Ukrainian Jewish Heritage: A chat with opera star Pavlo Hunka


Pavlo Hunka (Photo credit:

British-Ukrainian opera star Pavlo Hunka is the Director of a classical concert to be held on September 29, 2016 at the Opera House in Kyiv.

The concert is part of the 75th Anniversary commemoration of the Babyn Yar tragedy, sponsored by the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter of Toronto.

In 1941, the Nazis murdered some 150,000 people, including over 32,000 Jews. The massacre at Babyn Yar is considered one of the most heinous atrocities of the Holocaust, and has come to symbolize Nazi brutality.

This commemorative concert will feature classical musicians from Ukraine, Israel, Canada and Great Britain, and a symphony orchestra from Germany. The conductor of the orchestra will be Oksana Lyniv of Ukraine.

The concert will include a cameo performance by Mr. Hunka, who took time from his hectic schedule of rehearsals for an interview on Nash Holos.

We spoke about the upcoming concert, his career, and his Ukrainian Art Song project, showcasing Ukrainian classical music.

Pawlina: The 75th anniversary of the [foreign] tragedy will be commemorated in K of this fall. Late September to be exact. One of the events will be a concert which you are organizing and producing. How did you come to be the orchestrator so to speak of this event?

Pavlo Hunka: I was approached by members of the board of the Ukrainian Jewish encounter to see whether I could pull together a program first and foremost and then I suggested to them that as I had access to pretty well all of the great musicians of the world because I worked with many of them. Maybe we could pull together a fantastic cast and they gave me the opportunity to approach some big orchestras for example. Not just to use Ukrainian strengths, and to cut a long story short, we have engaged the Hamburg symphony orchestra to go to Ukraine for the 29th of September when the concert will be. Together we’ve the soloist, that’s Benjamin Butterfield, who’s from your neck of the woods, he’s from Victoria and I asked Ben because he sings the Ukrainian so wonderfully. He’s part of the Ukrainian Art Song project. And then there’s Gwal James, she’s Israeli, living in Berlin to sing and then myself as well. Conductor will be Oksana Lyniv, she’s a young Ukrainian conductor from Western Ukraine, who is now deputy artistic director of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, in Germany. And finally, the Dumka national chorus. We thought that we did include one element of a big Ukrainian group if you like particularly because I choose as a second piece of the concert, Yevhen Stankovych’s Kaddish-Requiem. The program opens up with Max Bruch’s “Kol Nidrei”, which is like an evening prayer at Yom Kippur New Year Jewish prayer and then it goes into the Kaddish-Requiem by Yevhen Stankovych, which is a contemporary piece, which tells the story of Babyn Yar. I chose it because it’s not really a requiem, it’s really just a sort of statement or fact if you like. And then that takes us to the interval and after the interval is a Brahms requiem, which is also not really a requiem, it’s a spiritual work, which doesn’t really talk about any particular faith but it talks really about spirituality. So it’s sort of a journey from prayer to fact, to hope and I thought that was so it would be sort of quite appropriate to choice that type of program, which it moves into the positive.

Pawlina: Yes that’s what this whole commemoration event is all about, isn’t it, it’s to acknowledge and commemorate the past but there is so much good stuff that’s going on in Ukraine right now in particular with Ukrainian Jewish encounter. You had a long and successful career as an opera singer. This project is casting you in a different role kind of behind the scenes, or you said you will be singing as well?

Pavlo Hunka: Yeah well I’ve done, on a smaller scale I’ve done things like this over some years in the sense that I finally acquire in England some 15 years ago and it existed for about 15 years and basically we organized various tours all over the world with them but obviously this is on a different scale. A different nature and yeah it’s just an extension of that really. It’s also very interesting because it’s hands on with lots of the detail and there is a whole plethora of things that need to be dealt with and because you’re meeting all types of different people and we’ve been able to get a great group of people together. I forgot to mention that this is, rather a different concert because when I worked in Berlin, at the Berlin Philharmonic with Simon Rattle last year, we did a world premiere of the new opera and it was staged in concert form but fully staged by a young lady called [inaudible] from Amsterdam, a Dutch stage director and she created in minimalistic form a completely different impression of what concept making is and it reached out to the public so much more directly and we’ve invited her to stage this concert and it really is quite amazing how when you just have a few sort of movement, a few thoughts, very minimalistic thoughts that it touches the public so much more directly. So yeah we’re in the middle of that rehearsal. We’ve had a rehearsal on that with the chorus in Kyiv and we go in next month for two days. So it should be really incredible, unforgettable concert.

Pawlina: Indeed sounds it, and it will be taking place where?

Pavlo Hunka: It’s taking place at the National Opera House of Ukraine in Kyiv.

Pawlina: What will you be singing?

Pavlo Hunka: Well I’m involved in it as well. Apart from producing it. I’m singing in both the Stankovych, where there is a bass part and there is also a narrator’s part. And that’s performed in Ukrainian and then in the Brahms Requiem there is also a part for me there with the soprano, with Gwal James.

Pawlina: You sing, you’re a bass baritone yourself?

Pavlo Hunka: Yes.

Pawlina: For those listening who don’t maybe follow opera, give us a brief overview of your incredible career. You didn’t start out to be an opera singer, you started out to be a lawyer and then you decided to become an opera singer. How did that all come about?

Pavlo Hunka: Yeah, well it’s not so unusual, there are, not lawyers specifically but there are people who sort of change track in their lives but I practice as a lawyer for four years and realized that temperamentally I was not suited to that job for the rest of my life. And I was always involved in the art world and I always wanted to sing and I just had the opportunity one day to open the door and people sort of helped me make the transfer from law into the Opera world and that was now 29 years ago. I’m in my 27th season and very fortunate to have been able to work with some of the great conductors and directors in the world and I’m now. I’ve already mentioned Simon Rattle singing with him next year, twice. And I’ve just been singing with Daniel Barenboim and yeah I’m going to be singing Wagner’s Ring Cycle in two months’ time in Denmark and then I go on to Brussels to sing the Golden Cockerel by Rimsky-Korsakov in Russian. So and then that takes me into the new year when I’m doing all types of different things as well.

Pawlina: Two questions for you but first of all, how many languages do you speak?

Pavlo Hunka: Well, fluently I speak all the language that I sing in. So I suppose it’s seven but there also are different levels because sometimes, for example I sing in Russian and I speak Russian and I can sing in Russian and I understand Russian but I don’t have the opportunity to practice it as much as I do Ukrainian for example. So I sing in German and French and Italian. Sometimes in English even, not that often but yeah and in Czech as well.

Pawlina: Did you learn the languages as you were studying music then?

Pavlo Hunka: I was fortunate that before I was a lawyer, the only specific talent that I had at school was an interest for languages. So I ended up studying modern languages at university in Manchester in England and then I near Strasbourg in France for a year because I studied French and Spanish literature and language and that opened the door to other languages and when I started singing I needed German Italian of course and I just set about learning that as soon as possible. And the Ukrainian opened the door to Russian. So there you are and Czech, I don’t really speak Czech but it’s so close to Ukrainian but I mean just reading it through you can understand 70% of it. And then the words you can’t understand, they’re usually archaic Ukrainian words so it’s really quite straightforward.

Pawlina: That’s funny, so that kind of leads me to my other question I was going to ask you and that was why did you chose opera instead of say, theater or popular music?

Pavlo Hunka: Well classical music is a world where, let’s put it this way, when I was a lawyer, I actually foresaw that I possibly could get to the point when I would have done most of the things I was aiming to do as a lawyer. And classical music, that is just quite impossible because every time for example you’d come to classical song or a classical opera, it’s always different because it has so many millions of different ways of interpreting music. You never arrive basically and that’s the beauty of it. You’re constantly searching and every performance is a different performance. Classical music talks about many, many shades of feelings beyond for example pop music or even musicals. Let’s just say maybe folk songs for example, they talk about love and they talk about death but then there is a whole gamut of emotions between those two words. And classical music it delves into that because it basically takes on words, which have myriad of ways of interpreting and the music as well, every time you meet a conductor you look at it differently and singers look at it differently. So you never really arrive and that’s why classical music is so fascinating.

