Ukrainian orchestra leader makes Met debut with Russian opera

NEW YORK — It’s been a big year for conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson, putting together an orchestra from scratch, leading it on a 12-city tour and then, as soon as it disbanded, going straight to the Metropolitan Opera to prepare for an opening week debut. .

His were the hands that guided and 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 his great-grandparents on his mother’s side, recalled 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,” he said. “And he was constantly crying and saying we had to do something, and that’s when the tour was born.”

Peter is Peter Gelb, Wilson’s husband and general manager of the Met. He contacted the director of the Polish National Opera and together they arranged financing 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 select group, but really quite raw,” he said. “And a lot of them hadn’t been playing for months. Maybe they were moving, desperately trying to find houses, jobs in other countries. And coming out of COVID.”

With only 10 days to rehearse together in Warsaw before the tour began, Wilson recalled: “The first day was pretty tough and we just played Dvořák’s ‘New World Symphony’. The second day, after seven hours I was amazed. And on the fourth day, the Dvořák just shuddered.”

The tour toured 10 European cities in addition to New York and Washington, gathering rave reviews with programs that included, in addition to the Dvořák, a symphony by the Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov, works by Brahms and Chopin, and two operatic arias sung by the Ukrainian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska. . .

Due to the unique political mission of the orchestra, Russian music was not included in those concerts. But Wilson vigorously opposes any suggestion that Russian composers are in any way tainted by Putin’s aggression.

“There has never been any doubt in my mind that we cannot take Russian literature or culture hostage,” he said.

Where he draws the line, however, is working with artists who support the current regime. So when she was hired to direct a series of Puccini’s “Tosca” later this fall in Buenos Aires, she noted that Russian soprano Anna Netrebko, who had been banned from the Met and other houses for refusing to distance herself from Putin was on the list. her to sing two of the performances.

“I said, ‘Sorry, I can’t act with Ms. Netrebko,’ and they said, ‘Don’t worry, she’ll bring her own director.’ So it was fine.”

The opera that has brought her to the Met for the first time is a 20th-century Russian masterpiece, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk” by Dmitri Shostakovich. In it, the 26-year-old composer presents a sordid tale of rape, murder and betrayal with a raucous and dissonant score that places extreme demands on performers and singers alike.

“For me, it’s a perfect piece to make my debut,” said Wilson, who had previously conducted the opera in Tel Aviv and Zurich. “I have had a love affair with Russia since I was a child…and this opera is just a tour de force for a director. It’s a piece where I can really show my stuff.”

Wilson praised the Met orchestra as “a phenomenal vehicle to work with” and the choir as “terrific”, but said that in early rehearsals he had to remind them that “you can’t have any inhibitions in this piece.

“It was interesting to see how safe some of the plays were,” he said. “Some players do it and others… I really had to say, ‘No, that fortissimo is not enough.’ Things were too beautiful. Some of the choir was too beautiful.”

Although the Met scheduled this revival and hired her three years before the invasion, Wilson said the timing couldn’t have been better.

“This is the opera that was banned by Stalin,” he said. “Just as Putin is trying to silence Russians who are retaliating or doing something out of the ordinary artistically, this is screaming right 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 he soon became “totally and annoyingly” bored with the instrument. “I enjoyed playing in the orchestra,” he said, “but it got to the point where I had to conduct to make music the way I wanted.”

His career flourished and he worked in many of the world’s leading opera houses and concert halls, but never at the Met. Finally, in 2019, the musical director of the Met, also Canadian Yannick Nezet-Seguin, invited her to debut this season.

“I thought that after directing in London, Paris, Russia and other places in the United States, he should come to our house, which is the best opera house in the world,” said Nezet-Seguin.

Judging by the critical response, Wilson’s first appearance is unlikely to be his last.

“There was some grumbling when the season was announced about a big gig for the boss’s wife,” Zachary Woolfe wrote in The New York Times, reviewing the first performance on September 29. “But the quality of her work spoke for itself. … This was a very good 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 father-in-law.

For Wilson, jumping straight into rehearsals at the Met after the Ukraine Freedom Orchestra’s final concert eased the pain of separation.

“Oh, it was horrible,” he recalled as he watched the musicians disperse, many for an uncertain future. “Thank God I had this job to go to.”

The only consolation was being able to assure the musicians that the orchestra will meet next summer for another series of concerts.

“Hopefully it will be a victory tour,” he said. “That would be amazing.”


This story was first published on October 5, 2022. It was updated on Saturday, October 22, 2022 to remove a portion of Keri-Lynn Wilson’s quote about rehearsals involving Russian soprano Anna Netrebko.

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