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Mariya Mykolaychuk talks about happiness, singing and love


Mariya Mykolaychuk, a Ukrainian singer and performer of songs in the traditional folk style, a member of the Trio Zoloti Klyuchi (Golden Keys), has been recently awarded the honorary title of People’s Artist of Ukraine. But probably it was her being the wife of the late Ivan Mykolaychuk, a Ukrainian actor and film director rather than her successful career of a singer that was her principal mission in this life. Mariya VLAD talked to Mariya Mykolaychuk, seeking answers to questions about destiny, life and artistic career.


Was singing one of the streaks that ran in your family?

Probably it was. I remember that my grandfather Kozma who was a bee-keeper, would put a wooden chair in the middle of the big room of our house and would ask me to climb on that chair and sing for him. It seemed to me he loved me more than any other of his grandchildren. He invented all kinds of pet names for me. My grandmother sang to me and taught me how to pray.

My mother always sang when she was cooking in the kitchen, so all the dishes must have been flavoured with Ukrainian folk songs. The food she cooked tasted so good. She was also good at embroidery, weaving and wickerwork, but it was her singing that went deep into my soul. She looked a typical Ukrainian from Bukovyna — black haired with black eyes. My mother was called Yevheniya, and my father was Yevhen.

He was a remarkable person, an intellectual who spoke perfect Ukrainian, or rather its Bukovyna dialect. Ethnographers from Kyiv visited him and recorded his speech as a sample of the perfect Bukovyna dialect. Much later, after I moved to Kyiv, I called my father on the phone whenever I came across a word I did not know in a Bukovyna song that I wanted to perform publicly. And he always gave me a full explanation… When during WWII, the Rumanian troops (Rumania was a Germany’s ally — tr.) occupied Bukovyna, they banned the use of Ukrainian in public. To spite them, my father set up an amateur theatre to stage plays by Ukrainian playwrights, and the Rumanian authorities had him arrested and imprisoned. He was nationally minded and his imprisonment made him even more nationally inclined… After the war, he occupied rather high-ranking posts and people would seek his help or advice… He was a handsome man whose hair went grey rather early and it made him even more handsome. Tall, well-built and blue-eyed, he must have been very attractive to women but he could not stand cheating in any form… He taught us, his four daughters, to respect people, not to show any superiority over others… One of my friends was the daughter of someone who had been put in a concentration camp by the soviet authorities as “an enemy of the people,” and others shunned even the children of these “enemies of the people.” When my father learnt of my friendship, he did not make any attempt to prevent my socializing with that girl though it could have put his own carer in jeopardy… He also asked me to sing for him, and taught me folk songs…

You must have had a happy childhood. Were you happy in later life? You were widowed when you were only forty-six, were you not? It’s a hard life being a widow.

Yes, I was happy. And I am happy. I was born under a lucky star, with a good voice. I fell in love with the best man possible, my Ivan. It was love at first sight, for life. Ivan married me and went on to become a great actor… He died much too soon — he never played many roles he dreamed to play, he did not have time to write screenplays he wanted to write… I regard him a genius in all respects — his love for me was that of a genius too… It seems to me our love will never die. Ivan is no more, and I will die some day too, but our love will go on living — it will live in blossoming gardens in Bukovyna, in the calls of the cuckoo birds, in the songs I used to sing… But Ivan is a separate story… Does what I’ve said answer your question about my being happy? I turned 64 last spring — and I can tell you I was and I am happy… I felt I was loved as a child — and I reciprocated… I always loved nature, forests in particular… Another recollection — I am small, I walk through our vegetable garden, go down to the stream, cross it and find myself in a forest. It was in that forest that I learnt to sing. I sang and the forest replied with echoes. When I realized the echoes were my own voice singing, I began listening to myself sing and I came to the conclusion that I could indeed sing rather well! I even determined for myself, which would be the best way for me to sing, in which voice. I’ve always had rather a low voice and I’ve always stuck to it. The voice must have been given to me by my native land, by the trees, by the past and by traditions. It is my dowry from Bukovyna.

You do like nature. Were you called Mariya (Mary) because you were born in April, almost on the Annunciation Day? Incidentally, do you like spring?

