Saturday, September 04, 2010

NYT: Stein left Met production over visa spat.

Today's New York Times reports that German theater director Peter Stein decided to withdraw from a new Metropolitan Opera production of Modest Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov because of his dissatisfaction with the process of obtaining a U.S. work visa and concerns about potential mistreatment at the hands of airport security officers. Stein claims that his grumpiness over having to endure a long and uncomfortable wait at the U.S. Consulate in Berlin led a consular official to arbitrarily deny his application for a visa; Stein later made a second visit to the consulate and obtained his visa, but lingering anger over the experience led him to cancel his would-be Met debut.

Reading about Stein's decision, I thought of other cases in which actual or potential immigration hassles prevented or impeded European artists from working in the United States. In the fall of 2007, renowned Italian conductor Claudio Abbado cancelled a commitment to lead several concerts at Carnegie Hall on ostensible grounds of ill health which may have masked the maestro's reported discontent with the visa application process. Though Abbado continues to conduct internationally, he has not appeared in the United States since his Carnegie Hall cancellation three years ago. Last year, Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman announced that he would no longer perform in the United States, officially as a gesture of political protest but allegedly also as a result of lingering annoyance over the 2001 seizure and destruction of his personal piano by U.S. customs officials and the later impoundment of a replacement instrument. Earlier this year, the New York Times noted the difficulty that the Cleveland Orchestra faced in obtaining a work visa for Austrian tenor Martin Mitterrutzner, who immigration officials apparently found to be lacking in the requisite "prestige" to be allowed to sing at a handful of a concerts in the United States; Mitterrutzner was finally granted a visa on his third attempt.

Stories like these bother and discourage me, partly because I believe that U.S. audiences should have the opportunity to appreciate the work of artists like Peter Stein, Claudio Abbado, and Krystian Zimerman. To be fair, it must be emphasized that the artists in each of these cases made the ultimate choice not to come to (or to stop coming to) the United States; one may be tempted to speculate that the individuals involved could easily have acted differently if they had so chosen. Still, the fact that post-9/11 security concerns have effectively made it more difficult for international artists to come to the United States seems quite unfortunate when one considers the potential that music and the other arts have to bring people together despite differences in politics, language and culture.

Lest some readers mistake this post as a statement on ongoing policy debates in the United States, I must emphasize that the issue at hand has little or nothing to do with immigration reform: I'm not talking about people who are seeking the right to reside and work in this country on a permanent basis, but about a relative handful of individuals whose work occasionally brings them here for a few days at a time. In case some readers in other countries are tempted to react with pointed criticism of U.S. policy, I should note that I'm also aware of equally egregious cases involving governments with putatively 'enlightened' policies on visas and immigration. There are no heroes or villains here, only flawed individuals facing flawed situations. AMDG.


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