The Met Opera Gets Contemporary With a New Commission Focused on Ukraine

The classical music organization's newest commission was inspired by the real-life story of Ukrainian mothers rescuing their children from Russian authorities.

Founded in 1883, New York’s historic Metropolitan Opera, which hired its first-ever chief diversity officer in 2021, isn’t known for being of the times. But with his focus on new commissions dealing with modern subject matter, managing director Peter Gelb is trying to change that.

Large opera house lit up in colors of Ukrainian flag.
The Metropolitan Opera held a concert to mark the one year since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2023. Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

The Met Opera’s latest commission will develop an opera based on the true story of Ukrainian mothers attempting to rescue children detained by Russian authorities. The organization tapped Ukrainian composer and oboist Maxim Kolomiiets who previously wrote Espenbaum and Night, and American librettist and playwright George Brant, whose play Grounded is currently being developed as an opera by the Met.

The idea came about last autumn, following a meeting between Gelb and Olena Zelenska, First Lady of Ukraine. The Met vetted applications from seventy-two Ukrainian composers before landing on Kolomiiets. “We’re proud to continue to support Ukraine on the cultural front,” said Gelb in a statement.

This is far from the first time the Met has publicly supported Ukraine in recent months. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February of 2022, the institution declared it would no longer engage with any artists or organizations supporting Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, and Gelb revealed that his opera house would “dedicate the rest of our season to [Ukraine’s] courage.” The institution subsequently cut ties with its star Russian soprano Anna Netrebko after she allegedly refused to denounce Putin. And in addition to a benefit concert held in March of 2022 to support relief efforts in Ukraine, the Met last year helped form the Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra—led by Gelb’s Canadian-Ukrainian wife, conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson—which toured Europe and the U.S. with proceeds aiding the war-torn nation.

The Met Opera is becoming more engaged with topical issues

While the Met’s commission of a politically relevant opera focused on current events may seem like an unusual move compared to its typical showing of works by names like Wagner and Strauss, the classical music organization has been slowly transforming into a more modern iteration under Gelb’s leadership. In 2006, the same year Gelb took the organization’s reins, it launched a commissioning program with New York’s Lincoln Center Theater to help composers and playwrights develop new works.

The first product of this partnership was Nico Muhly’s Two Boys, which opened at the Met in 2013 and is based on real events from Internet chat rooms in the early 2000s in Manchester. Meanwhile, traditional opera stage costumes gave way to contemporary clothing in 2021, when Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones, a jazz-infused opera based on Charles Blow’s 2014 memoir and the Met’s first work from a Black composer, premiered at the institution.

Earlier this year, Gelb revealed his intention to further ramp up the Met’s modern commissions, telling the New York Times that he is “looking for great composers who are interested in telling stories that the public can relate to.” In that vein, a comedy from composer Huang Ruo on the Asian-American experience is one of seventeen contemporary works the organization is planning to stage over the next five seasons.

Tapping into the renewed focus on its popular contemporary productions following a slew of financial woes stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic, the Met earlier this year also announced that its 2023-2024 lineup will showcase the most new works in the opera house’s recent history. With one-third of its seasonal presentations consisting of recent operas, the six new productions will include X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, directed by Robert O’Hara, which premiers this November. The season will address “the needs of core opera lovers, who think of the Met as the home of the greatest operatic voices,” said Gelb of the lineup, all the while “embracing the younger and more diverse audiences that increasingly are responding to new musical and theatrical experiences.”

The Met Opera Gets Contemporary With a New Commission Focused on Ukraine