Before I answer your questions, may I tell you some more about the forest? Once, we — my beloved husband, our friends and me — went to a forest to have a picnic. At one moment, our friends began asking me, “Sing for us, please!” And Ivan said, before I began singing, “Go further into the woods and then sing.” I did and the forest arranged my singing in its own special way, adding new sounds with the branches of the trees and with the chirping of birds…

Ivan knew me so well, he knew the notes and reverberations of my soul… He helped me to reveal what was the best in me, and I helped him do the same… During the filming of Parajanov’s Shadows of the Forgotten Ancestors, in which Ivan played his first major role, I was always somewhere close by — we had just been married, and it was our honeymoon. In one episode, Ivan was to stand at the top of a cliff and call out to his sweetheart, “Marichko!” In Ukrainian, Marichka is a variation of Mariya, that is, my name. When they began filming this sequence, I stood at the foot of the cliff, and Ivan was sort of calling out to me — and there was so much gentleness, so much love in his voice. And I replied, “Ivan!” also putting as much of emotion into my voice as I could. And the forest carried our voices, brought them together and admired our emotions. The trees also have memories and I’m sure the trees in that forest by the cliff still remember our voices and our emotions… They will remember them as long as they live…

Now back to your questions. Yes, I was given the name of Mariya in honour of the Virgin Mary. Though I was born in spring, I love the autumn. Every year in the fall we would go to the Carpathians to bathe our souls in the golden splendour of the Bukovyna forests. The evergreens looked like gems among the autumnal colours. The mountain streams were like streaks of silver or platinum — and all these treasures were ours! The mountains gave us sights and sounds and smells to enjoy, filling us with emotions and thoughts. Ivan’s screenplays and my songs were born out of the inspiration given to us by the beauty of the forests and mountains… We loved the rain. At night, the rain lulled us into sleep, and in the day, the rain provided us with creative thoughts. It is so easy and nice to sing when it is raining. Rain provides you with all kinds of tunes, all of them conducive to being creative...

Once, when our love was young, Ivan who lived in the village of Chortoryya, asked me to come to visit him. For some reason he could not leave his place to come to see me. I was like an eager bird on her flight to a tryst with the loved one. But we were not married yet and I did not want his mother or any other relatives to see me — I was afraid it would be considered improper for a young girl to come to see her boyfriend like this. It was summertime, and instead of going to his house we spent the night standing in a garden under an apple tree. And it was raining, it rained all night long, but we were so much in love that we hardly noticed it. In the morning, I went to the nearest railroad station, hopped on the train and returned to Chernivtsi. Later, Ivan told me that when his mother saw him in the morning, she asked him who he had been with in the garden — she had not seen me but heard our whispers, Ivan explained that it was his girlfriend who had come to see him. “Then why didn’t invite her in? Why did you keep her in the rain?” “Did it rain?” asked Ivan, much surprised.

Your career of a singer can be regarded as a success — awards, titles, radio and television, solo performances and with the Trio Zoloti Klyuchi together with Nina Matviyenko and Valentyna Kovalska, remarkable singers in their own right. How did your singing career actually begin?

I was educated at the Theatre Studio of the Chernivtsi Music and Drama Theatre. In fact, it was as a student of this Studio that I met Ivan, a fellow student, one year my senior.

After I moved to Kyiv, I landed a job with the Veryovka Choir, probably the most prestigious choir at that time. I was a soloist with the choir for twelve years. At the audition it was Hryhory Veryovka himself, the choir’s famous director, who said that he liked my alto voice. In fact, before that I had had a successful audition in Moscow, at the Pyatnytsky Folk Choir, and I could have stayed there but something in my heart told me I should go back to Ukraine. At that time, we with Ivan were already engaged to be married. Our wedding reception was held on 29 August 1962 — in the corridor of the dormitory where we lived. It was a wild Bukovyna party… Ivan became a full-fledged movie actor, and I was on tour with concerts a lot of time. In 1967, while in Kyiv, I met a singer, Nina Matviyenko who also came to Kyiv on tour with her choir. Nina introduced me to another singer, Valentyna Kovalska. We became fast friends but it was much later that we began to sing together. And our singing in a trio began like this. Nina and Valentyna wanted to meet my husband Ivan who by that time had become a real Ukrainian film star. One day I invited my friends to come to our place. Several actors came to that party too. Ivan knew that my friends were singers and he asked us to sing, in a trio. And we did, choosing a well-known Ukrainian folk song. Valentyna and I sang in alto, and Nina sang in soprano, and our voices ideally blended. The guest and Ivan were in raptures. “Now, girls, you must sing together in a trio, professionally!” he exclaimed. And we’ve been doing it ever since, for thirty six years. So it was Ivan who sort of discovered us …

Did you play any roles in the films where Ivan starred?

