Recent days have seen an intense escalation of the conflict in Ukraine, which began in 2013 and led to a revolt that ousted President Viktor Yanukovich in early 2014. When Russia subsequently annexed Crimea, a war ensued between pro-Russian factions and the government established in Ukraine following Yanukovich’s removal from office. The city of Donetsk has taken the brunt of the conflict, with over 5000 deaths on its 236 year-old streets as bombs drop unceasingly and the streets are patrolled by armed men in tanks. Roughly half of the city’s citizens have fled.
In the face of this terrible violence, one institution remains defiantly open, the Donetsk Opera House. Built in 1936, the Donetsk Opera and Ballet Theater produced its first opera in 1941 and it survived World War II and the Nazi occupation of the city. The theater has 960 seats, and features a large bust of Alexander Pushkin in its lobby.
In the midst of the conflict, operas are being produced on a weekly basis. Recent productions have included Eugene Onegin, Die Fledermaus, and La Traviata. The artists are putting their lives at risk every time they walk to the theater, as are the audience members who stand in line for free tickets. The operas must be scheduled in the daylight, as nighttime in the city is simply too dangerous.
In a recent article in the Guardian, the deputy director of the opera was quoted as saying that for the opening production of this season, “Tickets were free and there were hundreds of people queuing…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 (the director’s) hands in gratitude that he had opened the season.”
The violence in the streets led to the cancellation of plans for Donetsk to host the International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships later this spring, but the Opera remains defiant.
The Guardian went on to quote baritone Sergei Dubnitsky: “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.”
It never leaves my thoughts how the world turns constantly to music. On days of joy, such as weddings, our happiness must be accompanied by music. On days of great personal pain, such as memorial services, we must be comforted by music. On regular days, when we need solace from everyday trials, we turn to music. And in times of great tragedy and devastation, music reminds us of the most noble aspirations of humanity as citizens of the world refuse to allow violence to rob us of any part of our souls.
I think of Mstislav Rostropovich playing Bach by the Berlin Wall, and Leonard Bernstein joyously celebrating freedom with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony just after the Mauerfall. I’m listening now to my vinyl recording of the Boston Symphony playing Mozart’s Requiem just after the death of President Kennedy. I remember orchestras across the world performing immediately following September 11, bringing their communities together around music. I am moved at the thought of 150 musicians playing Barber’s Adagio in Trafalgar Square following the recent terrorist attacks in Paris.
One of the citizens of Donetsk who attended the opera performances said “When you are surrounded by ugliness, beauty becomes something you cherish even more.”
This is why we work so hard to be advocates for our orchestras, and all of our cultural institutions. We know we are not advocating for ourselves, but for the best of society and for all future generations. I’m sure when we were younger we believed that the world could evolve, and such conflicts would not devolve into unspeakable violence. I know I thought that education would improve and enlighten the world. But instead, we face more and more cuts in education funding, and a less educated world will only lead to more conflicts with violent outcomes; it takes thought and insight to find more creative solutions.
A disproportionate number of the cuts in education are found in music and arts programs. This shortsighted thinking will have a profound effect on the world should we not resist. After all, we know from multiple studies that music education leads to improved emotional outlook, enhanced social skills, greater mental health as we age, improved cognitive function, increased graduation rates, and greater skill in personal expression.
Of course there will always be terrible conflicts that appear unresolvable, and no one can eradicate violence from this world. But it seems to me that the best hope for future generations must come from education, and it appears too often that we live in a time when education is somehow viewed as “elitist”. Conflicts will persist, but I don’t see how it can get better with a less educated future, and music must be recognized as inherently valuable to achieving a more educated and enlightened society.
It is frightening to contemplate what might happen next in Donetsk, perhaps before this issue of Senza Sordino is published. Even as I write this afternoon, the media is reporting that a chemical plant in Eastern Ukraine near Donetsk has been bombed and is burning out of control. A new ceasefire accord was reached on February 12, but it is the second such attempt, and we can only hope it succeeds in ending the violence. But music will always represent the best of humanity, and the defiance and resiliency of the human spirit. In a time of war the opera in Donetsk seems to me to be a revolutionary act of defiance, and I want to think of those artists as I perform with my colleagues, and as I travel as an advocate for musicians everywhere. Indeed, each one of us must see ourselves constantly as advocates for all musicians everywhere, and for the best of humanity. The 24-hour news channels might lead us to believe that the best of humanity is in short supply these days, but I don’t believe that. I’ve seen and heard the best of humanity in every musician I’ve ever met, and I only wish it could be possible that I could be present at one of the operas in Donetsk.
Every note we play must stand as a statement against violence. When next we walk onto our stages, we should remember that across the world an opera company is producing music at the risk of their lives, insistent that the violence in their streets must not be allowed to diminish the value of life, nor the beauty that exists and remains possible to achieve.
As one of the performers in Donetsk expressed her hope: “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?”
(Note: many of the quotes in this report have been harvested from press accounts, most notably an excellent article by Shaun Walker in the Guardian, viewable at http://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/feb/02/donetsk-opera-ukraine-show-must-go-on)