Soprano Anna Netrebko and tenor Joseph Calleja announced just days before the opening show that they would not join the tour of Nagoya and Tokyo despite experts’ assurances they would be safe, forcing the Met to “scour the world” for replacements, general manager Peter Gelb said Tuesday.

“Part of what makes opera such an exciting art form is that it is so unpredictable,” Gelb said. “If there were a rationality clause in opera singers’ contracts, not many opera singers would perform.”

Japan was hit by a devastating earthquake and tsunami on March 11 that left about 25,000 people dead or missing and crippled a nuclear power station north of Tokyo, setting off radiation leaks. The plant remains unstable, though the leaks have declined substantially.

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.

The disaster and the uncertainty it spawned caused a spate of concert cancellations, and the arts scene is only now returning to normal. Along with pop music and sports events, classical concerts by the Vienna Boys Chior, the Lyon Orchestra and the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra also were nixed, along with performances by violinists Hillary Hahn and Anne Sophie Mutter.

“Of course, Tokyo is safe,” said Momoko Serizawa, a spokeswoman for concert organizer Japan Arts. “But the visit by the Met comes at a very important and delicate time and we hope it will give impetus to others to follow soon.”

Not all artists have stayed away – last month, opera great Placido Domingo performed in Japan and later donated $200,000.

Even so, Gelb said Netrebko, who is Russian, chose not to go through with the tour because of radiation concerns and because, she said, she had friends who died of cancer after the Chernobyl disaster in 1989.

Gelb said she told him that she would be so distraught that she wouldn’t perform well and would be a disappointment to her fans.

Calleja also said he was concerned for his health.

Gelb said the Met struggled with whether to go ahead with the performances, planned years in advance.

Last month, David Brenner, an expert on low-dose radiation, was brought in from Columbia University to meet with the company. He informed them that radiation levels in Tokyo had returned to their pre-tsunami norm, and that the airplane trip or a simple X-ray would probably lead to greater exposure than the stay in Japan.

“There are cities in Europe with higher levels,” Gelb said Brenner told the performers.
That was enough to convince all but three – German tenor Jonas Kauffmann announced last month he was pulling out. The rest of the 300-plus member company arrived in Nagoya, west of Tokyo, on Monday.

“Obviously, if it were not safe we wouldn’t be here,” Gelb said. “I feel very strongly that we have a responsibility to be here. I think we are setting an example by being here for the global artistic community and for the Japanese public.”

Gelb said he hoped the Japanese would not take the withdrawals as an insult. “They are great artists and I hope the Japanese public won’t think less of them,” he said.

The tour, the Met’s seventh in Japan, begins Saturday and runs through June 19.

Four singers – soprano Marina Poplavskaya, along with tenors Marcelo Alvarez, Rolando Villazon and Alexey Dolgov – will fill the hole left by Netrebko and Calleja.

The Met will be performing performing “La Boheme,” “Don Carlo,” and “Lucia di Lammermoor.”