Opera plays on through east Ukraine chaos

Beatrice Le Bohec
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A performance of the operetta "The Merry Widow" by composer Franz Lehar at the Donetsk State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre on March 28, 2015

A performance of the operetta "The Merry Widow" by composer Franz Lehar at the Donetsk State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre on March 28, 2015 (AFP Photo/Dimitar Dilkoff)

Donetsk (Ukraine) (AFP) - The fighting in east Ukraine may have driven away soloists and drained the coffers, but it's still curtain up at the Donbass Opera theatre, thanks to its staff's heroic efforts.

"A bomb destroyed some of our sets that were stored in a warehouse near the airport, we've lost 20 percent of our staff -- or 150 people -- and we are short of cash," said the weary head of the theatre, Yevgeny Denisenko.

"Tomorrow I will pay the salaries (that were due in) December."

At first glance, nothing appears to be amiss backstage. From behind a door, vocal melodies resonate through the air, just like at any opera theatre.

One of the soloists, Grigory, practises his part from the operetta "The Merry Widow", hand on heart.

"We get by!" said the chief set designer Andrei, while passing by a sign pointing to the air-raid shelter in the basement.

But the exodus of singers, dancers and technicians has proved to be a huge headache when planning the season's programme.

"When half of the choir is missing, it is impossible to perform operas such as Aida," said the director, referring to Giuseppe Verdi's grand opera. "We've had to adapt."

"I hope the soloists will come back, they've still got their flats here. But I know some have gone to work in Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Kiev."

On February 14, a bomb exploded 300 metres away from the venue as singers were performing an operetta called "The Circus Princess."

"Nobody left the room, neither the musicians nor the public," recalled Rustem, the pianist accompanying soloist Grigory. "We held out."

The 21-year-old singer admitted he was afraid during the bombings, "but when you start to work on a role, you forget everything and start living the life of the character."

Natalya Semibalamut, who translates Italian operas into Russian, said she had contempt for the artists who left the theatre.

- Art above all else -

"Those who left have dirt in their souls, the best remained," said the slender brunette. "Art is the priority, even during the bombings, and we should not be afraid."

Ballerina Tatiana Lyadskaya, 35, sought refuge in the Kiev-controlled city of Dnipropetrovsk for a few months, but returned in November and is now rehearsing "Giselle", which is due to premiere in late April.

"Some say the war will resume, but I pray it's not true," she said, dressed in a white tutu and black leotard, with an Orthodox cross on a chain around her neck.

The city's separatist leaders have promised to help after the culture ministry in Kiev pulled the plug on funding for the state theatre in November.

Russian-born soprano Anna Netrebko, who now lives in Austria, donated one million roubles (about $16,000, 15,000 euros), and other benefactors are expected to step forward.

"Art is a way to resist," said the director. "I've seen people cry with happiness. They come out of their basements, their bomb shelters, to listen to our music."

Since the conflict broke out last April, the public has tried to stay off the streets after darkness descends and fighting intensifies between pro-Russian rebels and the regular army.

The theatre schedules all its performances to start in the morning or early afternoon.

The director hopes to return to normal hours soon, giving those with day jobs the chance to take in a performance.

Separatist leaders are keen on the idea to "calm the public, and because there are few other distractions," according to Denisenko.

Shortly after the curtain went up on a Saturday performance, two camouflaged rebels slipped into the full house. With all eyes focused on the first act of "The Merry Widow", they went unnoticed.