Attila from the opera stops playing Russian music

Opera singer
Ukrainian opera singer Taras Berezhansky in “Attila”… “Riding a horse is not so difficult, but jumping is.” Photo: Prudence Upton

WHEN Ukrainian opera singer Taras Berezhansky began studying the role of Attila the Hun, which he will soon play for Opera Australia, he didn’t spend much time on the story.

Attila’s reputation, after all, precedes him, and for Berezhansky far more important was the complexity of the character that Giuseppe Verdi and his librettist Temistocle Solera created in the opera, which was a thinly veiled argument for independence. of Italy vis-à-vis Austria.

“He may be a negative character, but he has passions, he has life… He has a lot of enemies, but he feels like a real guy,” Berezhansky tells me over the phone from Sydney.

Until not so long ago, Berezhansky lived with his wife and daughter in the capital of Ukraine, Kyiv, where he studied at the National Pedagogical University of Ukraine and the National Academy of Ukrainian music.

“But in Kyiv we had 10 of the most terrible days that I can remember… I was also working at the opera house in Lviv in the western part of Ukraine and so we moved there – it’s further south and east and the capital is also a big part of the target,” he says.

He’s just landed in Sydney when I talk to him – “I never imagined I’d be performing in this wonderful place,” he says.

But Ukraine is a country with deeper musical roots than ours.

“As a singer, you start your professional studies at the National Academy of Music, but it’s been a long journey. I took many masterclasses everywhere I could and it was very difficult to find a job at first, but then I won a competition in Estonia and after that my international career started,” he says.

One of his first roles was playing the bass role of Leporello, Don Giovanni’s cunning servant in Mozart’s opera, a major role.

“Thanks to Mozart and Verdi, we have a job. To be bass usually means to be a father or a priest, but both of these composers gave very good roles to singers in the low register, although I prefer Verdi for my voice,” he says.

He has previously performed for Opera Australia, as Colline in ‘La Bohème’ and Sparafucile in ‘Rigoletto’, and he only performed Attila twice in 2020 before covid hit and it was cancelled.

It’s a co-production with La Scala, Milan, directed by Italian director Davide Livermore, known for his huge digital backdrops, although this time the revival director is Kate Gaul.

A favorite part is when he performs on horseback. He is not an expert rider and had to train for his first performances in Sydney.

“It was pretty good until I had to jump…riding isn’t that hard, but jumping is.”

Luckily his horse Zulu is a very well trained horse and he thinks the two horses in this production are the most expensive of all the performers.

“It’s an interesting opera for the public because it mixes the good and the bad,” he says.

“I have a wonderful tune, ‘Mentre gonfiarsi l’anima’ [As my heart seemed to swell]a very difficult tune with very high notes for a bass.

“I tell my slave friend Uldino the dream I saw of Pope Leo… I wanted to conquer the Roman Empire, but after that I decided to step back, this is a crucial point.”

From there it’s all downhill and at the end Attila is dispatched by his wife, the Italian Odabella – that’s certainly not true, but it ends the opera effectively.

The end is in sight… Taras Berezhansky in Opera Australia’s ‘Attila’. Photo: Prudence Upton

At 37, Berezhansky is entering the golden age of an opera singer. Upon his return to Ukraine, he will perform at the still going strong Lviv Opera, and says the crisis in his home country has made him see the power of music and all the arts.

Like many other Ukrainian singers, Berezhansky performed in Russian operas, including “Eugene Onegin” and “Iolanta”, both by Tchaikovsky.

“It’s quite difficult to talk about it,” he said. “But for us Ukrainians, we stopped playing Russian music.”

But he has a contract to play at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, and if he were to play in a Russian work, how would he approach the situation?

“I think if there was a way, I would use it as a weapon against the Russians,” he says.

“Attila” by Verdi, Sydney Opera House, 29 October-5 November.

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Ian Meikle, editor