‘Holodomor’ opera explores horror, redemption found during Ukraine famine

It’s a brisk winter afternoon at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas as students stroll across campus, backpacks slung over their jacketed shoulders.

But inside a crowded second-floor office in UNLV’s Alta Ham Fine Arts building, it’s no longer 2013 Las Vegas.

It’s famine-stricken 1930s Ukraine – the bleak setting for “Holodomor (Red Earth. Hunger).”

UNLV composer-in-residence Virko Baley’s new English-language opera premieres in a free concert staging Saturday night at the Doc Rando Recital Hall of the Beam Music Center. The new work makes its New York debut Feb. 5.

On this particular pre-concert day, however, “Holodomor’s” world fills Baley’s UNLV office.

The composer presides at the rehearsal, huddling with an accompanist seated at a grand piano.

Tenor John Duykers and soprano Laura Bohn join six other singers; each has a spiral-bound musical score to follow as Baley commands the group’s attention, clapping his hands.

“Let’s do it!” he says, counting out “one, two, three, four” as dissonant chords issue from the piano and voices harmonize and echo along the hallway.

After the passage concludes, one chorus member asks Baley about the appropriate vocal style for the opening song.

“You’re out in the field, working,” Baley says. “There’s wind and everything – it’s not going to be refined.”

True to its title, “Holodomor” focuses on the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine – then part of the Soviet Union – triggered by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s Collectivization policy, which replaced individual peasant farms with government-controlled collectives.

Millions of Ukrainians died during the famine, which is “not well known by the public,” Duykers says.

“We know about the Holocaust; we know something about the Armenians,” minority Ottoman Empire subjects systematically exterminated during and after World War I in what is present-day Turkey, he adds. “But not as much about the Ukrainians.”

Baley was born in Ukraine, but not until 1938, so he didn’t experience the famine, although “I have known people who went through it,” he says.

He’s been pondering the opera for almost three decades, but put it aside more than once, using some of the musical materials in his second symphony and his chamber work “Dreamtime.”

More recently, Baley spent five months on a fellowship at Harvard University’s Ukrainian Research Institute, where an international conference on the Holodomor provided an opportunity to perform an hour’s worth of excerpts from the opera-in-progress.

After the excerpts were performed at the United Nations, Baley figured “it was time to get going on this,” he says.

After all, “I’m a different person than I was in 1984,” he says. “I needed to rethink the whole thing.”

In its current form, with a libretto by Bohdan Boychuk , “Holodomor” focuses on the unlikely relationship among three starving strangers who meet at a lonely crossroads at the height of the famine: a woman, her baby and an embittered man.

Despite the dire situation, the woman, played by Bohn, “keeps seeing the good in humanity,” she explains during a rehearsal break. “I feel lucky as an artist that I’m just interpreting these things and not living them.”

Bohn has worked with Baley before – most recently in New York last May, where Bohn and Baley presented a sneak preview of “Not Medea,” a one-woman opera Baley’s composing for her.

“He’s extremely enthusiastic, hardworking and he pulls the best out of you,” Bohn says, praising the fact that Baley is “quite flexible” about changes “in the cadence and the text. It’s quite refreshing.”

Duykers also has worked with Baley before – more than once, during the past 38 years, he says.

Duykers’ “Holodomor” character “was initially part of the government,” he says. “And he was responsible for some of the things that happened.” That is, until “he becomes disenchanted” and “decides to be part of the oppressed.”

All of which makes the 95-minute opera “a toe-tapper,” Baley deadpans.

But seriously, folks, “it wasn’t so much the subject matter as the play itself” that piqued his creative curiosity, the composer acknowledges. “I began to explore it as a dramatic thing : What is our life all about? How do we live? And how do we confront the unspeakable?”

For the latter, Baley recalls insights gleaned from his father, who spent part of the Holocaust in the notorious Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz after Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. (Baley, along with his mother, aunts and grandmother, receive permission to move to Slovakia to work as farm laborers during World War II; the family reunited near the end of the war, eventually emigrating to the U.S. in 1949.)

Baley’s father told his son “you could not predict” how Auschwitz prisoners would behave based on their education or standard of living, the composer remembers.

Some “priests and rabbis would behave horribly, while a peasant boy would not steal a drop of water or a crust of bread,” Baley says. “We really don’t know how we would behave until we are tested.”

Musically, “Holodomor” reflects “lots of different things,” Baley notes. “I’m very much interested in melody,” adding that the “harmony is rich and contemporary, and so are the rhythms.”

In addition to his music, Baley says Saturday’s UNLV premiere will include such multimedia elements as “slides, pictures, films and other sounds as well.”

Performing a new musical work is nothing new for Duykers, whose more than 120 premieres include John Adams’ 1987 opera “Nixon in China,” where he originated the role of Chairman Mao Tse-tung.

“That’s sort of what I do,” the tenor says during a rehearsal break. “I’m interested in what composers are doing now – things that don’t exist.”

New works can be a tough sell, he admits, noting that “there’s a large aspect of our culture that basically wants what they’ve already had.”

And even if “sometimes they don’t like them, so what?” Duykers says of audiences reluctant to embrace new works.

It takes time, but audiences may develop a taste for works they initially reject, he suggests.

“I never used to like avocados as a kid,” he says, “and now I love them. It’s one of the things that needs to happen to stimulate our curiosity.”

Both Duykers and Bohn expressed interest in performing a fully staged version of “Holodomor” in the future.

“This is the nitty-gritty, the trenches,” Bohn says. “If we do all this work now, I want that payoff.”

For now, however, the focus remains on preparing for Saturday’s UNLV premiere – and conveying the emotions Baley’s music expresses, “from extreme high to extreme low, from depression and horror to exultation and redemption,” the composer says.

Despite “Holodomor’s” sobering subject matter, “the intent is not to depress or just to do horror for horror’s sake,” Baley contends.

“It’s to show what the human spirit” is capable of, he says, including “all the things that are good. But to find that good, it really is a little bit like (searching for) that gold coin in the manure – you have to get your hands dirty.”

Contact reporter Carol Cling at ccling@
reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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