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Dispatch from Ukraine: A national opera hits a defiant and powerful note

Updated: Feb 28, 2023

Picture: Lyubov Kuchar on stage at the Lviv Opera House: ‘In these hard times, people need to have some food for the soul, to feel something different, better than every day this fear.’

As some homesick refugees, tired of living on makeshift cots in refugee centres abroad, are taking a chance and returning to Lviv, the city’s opera house, which used to stage Russian works, will only show Ukrainian productions for the duration of the war

Jeff Farrell

July 30, 2022

Business Post

Lyubov Kuchar on stage at the Lviv Opera House: ‘In these hard times, people need to have some food for the soul, to feel something different, better than every day this fear.’ Pictures: Phil Wilson

Oleksandr Zubko was standing on a railway platform holding a bouquet of flowers, bursting with white and yellow petals, as he waited for his family to return from Germany. It was three years to the day since he married his wife Anna, and he had longed to see her and their daughters Eva, three, and Lada, 11, after four months apart.

The father of two paced platform 1 in the station in Lviv in western Ukraine. The train was due in at 1.10pm from over the Polish border in Przemysl, but it was 15 minutes late, and he craned his neck every few seconds to glance at the arrivals board.

“I’m really excited but worried. I am hoping my kids remember me,” he said, smiling. “I have been reading fairytales at night on Facetime, but meeting in real life is different.”

More than five million people have fled Ukraine since Russia's invasion on February 24, according to figures from the United Nations. Now, Zubko’s family is among the estimated three million who are returning.

His wife and daughters have been living in Rostock on the north coast of Germany since they fled the family home in Dnipro, central Ukraine. It is just 300km west of Donetsk, where Ukrainian troops and Moscow’s army are still engaged in fierce fighting as the Kremlin’s soldiers push east through the Donbas region.

Earlier this month, Russian long-range cruise missiles killed three people in Dnipro when they hit a space rocket plant and a nearby street, local officials said. It is not a place you would expect any refugee, who is somewhere safe like Germany, would want to rush back to, but Zubko said the pull of home and being a proper family again was too strong to resist.

“They are scared, but they still want to come back,” he said. “We are missing each other, and my kids are missing their father, and they just want to come back.”

But while they are coming back, they are not going home. For now, they will stay in Lviv, some 1,000 kilometres from the frontline.

Picture: Oleskandr Zubko is reunited with his wife Anna at the train station in Lviv as she returns from Germany

The train from Przemysl pulled into the station on Wednesday afternoon and Oleksandr Zubko charged down the platform, jumping up and down to look into the windows of the carriages. When he found the carriage with his family, he ran up the metal steps and embraced Anna, before hugging Lada and picking Eva up into his arms.

Off the train and onto the platform, the couple shared another long embrace, with the bouquet of flowers now in Anna’s hands. She spoke of her joy at being back in her homeland with her husband, and the lure to come home despite the war.

“It was the biggest desire in this time while being abroad. So yes, I am very happy to be here,” she said as she nodded towards Oleksandr. “We were missing each other, and that’s why I came back and we’re happy to see each other.”

Putting her hand on her heart, she said had nothing but praise for how Germans had opened its doors to her and her daughters. “They were very good to me,” she said, as she lowered her head and wept, emotional at being back in Ukraine with her family.

Anna and her children returned to Ukraine for love and out of a longing for home, but others are running out of resources in the countries that have welcomed them as refugees. They are tired of sleeping on cot beds in refugee centres waiting for long-term accommodation that never emerges.

Others staying with host families fear ending up homeless amid talk in countries such as Poland that the government will shut down the benefits paid to host families. Many of them have packed their bags and headed for home, taking a gamble as the war continues to rage.

Oleskandr Zubko is reunited with his wife Anna at the train station in Lviv as she returns from Germany

Further along the platform in Lviv, Anya Oleschuk, 29, has returned to her home city. Most of the millions who fled the Russian invasion shuttled through Lviv, a transit city to Poland. But Oleschuk was already in Gdansk, in northern Poland on the Baltic coast, where she lives with her Polish-American husband and works as a graphic designer.

Lviv is the home of her birth, however, and this was her first visit back since the invasion. The city in western Ukraine has been hit sporadically with cruise missiles, with one attack in April killing seven, but strikes are rare.

The show must go on

As well as the five million Ukrainians who left the country when Russia invaded, some seven million were displaced within its borders. Most fled cities in the east and in areas around Kyiv, where in the early days of the war shells rained down and Russian tanks drove through the streets.

Among those forced to leave their home city was Serhii Jackhenko, 20, a student chef from Kharkiv in the east, which borders Russia. Moscow’s tanks rolled into the outskirts of the city in March before Ukrainian troops repelled them to within a few kilometres of the frontier with Russia. Now, an artillery battle rages and shells rain down daily on the city, turning whole residential areas to rubble.

Jackhenko is volunteering in a library in Lviv making camouflage netting. Locals drop in and out and take turns to help make the material that is draped over Ukrainian vehicles on the battlefields, including tanks and mobile rocket launchers.

