Ukrainian conductor makes Met debut with Russian opera
NEW YORK (AP) — It’s been quite a year for bandleader Keri-Lynn Wilson, building an orchestra from the ground up, taking it on a 12-city tour, and then as soon as it disbanded, he went straight to the Metropolitan Opera to prepare for an opening week debut.
It was his guiding hands that shaped the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra, an ensemble founded as a musical statement of defiance against Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Wilson, who traces his own Ukrainian ancestry to great-grandparents on his mother’s side, remembers being in Europe when the assault began in February.
Three weeks later, “I was supposed to go to Odessa to direct, and instead I met Peter in London,” she said. “And I was constantly crying and saying we had to do something, and that’s where the tour was born.”
Peter is Peter Gelb, Wilson’s husband and the Met’s chief executive. He contacted the director of the Polish National Opera and together they arranged funding and tour dates for the new orchestra.
Quickly, Wilson assembled a group of 75 Ukrainian musicians, some of them recent refugees, some members of European orchestras and others still living in their beleaguered country.
“It was a tight group, but really pretty raw,” she said. “And a lot of them hadn’t played in months. They might be moving, desperately trying to find homes, jobs in other countries. And get out of COVID.
With only 10 days to rehearse together in Warsaw before launching the tour, Wilson recalls: “The first day was quite difficult, and we just played Dvořák’s ‘New World Symphony’. On the second day, after seven o’clock, I was amazed. And on the fourth day, the Dvořák just tipped over.
The tour passed through 10 European cities plus New York and Washington, garnering rave reviews with programs that included, in addition to Dvořák, a symphony by Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov, works by Brahms and Chopin and two opera arias sung by Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska. .
Due to the orchestra’s unique political mission, no Russian music was included in these concerts. But Wilson strongly opposes any suggestion that Russian composers are somehow tainted by Putin’s aggression.
“There has never been any doubt in my mind that we cannot hold Russian literature or culture hostage,” she said.
Where she draws the line, however, is working with artists who support the current regime. So when she was hired to conduct a series of Puccini’s “Tosca” later that fall in Buenos Aires, she noted that Russian soprano Anna Netrebko – who was kicked out of the Met and other houses for refusing to get away from Putin – was listed to sing two of the performances.
“I said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t play with Ms. Netrebko,’ and they said, ‘Don’t worry, she’s bringing her own conductor.’ So that was good. Luckily I got all the rehearsals. She just stepped in the middle.
The opera that brought her to the Met for the first time was a 20th-century Russian masterpiece, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” by Dmitri Shostakovich. In it, the 26-year-old composer tells a sordid tale of rape, murder and betrayal to a loud, dissonant score that places extreme demands on musicians and singers.
“For me, it’s a perfect piece to make my debut,” said Wilson, who previously conducted the opera in Tel Aviv and Zurich. “I’ve had a love affair with Russia since I was a child…and this opera is just a tour de force for a conductor. It’s a room where I can really show my stuff.
Wilson hailed the Met orchestra as “a phenomenal vehicle to work with” and the choir as “fabulous”, but said that during the first rehearsals she had to remind them that “in this room you can have no inhibitions. .
“It was interesting to see how safe certain games were,” she said. “Some players go and some…I really had to say, ‘No, this fortissimo is not enough.’ Things were too beautiful. Part of the chorus was too beautiful.
Although the Met planned this revival and hired her three years before the invasion, Wilson said the timing couldn’t have been better.
“It’s opera that was banned by Stalin,” she said. “Just like Putin tries to silence Russians who retaliate or do anything artistically, it screams in his face. It’s extraordinary, the symbolism.
Wilson, who grew up in Winnipeg, Canada, went to the Juilliard School in New York to study the flute, but said she soon became “completely bored” with the instrument. “I loved playing in the orchestra,” she said, “but I got to the point where I had to conduct to make music the way I wanted.”
Her career flourished and she worked at many of the world’s leading opera houses and concert halls, but never at the Met. Finally, in 2019, the Met’s musical director, fellow Canadian Yannick Nezet-Seguin, invited her to make her debut this season.
“I thought that after conducting in London, Paris, Russia and elsewhere in the United States, she should come to us, which is the best opera house in the world,” Nezet-Seguin said.
Judging by the critical response, Wilson’s first appearance likely won’t be his last.
“There were some grumbles when the season was announced about a plum gig for the boss’s wife,” Zachary Woolfe wrote in The New York Times, reviewing the September 29 premiere performance. “But the quality of his work spoke for itself… It was a very fine performance.
“Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” continues at the Met through October 21 with a cast that includes Russian soprano Svetlana Sozdateleva as the title character, tenor Brandon Jovanovich as her lover and bass-baritone John Relyea as her brutal stepfather.
For Wilson, jumping straight into rehearsals at the Met after the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra’s final concert eased the pain of separation.
“Oh, that was awful,” she recalls as she watched the musicians disperse, many for an uncertain future. “Thank God I had this job ahead.”
The only consolation has been to be able to assure the musicians that the orchestra will reunite next summer for another series of concerts.
“Hopefully it will be a victory tour,” she said. “That would be great.”