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Sandbags and barricades on the road leading to the Odesa Opera and Ballet Theater. March 5, 2022

‘A combination of pain, horror, and joy’ Even under threat of shellfire, musicians at Odesa's oldest opera theater have found ways to make the show go on

Source: Meduza
Sandbags and barricades on the road leading to the Odesa Opera and Ballet Theater. March 5, 2022
Sandbags and barricades on the road leading to the Odesa Opera and Ballet Theater. March 5, 2022
Salwan Georges / The Washington Post / Getty Images

Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale

Odesa’s opera theater is one of the largest in Ukraine. In the early days of Russia’s full-scale invasion, many of the theater’s workers enlisted in the army, while others became volunteers or joined the country's Territorial Defense Forces. Many, however, stayed in Odesa, and since mid-June, audiences have once again been able to see live shows, only occasionally having to descend to the new bomb shelter below the theater. Meduza spoke to musicians and audience members about the role live music has played in their lives since February 24.

‘Everything inside me went silent’

In late February, the Odessa National Academic Opera and Ballet Theater was preparing for the world premiere of Katerina, a new opera by Ukrainian composer Alexander Rodin that’s based on a poem by Taras Shevchenko. The premiere was scheduled for March 27, World Theater Day. An open rehearsal for members of the media was supposed to take place on February 24.

“I was going to conduct the open rehearsal,” concertmaster Ihor Parada told Meduza. “On [February] 23, I stayed behind after work to prepare independently, so I left the opera theater late.”

A video posted by the Odesa Opera and Ballet Theater about the preparations for Alexander Rodin’s opera Katerina that were underway when Russia launched its full-scale invasion
Odesa Opera and Ballet Theater

The next morning, Odesans were awoken by the sounds of explosions. A message in the theater's group chat let everyone know that work was canceled for the day. In the weeks and months that followed, approximately a quarter of the theater’s 650 employees left town, according to Sergei Myulberg, the theater’s deputy managing director.

Soon after the war began, theater director Tamara Forsyuk went to Chernivtsi, in western Ukraine, where she served as a volunteer (though she's since returned).

“I never thought of leaving Ukraine, because I can be useful here,” she said. “I wasn’t thinking about art or about evacuating. Everything inside me went silent. When I looked around and saw people who had lost loved ones, I was unable to do anything. I realized that I now had some basic obligations to do things I had never done before: things like weaving camouflage nets and cleaning up refugee centers.”

Many of the theater’s men left town, too. Despite a temporary exemption from active duty for theater workers, about ten employees joined the army, a group that included both actors and technicians. Even tenor Vladislav Gorai, an Honored Artist of Ukraine, tried to enlist.

“It was literally the second day of the war. My wife and my two small children had left [the city] and I was there alone, so my friend from the orchestra and I went to sign up for the Territorial Defense Forces. But they told us, ‘We don’t need you — we’re out of guns,’” said Gorai.

Unable to fight, Gorai found a volunteer organization through some friends and began working as a driver, transporting both people and cargo. He helped deliver camouflage nets to soldiers and humanitarian aid to civilians.

Concertmaster Ihor Parada and his colleagues from the choir and ballet also started volunteering, helping evacuees in the Odesa railway station and filling sandbags, which were later used to protect monuments, checkpoints, and military equipment from bullets and shrapnel.

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They gathered the sand directly from the beach. The musicians frequently held small concerts to lift the spirits of the other volunteers.

“Our guys sang the Ukrainian national anthem and Ukrainian folk songs. The musicians accompanied them on trumpet, violin, and clarinet. They did everything they could to boost their neighbors’ morale,” said opera theater conductor Vyacheslav Chernukho-Volich, who moved to Odesa from Minsk.

In Belarus, Chernukho-Volich took part in protests calling for a review of the 2020 presidential election results. Because of his advocacy against the Lukashenko regime, he was fired from the National Opera and Ballet of Belarus in 2020. By then, Vyacheslav had already been offered the position of the next director of the Odesa Opera and Ballet Theater, so he moved to Odesa and immediately started working.

Despite the war, Chernukho-Volich currently has no plans to leave Ukraine. “I only leave to go on tour to places like Chișinău or Baku. But I haven’t even thought of emigrating from Ukraine. How can a theater director leave his theater at a time like this?” he told Meduza.

‘We divide the shelter to preserve the mystery’

In May, the city’s military administration gave the theater workers permission to give performances in their own building — the only condition was that they had to outfit it with a bomb shelter. The theater was built in the 19th century, so it didn’t originally contain any shelters, but it does have five underground levels for utility and technical equipment. The second floor down from the ground level was chosen for the shelter because of its ventilation system.

