Why are we performing “War and Peace”?

When Vladimir Jurowski and I decided on the opera “War and Peace” at the end of 2018, beginning of 2019 when planning the programme for the Bayerische Staatsoper, Russia’s war of aggression was still a long way off. We agreed that Sergei Prokofiev’s monumental scoring of Leo Tolstoy’s novel “War and Peace” was a masterpiece, which to date had never been performed in Munich.

Tolstoy’s pacifist classic ranks undisputed among the greatest works of world literature and opens up (as Prokofiev also saw) a full panorama of themes, comprised of incidents and events which also occurred outside of the actual theatre of war – Russia’s glory at the beginning of the 19th century, the serfdom, the liberation of the people, the Freemasonry, the everyday life of the aristocracy, the absence of a culture affording a sense of identity in the higher Russian social classes and much, much more. For the readers of his novel, Tolstoy enables a wide-ranging view of individual and collective phenomena and themes of Russian culture.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine has abruptly changed our world, all of us, and for our “War and Peace” production team it also meant a serious setback with its preparations. Whether or not we should stage Russian works has divided public opinion since the war began. It is of course in no way Russian art and culture in itself that is responsible for the political actions of a regime and its potentate. Great works transcend boundaries and topicalize global problems. Michelangelo is an Italian artist, but he speaks to us all. Picasso – was he just a Spaniard? We must not limit art to the nationality of those that create it. Mussorgsky, Shostakovich, Tchaikovsky – all composers who have given us works that belong to humanity.

Would it not be absurd to banish the entirety of Russian music, the entirety of Russian culture from our halls? Of course, the dilemma is evident: If we play Russian music, we support Putin’s propaganda, say some. If we do not play Russian music, we confirm the image of the Russophobic West and therefore also support Putin’s propaganda, say others. We could simply replace Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, Prokofiev and their peers, as the repertoire would still be extensive enough – with Strauss, Wagner, Puccini it would not, however, necessarily be any more straightforward. Because questions also remain with these composers as well. If we set strict standards, we will soon have to remove more from our programmes than we would like to.

There are no easy answers to these questions. Vladimir Jurowski, Dmitri Tcherniakov and I have nevertheless decided that we want to stage “War and Peace” – especially now. Particularly in the challenging times in which we live, the relevance of art must be constantly reiterated. The topicality of this work, above all the arrangement by Dmitri Tcherniakov, will demonstrate the social importance opera has in today’s world.

Tolstoy and Prokofiev in particular did not omit any of the cruelties of war in “War and Peace”. In our staging, too, there is much that will make us sit up and think. Prokofiev embeds the failing love story in world history, indissolubly entangles individuality and society, which relativizes the individual and upvalues the collective. All are victims of war, there are only the dead, the injured, the disabled – everybody loses something. 

“To every age its art. To every art its freedom”, say the golden letters on the building of the Vienna Secession art movement. I believe it is our responsibility to advocate this freedom of art, to not be intimidated by the actions of totalitarians. This freedom of art is inextricably linked with internationality, diversity and dialogue. Only the exchange in a greater context gives cultural significance to individual voices. Culture can therefore neither be attached to geopolitical boundaries or nationalities nor may it be a means to divide people. It lives from the dialogue in an open society. Let us discuss how we want to live in a better, more peaceful world together!

Serge Dorny