Ukrainian opera singer in Japan prays for peace in melody

Opera singer

TOKYO — The Ukrainian song has no lyrics.

“It’s like crying through the melody for people who are already in heaven,” she said.

Stepanyuk, who has been singing in Japan for two decades, is dedicating his latest series of concerts to peace.

“Music has no borders. I don’t have to say words. Music will save this world,” Stepanyuk said backstage at Kokubunji Izumi Hall in Tokyo recently.

Stepanyuk, a graduate of the Pyotr Tchaikovsky National Academy of Music of Ukraine and officially named “Deserving Artist of Ukraine”, is probably the most famous Ukrainian in Japan.

“I think my voice is a gift from God. I feel on stage that I have to give back to the public everything I have, my talent, my voice, my soul, my heart, and through my music they can feel how I feel,” Stepanyuk said.

Japan feels far removed from the brutalities raging in Ukraine. It has hosted around 400 Ukrainians displaced by war since the Russian invasion two months ago.

Prior to that, Ukrainians residing in Japan numbered around 1,800 – including only a handful of artists – and a fraction of the more than 53,000 Americans living there.

At each concert, Stepanyuk brings the spirit of Ukraine, loud and clear and several octaves high as a lyrical coloratura soprano, a kind of voice characterized by extreme agility and flexibility.

The composition of Skoryk she performs is such a signature of Ukraine that it played the part of the orchestral score when President Volodymyr Zelensky delivered his video message last month to the US Congress.

Along with singing a beautiful rendition of Puccini’s tune, “Oh My Beloved Papa,” Stepanyuk plays a 63-string bandura – a Ukrainian instrument that looks like a harp and banjo combined.

As she sang the national anthem of Ukraine, Minister-Counsellor Oleksandr Semeniuk and two other embassy officials in the front row stood with their hands on their hearts.

“We are a peaceful country. We have a beautiful land. she says, emphasizing that she has never felt so proud to be Ukrainian.

Stepanyuk was later joined by Japanese tenor Masafumi Akikawa in a duet of Nino Rota’s “Love Theme” for the 1968 film “Romeo and Juliet”, directed by Franco Zeffirelli.

“Having fun at this concert will contribute to peace,” Akikawa said from the stage.

Pacifism is strong in Japan, a nation devastated by World War II, including the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Unsurprisingly, the Japanese showed a surge of empathy for Ukraine.

Akiko Ito, a retired teacher, choked on her words after the concert, noting that her heart literally ached with helplessness.

“All I can do is pray. But I felt from the bottom of my heart that I wanted all of our thoughts to come together here to be conveyed to Ukraine,” she said.

Stepanyuk ended up living in Japan almost by accident, having also been offered a job in his twenties in Italy. But she chose to work in Japan, where she became an instant hit, performing in operas and concerts for prime ministers. She used to win prizes. Now she judges competitions. She is also in demand as a teacher.

Her Ukrainian husband, who proposed to her 22 years ago, just three days after hearing her sing, is constantly by her side. The gold wristwatch he gave her always tells the exact time, she says with a smile.

Their two children, 13 and 6, attend Japanese schools and are far more interested in karate than singing. Her favorite Japanese food is sushi and unagi, or eel, which she says gives her all the stamina an opera singer needs.

Yet she worries about her parents and her younger sister in Ukraine. They talk every day. Her parents remain fiercely loyal to Ukraine, she said.

She quoted her mother telling her, “We are waiting for victory. And then please come and we drink champagne.”

Hiroshi Kubota, participating in the concert, dressed in a yellow shirt and a blue sweater in support of Ukraine, said he was deeply moved.

“I clearly felt his message of trying to address the horrors of what is happening with prayer and song,” he said.


Yuri Kageyama is on Twitter: