Skip to content

Opera in a War-Riven World

by on 25 March 2022

Слава Україні 

Opera in a War-Riven World

Reflection by Thomas Forsythe

New words, sung with passion, are ringing out in Britain’s opera houses, but they are not from any opera.  At first spontaneously, then as a moving force, and moving in both senses of the word.  We have heard, Ще не вмерла України і слава, і воля, the Ukrainian national anthem.

Music is a unifying force, maybe because it stands outside of any spoken language.  Opera, that concatenation of all the arts, does include language, but at all levels of its expression is very much international and brings artists together in a way in which cultures are respected.  An opera is most often performed in its original language, and opera singers are, or become, proficient linguists.  Opera naturally forms an international brotherhood of artists.   

Above and top of page
National Opera House Kyiv

As invading tanks punch their way into Ukraine and belligerent warplanes scream across its skies, opera houses throughout Europe have expressed their support with the Ukrainian people, in a heartfelt gesture of solidarity towards those affected by this terrible conflict.  Companies have played and sung the Ukrainian national anthem and flown its flag at the beginning or end of each performance.

Throughout March, our critics from Mark Aspen Reviews have been witnessing the sympathy shown by performers and audiences alike for the unimaginable suffering going on in our own continent. 

A rousing rendition of Ukraine’s National Anthem at the opening of the English National Opera’s Così fan tutte brought the audience at the London Coliseum together in an expression of respect for all those whose lives have been devastated by the conflict.

Down the road in Covent Garden, The Royal Opera House has been lit every night in the colours of the Ukrainian flag and, at the premiere of Deborah Warner’s new production of Peter Grimes, one of our critics witnessed a moment of reflection as the national anthem of Ukraine was played before the performance.

Most movingly, further out of London, Richmond Theatre hosted Ellen Kent’s touring opera company where most of the performers were either Ukrainian of from other immediately affected countries such as Moldova.    At the curtain call, on the opening night of Carmen the cast broke out the Ukrainian flag and sang the Ukrainian national anthem.  Two operas are repertory companions, and the following night at the opening night of Madama Butterfly, the same heartfelt expression drew an enthusiastic response from the audience.  At the interval a lady had come from the audience to present a bouquet of yellow and blue flowers to the Ukrainian conductor Vasyl Vasylenko for him and his Orchestra of the Ukrainian National Opera.

National Opera House, Kyiv

Performers at Richmond were from major opera companies in Kyiv, Lviv and Odessa, long established companies, which have the three oldest opera houses in Ukraine.  Opera houses are just one physical manifestation of the culture and civilisation of a country.  All three opera houses have been damaged, to a great or lesser extent, in the terrible conflict unfolding there.  

Kyiv: Taras Shevchenko National Opera House of Ukraine

The home in the capital of the Ukrainian National Opera and Ballet Theatre, which was established 1867, is the Taras Shevchenko National Opera House of Ukraine.  Taras Shevchenko was the Bard (Kozbar) of Ukraine, an early nineteenth Century writer who shaped the modern language.  Poignantly, the last scheduled performance before the Russian Invasion was the opera Natalka Poltavka, based on a Ukrainian play written by Ivan Kotlyarevsky.  The National Opera House, a very imposing building set in a beautiful park, was opened in 1901.

Leading Ukrainian ballet dancer Artem Datsyshyn, who regularly performed at the National Opera House, died almost three weeks after being injured in Russian shelling in Kyiv.

The Solomiya Krushelnytska Opera House, Lviv

The National Opera House is the third oldest opera house in Ukraine, after Odessa Opera and Lviv Opera. 

The Solomiya Krushelnytska Opera House, Lviv

The Lviv Opera House opened a year earlier in 1900.  To celebrate its centenary year it was renamed The Solomiya Krushelnytska in 2000.  Solomiya Krushelnytska, was a renowned soprano, who performed in the Lviv Opera House and was born in the city.  The building is adorned with exquisite detailing in its stonework and statuary. 

The Solomiya Krushelnytska Opera House, Lviv

The first opera house to be built (1884 to 1887) in Ukraine was the Odessa National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre.  It was built on the site of the First City Theatre, which burned down in 1873, the rebuilding cost a staggering one and a half million gold roubles at the time.  The Odessa Opera features in the Forbes list of the most significant monuments of Eastern Europe and is regarded as one of the five most beautiful theatres in the world.

Odessa National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre

It has been badly damaged, along with many other buildings in that beleaguered historic city.

Odessa National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre
Odessa National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre

Of course a damaged building, no matter how important, is nothing compared to the loss of life, limb and livelihood of so many of the inhabitants of these cities.  However, these buildings are a symbol of national culture and pride.

Odessa National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre

One cannot help but be appalled by the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ukraine.  Mark Aspen wrote that the Richmond performance that Madama Butterfly mirrored, in a small way, the courage and sense of duty and honour that was felt by of the fellow countrymen of many of the company.  He said, “We pray that the outcome for Ukraine and indeed the whole of Eastern Europe … will in the fullness of time enable them to survive and thrive”.  Claire Alexander, writing of the Carmen production, said, “I was humbled, and the solidarity of the appreciative Richmond audience was palpable.  I am left with a profound sense of the power of art that will always survive and heal”.  

Thomas Forsythe, March 2022

Photography by Manikanlan Chanddranohin and Anna Lunda, courtesy of the The National Opera House, Kyiv, the Lviv Opera House and the Odessa Opera House

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: