a musical about the destruction of the Ukrainian dam premiered in Kyiv

With a casual glance at the elegant Kyivians queuing outside the lemon-yellow neoclassical theater perched above Freedom Square, onlookers would have had little clue that a war was underway.

But the musical that premiered at the International Center for Culture and Arts last week is intertwined with the deadly events of Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine.

Gaia-24 was the catalyst for last year’s destruction of the Kakhovka dam on the Dnipro River, and the resulting human and environmental disaster as waters from the 832-square-mile reservoir flooded vast areas downstream.

The two-hour work is a musical collage of country songs and cabaret tunes; classical works such as Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and Schubert’s Winterreise; pieces of techno and death metal; and even a snatch of Dua Lipa.

A versatile cast of dancers, actors, musicians and singers performed much of the work – using violins, cellos and basses not only as musical instruments, but as elements in a complex choreography.

Gaia-24 is the latest opera by Roman Grygoriv and Illia Razumeiko. They also created Chornobyldorf, a work that recently completed a European and New York tour. Along the way, it won the Royal Philharmonic Society’s award for best opera production in 2023.

Chornobyldorf, written before the full-scale Russian invasion, “was a story about an imaginary post-apocalypse”, said Razumeiko, speaking at the company’s Headquarters at the Union of Composers of Ukraine in downtown Kyiv the day after the premiere of Gaia-24 . “And then, with the invasion, this imaginary post-apocalypse came true.”

As Russian troops plowed through the Chornobyl exclusion zone towards Kyiv, and occupied the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Chornobyldorf, which called for a dystopian future where people try to piece together the fragments of a damaged cultural memory after a nuclear disaster, began to terrible. aforementioned.

When the invasion began, Razumeiko, Grigoriv and their colleagues dispersed to western Ukraine and other parts of Europe, returning to Kyiv after the Russian withdrawal from the city in April 2022. At that point, “ we didn’t plan to make a big opera. We didn’t have the resources, nor the inspiration, to do that”, said Razumeiko.

But then, on June 6 last year, the Kakhovka dam blew up, “and our immediate reaction was that we have to do something”, said Razumeiko. “I already visited these places a week after the explosion,” he said; His parents’ village, Bilenke, is on the banks of the Khakovka reservoir. The two men, who have collaborated for ten years making operas and musical theatre, spent time there composing, and video sequences for Chornobyldorf were filmed in the region.

“It’s a complicated story because the Kakovkha dam explosion was an ecocide. But Stalin’s construction was like that – it was bad for the river, for the area, for the historical sites that were under water,” said Razumeiko. Construction of the dam began in 1950 and was completed in 1956, providing water for the Kavovkha hydroelectric plant.

“It was a kind of violence against nature, as in Kornobyl, and the shrinking of the Aral Sea. All these events are products of Russian colonization, in various forms.”

Gaia-24 includes video projections of a piano gradually submerging in river waters; and aerial drone shots of performers lying in the dried mud of the reservoir bottom – filmed around the island of Khortytsia in the Dnipro, opposite the city of Zaporizhzhia.

But the musical is far from a literal representation of the cataclysmic events of last summer. The first act is a wild tapestry of folk music and dance, drawing elements from Roma, Yiddish, Bulgarian, Crimean Tatar and other traditions, as well as cabaret songs. At one point, The Hurdy-Gurdy Man from Winterreise, the famous Ukrainian song Shchedryk by Mykola Leontovych, and a phrase by the minimalist composer Steve Reich, are nicely woven together.

The second act, the opera proper, begins with the performers lying still and exposed on the stage with their instruments. The sound begins almost imperceptibly as the cast draws their bow across their own skin, rather than the strings. Switching to their instruments, they begin to create a loud, unsung harmonic soundscape. A violinist, still seated again, begins to play Bach’s Partita in D minor. Gradually the action moves forward and the performers begin a traditional Ukrainian circle dance, the ark, but as Grigoriv described it as a kind of “abstract techno”, a low-frequency, persuasive crushing beat.

The music and choreography for the piece were created at the same time. All performers, whether trained musicians or not, use musical instruments. “If you take a cello or violin and give it to a dancer who has no experience or training in this instrument, he or she can play beautifully and find another way to produce a very beautiful sound,” a Razumeiko said.

Untrained musicians can “work with the instruments as objects of sound, as objects of choreography, as an extension of the body”, he said.

The third part of the opera is a rare, maddened, joyous mix of references to punk, rock, rap and K-pop, before the mood changes again to bring the work to a close, close.

Gaia-24 opens Rotterdam’s O. opera and opera festival this week – albeit without two crew members, men of fighting age who were not allowed to leave the country in time for the performance, following Ukraine’s new mobilization laws. . He will also tour the Musiktheaterage Vienna in September and, possibly later, other European venues.

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