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Conductor Gergiev, shunned in West, becomes head of Russia's Bolshoi

By Mark Trevelyan

LONDON (Reuters) -Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, no longer welcome in Western concert halls since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, was named on Friday as director of Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre.

The appointment puts the 70-year-old in control of Russia's two pre-eminent opera and ballet houses, as he has also headed the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg since 1996.

After performing for decades on the world's biggest classical stages, Gergiev has been shunned in the West since the start of the war in February 2022. The following month he was fired as chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra after the city's mayor said Gergiev had declined to "clearly and unambiguously" distance himself from the invasion.

The Bolshoi has long been known not only for its magnificent gilded theatre and for the quality and epic scale of its ballets and operas, but also for its artistic intrigues and rivalries.

The government announcement of Gergiev's appointment said his predecessor Vladimir Urin had asked to be relieved of his duties after more than 10 years in charge, but it did not give any reason.

Urin was one of 17 prominent cultural figures who signed an open letter in the days after the invasion of Ukraine calling for a halt to military operations, a withdrawal of troops, and negotiations.

"We don't want a new war, we don't want people to die," the letter said.

In May last year, the Bolshoi upset opera and ballet fans by abruptly cancelling a series of shows by directors who had spoken out against the war.

Gergiev, also a former principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, has long been controversial outside Russia because of his support for President Vladimir Putin.

He spoke out in favour of Russia's invasion of Crimea in 2014. Two years later, he led a concert in the ancient Roman theatre at Palmyra in Syria - which Putin addressed by live video link - after the area was recaptured from Islamic State by Russian-backed Syrian forces.

"The responsibility is enormous," Gergiev said of his new appointment.

"Today I am thinking about what we can do in Russia. Not because we're not invited elsewhere - on the contrary, we've spent a lot of time lately in China - but now I, and we together, need to work at home."

(Reporting by Mark Trevelyan; Editing by Kevin Liffey)