Opera «Chornobyldorf» broadcasts Ukrainian Rage and Sorrow

On the morning of February 24, 2022, air sirens wailed through the streets of Kyiv, announcing a large-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine. When composer Adrian Mocanu heard the noise, he had a strange reaction. “I thought the sirens sounded like a giant wolf howl,” he told me in an email. The auditory illusion haunted him, and last year he created a piece called «Time of the Wolves,» which fuses recordings of sirens and wolves into a smoldering, eerily anticipatory electronic sound field. The title refers to Michael Haneke’s film «Le Temps du Loup», in which a family wanders through a contaminated landscape, as well as the Old Norse epic «Völuspá», which contains the line «Time of the wind, time of the wolf, the world falls.»

Since 2022, Ukrainian artists have been thrust into the tragic spotlight, and composers are no exception. Their work has appeared on programs around the world, from elite European new music festivals to, more rarely, American orchestral concerts. A recent online stream from the Dallas Symphony, conducted by Ukrainian conductor Kirill Karabits, features Victoria Poleva’s Cello Concerto, a mournful post-minimalist meditation, and Anna Korsun’s «Terricone,» which evokes the destruction in the Donbass by making the performer scream. during opening ceremonies. In mid-January, Prototype Festival and the venerable East Village venue La Mama hosted Kyiv’s Opera Aperta in a two-hour music-theatre piece called «Chornobyldorf,» depicting the dire aftermath of a future disaster. Dystopias are all the rage in entertainment today. In Ukraine, they are considered unadorned realism.

Vladimir Putin’s attempt to obliterate Ukraine is based on the genocidal idea that the nation has no legitimate identity of its own. The richness of Ukrainian musical history, which goes back many centuries, alone is enough to disprove this claim. At the same time, the question of identity is complex. The period of Russian, Polish and Austrian rule over Ukrainian territory left a colorful cultural heritage. The Jewish population was once so large that Yiddish became the official language of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, the short-lived state that followed the fall of the Tsarist Empire.

The Soviet era was a time of brutal but unsuccessful repression. Boris Lyatoshinsky, the most formidable of twentieth-century Ukrainian composers, felt obliged to follow Soviet socialist-realist principles; after the premiere of his Third Symphony in 1951, the Communist Party authorities forced him to remove the epigraph from the finale «Peace Conquers War» and revise the movement in a triumphalist style. The implacably mournful three-note ostinato of the symphony’s second movement nevertheless hints at Ukrainian suffering not only under Nazi occupation but also under Soviet rule, and this implicit defiance is all the more apparent when the Kyiv Symphony plays it today.

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Younger Ukrainian composers, who grew up in a completely cosmopolitan environment of contemporary music, face a different conundrum. Korsun gained attention at the summer courses of new music in Darmstadt and is now based in Germany. Mocanu, who has residencies all over Europe, names his works variously, in Spanish, English, French, German, Italian and Romanian. How should global European artists respond when their homeland is under attack? In a way, continuing as before is itself an act of opposition, and that is largely what Mocanu and Korsun have done. Yet «Time of the Wolves» and «Terricone» both register the inevitable pressure of war. In Dallas, listeners who would otherwise turn a deaf ear to Korsun’s sonic shocks could appreciate why he doesn’t use chords of comfort.

Nationalism is the wellspring of evil in the modern world, but it is also the mainstay of supporting the arts. In the end, only companions from Ukraine will speak for Ukrainian composers. American musicologist Leah Batstone, who is of Ukrainian descent, has assembled considerable resources on the website of the Ukraine Contemporary Music Festival, which she founded in New York in 2020. Following her guidance, I explored a fresh assortment of modern sounds: Karmella Tsepkolenko’s lushly chaotic Fifth Symphony; Alla Zagaykevych’s anguished Requiem with an orchestra composed of folk instruments; Maxim Kolomiiets’ fiercely minimalist «Four Rivers,» which summons rampaging dragons; Alexey Shmurak’s quizzically neo-romantic piano trio «Crocodile in the Bathroom», the title of which remains enigmatic. All this music suggests a will to create that can outlast the will to destroy.

