuit said. It cited news coverage calling her “the face of New York’s Metropolitan Opera.”

She had also been an outspoken supporter of Putin before the invasion, calling him “a very attractive man” and endorsing him for the Russian presidency in 2012. She distanced herself from the Russian leader after the war began, saying “I am not a member of any political party nor am I allied with any leader of Russia. I acknowledge and regret that past actions or statements of mine could have been misinterpreted.”

The decision to part ways with Netrebko wasn’t the Met’s only move to support Ukraine. The company helped form the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, which tours “to support Ukrainian artists.” The orchestra is helmed by Canadian-Ukrainian conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson, who is also married to Gelb, according to a New York Times profile of the music power couple.

“Music can be a powerful weapon against oppression. This tour is meant to defend Ukrainian art and its brave artists as they fight for the freedom of their country,” Gelb said in a joint statement announcing the orchestra’s tour.

Despite her absence from the Met, Netrebko has found a home at other famed houses, including the Vienna State Opera and Teatro alla Scala in Milan. Still, the suit says the Met and Gelb “harmed Netrebko’s reputation with audiences and opera fans, including by encouraging protests of her performances.”

“Netrebko has suffered, and continues to suffer, severe mental anguish and emotional distress, including, but not limited to, depression, humiliation, embarrassment, stress and anxiety, and emotional pain and suffering,” her lawsuit states.