Valery Gergiev is one of the world's best-known conductors, but a US tour that could have showcased Russia's soft power at a time of tensions with the West has been marred by protests.
A demonstrator raced over the orchestra pit and held a banner Thursday night at the Metropolitan Opera in New York as the cast took a bow for the opening night of Tchaikovsky's "Iolanta."
Gergiev had conducted the music and soprano Anna Netrebko sang the title role in the one-act opera. The two are among Russia's most famous contemporary musicians -- and have both vocally supported President Vladimir Putin.
The protester, who was seized by security and arrested, flashed a handmade sign that showed the Ukrainian flag and appeared to juxtapose Putin with Hitler.
The audience erupted in boos and the protester turned to wave the sign at the performers, one of whom shook his head in dismay.
The curtain call protest was only the latest in the United States against Gergiev, who is one of the world's most sought-after -- and prolific -- conductors.
Gergiev, who heads the Mariinsky Theater in Putin's home city of Saint Petersburg and is also the principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, faced protesters in recent days outside performances at New York's Carnegie Hall and Brooklyn Academy of Music, as well as at the University of Michigan.
Demonstrators who braved freezing temperatures -- the Metropolitan Opera's opening night had been pushed back due to a snowstorm -- accused Gergiev of using his fame to boost both Putin and Russia's seizure of Crimea from Ukraine.
In a petition aimed at stopping his University of Michigan appearance, campaigners pointed to a statement in which Gergiev accused Ukrainian "Nazis" of planning mass killings of Crimea's Russian speakers.
"It is this kind of lie that is used to justify the war, the purpose of which is to destroy Ukraine's ability to develop a democratic state," the petition said.
While many demonstrators were Ukrainian, protesters also included LGBT activists alarmed by Russia's law against "gay propaganda."
- Showcase of Russian heritage -
Gergiev has mostly tried to stay above the fray while in the United States and instead has sought to present his audiences with a broad repertoire by Russia's greatest composers.
Over two nights at Carnegie Hall, Gergiev led the Mariinsky Orchestra in a bold, at times martial performance of Prokofiev's World War II-era Fifth Symphony. Denis Matsuev joined for a forceful rendering of Tchaikovsky's Second Piano Concerto.
"Iolanta," the one-act opera about a blind princess, is one of Tchaikovsky's lesser-known works even though it premiered in 1892 in Saint Petersburg alongside the first performance of "The Nutcracker," one of the world's most celebrated works.
As if eager to present the classics, the Mariinsky Orchestra played an unexpected encore at Carnegie Hall from "The Nutcracker" of the graceful, harp-led "Grand Pas de Deux."
The performances, however, were not free from potential historical ironies.
Tchaikovsky was widely believed to be gay and the Mariinsky Orchestra also played Shostakovich's Symphony Number Four, which he composed while being persecuted by Stalin.
- Crimea 'very complex' -
Ahead of his performances, Gergiev played down US-Russian tensions in an interview with The New York Times Magazine, saying that Russians were not anti-American and rather were enamored of iPhones and Hollywood.
But he declined to distance himself from Putin, saying that Crimea was "a very complex issue, which cannot be described in one word, 'annexation.'"
He denied plans to perform in Crimea or in Donetsk, the self-proclaimed separatist capital in eastern Ukraine. But he noted that Prokofiev was born near Donetsk and said he wanted to "do something for the people who gave us" the composer.
Netrebko visited Donetsk in December, drawing fire for posing with a rebel flag and offering a check for one million rubles ($15,000) to a separatist politician.
The diva defended her donation, saying she hoped to support the Donetsk Opera and Ballet Theater, which opened a new season despite being cut off from Ukrainian state funding.