Ukrainian opera ‘Iyov’ wins praises in New York, Europe

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Not every Ukrainian opera gets a mention in the New Yorker magazine or sells out in Manhattan. But Ukrainian opera-requiem “Iyov” has done both, and more, winning the praise of Americans, Europeans, and Ukrainians.

Premiered in 2016 at the GogolFest art festival in Kyiv, “Iyov” has toured across seven countries, and returned to Ukraine on April 6 — this time to the grand stage of the National Opera of Ukraine.

Opera-goer Maksym Lunochkin bought tickets in advance and said he couldn’t wait to see the performance. “I knew I’d like the show just because I like everything the director (of the opera) does,” Lunochkin told the Kyiv Post.

The opera was directed by Vladyslav Troitskyi, a theater director and the producer of the internationally famous Ukrainian bands Dakhabrakha and Dakh Daughters, with the music being composed by Roman Grygoriv and Illya Razumeiko.

Having started working on the opera in September 2015, they planned to create something playful, but the war in Ukraine’s east changed these plans and they settled on a Biblical theme from the Old Testament.

The main character of the opera is Iyov (Job in English), the central figure of the Book of Job. The story opens as he is living a prosperous life with his family and extensive flocks. In the Bible, Job is described as a blameless, righteous man, blessed and loved by God.

However, the Satan believes that Job is only good because God has blessed him lavishly. The evil spirit says that when Job’s life becomes unbearable, he will turn and curse God. To test this claim, God allows Satan to torture Job and to take away his wealth and family.

When Job finds out he has lost everything, he tears his clothes and shaves his head in mourning, but he still thanks God in his prayers. Even after being affected by horrible skin sores, he doesn’t betray God. For that, God grants Job with health, a new family and wealth.

“Job suffers a lot, but he doesn’t lose hope,” Grygoriv says. “Eventually, he is rewarded for it. This is the happy ending we all want to believe in Ukraine.”

Grygoriv recalls that while they were working on the opera for three weeks, there was no shelling on the east of Ukraine. He believes it to be a good sign.

For Grygoriv, Job’s attitude is something all Ukrainians should aspire to. However, the opera’s soprano singer, Maryana Holovko, sees the opera as being unconnected to politics.

“I’m a religious person,” she says. “And for me to sing on a Biblical theme is a very serious matter. ‘Iyov’ is the story of a man who stays strong no matter what, but I don’t see any political connotation in it.”

New type of opera

The opera is very different from what audiences are used to seeing on stage. It fuses Biblical and liturgical texts with extraordinary folk, rock and classical musical themes.

“Iyov” is also static: During the opera, six singers, a cellist, a drummer and a narrator stand on stage around a piano and tell the story. Moving images and live background videos contribute to the show.

Razumeiko says that people are very used to a conservative definition of the opera: standard costumes, a tearful love story, and a tragic ending. “People asked us why there is practically no action on stage, and I had to explain that in our interpretation opera is art, it doesn’t have to follow all of the known paradigms.”

“’Iyov’ is our attempt to show that an opera can be modern, it can and should be different,” Troitskyi adds. “And when we went to New York, the audience rated it highly.”

World appreciation

The opera was originally created to be presented at the GogolFest Ukrainian art festival in Kyiv in 2016. Since then, it has been performed all over Ukraine, as well as in Macedonia, Denmark, Austria, and Poland. In every country, the opera is sung in Ukrainian and Latin, however, the narration is given in the local audience’s language so that they can follow the plot.

“Iyov” went on its first tour abroad to Lublin, Poland, to the Kody festival of avant-garde music in 2016. There, the cast met Beth Morrison, a contemporary opera producer from the U. S. Impressed by the performance, she invited them to perform at the 2018 Prototype music-theater festival in New York.

“Everything was planned two years in advance,” Grygoriv says. “The organizers took care of everything: tickets, accommodation, food. We didn’t have to worry about anything, only the performance.”

In January, “Iyov” was performed five times in Manhattan, and “every time it was sold out,” Grygoriv says.

“I think we represented Ukrainian opera in the United States well, and we had a warm welcome,” Grygoriv says. “I like the New York audience. When New Yorkers want to laugh — they simply laugh, while Europeans prefer to keep their feelings to themselves.”

The whole cast is proud of “Iyov,” and they want more people to see the show.

“When I talk about the new opera — I want to scream about it, it’s a very big honor for Ukraine,” Holovko says. “We put our hearts into it.” The opera will be performed in Mariupol, a port city in Donetsk Oblast, on May 1, and later the same month — in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

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