x

Music

Opera Singer Flees Belarusian Oppression to Revive Career

October 9, 2022

BOSTON — Ilya Silchukou was a cultural icon in his native Belarus, the lead soloist at the State Opera Bolshoi who represented his nation at official government functions at home and abroad and performed at opera houses across Europe.

He lived a privileged and comfortable life in his homeland.

And he gave it all up.

Silchukou dared to speak out against Alexander Lukashenko, who has led the former Soviet republic with an iron fist for nearly three decades.

He’s now living in suburban Boston with his wife and three children and teaches music to middle school students while he tries to revive his singing career in the U.S., where he remains relatively unknown.

“I am known in Europe, but I’ve never performed in the States, and it was like a blank piece of paper for me, just a new page,” he said during a recent interview in Boston. “We had to start from scratch here.”

When Lukashenko won a sixth term in office in 2020 in an election regarded by his opposition and the West as fraudulent, Silchukou joined tens of thousands of Belarusians at election protests that were violently suppressed and resulted in the arrests of thousands.

“It was so evident to all of us that we could not keep silent any more,” he said.

He renounced three awards that he had received personally from Lukashenko.

His friends warned him of the risks.

“They said, ‘What is the problem with you? You have everything you need,'” he said. “I was well paid in Belarus and I had all the benefits from that. I said, ‘Yes they pay me, but they don’t own me.'”

His public opposition to Lukashenko got him fired from the opera for an “act of immorality” and he was black-listed, he said. In response, he had one more act of defiance — using his baritone voice in a video of the traditional Belarusian hymn, “Mahutny Bozha,” which means “Mighty God,” and has become a signature anthem of the opposition to Lukashenko.

Still, it wasn’t until March 2021 when the police came after his wife, Tanya, and accused her of defrauding the nation’s state-sponsored child support system and threatened her with two years in jail that he knew he had to get out. He took it as a thinly-veiled threat to break up their family.

“Lots of kids in Belarus have both parents in prison,” he said.

When his children finished school in May of that year, the family packed four suitcases with some vital documents and photos and flew from Belarus to the nation of Georgia, then on to Seattle, where his parents live.

The family came to the East Coast about a year ago at the suggestion of Marina Lvova, who runs the nonprofit Belarusians in Boston, drawn by Boston’s cultural scene, proximity to Europe and vibrant Belarusian expatriate community.

Lvova and her husband first saw Silchukou at one of his last public performances in Minsk and “fell in love with his voice,” she said.

But she was also impressed with his bravery for standing up to Lukashenko.

“Ilya is a real patriot of Belarus,” she said. “You cannot be successful in a country that is a prison, and unfortunately our country is a prison right now.”

Silchukou is making ends meet teaching 5th through 9th graders at the private Star Academy school.

“It’s pretty incredible that he’s able to share some of the experiences he’s had at some of the best opera houses in Europe,” said Margarita Druker, Star Academy’s co-director.

The school has many students of Eastern European descent whose families have similar stories of fleeing oppression.

“It was very courageous for someone of his stature to walk away from all he had into so much uncertainty,” Druker said.

Silchukou has returned to the stage, collaborating with pianist Pavel Nersessian, an associate professor at Boston University, for two recent concerts in Boston and New Jersey.

For both, he put together a retrospective of some of his personal favorite pieces spanning his career from his first singing lessons to his time at the national opera, including “Papageno” from “The Magic Flute” and “Cavatina Figaro” from the “The Barber of Seville.” He capped off the shows with what he called the “jewel of the concert,” a duet with his mezzo-soprano wife.

He recently had an audition with the Boston Lyric Opera and is trying to secure auditions with other opera houses in the U.S., and he’s in negotiations with U.S. agents.

“I am looking forward with hope,” he said.

One of those hopes is a return to his homeland.

He remains in touch with friends and colleagues in Belarus who are “working in fear,” afraid of speaking out against Lukashenko.

“We hope to see them again, and for sure we will sing our songs on the squares on our true independence day,” he said.

 

RELATED

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Louis Vuitton unveiled its latest fashion designs at Barcelona’s Park Güell on Thursday, providing the clothes with drama to finally match Antoni Gaudí’s architectural masterpiece.

Top Stories

Columnists

A pregnant woman was driving in the HOV lane near Dallas.

General News

NEW YORK – Meropi Kyriacou, the new Principal of The Cathedral School in Manhattan, was honored as The National Herald’s Educator of the Year.

Video

2 Germans, a Spaniard and a Senegalese Killed in Building Collapse in Spain’s Mallorca Island

MADRID (AP) — Spain's National Police on Friday gave details on four people killed when a building housing a bar and restaurant club collapsed on the island of Mallorca.

SPRINGFIELD, Ill.  — The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is once again under the spotlight after a manager failed to consult a collections committee before purchasing a 21-star flag whose description as a rare banner marking Illinois' 1818 admission to the Union is disputed.

BABYLON, NY – Babylon AHEPA Chapter 416 awarded two very well-qualified students Yanni Saridakis and Maria Avlonitis with $1,000 scholarships on May 19.

THRU JUNE 4 NEW YORK – The third iteration of the Carte Blanche project featuring Maria Antelman with the work ‘The Seer (Deep)’ opened on April 19 and runs through June 4, Monday-Friday 9 AM-2:30 PM, at the Consulate General of Greece in New York, 69 East 79th Street in Manhattan.

ATHENS – An Archieratical Divine Liturgy and a memorial service honoring the 50th dark anniversary of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus at the Metropolis – the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of Athens – marked the beginning of the 4th Archon International Conference on Religious Freedom of the Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate on Sunday, May 26.

Enter your email address to subscribe

Provide your email address to subscribe. For e.g. [email protected]

You may unsubscribe at any time using the link in our newsletter.