Pawlina: So you like a challenge obviously?

Pavlo Hunka: Absolutely, that, why I’m constantly learning and I like to do new operas for example. I don’t like to just repeat the same old things all the time, although I do repeat opera sometimes but for example the Golden Cockerel is new to me, which I’m doing in La Monnaie Royal Opera House is Brussels, in Belgium, at Christmas and the whole Ring Cycle by Wagner. I’ve never done this particular role. I’m playing the sort of, the devils devil, if you like. And next year I’ve been invited to go to sing in Budapest, to sing Wagner’s Parsifal. And that’s particularly interesting because I’m doing two roles there, all on one night and it was Wagner’s intention that the same singer song both roles. But it happens very rarely because both roles are very different roles. And sometimes in a way they are, especially demanding for one singer but it’s a greater challenge.

Pawlina: So you like challenges and one project that you’ve been involved with on a Canadian side, since we’re talking to you from Canada … I’d like to just kind of throw this into the mix … and that is the Ukraine art song project. And this is not folk music or popular music, what this is, is classical.

Pavlo Hunka: Well this is an example of classical music. It’s definitely not folk music. I’m giving you an idea, just now about what folk music is. It’s beautiful music of course. And Ukrainians have lots and lots of folk songs but they also have a massive repertoire of Ukrainian classical songs called art songs in English. And that’s basically [when] a very eminent poet and an eminent composer get together and create something, which becomes sort of a higher form of art if you like because it deals with issues and themes which are not usually dealt with in folk songs and the music is by fantastic composers. And so it enhances the art form if you like. It’s music which is another stepping stone to show that Ukraine is a really cultured nation, without which, Ukraine will still be looked on as a war- like nation and the nation of problems, but we also have an incredible classical culture. And this is our hope through the art song and in fact through the Babyn Yar concert to show Ukrainian the best light possible. Because the reason why I accepted this invitation to produce this concert was because I saw it as a way for Ukrainians to recognize that they are entering adulthood as a nation. Every adult nation in the world pretty well has got a history, which is not so positive I suppose in the eyes of the world, for example England, people very frequently forget that this is the epicenter of the slave trade. And the French with their revolution in terms of the atrocities there, the Germans, you can go around the whole world and when you meet a civilized nation, always something until war that has happened and in Ukraine, this atrocity took place in the 1941, and it was instigated by the Nazis, everybody knows, but obviously the people were involved and this is a way of saying, well we remember, we accept that this happened and we hope it will never happen again on our territory and that for me was a big reason to accept this invitation because Ukraine needs this type of step to adulthood. It needs the Ukrainian art song, it needs to show that we have over 1500 Ukrainian art songs that are second in the world when it comes to quantity. And the quantity of the songs are just incredible. So this is all part of building a nation and giving them an identity which the world will be proud of. People will stand up and listen to this concert on the 29th of September. People already are standing up and listening to the Ukrainian art song project and understanding —this is non-Ukrainians as well—and understanding that there are tons of people in this world who actually do create things which are unique — and Ukrainians as well. Our task is to record them, to make sure that there’s a world library and to get it out there to all the people of the world, particularly the young. And we’re doing that by getting into the universities, conservatories in Canada and beyond. And for example I’ve just had a concert tour of Ukraine, of the Ukrainian art songs, I sang in Kyiv and in Lviv, and gave three master classes in Kyiv, Lviv and Ivana-Frankivsk. It was just an unmitigated success. It was fantastic, it was obvious that the people were just waiting for me to come to sort of help them open their souls and to have them introduced to Ukrainian classical song. And I’m sure that they will react the same way to this Babyn Yar concert.

Pawlina: Indeed and that is one thing that I’ve noticed and I think anybody that becomes acquainted with Ukrainians notices their great love and knowledge of the classical arts. So thank you again for telling us.

Pavlo Hunka: You’re welcome Pawlina, and everyone at your radio station.

Pawlina: Thank you.


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