The cultural heritage of Ukraine is truly hard to grasp even in one article: from folk traditions and arts to countless literature masterpieces and music pieces, everything is definitely worth detailed attention. In this guide, let’s explore the wonderful fusion of architecture and music — the best opera houses built in Ukraine.
Image: postcard with the view on Odessa Opera House (early 20th century)
Opera found its way to Ukraine way back in the 18th century when the country was torn between the Russian Empire and Austria-Hungary. While Italian and French operas were incredibly popular at the time, it is worth noting that the premiere of the first Ukrainian opera Demofonte by Maksym Berezovsky took place beyond the country’s borders — in the Italian city Livorno in 1773. The two centers of opera in Ukraine were Lviv and Kharkiv, cities under the reign of the Habsburg Monarchy and the Russian Empire accordingly. The first state theater in Ukraine was opened in Lviv in 1772, and two years later the repertoire was filled with German operas.
Kharkiv followed the tendency in 1780, while the capital had to wait more than twenty years until the first operas were staged in 1803. Finally, the Odessa Opera House was built in 1810 and instantly became an important center of Italian and French operas, as the city held a status of international port and was filled with businessmen and tourists from all over the world.
Until the 1861 abolition of serfdom, many musicians couldn’t permanently work in the theaters, which seriously prevented the development of opera in Ukraine. Luckily, merely 6 years later Askold Grave opera by Alexey Verstovsky premiered in Kyiv with orchestra members from the former serf orchestra band of Count Peter Lopukhin. The abolition of serfdom paved a way for many musicians and actors to gain professional skills in their beloved area.
Read: Best Classic Musicians in Ukraine
Sure enough, any talk about opera in Ukraine isn’t complete without mentioning the ‘founding father’ of the genre in Ukraine, Mykola Lysenko. The renowned composer gained an education in University of Music and Theatre Leipzig, and later was the apprentice of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in Saint Petersburg. Lysenko is often regarded as one of the most influential personalities of Ukrainian music, having created principles of the national opera: a romantic comedy that takes place in rural Ukraine and clearly depicts folk traditions and customs. The most popular opera by Lysenko is Natalka Poltavka, based on the play by Ivan Kotliarevsky. Natalka Poltavka is the most popular Lysenko’s opera piece, and one of the most well-attended operas in Ukraine up to this day.
Now, let’s have a look at the best theatres to attend opera in Ukraine.
National Opera of Ukraine
The building of the National Opera located in the center of Kyiv instantly catches the eye of tourists and passersby. The building was erected in 1867 after the huge success of Italian opera troupes performances in the 1865-66 theatrical season in Kyiv, which fueled the local artists and musicians. Askold Grave opera by Alexey Verstovsky that depicted the grave and heroic past of Kievan Rus was the debut opera of the newly founded Kyiv Opera House.
The ongoing success of the local troupe was mainly attributed to the great talent of Mykola Lysenko, whose efforts and fame aren’t forgotten — the composer’s statue stands proudly on the right side of the opera’s building. In the early years of the Kyiv opera house, Russian operas took up the most part of the repertoire: for instance, Ruslan and Ludmila by Mikhail Glinka, Rusalka by Alexander Dargomyzhsky, Maccabees by Anton Rubinstein. European classics in the Russian language were staged as well, and soon The Barber of Seville by Rossini, The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart, and operas by Giuseppe Verdi became the favorites of Kyiv dwellers. The modern history of the Kyiv Opera is acknowledged by UNESCO: ballet Romeo and Juliet directed by Anatolyi Shykera was named the best interpretation of Prokofiev's ballet. Up to date, the famous operas by Verdi, Puccini, Hulak-Artemovsky, and Tchaikovsky are among the most popular performances sold out each time.
Odessa Opera House
Initially called the First City Theater, the building of Odessa Opera House was the initiative of Duke of Richelieu, whose monument nowadays is one of the popular meeting places in Odessa. On February 10, after a fruitful construction, Odessa witnessed the grand opening of the First City Theater. Merely a year later, the theater already had first regular repertoire, which consisted of comedies, tragedies, and vaudevilles.
Read: History of Odessa Opera House
Quickly gaining popularity among famous opera singers, who wished to perform on its stage, it also wasn’t overlooked by Aleksandr Pushkin. During the poet’s visit to Odessa in 1823-34, he was so impressed by the Theater that he included a verse dedicated to the First City Theater in his famous novel Eugene Onegin. Moreover, a famous composer Franz Liszt finished his career as a pianist in Odessa, by giving 6 solo concerts to the roaring public in 1847.
Declared one of the most unusual sightseeing spots in Eastern Europe by Forbes magazine, the Odessa Theater continues to work and stage more and more plays for the visitors’ enjoyment. Up to date, the repertoire has the timeless classics like Carmen, Il Trovatore, Giselle, The Nutcracker, as well as contemporary performances — hits of the world cinematography soundtracks performed live. The Opera House is located at 1, Tchaikovsky Street in the historical district of Odessa.
Lviv Theatre of Opera and Ballet
The Lviv Opera is not only a building of immense architectural value but is also located in a UNESCO World Heritage Site, namely Lviv city's Halych district. The Solomiya Krushelnytska Lviv State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet was constructed during 1897—1900 when the region remained under the Austria-Hungary reign. The theater witnessed several renamings throughout its history and until the beginning of the new millennium had the name of Ivan Franko. Nowadays the Opera is named after one of the legendary Ukrainian signers Solomia Krushelnytska, who was born in Lviv.
The building was set in the classical style with the elements of the Viennese neo-Renaissance style visitors can observe till this day. Decorated by the finest Polish interior artists, the Lviv Opera became a poster site of the 19th century Western European sculpture and painting.
Read: Best Singers in Ukraine
The repertoire initially included renowned classics like Der Ring des Nibelungen by Richard Wagner, La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi, Carmen by Georges Bizet, and Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky. In 1921, dwellers of Lviv witnessed the first staging of Swan Lake ballet. The operas of Ukrainian composers, Natalka Poltavka by Mykola Lysenko and Zaporozhets za Dunayem by Hulak-Artemovsky appeared only in 1939 after the theater gained its national status.
Up to date, the repertoire has 22 operas and 3 operettas, all performed in the original language. The Lviv Opera performances have been the often reason to visit Ukraine ever since its opening, and now it’s even more convenient due to the abundance of hotels in Lviv Old City district.
Kharkiv State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre
The history of Kharkiv opera dates back to the years of the local opera enterprise, founded in 1880. Thus, Kharkiv Opera Enterprise was the first in Ukraine to stage operas by the renowned composer Mykola Lysenko, namely Christmas Eve (1883) and The Drowned Woman (1885). During the early Soviet years, Russian opera classics were prevailing in the repertoire. During 1934—41, showings of Natalka Poltavka by Mykola Lysenko and Zaporozhets za Dunayem by Hulak-Artemovsky were renewed and met with roaring success. As for the world classics, Princess Turandot by Giacomo Puccini and Les Huguenots by Giacomo Meyerbeer were always sold out.
It’s worth noting that Kharkiv Opera Theater initially was located in an 1829 building, where the theater hall was adjusted to the garden and decorated in the theme of the grand halls of the Tuileries Palace in Paris. Nowadays the building belongs to the Kharkiv Philharmonic Society. Since the 1990s, the theater moved to a post-modern building of early 70s. Up to date, Kharkiv Opera is named after Mykola Lysenko and boasts of staging the international classics from Carmen and Otello to Taras Bulba and Madama Butterfly.
Dnipro Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre
Last but not least, the youngest on the list is Dnipro Opera House, constructed in 1974. The history of it, however, dates back way to the 1931 and the first attempt of founding the stationary theater in Dnipro. The troupe, however, didn’t face long-lasting success — in 1941 the mass evacuation of Soviet artists forced the Dnipro troupe to join their Odessa colleagues in Krasnoyarsk, where they gave regular concerts. Luckily, in 2003 the theater was acknowledged and given a national status, taking pride in it till this day.
The repertoire of the Dnipro Opera House consists of Italian and French classics, and favorites of the locals — Eugene Onegin and Iolanta by Tchaikovsky, and a lively operetta Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss II.
The history of opera in Ukraine is known to be full of artistic struggles, yet in the end, it makes the local performances and classics of Ukrainian opera grander than they probably ever thought to be.
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