ODESA, Ukraine — In a nation at war, and a city aching for some semblance of normality, the Odesa Opera reopened for the first time since the Russian invasion began, asserting civilization against the barbarism unleashed from Moscow.
The performance on Friday in the magnificent Opera Theater, opened in 1810 on the plateau above the now shuttered Black Sea port, began with an impassioned rendering of the Ukrainian national anthem. Images of wheat swaying in the wind formed the backdrop, a reminder of the grain from its fertile hinterland that long made Odesa rich but now sits in silos as war rages and global food shortages grow.
“In case of sirens, proceed to the shelter within the theater,” said Ilona Trach, the theater official who presented the program. “You are the soul of this opera house, and we think it’s very important to demonstrate after 115 days of silence that we are able to perform.”
Odesa has been generally quiet in the past few weeks, but just 70 miles to the east — in the port city of Mykolaiv, where President Volodymyr Zelensky paid a visit Saturday — Russian shelling forms a daily onslaught. That Russian President Vladimir V. Putin covets Odesa — as a port critical to Ukraine’s economy, as a city long part of the Russian and then Soviet empires and as a cultural symbol — is no secret.
Sandbags have been stationed around the exterior of Odesa’s Opera Theater, which first opened in 1810.
If the cobble-stoned, tree-lined boulevards of the city suggest calm, it is a fragile quiet that could be broken at any time. But then Odesa — its history a procession of triumph and trauma as borders shifted, the Holocaust enveloped it and cycles of boom and bust followed one another — has always lived for the moment.
The theater — a rococo palace of gold braid, red Lyonnais velvet, chandeliers and mirrors — was about a third full as a result of security restrictions. Viacheslav Chernukho-Volich, the Opera’s chief conductor, led a performance that included a duet from “Romeo and Juliet,” and arias from “Tosca,” “Turandot” and from the Odesa-born composer Kostiantyn Dankevych.
The music seemed a defiant miracle of culture and beauty, the ultimate rebuke to the Russian savagery at Bucha and Mariupol, places that have become synonyms of the gratuitous destruction unleashed by Mr. Putin in a war reflecting his obsession that Ukraine is a fictive nation.
“We got permission to perform from the military 10 days ago, and today is pure happiness,” said Mr. Chernukho-Volich. “At the start of the war the explosions and sirens terrified me, as if I had plunged into some unreality, a World War II movie, but humans get used to everything. It is difficult, yet we want to believe in the victory of civilization.”
Mr. Chernukho-Volich worked in Moscow for several years, but in 2014, when Mr. Putin annexed Crimea and instigated a separatist war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, he said he had an epiphany: the imperial idea was inseparable from Russia, and any politician, like Mr. Putin, prepared to unleash its elixir would at once thrive at home and threaten the world. He left.
Better Understand the Russia-Ukraine War
- History and Background: Here’s what to know about Russia and Ukraine’s relationship and the causes of the conflict.
- How the Battle Is Unfolding: Russian and Ukrainian forces are using a bevy of weapons as a deadly war of attrition grinds on in eastern Ukraine.
- Outside Pressures: Governments, sports organizations and businesses are taking steps to punish Russia. Here are some of the sanctions adopted so far and a list of companies that have pulled out of the country.
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Now he performs in an opera house first designed by a St. Petersburg architect and rebuilt after a fire by Viennese architects, with its facade adorned with a bust of Alexander Pushkin. And he lives in a city founded by a Russian empress and substantially laid out by a French duke, home over the years to traders of every faith and creed, drawn from the Mediterranean and from across the steppes of Central Asia.
All this Mr. Putin wants to place under the increasingly brutal clampdown of his rule, in the name of a Russian imperium. He wants to silence the polyglot murmuring of Odesa, a city defined by its openness, whose music is its mingling.
“Odesa is its own nationality,” said Grigory Barats, a member of the Odesa Jewish community largely dispersed by the Russian invasion. Attending the concert, he said he was thinking of his 96-year-old mother in Brooklyn who once worked at the theater.
The applause at the end of the performance was sustained, punctuated by cries of “Bravo!” Backstage, Marina Najmytenko, a soprano who played Juliet, brimmed with pride and emotion. “It is art that is going to help us survive and to preserve our essence so that we win this war,” she said.
When, I asked, would that be? “Unfortunately,” she said, “it will go on for some time. It makes us depressed just how crazy Putin seems to be.” But, she continued, Juliet gave her a particular inspiration. “It is Shakespeare, it is youth, and it is pure love.”
In some ways the opening of the Opera, in a city hit just two months ago by a rocket attack that killed eight people, captured two facets of Ukraine as the war grinds on and front lines move slowly, if at all: a country where something superficially resembling normal life has been restored in wide areas even as fighting is intense in the east and parts of the south.
“It is important to show that Odesa is alive, that Ukraine is alive, that we want to live and create, while the way of the Russian occupiers is killing and death,” Gennadiy Trukhanov, the mayor of Odesa, said in an interview. “If Mr. Putin dared to strike the opera, the hatred he would face throughout the world is unimaginable.”
Mr. Trukhanov, long viewed as having pro-Russian sympathies, has pivoted to become an outspoken defender of Ukraine and his city since the war began. Waving away accusations of association with organized crime, he said he was saddened to see “Russia destroying its claim to be a cultural nation.”
Could Mr. Putin strike central Odesa? “Anyone capable of Bucha, of Mariupol, of what is happening down the road in Mykolaiv, is capable of anything,” he said. “That is what we have learned.”
For now, however, the show goes on in irrepressible Odesa, even as cultural tensions rise. Mr. Trukhanov is under pressure to rename Pushkin Street, near the City Hall. The brilliant Russian playwright and novelist lived in Odesa in 1823.
“No,” the mayor said. “I would not support that. Odesa is the intercultural capital of Ukraine. I am worried by the growth of hatred of all things Russian.”
But that hatred is perhaps the inevitable result of Mr. Putin’s unprovoked war: Tell a nation it does not exist and it will cohere as never before in defiant resolve to safeguard its existence.