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Opera Singer Mariya Stefyuk
Mariya Stefyuk is indeed a great opera singer — but she is also an accomplished performer of Ukrainian traditional and folk songs and romances, who is very much loved and appreciated by Ukrainian and foreign audiences. Mariya VLAD, a writer and freelance journalist, who interviewed Ms Stefyuk, tells the story of her life and achievements.
I had a chance of visiting the beautiful and very large village of Rozhniv, which is situated at the foothills of the Carpathians, on several occasions. The Rozhniv villagers have been known as hard-working and successful farmers, also as excellent singers, for ages. Incidentally, I, a native of a Hutsul village in the Carpathians, saw my first opera in Rozhniv — it was one of the best known Ukrainian operas Hulak-Artemovsky’s Zaporozhets za Dunayem (A Cossack from Zaporizhzhya beyond the Danube). The central role — and a very difficult part to perform — of Odarka was sung by a Rozhniv villager, Mariya Stefyuk, a mother of two children, Mariya and Hannusya. I was impressed by her voice very much, and, being a young and aspiring journalist, I interviewed this village opera diva. Her husband Yury, an industrious farmer, was an excellent singer too. Mariya had a high-pitched soprano, and Yury’s dramatic tenor made the window panes shake when he sang in the house.
Their daughters were exposed to this constant singing at home from the day they were born. However, Hannusya became an elementary school teacher rather than a singer — she showed interest in teaching at the time when she herself was still a secondary school student.
When Mariya turned ten, she expected to be chosen by the Rozhniv young men as the best looking girl in the village by being invited, according to the local tradition, for a dance at the Christmas party. What a disappointment it was, when instead of her, it was her mother who kept being invited for a dance!
Even though she failed to be recognized as the best looking girl in her village, nobody could deny the younger Mariya did have a talent for singing. Her mother took her to a music and art school in the town of Snyatyn.
“I was taught to play the accordion — it was of too big a size for me, and on top of that it was of an obnoxious hue of the green color. I was forced to play the vile thing from morning till night, and I came to absolutely hate it. Ever since I finished studying at the music school, I’ve never played any accordion again.”
Upon graduation from the music school, Mariya moved to Kyiv where, soon after her arrival, “a person I did not know but who had evidently heard me sing, quite literally took me by the hand and brought me to the Kyiv music conservatory. This person proved to be a professor at the conservatory and thanks to him I became a conservatory student, a vocal major.”
However, in spite of her immediate, fairy-tale-like success in the capital — to become a student of the conservatory being a graduate of a provincial music school was nothing short of a miracle! — Mariya did not feel happy living in Kyiv. Even the fact that her teacher, with an Italian-training background, was one of the best on the conservatory faculty did not make Mariya any happier. Mariya wanted to go back to her native village, she was missing her mother and the village life.
And she ran away — back home, when she felt nostalgia had become unbearable.
“Well, my mother was indignant that I’d left the conservatory and insisted I go back. I pleaded with her, saying I did not like living in Kyiv, I didn’t know Russian (Russian was the language spoken in big cities of Ukraine, Kyiv in particular; it was only after Ukraine’s independence that Ukrainian began to be spoken by a growing number of people in the capital — tr.), my Ukrainian outfit was ridiculed by fellow students! Please, my dear mummy, please, don’t make me go back! I wept but…”
But the next morning her mother, ignoring Mariya’s pleading and dismissing Mariya’s Godmother’s advice to let the girl be (Mariya’s Godmother supported the girl’s wish to live in the village), took Mariya to the bus terminal, gave her some money and put her on the bus bound for Kyiv. She did not even say goodbye or anything encouraging — she was afraid she would burst out crying too. She admitted it to Mariya several years later.
Mariya returned to Kyiv and had to adjust to the uneasy conditions of life in the capital. Her teacher at the conservatory helped her a lot. She even invited Mariya to stay at her home for some time; she taught the somewhat uncouth village girl “city and table manners”, she showed her how to “receive guests” and other social skills.
“The teacher’s family seemed to me very aristocratic — manners, appearance, everything. Once I asked what “steak” was — and I was not only explained what kind of food it was, but even taught how to cook it! When I visited her, I was treated like a guest of honor.”
Singing lessons were not something that Mariya liked — all those exercises for training the voice, countless repetitions of one and the same thing until perfection was reached — it was not much different from learning to play “the green accordion.”
But “when I was into my second year of studies something happened and I became addicted to singing — I am still an addict, I can’t live without singing.”
Mariya never performed any pop songs — only opera arias, and traditional Ukrainian folk songs. She discovered an amazing thing — her singing Ukrainian songs, arranged for stage singing by such Ukrainian composers as Lyatoshynsky, Skoryk or Revutsky, enriched her opera singing. And the other way round — her opera singing gave her folk singing a new depth. It was mutually enriching process, widening the scope and power of her singing.
At the age of twenty, Mariya began to sing old Ukrainian songs at a restaurant in Kyiv, Natalka Poltavka, which was decorated in the traditional Ukrainian style with embroidered rushnyky. A number of Ukrainian “dissidents” (that is those who were critical of the soviet regime and of its suppression of “Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism”) such as Vyacheslav Chornovil, Ala Horska, Nadiya Svitlychna and others were among the patrons of the restaurant. Mariya sang old Cossack songs, nationalist ballads, “insurrectionary” songs and other songs that couldn’t help being very much frowned upon by the soviet authorities. The way she sang those songs — straight from the heart, from the depth of her soul, the very fact that she sang them, made her popular among the Ukrainian intellectuals who gave her banned “nationalist literature” to read. At last, she felt she was at home — but she was very close to getting herself into trouble.
