A Leading Soprano Says: No Place Like Home
99.jpg (182166 bytes)One cannot help noticing her face, even in a crowd, and a Kyiv crowd at that, with Kyiv being reputedly a place that has the greatest concentration of beautiful women in the world. But it is not only the face of this woman that holds one spellbound. Her figure and hair are superb, too. And on top of her gorgeous looks she sings divinely. Her wonderful soprano voice seems to be so natural in her, an ideal match for her appearance. Iryna Semenenko is one of those exciting individuals whom Nature or Divine Providence endows so lavishly with all possible kinds of gifts.
Iryna Semenenko is a soloist of the National Opera of Ukraine. Frankly, among the opera prima donnas you do not find too many of her kind, combining stunning appearance and great voice.
Ms Semenenko is quite a young woman but has achieved quite a lot for her age, she has had leading singing parts in many operas: Lysenko's Natalka Poltavka (Natalka); Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin (Tetyana); Puccini's La Boheme (Mimi) and Cio-Cio-San (Cio-Cio-San); Verdi's Rigoletto (Gilda), Traviata (Violetta), and Aida (Priestess). Ms Semenenko has been on tours to quite a few countries: France, Costa Rica, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, the USA. And wherever she went she met with success.
It was arranged that I would meet Ms Semenenko in the office of Halyna Yakymchuk, the singer's producer and a good friend.
“Halyna is my guardian angel,” Ms Semenenko confessed a little later. “We are like sisters now,” said Ms Yakymchuk half jokingly, half in earnest.
Talking to Ms Semenenko I found myself charmed by her personality. The harmonic combination of entrancing femininity, sharp mind and artistic gifts, is irresistible.
What follows next is part of my conversation with Iryna Semenenko.  
“Ms Semenenko, do you have a hobby?”
“Yes, and it's music, music and nothing but music. I seem to be living in music twenty four hours a day, you know. Once in a while, when I'm in a proper mood, or when I want to relax, set my mind at rest, I pick up my knitting.”
“Set your mind at rest? Do you mean to say that your work sometimes makes you uptight?”
“You see, when I'm on the stage during the performance, or during rehearsals things can get pretty tight. Besides, when I'm getting into my new role, I can't think of anything else. Sometimes, I have even trouble falling asleep at night. I have to be moving all the time, I walk around the apartment, I'm thinking of how to arrange the mis-en-scenes in the best way, I try to visualize the scenes and acts, to see with my mind's eye how all the parts of the opera we are working at, fit together, where I'll be standing on the stage at a particular moment, how and where I'll move, how I'll look at the partner. So, you see all of this is rather complicated and involved. And after the performance I feel anxious because I get a feeling that not everything has gone smoothly enough, that I've done something wrong or has not done it the way I wanted to do it.”
“I've been received well everywhere. In fact, touring artists usually enjoy a success. When I give concerts abroad, they are attended by many of our former compatriots. Many of them come to see in me in my dressing-room even before the performance and thank me and other singers for having come on tour. They thank us even without having seen the performance first! And sometimes I see tears in their eyes, tears of happiness, they are so happy to see people from their native land, to talk their native language. I get a great emotional uplift from such visits and when I come out on the stage, I feel their positive, warm energy engulfing me. 

It's always very moving. And then, after the performance, it's so great to see the eyes of the people in the audience. The eyes shine, they radiate gratitude, I know the people in the audience have become kinder.”
“Has it ever happened that after the performance you made friends with some people from the audience?”
“Of course it has happened! Once, in France, for example, right after the performance a couple came to my dressing-room and invited me to their home. Now we keep in touch through correspondence. These people, incidentally, are not musicians, just great music lovers.”
“Ms Semenenko, you've been on tour in many countries, you've seen a lot of places. Which place did you like best? And where did you get the best reception?
“Do you choose the roles you are going to sing in operas yourself?”
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“Every singer, of course, wants to have such a choice but unfortunately it does not always happen that way.”“What's your most favourite part and in which opera?”
“Cio-Cio-San. Funny as it may seem, but at first I had very big doubts as to whether I could sing this part. I was intimidated by a very difficult dramatic composition of this opera. But our conductor, the late Oleh Ryabov — he's been so far the best conductor in my singing career — persuaded me that I was able to cope with this part.
I accepted his arguments and I find it to be one of most successful roles, probably because Cio-Cio-San's character and nature are very close to mine.”
“I wonder whether your neighbours complain when you rehearse your parts at home?”
This question was answered by Ms Yakymchuk who laughed and exclaimed: “They just enjoy it!”
“In fact, the neighbours sometimes ask, said Ms Semenenko, when they see me: how come you sang so little today? Among my neighbours there are no musicians, workers and engineers mostly, and they evidently like the opera. After a film about me was shown on TV, complete strangers in the street started wishing me success.”
I believe the neighbours asking why she sang so little at home, is a good evidence of a success an opera singer enjoys “among the masses” (to use a journalistic cliche). And of the love for classical music in general.
But frankly, today opera in Ukraine is going through very hard times. The same can be said though about good literature, poetry or art in general.

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Both Ms Semenenko and Ms Yakymchuk spoke with a considerable measure of bitterness about the multitude of pop singers, many of whom had no talent or voice at all, being known to a great many people, and the opera singers known to a very few classical music fans and friends. Our new moneyed classes do not seem to be in a hurry to become patrons of art either, they said.“It turns out that it is easier to find a sponsor for a Kyiv Opera singer in the west than in Ukraine though we do have our millionaires now,” deplored Ms Yakymchuk. She, together with Ms Semenenko, is trying hard to find new ways of promoting the art of opera: they make videos, they are planning to organize large-scale operatic shows. They are eager to try themselves in making operatic cartoons, an art form being successfully practised in the west. I have no doubt they'll manage to realize all their plans. They are not just patiently waiting for changes to come, they are geared to bringing these changes about. They are working hard and they will surmount whatever obstacles may rise on their way.
“People have grown tired of hearing pop music, I'm sure they want a respite from it, they want to hear real operatic voices,” said Ms Yakymchuk. I felt I agreed with her.
Shortly before I left, I asked my parting question:
“Ms Semenenko, are you happy with your choice of occupation and career?”

“Absolutely. As long as I remember myself, it's been my dream to sing in opera. I can't imagine I might be doing anything else. I'm willing to sing without being paid for it, if there is no other way. Incidentally, it does happen when I sing in the Philharmonic Society Hall. I just have to sing. I can't live without it.
I love to sing on the stage of the Kyiv Opera House, above all else. Of course, I feel an urge to travel, to see the world, but I also terribly want to sing for our Ukrainian audiences. My home is in Kyiv, my friends are here, my colleagues. When I am on this stage, I forget about all the bad things in the life of an opera singer. Some of my former “comrades-in-singing” who now live abroad, once in a while call me on the phone and tell me that they are just dying to sing on their “native” stage, or at least to touch it, even kiss it! No place like home, they say, and yes, you may believe it.”

No place like home. I wish we all of us, in Ukraine would understand it sometime very soon.
In the meanwhile, if you have a chance of listening to Iryna Semenenko, don't miss it. Satisfaction guaranteed. She's a great soprano.

By Andriy Nedilsky
Photos: by Olexandr Stepanov;
from the singer’s personal archive

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