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Radioactive Rift: Met Opera Stars Drop Out of Japan Tour

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Fearful of radioactive exposure from the disaster-stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant, two of the Metropolitan Opera's leading stars have pulled out of a tour in Japan at the last minute. Russian-born soprano Anna Netrebko and Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja have changed their minds about the scheduled tour, forcing the company to "scramble over the weekend to find replacement stars," according to the Met's own statement.

The 350-member Met troupe arrived in the central Japan city of Nagoya late Monday for a three-week tour, their seventh visit to the country, starting Saturday. "Anything can happen in the volcanic world of opera, and with this tour it seems that our volcano has momentarily erupted," Met general manager Peter Gelb said in the statement.

"While sympathetic to those artists who felt compelled to withdraw, we are particularly grateful to the stars that are rallying to our side from around the world in support of the Met and the Japanese people," he said.

Soprano Barbara Frittoli will replace Netrebko in the role of Mimì in La Bohème, while Marina Poplavskaya takes Netrebko’s role of Elisabeth in Don Carlo. Stepping in for Calleja are the tenors Marcelo Álvarez, Rolando Villazón and Alexey Dolgov.

The cancellations by Netrebko and Calleja, made known only last week, are just the latest setback in a tour that has been plagued by casting difficulties. Music Director James Levine canceled for health issues earlier this month and is being replaced by Fabio Luisi; tenor Jonas Kaufmann pulled out for “personal reasons” and soprano Olga Borodina was “ordered by her physicians to take a two-month vocal rest.”

“It was the most difficult decision I have had to make in my 14-year career,” said Calleja, 33, in a statement. "I would like to take this opportunity to wish all the best to my colleagues who are in Japan and to express my sympathy to the Japanese people during these challenging times.”

The Metropolitan Opera is a frequent visitor to Japan with a devoted audience, explained Yoko Shioya, Artistic Director at the Japan Society. “I’m sure a lot of people are disappointed,” she said in an interview. “At the same time, they are probably not that surprised that [the singers] canceled. The French and the Russians are the biggest population for canceling among classical musicians."

Netrebko, who was born in southern Russia, has said that she has lingering memories of the Chernobyl disaster in 1989.

Tokyo is approximately 125 miles from the troubled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. After the 9.0 magnitude quake and a deadly tsunami that lashed Japan's northeast, Tokyo briefly registered nominally higher radiation levels in its air and water, but they have subsided to pre-tsunami levels. There was never any scientific concern of a radiation impact on Nagoya, which is much farther away.

“To me it’s rather ridiculous not to go to Japan for safety concerns," said Shioya. "Going to 20 miles close to the nuclear plant is one issue. I’m not talking about visiting the plant. Nagoya is farther away, west of Tokyo, whereas the nuclear plant is located in the northeast.”

The number of foreign visitors to Japan plunged by more than 60 percent in April from the same period last year, the biggest plunge on record. At the same time, many American musicians and celebrities are resuming travel to Japan. Lady Gaga is heading to Tokyo in June to perform at a benefit for the Japanese Red Cross. Justin Bieber, another huge pop star, visited Japan, too.

Last month, the tenor Placido Domingo performed in Japan and later donated $200,000.

A long list of principal singers in the Met tour remain on board, including Ildar Abdrazakov, Diana Damrau, Zeljko Lucic, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Mariusz Kwiecien, René Pape, Edward Parks, Paul Plishka and John Relyea.