The “unsleeping” eye of the KGB was watching but for some, not a very clear reason — negligence? — she was not arrested though she was discovered reading an illegally published book, Internatsionalism chy rusifikatsiya (Internationalism or Russification?) by Ivan Dzyuba who had been arrested for writing this book.
“I knew I was walking on thin ice, but they let me finish my studies at the conservatory. All the time I felt I could be arrested and tried for ‘Ukrainian nationalism’ any moment — but I was not.”
Kostyantyn Fesenko, a well-known concertmaster at that time, offered Mariya to prepare a program for an international singing contest and Mariya took up the offer. Fesenko encouraged and promoted her and, when she was ready, Mariya went to Moscow to be given a final “go” signal. Her singing and her program for the contest to be held in Toulouse, France, were endorsed and supported at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. She was recognized as a very promising young hopeful who would surely get Grand Prix — but she did not. She was not even allowed to go to France though she had the visa. In fact, she was stopped right before she was to board the plane. France was only the first on a long list of foreign countries she was not allowed to go to perform or take part in contests.
Mariya knew it was the retaliation on the part of the KGB for her singing “nationalist songs” and for “socializing with the likes of the Ukrainian dissident Chornovil.”
“I was in despair. And then someone suggested I call the central KGB office in Kyiv and ask straightforwardly why I was not allowed to go abroad. I did, and imagine – I was invited to come to the KGB office straight away. On the way there I felt my heart was in my mouth as I walked on along Volodymyrska Street to that grey building that struck fear and loathing into many hearts…”
Mariya was reprimanded for her “reprehensible socializing” with “the wrong sort of people” and for her “unpatriotic singing” of the wrong sort of songs. Then she was asked why she wanted to go abroad so much — «To defect to the west?»
But then one day a breakthrough came — she was allowed to go to Canada with a delegation from the Kyiv Opera House where at that time she worked, though there was the sister of Mariya’s grandmother who lived in Canada. The KGB watched her every step on that trip lest she try to stay with her relative for good.
Her next trip abroad was to the La Scala Theater in Milan where she sang arias from Musorgsky’s opera Sorochynska yarmarka (The Fair in the Village of Sorochyntsi). Mariya was the second Ukrainian singer to sing in La Scala — after Solomiya Krushelnytska (1872-1952, a lyrical-dramatic soprano) who had performed in La Scala in the 1920s and 1930s.
“Later I learned that I had begun to be allowed to go abroad in the 1980s thanks to the wife of a very high-ranking KGB official who liked my singing — she pressed her husband into lifting the ban on my trips abroad! Imagine that?”
But even though she did travel abroad on several occasions, the KGB did stop her from going to La Scala in Milan to sing in Puccini’s La Boheme. When she did not arrive in Milan on the appointed day, the theater sent a telegram to Moscow asking for an explanation of her failure to arrive. La Scala was told Mariya Stefyuk was badly ill and could not travel though she was in perfect health.
Nowadays, Mariya Stefyuk does not face any problems in traveling where she wants and as often as she wants. She has performed in the USA, Canada, Britain, Australia, France, Japan, Argentina, Germany, Switzerland and many other countries. Her most notable operatic roles include Marfa in Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Tsar’s Bride, Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata, Rosina in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, Lucia in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Manon in Massenet’s Manon.
She has received many awards and honorary titles and has gained a wide recognition. Recently she has been awarded “the Order of State, conferring the Hero of Ukraine title.”
“The role I love best is Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata. I appreciate the idea of sacrificing everything for the sake of love. As far as Ukrainian songs are concerned, I love them all.”
Photos are from Mariya Stefyuk’s archives
Mariya Stefyuk before a performance.1992.
Mariya Stefyuk on the stage of La Scala, Milan,
performing the part of Parasya in Modest
Musorgsky’s opera Sorochinskaya Yarmarka.
Mariya Stefyuk as Lucia in G. Donizetti’s Lucia di
Mariya Stefyuk as Manon in Massenet’s Manon,
Mariya Stefyuk as Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata.
Mariya Stefyuk in concert with the Kyiv National
Academic Kapela Bandurystiv Ensemble of
Bandura-players). Kyiv, 2003.
Dmytro Hnatyuk, a great Ukrainian opera singer,
and Mariya Stefyuk who just started out on her
career of an opera singer at the Kyiv Opera House,
singing in duet. 1979.
Nazariy Yaremchuk, Sofiya Rotaru and Mariya
Stefyuk (left to right) at a gala concert in the
Palats Ukrayina Concert Hall. 1980s.
Mariya Stefyuk as Marfa in M. Rimsky-Korsakov’s
opera The Tsar’s Bride. 1998.
Anatoliy Solovyanenko, a well-known Ukrainian
opera singer, and Mariya Stefyuk during their
concert tour of Canada.
Nina Matviyenko, a popular singer of Ukrainian songs,
and Mariya Stefyuk on the stage of the Opera and
Ballet Theater in Kyiv during M. Stefyuk’s benefit
A still from the film Zaporozhets za Dunayem
(Zaporizhzhya Cossack Beyond the Danube); Mariya
Stefyuk as Odarka and Bohdan Benyuk as Karas.