“I am trying to help as I can in such a situation,” he said. “I left Kharkiv because the war is going on there and it is dangerous for your life so I decided to come to Lviv. All my family also left, they are in other places around Ukraine.”

He longs to go back home, but not for now. “Better stay here because it is not safe, but I definitely will go back one day.”

While many areas of Ukraine appear to be safe enough for refugees to return to, the war continues to rage in the east and south-east, claiming the lives of up to 200 Ukrainian soldiers a day, according to officials. Many will never be able to return to the areas as they knew them, as battles which have been mostly artillery-based have reduced cities and towns to piles of stones and rubble.

In Lviv, however, it was life as usual last week. Couples strolled the main square of Rynok holding hands and eating ice creams. A man dressed as a bear took a break from posing with kids, and removed the head section of his furry costume to smoke a cigarette. A girl in a black pinafore skirt toted an old-style box camera and took photos of passers-by, selling the pictures, spooling off a printer, for cash. Tourists looked at the sights such as the Lviv National Opera house, which stands at the end of a pedestrian walkway along the main street in the city, Svobody Avenue.

Picture: Andrii Nakrudnyi, stage prompter/assistant at Lviv Opera House

Inside the opera house, the musicians, performers and other staff were busy getting ready for the upcoming season, which opened on Friday after a summer pause. The season will promote Ukrainian culture, defiantly ploughing ahead despite the war.

Last week, as the opera was being set up, an air siren wailed and I was ushered down through a labyrinth of narrow corridors to an area below the opera house which serves as a bomb bunker. People were huddled around, including a man in a short-sleeved checked shift. He blew into a trumpet, his fingers dancing over the brass keys and his cheeks puffing. Two dancers, wearing black leotards, their feet bare, sat chatting.

The opera theatre is focused on staging Ukrainian works in its new season, a change from the many Russian works that were regularly staged before the war, including Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. On Friday, the cultural offering to start the new season was the opera Le Faucon and Alcide by Dmytro Bortniansky, staged to mark the 270th anniversary of the Ukrainian composer’ birth.

The story of Alcide was billed as “the pursuit of happiness, life choices and freedom”, something of a metaphor for Ukraine’s fight against Russia in the east and the country’s current existential battle. Lyubov Kuchar, an opera chorus singer, didn’t make any apologies for the lack of any Russian repertoire.

Picture: Performers at Liviv Opera House rehearsing the opera Le Faucon and Alcide by Dmytro Bortniansky, which will be staged to mark the 270th anniversary of the Ukrainian composer’ birth

“It’s almost like, for example during the Second World War if you ask Jewish people did they listen to Wagner music. It’s almost the same as the Russian culture is for us, war, pain and aggression,” she said.

Kuchar said the opera house performances were important for the people in Lviv. “I am happy because, even in these hard times, people need to have some food for the soul, to feel something different, better than every day this fear. So the visit to the opera is the chance to feel something different.”

After the air raid warning ended, I was taken onto the stage in the theatre, drowned in bright lights contrasting with the auditorium to the front in darkness.

In the orchestra pit, the musicians warmed up ahead of the rehearsal. A drummer rattled his sticks over a snare drum in a military-like beat. A violinist played, drawing her bow across the strings in a flurry of notes, before she suddenly stopped and scribbled notes on a manuscript in her music stand.

Picture: Serhii Jackhenko, a student chef from Kharkiv, who works in the local library making camouflage netting for Ukrainian military vehicles

To the front of the pit was an area where the stage prompter works, hidden from the auditorium where he stands, with only his face visible to the performers. He popped his head out above the stage when I approached him, wiped his brow, and explained why the opera could not stage Russian works.

“When war is going on, there will be no Russian music here, because it represents Russia like a country. For now, for us, we know Russia more as a terrorist country than for its cultural life,” he said.

He popped back into his box ahead of the rehearsal of the first act of the Stolen Happiness, another work as part of the opera house’s season that will be performed tonight. The show is billed as one of the best contemporary Ukrainian operas, with a libretto by Maksym Rylsky based on the play of Ivan Franko and accompanied by “the skilful use of national musical folklore”.

Two singers took to the stage at the rehearsal, one with a wild mane of white hair to his shoulders, performing a scene with a woman in a floral dress. They bellowed out powerful melodies and were joined by a chorus of singers, including Lyubov, and dancers, moving gracefully.

Standing above the pit of musicians was Myron Yusypovyсh, the conductor, with only the back of his head visible to me. Outside in the foyer after the rehearsal, he said that while the opera theatre had put Russian culture on hold for now, many famous Russian works were written by artists on what was now Ukrainian soil.

Tchaikovsky wrote Swan Lake in 1875-76 in the country, which was then within the Russian empire, and Stravinsky lived in what was now Ukrainian territory and had family roots here but his work was branded Russian classical music. “Moscow subsumed him as their own,” Yusypovych said, shrugging.

For now, he said, he was focused on his work on Stolen Happiness, the Ukrainian opera. “It was my dream to conduct this, and another dream for me is to show this opera to the world.”

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