By Jane Fitzpatrick
AppreciateOpera.org Contributing Columnist
In early 2022, the Polish National Opera cancelled its performances of Modest Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov scheduled to take place in April. Director Waldemar Dąbrowski provided a statement in light of the cancellation that included the following sentiment:
“We are based in Warsaw, a city that vividly remembers the first bombs that fell from the sky during the Second World War. We are deeply affected by the war in Ukraine and the suffering of the Ukrainian people. We admire the heroism of the Ukrainians who have stood up to defend their motherland.”
Dąbrowski cited this sentiment as the reason for the production’s cancellation but concluded with the “hope” that the opera company “...would be able to stage the production at a time of peace.”
In November 2022, Ukrainians themselves took to protesting the scheduled performances of Mussorgsky’s work at Italy’s Teatro alla Scala, but the theatre defended its scheduled programming.
Although the opera has come to be viewed as a unique celebration of Russian identity, audiences may have to find the divide between supporting the arts and supporting national sovereignty. Could locking Mussorgksy’s score away be a practice of cultural erasure, or is it a demonstration in defense of sovereignty? Opera and theatre companies around the world have found themselves at odds in this debate.
What is this opera about, and why did it cause political uproar?
Modest Mussorgsky was a nineteenth-century composer who sought to make art that was uniquely—and proudly—Russian. The story itself, however, seemingly lends itself to the theme of tragic failure rather than heroic glory. Boris Godunov, the opera’s titular character, rose to power through bloody murder, reigned through Russia’s infamous Time of Troubles, and fell from grace via opera-worthy drama.
The real hero of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov is not the tragic tsar who died in 1605 but rather the Russian Orthodox Church and its timeless reign in Russian society. The opera holds Russian pride—and international fear—through the cultural powerhouse of the Church as a symbol of the state.
In December 2022, Ukrainian forces placed bans on religious organizations that were said to be “affiliated with centers of influence” in Russia. A National Security and Defense Council decision was signed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to impose personal sanctions on representatives within those religious organizations earlier that year.
The drama of the arts reflects the contexts in which art is shown and what it may be perceived to symbolize in its contextual environments. Many believe that supporting a distinctly Russian work is a proclamation of support for Russia’s invasion across Ukraine’s borders and into its distinctive culture; others argue that erasing Russian culture should not be the counterattack to Russia’s attempted erasure of its neighboring cultures.
What is the future of Boris Godunov and international stages?
Despite protests and international attention, Music Director Ricardo Chailly of the Teatro alla Scala responded to a Ukrainian diplomat’s request for the cancellation of its 2022 production of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov with the following statement:
“We are all with Ukraine waiting for the conflict to end, but politics and its consequences cannot be coercive for culture.”
Chailly further explained that the theatre had previously demonstrated its support of Ukraine with a performance of Rossini’s Staba Mater as a “cry of pain against war” that raised 380,000 euros for Ukrainian refugees.
Looking ahead, Boris Godunov has found its place among several 2024 production schedules. The opera is set to be staged at the Opéra Grand Avignon in Avignon, France, the Moniuszko Auditorium in Warsaw, Poland (co-produced by the New National Theatre Tokyo), the Hungarian State Opera in Budapest, Hungary, the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, Germany, and more.
Despite the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, it seems the show must go on. International opera companies are promoting the idea that the arts can be appreciated beyond the scope of their environmental and historical contexts, but their audiences will decide whether ticket sales will support this idea, or if political stances and international empathy trump the artistry.
Jane Fitzpatrick is an avid researcher of the intersections between religious traditions and international affairs with a passion for opera and art. She earned her master's degree in International Affairs from Penn State University and has a Bachelor's degree in Religious Studies from Gettysburg College. Jane has previously provided research assistance for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Strategic Religious Engagement Unit of the U.S. Department of State, and the U.S. Army War College. In 2023, she became an AppreciateOpera.org contributing columnist.