Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the shock waves have been felt around the world and in many aspects of life — even in the usually rarefied world of classical music, in which the concert hall and the opera house more often offer a refuge from momentous events, rather than reflecting them.
But one artist, in town to perform in Seattle Opera’s upcoming production of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” (May 7-22), has felt the conflict intrude into both her personal and professional life in an almost Zelig-like way.
“I know from inside everything that happened — not only from the news but from the family,” says mezzo-soprano Olga Syniakova, singing the role of Cherubino in the production.
Now based in Madrid, she grew up in Ukraine, and, while keeping up a complex schedule of travel and performance, has been following from afar the events of the past two months. Her parents, she said in a recent interview in one of Seattle Opera’s rehearsal halls, plan to remain as long as possible in her hometown of Dnipro, a city of nearly 1 million in the center-east of the country.
Syniakova says they have been difficult to persuade to leave because of the roots they have put down in their home country.
“All the time they are telling me that they’re OK … I asked them a lot of times to move to Spain. But they don’t want to,” Syniakova said. “And maybe somehow I understand them. … When they were young, there was no money; it was the ’90s, difficult times, and they built every part of the house with their hands. That’s why they are scared that it will be ruined.”
Even more wrenchingly, Syniakova had relatives and friends in the hard-hit city of Mariupol, where she vacationed as a child. “Mariupol is my second home because every summer I spent there with my cousin — she is for me like my sister. All summer we spent together. … It was our base — from Mariupol we went to the mountains.”
The performer recounted a harrowing escape from the city.
“My aunt and my cousin and her son and her husband are all there, from the beginning of the war,” Syniakova said. “My aunt and her grandson escaped very quickly, from the first day, but my cousin, she stayed and said, ‘Oh, no, still no war … I will feel safe because it’s my home.’”
But the cousin eventually was forced to go, and her escape from Mariupol with a friend and three children was difficult.
Their first stop, Zaporizhzhia, was about 120 miles away, though to get there by car, says Syniakova, took “32 hours without food — some water but no food.” The city was already welcoming a flood of refugees from Mariupol, and soon the group moved on to Syniakova’s parents’ house in Dnipro; from there, they eventually fled on a four-day voyage to Mönchengladbach in the far west of Germany, where they arrived early in April.
But while her cousin was still trapped in Mariupol, Syniakova said, the uncertainty was agonizing — and she had gigs to worry about, too.
“We didn’t have any connection with her. At the same time I was working … it was two months. I don’t sleep well,” she said. “For singing, it’s not so easy.”
One commitment was as a soloist in Verdi’s “Requiem” on March 3 in Linz, Austria. It’s an emotionally draining piece under the best circumstances, but this time, Syniakova said, the work’s impact was overwhelming for everyone involved.
“I was crying — one hour of crying on the stage. … And I turned to the soprano and asked, ‘What happened with my face, with my makeup? Is it OK?’ … I saw the faces of the people [in the audience]. They were all crying with me,” Syniakova recalled. “I think it was the most powerful performance in my life, because as singers I think we have the power to tell the truth without words.”
The world’s outrage over the invasion has led not only to sanctions, but to a backlash against overtly pro-Putin artists, especially conductor Valery Gergiev, a longtime supporter of the dictator. By coincidence, Syniakova was involved in Gergiev’s final performance before presenters began to cancel his gigs: the opening night — on the eve of the invasion — of Tchaikovsky’s opera “The Queen of Spades” at one of the world’s most prestigious opera houses, La Scala in Milan, Italy.
“Before [Verdi], I sang Tchaikovsky. It was the 23rd of February that we did the premiere with Gergiev and with all my Russian colleagues. And next day at 5 [o’clock] it started.”
Gergiev’s position as arguably Putin’s highest-profile booster among classical musicians was already well-known and problematic, but after the invasion, even elected officials had to step in. (In Italy, opera is not infrequently a matter of state.)
“The mayor asked La Scala to ask Gergiev about his position,“ said Syniakova, and the Putinist conductor was quickly deemed maestro non grata. [The opera house then quickly scheduled a performance of Rossini’s “Stabat Mater” as a benefit concert for Ukraine.]
Though deploring his politics, Syniakova does acknowledge Gergiev’s artistry, especially his way with Russian music. Of their one night working together, she recalls, “How the orchestra sounds with him is something amazing. … It was a pleasure to hear Tchaikovsky in La Scala, its different color.”
But her Mozartean role here in “Figaro,” an effervescent farce of disguises, revenge and forgiveness, encompasses neither gut-wrenching pathos like Verdi or opulently emotive drama like Tchaikovsky. How on earth does she approach a light comic role like Cherubino when every day brings news of the tragedy in her homeland?
Syniakova’s duty as a performer, she earnestly avows, is to provide an antidote: “Sometimes it’s really difficult to find the good mood. But really I believe that we should have the power, the light, of bringing the peace,” she said. “So I could go home and cry, but before the public I should be positive and bring bright emotion.”
In these times, performing, even — or especially — in a comic opera, becomes a calling, and as she speaks, Syniakova’s heightened emotion takes an evangelical tone. “Singing and performing is to shine. Our job is to give energy to the people.”
During the run of “The Marriage of Figaro,” Syniakova and other Seattle Opera artists will also perform in a May 16 concert of traditional and classical Ukrainian music and more with the Pacific Northwest Ballet orchestra to benefit the Pegaz Cultural Association, which provides assistance to Ukrainian artists who have taken refuge in Poland.
This report is supported, in part, by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.