From: [log in to unmask]
[mailto:[log in to unmask]] On Behalf Of Shane Mage
Sent: Tuesday, February 03, 2015 4:57 PM
To: Progressive Economics
Subject: [Pen-l] Art for the sake of life
The Guardian (UK)
February 2, 2015
Donetsk opera house: tanks on the street but the show must go on The city's
opera house remains open despite the dangers posed by the conflict between
local separatists and Ukrainian forces By Shaun Walker in Donetsk
By now in Donetsk, everyone from children to pensioners can differentiate
between the sound of incoming and outgoing fire, or identify a mortar or
Grad rocket from its pitch. At the Donbass Opera, however, people are given
very different choices to stimulate the senses: Verdi or Puccini; Strauss or
In a city where armed men in camouflage ride down the main street in tanks,
more than half of the residents have fled and most shops and restaurants are
closed, opera should perhaps be the last thing on anyone's mind. But
remarkably, and against all the odds, the city's opera house has remained
open, despite the fact that none of the troupe have been paid in months, all
four conductors have left town and the singers take a risk every time they
travel to work. It is a risk, however, that they say is worth it.
"Even if people don't come, they know the theatre is open, and that in
itself is a big boost: it makes things seem more normal," said baritone
Sergei Dubnitsky, who last Sunday sang the lead in Die Fledermaus, Johann
Strauss's hammy comedy of mistaken identities. In addition to taking on
leading operatic parts, he has learned to conduct and picked up the baton to
conduct La Traviata at the weekend.
"Whenever you perform, you can sense from the stage what kind of connection
you are making with the audience, whether the audience is engaged. Of course
there are productions that are better or worse than others, but overall it
has become much easier to find those connections, people are much more
It may seem odd to hum along to operatic farce when just a few miles away
there are frontlines, but the audience appears genuinely delighted as the
singers prance around the stage during Die Fledermaus. The production
radiates lightheartedness and innocence - qualities in short supply in
"When you are surrounded by ugliness, beauty becomes something you cherish
even more," said Galina, a 42-year-old nurse, who had brought her two
teenage children to the theatre to cheer them up.
A striking, Stalinist neoclassic building on Donetsk's main thoroughfare,
the theatre was opened in April 1941, months before the Nazi occupation of
Stalino, as the city was called. The 960-seat auditorium has a sense of
grandeur; the ornate foyer features busts of Russian and Ukrainian literary
greats Alexander Pushkin and Taras Shevchenko.
So far, none of the theatre employees has been among the more than 5,000
people who have died since the conflict between local separatists backed by
Russia and Ukrainian forces loyal to Kiev began. But the troupe has not
escaped unscathed. Last weekend a shell caused serious damage to the
apartment of one of the leading soloists. In September, the theatre's
warehouse on the outskirts of town was hit by a shell. The stage decorations
for a number of productions, including The Flying Dutchman, the theatre's
calling card, were destroyed.
Before the new season in October, Vasily Ryabenky, who had led the theatre
for more than two decades, gathered the collective and asked whether they
could carry on. Everyone said they should and they agreed to put on Die
Fledermaus on 4 October.
"Tickets were free and there were hundreds of people queuing," said the
deputy director, Natalia Kovalyova. "People were upset they couldn't get in.
In the end we had people sitting on the steps, standing in the wings, we
crammed in as many as we could. Two old ladies were in tears, on their knees
and kissing his hands in gratitude that he had opened the season."
Three days later, Ryabenky, 55, collapsed and died from a heart attack his
colleagues are convinced came about through the stress of keeping the
theatre open in such trying conditions. He was replaced by a local museum
director, and the rest of the collective decided they had to go ahead with
Due to the security situation, performances now only take place during
daylight hours and only on weekends. Last weekend, the Saturday performance
of La Bohème was cancelled due to a day of mourning for eight people killed
when a trolleybus stop in Donetsk was attacked with mortars two days
The Sunday performance of Die Fledermaus was also in danger of cancellation,
after mortar damage to the local power station cut power to the opera house
an hour before the 2pm start time. But at 2.29pm, amid the rumbling of
artillery in the distance, the lights flickered back on and the 200 or so
people waiting outside let out a cheer. The actors warmed up, got into their
costumes and had their makeup put on in the space of 15 minutes, and the
"There have been a couple of occasions when the shelling has got close to
the centre and we've had to get everyone into the bomb shelter in the
basement," said Igor Ivanov, the deputy director of the theatre. "But it's
never happened in a performance - everyone is too busy listening to the
Indeed, music is not just a balm for the soul, it is also a way of shutting
out the endless sound of artillery.
"At home, the walls are always shaking," said 80-year-old Lidia Kachalova,
who has been at the theatre since 1958, first as a soloist and now as a
stage manger. She lives near Donetsk's railway station, an area that has
seen heavy fighting in recent months, and refuses to leave the city even
though most of her family have gone to western Ukraine.
"My life is here, my apartment is here, my husband's grave is here. How I
can I leave the place where my husband is buried? My son calls me and tells
me to leave, to come and stay with him. But I'm not going to leave my own
apartment. I just put on some good music, turn up the volume, and think good
Dubnitsky has thought about leaving many times. "Maybe it sounds
pretentious, but I think we have a certain moral obligation to stay," he
said. "We have our performances, our audience, our city to think about. You
can treat wounds with medicines, but art is medicine for the soul."
Anna Netrebko, the Russian soprano, caused a political storm when she
donated 1m roubles (about £9,500) to the theatre in December, mainly because
she handed it to one of the separatist political leaders, and then posed
with a flag of Novorossia, the self-declared political entity encompassing
much of eastern Ukraine.
Netrebko said she did not know what the flag was until it was too late, but
that has not stopped her from garnering criticism, and she was accosted by a
man waving a Ukrainian flag as she basked in applause at the curtain call at
the Metropolitan Opera in New York on Friday.
But in Donetsk there is gratitude for the money, which was delivered to the
theatre in a sack, in cash. Everyone from the general director to the
cleaners were given 3,000 roubles as a one-off payment, said Kovalyova, and
the remainder was used to pay for medicines.
Artists have received only one, reduced, salary payment in the past half a
year, so the money was acutely needed. Others have offered donations, but
the theatre is unable to accept them, as, like everyone else in Donetsk,
they are unable to access its bank account. Many find themselves unable to
pay for basic needs, but go on performing.
Inside the troupe, people try not to talk about politics, but it is clear
that here too there are divisions. One of the leading sopranos travelled to
Kiev to receive an award from President Petro Poroshenko in November, while
another group of singers performed a hospital concert for wounded separatist
fighters last Thursday, wishing them a speedy recovery and exhorting them to
"I don't know who is right and who is wrong, maybe only in heaven they know.
All I know is that this shouldn't happen," said Kachalova, shaking her head.
"Everyone supposedly has brains, everyone appears to be educated, and
everyone is an adult. What is the problem, then? How can they let this
Her solution to the madness is musical: "You leave the house in the morning,
and there's ice on the ground, wind in your face, snow falling, and the
sound of bombs exploding everywhere. What can be better than to walk along
and sing Strauss to yourself?"
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