Roman Grygoriv and Illia Razumeiko, co-composers of «Chornobyldorf», adopted a mode of anarchic, unruly, provocative art that would undoubtedly be stopped if the nation fell under Putin’s thumb. Born in 1989 and 1984 respectively, they not only write music together, but work together as performers, librettists and directors in conjunction with members of Opera Aperta. The group first presented «Chornobyldorf» in Kyiv in 2020 and later brought it to the Netherlands, Austria, Germany, England and Lithuania. It’s a sprawling multimedia spectacle—at times challenging, at times transportive—of the kind often seen at La Mama and like-minded centers in the waning years of the twentieth century.

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«Chornobyldorf» or «Chernobyl Village» takes place several centuries after a series of ecological and biological disasters wiped out modern civilization, leaving behind a wealth of technological and cultural artifacts. Scattered survivors discover the ruins of the past and create new rituals around them. Priest costumes are decorated with printed circuit boards, cords and other discarded gadgets. An ecstatic tribal dance unfolds around the cutout of Lenin’s head – ancient and modern cults have merged. Film segments projected on a screen behind the stage resemble baptism ceremonies in a flooded industrial district.

Even music arises from the disordered ruins of a forgotten past. The twangling of such Ukrainian folk instruments as the bandura and tsymbaly—one a type of harp in the form of a giant lute, the other a relative of the dulcimer—collides with fragments of baroque opera, bursts of experimental noise, pounding techno beats and broken marches. Performance standards are often ignored. The bandura and cymbals are microtonally tuned and pound mercilessly. Accordions hang from the keys like Slinkys, moaning as they expand and contract. Artist Evhen Bal invented several instruments for the occasion, including a cumbersome but imposing three-bell trombone.

The dark absurdism and mysterious spirituality of late Soviet art hangs over the whole affair. Shots of abandoned infrastructure and an empty church are reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky’s cinematography, especially when these images are juxtaposed with Bach’s chorale overture «Ich ruf zu dir», which features prominently in Tarkovsky’s «Solaris». Sometimes the allusions merge into indecipherable gloom: according to the supplementary notes, we saw Electra, Dionysus, Odysseus and Orpheus and Eurydice appear on stage, but I had trouble distinguishing one from the other. The fact that members of the ensemble often appear naked seems, if not gratuitous, at least undermotivated. Nevertheless, the sincerity of this enterprise cannot be doubted. Dancing around Lenin’s head acts as a cathartic release of pent-up rage.

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The strength of «Chornobyldorf» lies above all in the undaunted intensity of the Opera Aperta ensemble. In La Mama, soprano Julija Alieksieeva, mezzo-soprano Diana Ziabchenko and baritone Ievgen Malofeiev covered a range of operatic styles, with the latter frequently shifting into high falsetto. Marichka Shtyrbulova and Yuliia Vitraniuk performed polyphonic folk chants with sensual richness of tones. Ihor Boichuk mastered all types of percussion except for the flute, trumpet and trombone. Cellist Zoltan Almashi, who is also a sheet music composer, unleashed ominous drones one moment and executed an elegant Bach the next. (In a section called «Messe de Chornobyldorf,» the Agnus Dei from Bach’s Mass in B minor goes through a series of mutations that briefly explode into punk rock.) Grygoriv and Razumeiko, who along with the others stripped off their clothes, handled plucked instruments.

This year’s Festival of Contemporary Ukrainian Music, which will be held at the DiMenna Center at the end of March, is expected to feature a recent composition by the Grygoriv Chamber Orchestra called «Langsam 9M27K.» If U.S. customs officials allow it, the composer will play an unusual instrument: a rocket from a Soviet-made Uragan launcher. He received this item from a soldier whose piano was destroyed by a similar projectile. As Grygoriv told the online Ukrainian publication The Claquers, the idea is to get a musical voice from military equipment – «to demonstrate its energy, its history and its pain». A video of the work shows Grygoriv applying bows to the racket’s ribs and making hissing notes.

There is something suspicious about such an aestheticization of the technology of death, as Grygoriv acknowledges. However, he feels compelled to confront a Western public that is focused on other crises or simply tuning out altogether. Long gone are the days when every other classical music concert started with the Ukrainian national anthem. Grygoriv told The Claquers: “I survive only through art that revolves only around war. I can’t talk about anything else now and express myself through other means. This is our reality.” ♦


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