“Kateryna,” a new opera by Ukrainian composer Alexander Rodin, was scheduled to premiere in Odessa at the end of March 2022. Then Russia invaded Ukraine and the opera house had to temporarily close down. Against all odds, rehearsals resumed in the summer. Directed by Oksana Taranenko, the production celebrated its opening night on September 17 (a recording will be available on the French-German television station ARTE Concert from February 24). Recently, Taranenko visited Berlin, and I met her for coffee. She spoke with warmth and honesty, and gave me a hug as we said goodbye. 

Oksana Taranenko • Photo © Odessa National Opera / Dmytro Skvortsov

VAN: The uncertainty during this production must have required a great deal of emotional and mental energy. Was there ever a moment when you wanted to give up?

Oksana Taranenko: Yes, there was. The premiere had actually originally been scheduled for December 2021, but then the second wave of COVID hit. The general director of the opera, Nadiya Babich—her name, by the way, means “hope”—almost died. She was seriously ill with COVID and was in the emergency room for over two weeks. Luckily, she recovered, but we had to postpone the production until March. At the time we thought: This is the worst that can happen. We had no idea what was still to come. The situation with Russia escalated quickly and one morning [the opera house] called me and said: We’re at war. We had a rehearsal planned for that day. Alexander Rodin, the composer, and I were calling each other debating whether we should cancel it or not. We were all still hoping that all of this would blow over in a few days.

When the opera’s general management finally canceled all the rehearsals, I went back to Kyiv, where my family lives. The Russians had already started to invade the city and people were filming the tanks from their windows. So without a second thought, we jumped into our car. My husband, who is Turkish, took me and my parents to Istanbul. On the way, we stopped at a hotel in Moldova. There I was finally able to take a breath and let everything sink in. For the first time in a while I checked the group chat with the team from the Odessa Opera House: Someone had posted a video in which ensemble members and other volunteers were collecting sand on the beach to make sandbags to build barricades with. While they were working, they were singing the Ukrainian national anthem and old folk songs. At that time,  I didn’t know if I would ever see them again. That was probably the worst day for me.

I am very lucky that all my relatives have survived so far, but many of my friends are in the army. Many of them were wounded or killed. I have no children and my art is everything to me. When you lose that, you lose the purpose of life. One day you are an opera director, creating beautiful things with talented people, and the next day you are lining up for free food. I was totally lost.

Photo © Odessa National Opera / Dmytro Skvortsov

But then work on the opera continued? 

At some point in May, Nadiya called me: “We’re doing ‘Kateryna.’ Are you in?” And I said, ”Yes, of course.”

Did you ever have to interrupt a rehearsal or performance because of a military attack?

We had to stop every other day because of air-raid warnings. When that happens, you have to drop everything and go to a shelter. But you don’t get that time back. So we never knew if we were going to be ready for opening night. Eventually you get used to it. At some point, some of us just went across the street to smoke a cigarette. You think to yourself, Whatever. If we really get bombed, I’ll die. Until then, I want to enjoy what I do

When we started rehearsals again, our choreographer was still not back. He had volunteered for the Territorial Defense Forces. It wasn’t easy to get him back, but we did it. And when he arrived, in uniform, with a military backpack on his back, he didn’t speak for three days. He was traumatized. Also, there were no soprano voices in the choir because most of them were young women who had gone abroad to save their children.

Because of Russian attacks on infrastructure, there have been power cuts all over Ukraine. Did that cause problems during the rehearsals? 

That came later. The problems with the power supply didn’t start until October. However, that was the time when we wanted to film the production. We managed to do it with huge generators. It’s a very special feeling when you are walking through a blacked-out city to the opera house and you suddenly enter this oasis of warmth and light. The opera house in Odessa is also such a beautiful building, surrounded by a small park and only a few steps away from the sea.

A photo of the Odessa National Opera, built in 1887, shown here blocked off by sandbags in March 2022. The text on the banner reads, “Russian warship, go fuck yourself!”—a reference to a communication made by Ukrainian border guards on Snake Island to a Russian missile cruiser in February 2022.

What helped you and your team not lose courage?

Knowing that we are doing something meaningful. That we are bringing meaning to Ukranians. Because just surviving is not enough. You have to know what you are surviving for.

Were you scared? 

Was I scared? No… It was not about that. You know, they say geography is destiny. We cannot just live somewhere else. There’s no way out for us, so what are we supposed to do? In that sense, I just did what I had to.

Are the members of the original cast still in Ukraine?

I think so. I also wish I was there right now. But I feel like it’s my job to forge bonds between Ukraine and Europe.

You are an ambassador.

