Q & A: Antonina Ermolenko on the War in Ukraine & Russian Music

By Francisco Salazar

On Jan. 28, Ukrainian-Canadian dramatic soprano Antonina Ermolenko will perform music by Mussorgsky in Ottawa.

The soprano was originally hesitant to perform the works due to Russian’s ongoing assault on Ukraine and the her subsequent repulsion at the idea of performing Russian music. However, after discussions with her family, she realized that the power of music is that it speaks to human truths and that it goes beyond war and nationality.

OperaWire has a chance to speak with Ermolenko about the war, Mussorgsky and Russian music, and her hopes for the concert.

OperaWire: How are you doing during this very difficult time? Do you have family in Ukraine and have you been able to contact them?

Antonina Ermolenko: Almost all of my family is in Ukraine, and I have been in constant contact with them from the beginning. Several are in active military.

Never in our lifetime we thought we would see the brutality of an invasion such as this, so of course at the beginning it was a shock, and we all walked around as if in a horror dream, but we are very resilient as a nation, and now thoughts turn to surviving, supporting, and rebuilding when the time comes.

OW: What type of support have you seen from the music world during this past year as the war continues?

AE: The support from the music world has honestly been quite overwhelming. There have been numerous benefit concerts, and a multitude of singers, such as the great Anita Rachvelishvili, have stood beside us in our fight for the integrity of our nation.

I’ve also seen immense interest in Ukrainian music, with many orchestras, choirs, and independent musicians performing and researching works by great Ukrainian composers, which have previously been overshadowed by their Russian contemporaries. Recently, I had the pleasure of adjudicating at the Ukrainian Music Festival in Toronto, and saw a great surge of interest from young musicians to learn and perform Ukrainian music.

The way the world, music or otherwise, has stood up to this unprovoked attack has been heartening, and uplifting.

OW: You will be performing Mussorgsky’s songs. You originally had hesitation over it. Why did you change your mind?

AE: With this invasion, all Ukrainians had the same reaction: we no longer wanted to hear the Russian language, read Russian writers, see Russian ballet, or hear Russian music. We were betrayed and attacked, and I did not want to highlight a composer from the aggressor nation.

After looking at the music once again, another sentiment overtook me: I’d be damned if I let one tyrant rob the world of this beautiful music. If Wagner can be performed in Israel, Russian music must be divorced from the evil actions of a terrorist government, because music has no nationality, it connects to a larger truth that binds humanity as a whole.

OW: Did you think it was important to boycott Russian music from the repertoire during the start of the war?

AE: We all did. When a nation whom you thought of as a brother commits unspeakable crimes against you, you want nothing to do with its culture or language, let alone promote it.

OW: Tell me about this Mussorgsky piece and what it says to you? Will you sing other Russian music after this?

AE: I will be doing two pieces for the concert. One is Marina Mnishek’s aria from “Boris Godunov,” an opera highlighting corruption and evil at the head of the Russian empire, which I think is an important work especially now. As Godunov is overthrown in the end, the holy fool is lamenting the fate of the Russian nation, destined to be oppressed by one tyrant after the other. Many, like the fool, are waiting for the moment the Russian people rise up, taking their fate into their own hands, like the former soviet nations around them, and fight for their own freedom, led not by a “tsar” in one form or another, but a democratic government representing the people.

The “Songs and Dances of Death,” are a series of four songs, highlighting different faces of death. Mussorgsky’s uncanny knack for characterization really shines here, as the main “heroine” appears as merciful death in the first song (Lullaby), having a dialogue with a mother staying up all night rocking her sick child; as a troubadour seducing an ailing young woman in the second song (Serenade); as a mischievous spirit, playing with and ultimately putting a drunk serf to sleep under the snow amid a winter storm (Trepak); and finally as the titular Commander in Chief in the last, powerful, song. Here, she appears after a battle, among a field strewn with bones, and says to the dead: “life made you enemies, I have made peace among you”. She promises them that their legacy will fade, and no one will remember their name, but she will remember, and celebrate them by dancing on their grave so that the earth is packed so tight that they will never rise again. This song to me epitomizes Putin’s thirst for legacy and should be his memento mori: death comes for us all, and he will be dust, his “legacy” in ashes.

Oftentimes, when humanity becomes removed from death, when it happens behind closed doors, sanitized and forgotten, we rush into war and atrocities. This music speaks to our deepest fears, and puts us on notice that life is not eternal, and that we must be mindful of what we do with our time on this earth. Such themes and music are beyond nationality, beyond language, and they deserve to be heard.

OW: What do you think it means for a Ukrainian-Canadian performer to sing a Russian piece? What does it say to the world?

AE: What I hope it says is that music is beyond politics, beyond war, beyond nations, and especially beyond one small evil man and his small evil ideas. Music belongs to anyone who has a soul to listen with – not to any human, but to humanity.

OW: How can musicians help in this difficult time?

AE: Musicians can keep this conflict fresh in the eyes of the public, which hopefully puts pressure on politicians for steady aid, and a quick resolution.

OW: What do you hope people come away with from this concert?

AE: I sincerely hope that it takes them to another place, as Mussorgsky was truly a master of characterization, and I hope it makes them brush against those thoughts and emotions that are slightly uncomfortable, but have a vital part in making us fully realized, compassionate human beings.


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