Opera | Ukraine

“We get a huge emotional feedback”

It would seem hopeless to keep an opera house running during times of war. Vasyl Vovkun, general director of the National Opera in Lviv, talks about how he and his team keep working nonetheless
Two women and a man in antique dresses sit at a table on a stage, with choir members and dancers standing behind them. They are all wearing costumes and make-up

Scene of the opera “The Terrible Revenge” by Yewhen Stankowytsch, which premiered on 25 November 2022 as the first production after the Russian invasion

The interview was conducted by Gundula Haage

Vasyl Vovkun, you are the general director of Lviv National Opera. What has changed at the opera since Russia invaded Ukraine one year ago?

The first days after the invasion, we were all just in panic. We were afraid of what was going to happen and felt disoriented. But we quickly realised that the best way to heal from this trauma is by getting active.

Parts of our technical team and artistic team joined the territorial defence. Our costume department started making armoured clothes for our soldiers.

Soon after, it felt like Lviv became Babylon. People from all the parts of Ukraine came here, because Lviv is in the Western part of Ukraine. It was one of the main refugee cities. The hotels couldn't place all the people. That’s why many families on our team placed refugees in their homes.

“We wanted to give our audience at least two hours to sit and enjoy the music”

Since I am the director of the opera, many people came through my office. I realised that we have to get back to work – otherwise we would go crazy. About one month after the invasion started, in April, we resumed the program again.

Did you adapt the program when the opera resumed its performances?

Yes of course. First of all, we decided to cancel all ballets and operas from Russian composers. When we resumed work, we started with short concert programs to see how it will go.

In a classical theater foyer, a security guard in black clothing checks an arriving visitor with a metal detector

At the National Opera and Ballet Theater in Lviv in April 2022, admissions staff check visitors with metal detectors to make sure no one brings weapons into the show

We tried to provide a rather light program in the beginning as a way of giving people a rest from the terrible situation they were living in. We wanted to give them at least two hours to sit, enjoy the music and imagine that they are safe and that everything is okay.

We even had two premieres last year, one opera and one ballet. Of course, sometimes the program links to our reality, for example our new opera “The Terrible Revenge” by Yevhen Stankovych.

“The best way to heal you from this trauma is work. And we have also learnt that people need art”

But other works, such as the modern ballet “Know Yourself” that premiered in December, rather offer an escape from the current situation. It is dedicated to our famous Ukrainian philosopher Hryhorii Skovoroda.

What was your experience of making art in times of war?

It is hard. At the beginning, we were just terrified. The bomb alarm often goes off, and we have to stop the show and go to the bomb shelter. But we had to adjust to living like that. It is our new reality.

We also had a big tragedy in our team. Our musical director, Ivan Cherednichenko lost his mother and father, who were killed during the Russian occupation of Irpin. That a personal tragedy and also a shock for the whole team because it was such a terrible and cruel atrocity.

But we have realised that the best way to heal you from this trauma is work. And we have also learnt that people need art. We get a huge emotional feedback from our audience: it was never this strong before the war started.

“We all understand that we are running a big risk, because a theatre is a place where a lot of people gather together”

Which security issues did you put in place?

We all understand that we are running a big risk, because a theatre is a place where a lot of people gather together. And we know that the Russians, in their cruel way, target such places. We adapted our work according to rules of the martial law.

Instead of selling 1,000 seats, we only sell 500 – a number which depends on the capacity of our bomb shelter. We also have special staff who check people’s luggage. We have metal detectors to ensure nobody brings weapons into the theatre. It is our priority to keep our audience safe.

Did you encounter technical problems due to power shortages?

Yes, they affected us badly. The first Russian attacks on our critical infrastructure came exactly when we prepared our opera and ballet premieres. In the beginning, it was very difficult to plan during power shortages.

But we adapted our ways of working. We had a schedule for the blackouts and changed our rehearsals and performances accordingly. Thanks to our partners, also from Germany, we got a powerful generator which helps us keep working.

What are you currently working on?

We have a lot of plans, for example a big Ukrainian festival of chamber music. In general, we are focusing on Ukraine composers. For example, we’ll have a new ballet, based on the novel “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors” written by famous Ukrainian author Mychajlo Kozjubynskyj.

But, thinking back to the past year, I think the main change is our orchestra plays the national anthem of Ukraine before every performance, before every show. The whole audience stands up and sings together. This creates an incredible feeling of unity. This is what helps us to live and to fight.