I did. In the film Propala hramota (Missing Document) Ivan played a valiant Cossack, and Nina and I were to play Cossacks’ widows. Once, someone called me on the phone and asked, “Is it Mykolaychuk’s widow?” It was the film director and what he meant was whether I was the person who was supposed to play the widow of the Cossack in the film and I understood it perfectly well but my heart did miss a beat. I felt it was a bad omen… Ivan died when I was forty six years old…

Back to that film. Ivan would call out to us, “Girls, give us a song!” And we gave him and whoever else was there to listen our songs to the accompaniment of the nightingales, croaking of frogs in the River Pslom — the filming was done in the Land of Poltavshchyna. Once, when our singing was being recorded for the film, the sound engineer asked Ivan why he had not warned him that he would also join in. Ivan said that he had not joined in the singing… Incidentally, the song, “O, the Cossacks Have Not Been Free For Three Hundred Years” was not allowed to go into the film — the soviet authorities were afraid it might be interpreted as a hint… As it turned out it was not Ivan who joined us singing that song — it was the stray dog that we kept feeding once in a while. The dog had discovered our sausage sandwiches hidden in the shade in a cool place, had had his fill and then must have thought that his musical contribution after a filling meal to our singing would be duly appreciated. Ivan’s laughing was so contagious that the whole set began laughing. We nearly burst our sides…

In your repertory there are about 300 Ukrainian folk songs. Where did you learn them?

My first songs were taught to me by my grandfather and my father. Some songs I learnt later working in folk choirs. Quite a few songs I learned thanks to Volodymyr Ivasyuk, Ivan’s good friend, who also died young. Ivasyuk was a singer and composer, and loved Ukraine and things Ukrainian very much like Ivan. I copied out from Ivasyuk’s notebook 64 Bukovyna folk songs, which had been collected either by him or by someone else. I know that he had had many more of those songs collected but after his death they had been lost. Many songs have been collected by me, some of them in the native village of Ivan. These are very special to me. These songs are merry and sad, moody and cheerful very much like Bukovyna forests, and fields, and meadows and villages, like life itself…

The soviet authorities first frowned upon Ivan’s open pro-Ukrainian leanings and then made it virtually impossible for him to write new screenplays, to play new roles. For some reason he was not arrested or put into prison, but the inactivity was killing him… When he was already badly sick, he saw some of Federico Fellini’s films and was very much impressed. He said that a lot of Fellini’s cinematic ideas were very close to his heart. “How come he has had the opportunity to put his ideas into his films, and I am denied such an opportunity?” Ivan kept repeating. He wanted to write a book, to describe his own path in life, the path of his family and of his nation… But he did not have time to do that…


Photos are from Mariya MYKOLAYCHUK’S archive


Mariya Mykolaychuk in her teenage years. 1958.


Ivan and Mariya Mykolaychuk, shortly after the wedding among
their relatives. The village of Chortoryya, Bukovyna. 1962.


Yevheniya and Yevhen Karpyuk, Mariya Mykolaychuk’s parents.


Ivan and Mariya Mykolaychuk’s wedding
photograph. Chernivtsi. 1962.


During the filming of Annychka —
a break. The village of Verkhovyna, 1967.


During the filming of Son (Dream); Maydan. 1963.


Mariya Mykolaychuk, a soloist and MC
of the Veryovka Folk Choir. Chernivtsi, 1969.


After marking the 60th anniversary of Ivan Mykolaychuk’s birth
at Victor Yushchenko’s place; among the guests
are actors and Mykolaychuk’s relatives. Kyiv, 2001.
Photo by O. HOROBETS


Close friends and relatives celebrating one
of Mariya Mykolaychuk’s birthdays. From left to right:
Oleksandr Horobets, Roman Balayan, Mariya Mykolaychuk,
Ivan and Myroslava Havrylyuk. 2004.


The Trio Zoloti Klyuchi; left to right: Valentyna Kovalska,
Mariya Mykolaychuk and Nina Matviyenko; on the far right —
Petro Honchar, Matviyenko’s husband. 1989.


Kateryna Kinakh and Mariya Mykolaychuk,
soloists of the Veryovka Folk Choir. 1967.


Mariya Mykolaychuk, tenth-grade student.
Chernivtsi, 1958.


In Lviv with actors from the Olha Kobylyanska Theatre. 1960.


Ivan Mykolaychuk as Taras Shevchenko
in the film Son (Dream). 1963.


At home, about to leave for a concert. 2000.


Visiting with sister Halya. The village of Velyky Kucheriv,
Bukovyna; from left to right: Mariya Mykolaychuk,
Oleksandr Horobets, Halya, and Ivan Horobets. 2003.


Near the Niagara Falls, on the Canadian side. 1990.


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