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NPR News

Kyiv opera house reopens after 3 months

Herman Makarenko, lead conductor for the National Opera of Ukraine.
Julian Hayda
/
NPR
Herman Makarenko, lead conductor for the National Opera of Ukraine.

Updated June 9, 2022 at 10:54 AM ET

KYIV, Ukraine — Last year, President Vladimir Putin claimed that Russian and Ukrainian are dialects of the same language, somehow forced into separate languages by Europe in order to undermine Russian power. During the 19th century, the Russian Empire even banned publication and performance in Ukrainian. But a trip to Ukraine's National Opera House reveals a more nuanced story.

"The way we approach our work has changed," says soprano Natalia Nikolaishyn, who plays the title role in the Kyiv Opera Company's production of Natalka Poltavka,written by Ukrainian composer Mykola Lysenko in the mid-19th century. It was the last show performed at the Kyiv Opera before Russian forces attacked the city in late February.

In late May, the opera quietly re-opened with Rossini's The Barber of Seville in an experiment of wartime entertainment. After taking a week to sort out things like how to evacuate amid an air raid siren, the directors launched a big marketing blitz to get people back into the Opera with Natalka Poltavka at the top of the playbill.

Russians, Ukrainians, Italians

When Kyiv's aristocrats opened the "City Opera'' in 1867, making it the first such theater in the Russian Empire outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg, many referred to it as the "Russian Opera." At the time, both Russian and Ukrainian opera were in their infancy; the Russian aristocracy tended to speak French, with music tastes that leaned Italian.

"There was a very strong policy of Russification" in Ukraine, says Larysa Tarasenko, the Kyiv Opera's archivist. "Ironically, critics wrote that the Russian Opera's preference [for Italian music] undermined attempts to make these 'southern Russian lands' more Russian."

The Kyiv Opera seats 1,600, but only 300 tickets were made available to a recent show — local military officials insisted the theater be able to quickly evacuate.
Julian Hayda / NPR
/
NPR
The Kyiv Opera seats 1,600, but only 300 tickets were made available to a recent show — local military officials insisted the theater be able to quickly evacuate.

Imperial authorities commissioned Russian-language operas to compete with Western European high arts, while Ukrainian remained forbidden.

The composer Lysenko thought his country's music deserved more of a chance, and spent most of his life studying the music of Ukrainian serfs — operas like Natalka Poltavka borrowed heavily from their folk songs and poetry, premiering only after being translated into Russian later in the century.

Now, more than a century-and-a-half after being referred to as "the Russian Opera," the Kyiv Opera company has sworn off Russian music.

"Our entire society is going through a rejection of all things Russian," says soprano Nikolaishyn. "Of course they have their classics — but others can perform them."

Natalka Poltavka's conductor, Herman Makarenko, says that he always feels lucky to be able to lead Ukrainian music, especially in light of war.

"We didn't used to value what we had, spiritually or materially," Makarenko says.

Eight-year-old Katyusha enjoyed the show with her mother, Natalia. It was their first opera, and was part of a cultural tour around the city after fleeing war-torn Mariupol.

"Kids have to know what their country's culture is about," says Natalia.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.