Ukraine, Ternopil, November 2018

Years of exercise, discipline, and lessons preceded this moment. In only a few minutes your name will resound and all eyes and ears will be focussed on you. How you sing will decide on your ranking in the competition and your future career. 

Backstage in the Philharmonia in Ternopil the contestants prepare for their turn on stage. Some have only just arrived with the overnight train from Kyiv or Krakow and roll their travel cases into the charming soviet-style building. Tension is everywhere. Some sit in meditation and shut off from their surroundings, others make jokes. Each artist has his or her individual ritual to prepare for the moment supreme. Will they perform at their best? Will their interpretation be appreciated? And will that be enough to receive the desired distinction that may open the door to prestigious engagements?

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Viktoria Loekianetz presides the jury team of four:

“let your heart decide”

she advised them “it is not calculus”. Today is the last day of the competition. At 2 pm the winners will be announced and at 4 pm there will be a gala performance where those who are deemed worthy will sing. The Solomiya Krushelnytska contest for vocalists, in honour of the most famous Ukrainian soprano, is an important step on the way to a professional career.

It was fate that gave me a seat next to hers in the Vienna-Lviv plane. She is total without affectation or star allures and offered to help me with my struggle with the Ukrainian language (see poem at the bottom of this article) and invited me to Ternopil. It was only later I discovered I had met a top-level opera star.   

Prince Igor
Stepan Vozniak seems without nerves. In the dressing room, he helps Vitalii Bobrowski, the busiest man of the day, who plays the piano for many of the participants. Vitalii just received the musical score and should accompany him but still needs to familiarise himself with this new piece. He has never seen the score until some minutes ago as often happens to professional musicians. Just do it…

Stepan helps him and in doing so delivers a fantastic performance while rehearsing. He is not yet dressed up yet and pays no attention to the other performers nor to me. He is immersed in his own bubble.

In the backstage room, his nerves start to become visible. It is a crucial moment before going on stage but once there he is there…. Singing Prince Igor’s aria with total confidence. 

“My tormented soul knows no sleep and no rest.
The night gives me no hope for salvation.
I am reliving my past again –
All by myself, in the silence of the night.
And there is no way out for me.”

Borodin wrote this opera in Russian but the story is truly Ukrainian. Igor, the prince of Kyiv Rus (the precursor of present-day Ukraine) was greedy and extorted his underlings with an excessively high tribute (Danyna, Данина) to satisfy his wife Olga. He paid the price losing to the rebel Drevlyan tribes and in the end, was executed in a horrible fashion. I find it tempting to make a comparison with the present-day situation where wealth is distributed so unevenly and unfairly.

Though sung in Russian it is a famous story in Ukraine. And Stepan makes a most impressive Prince Igor, not distracted by the malfunctioning grand piano.

The other contestants also do well, I am amazed by the level of professionalism of all these young talented people.

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A new era for Ukraine
Viktoria, (now 52) tells me: “Times have changed so much for the better here in Ukraine. It is such a contrast to my youth to see these self-confident proud singers here, ready to go out in the world for international careers.  Due to the Sovjet style education and upbringing, we were all slaves and afraid to speak up or build trust in ourselves. It is true, education was free at that time in contrast to the present day. I was lucky though with an extraordinarily soft and inspiring teacher and I won several competitions like these myself. In 1990 there was no work, no chances in Ukraine. On performance in the Bolshoi, I was asked to come to Vienna and from there on I never looked back.”  

Not an evil mother 
Her interpretation at the Wiener Staatsoper of Mozart’s Queen of the Night with the famous revenge aria was the starting point of Viktoria’s international fame and the entry ticket to places like the Scala in Milano. Watching her sing this aria over and over again on Youtube her perfection and clarity of voice are baffling. From the comments I learn Viktoria even included notes Mozart wrote in the score but other singers just leave out… However, I am left with a feeling something is not right… Viktoria is just not an evil mother with bad intentions and this she confirms: “I do not like this role, I had to take it as it is seen as a must for a starting singer but it carries a negative energy that I deeply sense” As a person, Viktoria is actually quite the opposite: “I try to be an example to my students and a positive inspiration to my surrounding. I do yoga and also want to show a woman can be attractive and not lost above 50”.

Role model
Her true nature shows at the gala performance where the laureates receive their diploma. She instinctively spontaneously comes from the stage to a girl that was not given a price, encouraging her to overcome her disappointment. “Her voice and personality have to mature a bit but she will get there.”

Normally Viktoria is not available for these types of contests anymore. It involves too much travel and now students come to her in Vienna to take master classes. But for Ukraine, she makes an exception. It is where her heart is and the pool of talent here is so promising. With this view I personally agree, in many lines of art in Ukraine is so much activity here and art is held in high esteem. 

Of course, she sings herself and delivers a stunning a capella Ukrainian song that leaves me and the theatre in awe. She is seen as the successor of Solomiya Krushelnytska. This contest may well deliver the successor (male or female) to Viktoria Loekianetz and all the nerves and fright may not have been in vain:

що доля не легка,        If destiny is not light
в тім користь є своя     there is some good in this
блаженний сон душі     for a sleeping soul
мистецтву не сприяє    is not good for art

Ліна Костенко             Lina Kostenko


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