In all my years of attending theater performances and dance shows, improv nights and Broadway musicals, I have never, ever attended an opera. From the very first day we arrived in Kyiv and discovered this city has a national opera theater, we vowed to attend.
Might I say, it is incredibly spectacular to be living in a city that takes such great pride in its artistic culture.
Coming from Las Vegas, which was awash in grandiose stage shows, I feel like I shouldn’t be so impressed with this aspect of Kyiv, yet it hits me in the heart because it feels so genuine and important.
Theater, ballet and operatic performances are an integral part of Kyiv’s cultural fabric. These artistic pursuits have played an important role in helping the city create an international identity for centuries, and the traditional roots they’ve planted continue to flourish today. Kyiv’s opera group, for example, dates back to 1867 and is the third oldest in Ukraine. The group’s initial opening night was so significant, in fact, that the day of the very first performance, November 8, 1867, was declared a city holiday.
This dedication to performance arts goes above and beyond what might be expected in a country that is, in many ways, still trying to find its footing. Being a part of a community that values this means a lot to me.
When we first arrived in Kyiv, Cory and I walked around the National Opera House, which is located in the heart of downtown. It’s a lovely building: First constructed in 1856, it was reconstructed and reopened in 1901 after being destroyed by a fire. Now more than 110 years old, the exterior is designed in a Neo-Renaissance style (thank you, Wikipedia) with large archways over the doors and balconies. A cascading staircase leads up to the front of the building, setting it on a pedestal of sorts, though there is lots of breathing room around the building and it does not feel over-imposing.
From our first day in the city, we talked about buying tickets something – possibly a ballet or two. We scrapped the idea of attending anything that was strictly a theater performance because of the language barrier, but figured we could follow the story of a musical or opera, and definitely a ballet.
And, the truth is, we truly have nothing to lose. Tickets for the opera are exceptionally inexpensive, ranging from about US$12 for front row seats to just a couple dollars for a seat in the balcony of the opera house.
In the United States, attending a stage performance is inaccessible to many people. Only those with dispensable income can afford to “splurge” on something “extra” like the arts, which means that many Americans never see a stage performance. Never mind the fact that studies have found, time and time again, that exposure to fine and performance arts is important on the societal and individual levels.
In Kyiv, ticket prices are reasonable, and the people who live here definitely take advantage.
Walking up to the Opera House with second-row tickets in hand for the opening night show, Zaporozhian Beyond The Danube, we were surrounded by dozens of other people flooding it to find their seats: Couples, individuals, friends – there was even a mother with her young son sitting in the very front row. He was perhaps four years old, dressed up in a cute little olive green suit.
Yes, a mother and her young son watched the opera from the front row. He did not fuss at all, and both seemed to enjoy themselves. Dear America: Please take note.
As for the theater itself: It was beautiful, but not unfamiliar to me.
I’ve heard several times that, before the Smith Center in Las Vegas was built, the designers traveled around the world to experience other famous opera houses. There is no doubt in my mind they visited Kyiv’s National Opera House. Kyiv’s theater is very similar to the Smith Center’s main theater – not as deep but with a similar layout of floor seats and tiered balconies. The ceiling was a work of art in and of itself, and we were close enough to be able to watch the orchestra as well as the performance.
Zaporozhian Beyond The Danube is a Ukrainian opera rich with traditional costumes and dance. We were able to read the synopsis in advance, which helped provide context, but it was a fairly simple story. And, it was humorous as well, judging from the audience’s occasional laughter.
The cast was massive – perhaps 50 people or more, most of whom were dressed in variations of the traditional embroidered Ukrainian clothing called vyshyvanka and wore flowers in their hair. I most enjoyed the parts of the show when people were dancing. In particular, I loved the guys who smacked their red leather boots as they spun and did huge split jumps across the stage.
The size of the cast was huge, but the stage and set were even bigger. The backdrop for Zaporozhian Beyond The Danube was elaborately decorated and imposing. And yet it had been loaded in for a single show.
Yes, you read that right.
After dropping the curtain on this performance, another show was moved in, and then another and another. Night after night, different performances take place at the opera house. Over the course of a week, there are six or seven different operas, theater performances or ballets at Kyiv’s National Opera House (if there are six, it’s because there is nothing showing the seventh night).
I’m told that some shows might make an appearance again later in the season, but can you imagine the work that goes into a show just for a single performance? The number of people who work around-the-clock to ensure a new show is ready to go each and every day is absolutely mind-boggling to me. There is no second chance at putting on the perfect performance; this is a one-shot deal.
As the curtain dropped on opening night, I was treated to one final, interesting cultural detail about attending a live show here: the encore.
After the show was finished, the chorus performers stood toward the back of the stage as each and every one of the main performers very slowly walked onto the stage and bowed. There was no pomp and circumstance, the process was not fast and no two people came out together (even though there were some obvious couples). Everyone in the audience stood and repetitively applauded – clap, clap, clap, clap – at a pace that felt like a funeral march. Given the upbeat nature of the show, it was a slow, morose and prolonged way to end the evening. Again, I’m told this is common, regardless of the performance.
Despite that bit of a downer to end our evening at the opening night of the opera, we had a stellar time. Not only was it a lot of fun, but it was an awesome insight into a very relevant part of our city’s culture. It made me appreciate and realize how accessible the arts are here, and I fully intend to take advantage of that while we call Kyiv home.