“Nothing actually changed much here; we just covered the air vents with plywood and a carpet, because there was a really strong draft before,” said civil safety engineer Pavel Gorbeshko. “There are three emergency exits, a water cooler, WiFi, first aid kits, lanterns, gas masks, and antiseptic. Everything people need to wait out the bomb shelters for several hours.”

Because the shelter is so small, the theater had to limit its audiences to 20 percent of their usual size, down to 330 from the usual 1,500. If an air raid siren goes off during a show (which has only happened once so far), a 10-metric-ton safety curtain slowly descends onto the stage. The actors continue performing until the curtain is completely down.

“It’s strange to watch: the show is still going on, everybody’s dancing, and the orchestra is playing, all while the curtain is slowly falling. Then they announce throughout the theater [...] that everybody needs to go down to the shelter,” said theater director Pavel Koshka.

Audiences are then led down to the shelter by the ushers. The shelter currently has 235 seats, as well as room for about 300 people to stand. It’s divided into two sections: one for viewers and one for performers.

The theater shelter
Odesa Opera
Odesa Opera
Odesa Opera

“We divide the shelter because we want to preserve the mystery of the theater," said Koshka. "An audience member shouldn’t see a ballerina warming up. Viewers don’t see us outside of the show, and we don’t see them, because we want there to be that mystery when the curtain opens.”

If the air raid sirens stop sounding in less than an hour, the show continues.

‘It's all I can do not to burst into tears’

The Odesa Opera and Ballet Theater officially reopened on June 17. The first three performances were dedicated to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. The season opened with an Opera Gala, where musicians performed works by both Ukrainian and foreign composers. The very first song was the Ukrainian national anthem.

“If only you could have seen that first concert!” said opera company head Natalia Yutesh. “We were all crying. The audience cheered and gave us standing ovations at the end of every song. You know, it felt like people had a mass of pent-up energy that was bursting out. It was a combination of pain, horror, fear, and joy that we were back performing. Because before that, nobody knew whether things would ever return in the way that they have now.”

The street outside on the night of the “war season’s” first concert, as seen from the theater
Odesa Opera
An audience member at the ticket counter before the Odesa Opera and Ballet Theater’s first performance since the war began
Odesa Opera
The Opera Gala that opened the theater’s “war season”
Odesa Opera
The audience at the Odesa Opera and Ballet Theater’s first concert since the war began. June 17, 2022
Vladimir Sindeyeve / NurPhoto / Shutterstock / Vida Press

According to the staff, since the theater reopened, audiences have been responding more intensely to everything that happens onstage.

“Viewers’ reactions to the Ukrainian repertoire have changed dramatically. It’s become even more positive,” said concertmaster Ihor Parada. “When the entire ensemble, including the choir and the soloists, sang the Ukrainian national anthem and other Ukrainian songs, the audience’s reaction was overwhelming. Not long ago, during the opera A Cossack Beyond the Danube, one of the actors started improvising and sang the [classic Ukrainian patriotic] song Oh, the Red Viburnum in the Meadow, and the audience just erupted.”

Liudmila Grigorenko, a regular visitor of the Opera and Ballet Theater, showed up at the season’s first performance 40 minutes early. She’d been waiting for the theater to reopen since the start of the war.

“I arrived, and I told the girls who were seating us, ‘Girls, it’s all I can do not to burst into tears!’ They hugged me — they were crying themselves,” she said.

Since the theater reopened, Grigorenko said, the performances have given her “an even greater feeling of happiness than at peacetime.” The artists themselves believe that viewers now come to their shows in order to feel like they're back in their ordinary, pre-war lives again.

Performers at the Odesa Opera and Ballet Theater on the day of their first performance since the war began
Odesa Opera

Now, the theater is once again preparing for the premiere of the opera Katerina, whose release was delayed by the war.

“Why is the theater still alive, when people have movies and Netflix, which can be more fun and entertaining? Because people need other people. The theater gives us a chance to do something extraordinary while others watch. It’s a way to put yourself in a kind of altered psychological state, because if we spend all of our time looking at the news, we’ll lose our minds — that’s for sure,” said theater director Pavel Koshka.

Singer Vladislav Gorai agrees that performing is good for artists as much as for the audience.

“This pain that’s settled in our souls is made up of energy that just tortures us,” he said. “And thank God there’s a way for us to recycle that energy into art — otherwise it would eat us from the inside.”