Odesa’s opera and ballet theatre was built in the early 19th century by the Italian Francesco Frapolli. The initiator of the construction was the then-mayor, French aristocrat Duke Armand de Richelieu, whom the people of Odesa still call just "Duke". Richelieu knew that Odesa was a multinational and multilingual port city, and the best thing that could unite people was music. Throughout its history, the theatre has experienced two major fires and also survived World War II.
It is pure luck we were able to go behind the scenes of the Odesa Opera and see for ourselves how workers on the cultural front wage their own war against the Russian occupiers with "soft" power.
Despite the war and the constant threat of missile strikes, the father of Ukrainian literature Taras Shevchenko's poem "Kateryna" is being prepared for its world premiere. The main theme is the tragedy of a Ukrainian girl who falls in love with a Russian soldier in the 19th century.
Work is in full swing in the art department: costume designers are sewing stage clothes, shoes, and accessories for artists. They think through all the smallest details to make sure that the sketches will look like masterpieces on stage and impress the viewer.
Artistic directors, meanwhile, develop thematic scenery. It is with their help that the viewer will be able to dive as deep as possible into the dramatic atmosphere of the poem “Kateryna”.
“This is my frontline. The cultural environment is a soft power that is able to influence the feelings and thoughts of the audience. I feel that I have to contribute to the victory over the enemy”, emphasises artistic director Igor Anisenko.
Russian missile strikes and shelling of Ukraine’s maritime capital did not intimidate any employees of the Odesa Opera. Some of them stayed behind to work in the theatre, while others joined the Armed Forces of Ukraine and Territorial Defence. Currently, theatre workers are involved in volunteering and holding charity concerts in Odesa and abroad.
“The most valuable thing about the war is that none of us refused hard work. We all stand up as one and work for the good of our country. We help everyone who needs it and where we can be useful: singing and so on. We are raising funds to support the army,” says Yulia Tereshchuk, a soloist at the opera house.
Yulia, together with her colleagues, conducts daily rehearsals and is preparing for the long-awaited premiere of “Kateryna”.
Yulia plays a major role. She says that the hardest thing after the rehearsal is to release all the emotions experienced by the poem’s heroine. After all, in it the author showed not only the tragic fate of the abandoned pregnant woman by her Russian soldier but also her orphaned child’s struggles with 19th-century feudal serfdom.
“Kateryna is a collective image of the fate of Ukrainian women. Shevchenko portrayed her very subtly, showing all the pain, all the injustice. In short, she is a young girl who fell in love and wants to live for her love. But the Muscovite betrayed her. This is probably not surprising in today's world. To me, it hurts the most. The image of Kateryna is such that it does not leave anyone indifferent. Sometimes we artists appear to have tears in our eyes because we are emotionally embodied with our heroes,” says Tereshchuk.
It is noteworthy that none of the employees of the opera house, (almost 700 of them), since the beginning of the war and after missile strikes on Odesa, had the desire to leave their city and go to a safer place. This is explained by a great love for their hometown and the opera itself. They say their duty is to stay put and guard the theatre.
“I had a business trip to Chisinau, (Moldova) and an invitation to Azerbaijan but I always return to Odesa. Importantly, we continue to practice our art. And so we try to do as much as possible, as music helps us survive this difficult and tragic period for our country”, says the chief conductor Vyacheslav Chernukho-Volich.
And soon the audience will not only feel more deeply about the tragedy of the Ukrainian girl who carries under her heart the child of a Muscovite, but also the poem itself, given the war in Ukraine, thanks to Ukrainian composer Oleksandr Rodin. He wrote modern music for the play, to bring it more up to date.
“This is the cry of the Ukrainian soul and we will try to invest all our thoughts and desires in it, part of how we will revive Ukraine,” said Nadiya Babich, director general of the theatre.
Currently, due to the martial law in Ukraine, all performances in the theatre have been cancelled. However, the troupe did not leave the people of Odesa without their favourite musical works. Popular performances can be seen online, and in early summer, under favourable conditions, the premiere of the poem “Kateryna” will take to the stage.