Yes, in a way.

“Kateryna” tells the story of a young Ukrainian woman who falls in love with a Russian soldier. When he returns from the battlefield, war has changed him; he claims not to remember her at all. Heartbroken, Kateryna decides to die. Is this a metaphor for Russian-Ukrainian relations?

Yes. Kateryna’s story is very symbolic. Modern psychology has come up with the concept of co-dependent relationships. They are extremely dysfunctional. Ukraine has been in such a co-dependent relationship for 400 years. We let the Russians take advantage of us, we literally fed and supported them, like women supported their husbands before feminism. At the same time, we suffered from an inferiority complex typical of co-dependent relationships. We thought, They are bigger and better than us. It was only in the last 30 years of independence that we found our identity.

The libretto of the opera is based on a poem by Ukraine’s national poet Taras Shevchenko… 

His legacy runs through our veins. Shevchenko was not only a poet, he was also a painter. One of his paintings shows Kateryna, pregnant and abandoned. In this painting, Kateryna is as beautiful as Botticelli’s Venus.  Shevchenko did not depict her as some ugly, poor peasant woman, but as someone to be admired and worshiped. And that is exactly what the poem does. My interpretation, however, is not only about Kateryna’s suffering, but also about her strength. I kept saying to the two girls who were singing the role in this production: “Be strong, be determined in your love, be loyal.”

A bit like Penelope in Monteverdi’s “Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria”? 

Yes, except that Penelope sits around all the time and waits. Kateryna goes into the forest all alone to find her beloved and bring him a gift—their newborn child. But because, as a fallen woman, she has been rejected by everyone—her family, the father of her child and society in general—the only thing she can do in the end is commit suicide. It’s all quite sad, and the music sounds exactly the same. But with my production I try to show that times have changed: We can stand up for ourselves. We are no longer victims and will no longer be abused.

Is it true that “Kateryna” features instruments that imitate nature sounds and that were developed especially for the piece?

What makes Alexander Rodin’s music so beautiful is that it is very Ukrainian. When you listen to it, you learn a lot about Ukrainians, about their playfulness, their deep connection to nature and to ancient pagan rituals. There are a lot of these things in the plot of the piece: the midsummer rituals, for example, where people jump over fires and burn straw puppets. We Ukrainians have never quite stopped believing in mermaids and other mystical beings. Among these pagan traditions there is also a traveling theater we call Vertep. It consists of seven recurring characters: an innkeeper, a violin-playing angel of death, a blind poet and so on.

Photo © Odessa National Opera / Dmytro Skvortsov

Like a Ukrainian version of the Commedia dell’arte?

Yes, exactly. Alexander’s opera brings this traveling theater to the stage and has its characters tell Kateryna’s story. They each have certain sounds associated with them. For example, there is the sound of ice melting into water, announcing the return of spring and love. For this, Alexander crafted his own wind chimes, made from tiny bells. He also built a rain machine and a wind machine. All these instruments are not part of the orchestral score. He just brought them to the rehearsal and said to me: “Do something with it!” So I developed little interludes in which the Vertep characters perform magic that brings about the next scene. In a way, these new instruments symbolize pagan magic.

What else is Ukrainian about the music?

The choir scenes. Polyphony is deeply rooted in Ukrainian culture. We often sit together at the table and sing together in four or more voices. My grandmother did that; it’s completely natural for us.

What are your hopes for the future of opera in Ukraine?

Ukraine is a great country. Rich in history, rich in music and talented people. For so long we have simply given away our musical resources to Europe and the world. I wish that this would stop. For so long we have been overshadowed by other cultures that are certainly great, but not necessarily greater than us. They have just promoted themselves better because they had money. We never had the chance. We have so many talented composers. I mean: Smetana, who is also a Slavic composer, has a place in European music, but nobody knows Lyatoshynsky, Stankovych, or Rodin, who is really a living genius. Especially right now I would ask anyone: Listen to Ukrainian music! Find it!

Can you name three living Ukrainian composers we should all listen to? 

I’ll give you five: Alexander Rodin, Ivan Nebesnyy, Zoltan Almashi and then Roman Grygoriv and Illia Razumeiko—two avant-garde artists who work as a duo.

Can music help in such difficult times? 

Ukrainians are very musical. I read somewhere that Ukrainian phonetics are very pleasant for singing —a bit like Italian. We have a folk song tradition that goes back thousands of years. We sing as we breathe. This is how we express ourselves and tell our story. ¶

Anna Schors is a freelance singer and music journalist based in Berlin who has written for publications such as Opernwelt, Crescendo, and TAZ. She studied voice with Janet Williams, among others.