David Sanderson

March 03 2023

The Times


As soon as the 45-strong Royal Opera chorus accompanied by more than 100 Ukrainian singers began the hymn, Olga Dudnik began to cry.  After all the stresses of the past 12 months which had forced her from Kyiv to London, she was feeling “the spirit of Ukraine, the spirit of England”. An unprecedented cultural collaboration will this month bring hundreds of amateur Ukraine singers living in Britain onto one of the grandest stages in Europe for a joint performance with the Royal Opera Chorus. “This is very important to us,” Dudnik, 58, said of the free concert to be held at Covent Garden on March 16. “After the stress that I went through, I felt my emotions freeze. Songs for Ukraine has unfrozen me.”

The Songs for Ukraine project has involved a series of choral workshops where Royal Opera and the amateur army of singers learn from each other’s repertoire.

Earlier today at St Paul’s Church in Covent Garden, central London, the amateur army joined the Royal Opera chorus in the first joint rehearsals for the performance which will include traditional Ukrainian songs with western liturgical hymns.

Jillian Barker, director of learning and participation at the Royal Opera House, said that they had initially appealed for 40 amateur singers for the project.

More than 350 applied, although given that many men are fighting in their homeland, there were more sopranos than tenors and basses within the final 130. “Musically it is highly unusual to have such a high volume of female singers,” Barker said. “But the whole experience has been immensely uplifting. There is going to be a blend of operatic repertoire that amateurs can sing while we are learning their repertoire. It is about expressing our solidarity but it has also given them a place to sing and an opportunity to meet others.”

Over the past year Britain’s cultural organisations have launched numerous initiatives to raise awareness of the conflict and also to offer support to artists affected.

Compositions from Ukrainian composers such as Valentin Silvestrov and Myroslav Skoryk have been played by orchestras around the country while institutions including Tate Britain and Royal Opera have, for example, lit their buildings in the colours of the Ukrainian national flag and played the country’s national anthem at performances.

Britain is also gearing up to host this year’s Eurovision competition, having stepped in to take the place of Ukraine, whose Kalush Orchestra were the last winners of the contest.

Olha Petruk, a 29-year-old media professional who fled Kyiv last year after the outbreak of war and who has worked as an interpreter for the Kalush Orchestra said that she could not have “dreamt” of such a project. “It has united Ukrainians living here and I think it has united nations,” she said as the rehearsals were led by William Spaulding, the Royal Opera chorus master. “This is therapy for all of us affected by the war,” she added.

In a break from rehearsals at St Paul’s Church, founded in 1631 and known as the actors’ church with memorial stones to some of Britain’s greatest entertainers, Spaulding said that he had been impressed by the high calibre of the amateur Ukrainian singers. They will now have the very rare opportunity of being invited to sing on the Covent Garden stage. “That is an honour for every one of us every time,” Spaulding said. “We try not to lose that sense of awe and wonder.”

Spaulding said it had been “extremely moving” when the professionals and amateurs began for the first time to sing the slower, liturgical pieces together. “It is incredibly authentic,” he said of the rehearsals. “We hear their music, their culture and we know about their loss. The heroic fortitude of those plagued by the scourge of war inspires us all. With this project we hope to fulfil one of the great promises of art: to create meaning in the face of hardship.”

Dudnik, who is a pianist and sang in amateur choirs before being forced to leave Ukraine, said every rehearsal was a “fest of music and creativity”.

There are lots of beautiful Ukrainian songs,” she added. “And this is a great opportunity to contribute to the Ukrainian victory and the strengthening of the Ukrainian spirit.”

Petruk said that the concert this month would not be the last celebration of Ukrainian cultural heritage in Britain this year. “There is still Eurovision,” she said of the forthcoming extravaganza in Liverpool which the government has promised will be a celebration of Ukrainian heritage and artists. “I can’t wait to feel that atmosphere as well.”