Try as he might, Yuriy Yurchuk cannot keep the “storm clouds” from gathering in his head — for the parents of the Ukrainian opera singer are trapped in the country’s capital, Kyiv, where they remain in daily danger.
“It is impossible not to get emotional,” the 38-year-old, who has been based in the UK for almost ten years, said.
“I am super sad that I cannot get to see my parents. The first response is of course anger. How can this be happening in Europe in the 21st century?”
For Yuriy, even the intense focus of rehearsals and preparation are of relatively little distraction.
“I try to, but I do not think it is possible. There are storm clouds in my head and they are always there.
“But then you have to decide what it is you can do to help; the best way forward. That is what lets me sleep at night.”
Yuriy is bringing the classic crowd pleaser La Traviata to Belfast’s Grand Opera House in September — the latest attempt by Northern Ireland Opera to widen the appeal beyond the traditionally tight opera base, following a very successful run of Stephen Sondheim’s Into The Woods earlier this year at the Lyric Theatre.
And Yuriy likes to think broadening the audience has always been part of his mission also.
“When I had my first part in an opera in Chicago ten years ago, I invited people from the office where I worked to come along, some of them grey-haired colleagues who had never been to an opera before,” he said.
“Like many people, they would have thought of opera as somehow too noble, too boring — all with an idea of how opera is without ever actually having been to one.”
This will be the first major opera production at the Grand Opera House in Belfast since the beginning of the pandemic and the lavish refurbishment of the building.
“I cannot wait to check it out for myself in early August. It is, of course, a very historic stage and, of course, where Pavarotti famously made his UK debut [in the early 1960s].”
But it will be just less than a year since Yuriy was last in the city, when he appeared in a production of La Bohème, which was severely limited due to the Covid restrictions then in place.
“I absolutely loved the city. I met with the finest and the kindest people I have ever met — really just like a family. I am very much looking forward to coming back,” he said.
Yuriy came relatively late in life to the stage. And before his soaring singing career, he worked for eight years in the very different world of high finance as a mergers and acquisitions consultant for companies including PricewaterhouseCoopers.
“I grew up in a very poor family. For us, art was not an option. I had to work hard to support my family,” he recalled.
“But I was trying all the time, singing and singing, until, around the age of 14 or 15, an old music teacher told me I did not have a voice. It most definitely was not a pleasant feeling.
“My sense at the time was this was someone with such an authority that ‘If you say so, you probably know better’.”
But, refusing to give up on his dreams, Yuriy swapped algorithms for arias, figures for fugues and computers for concertos.
He gained his master’s in vocal performance from DePaul University School of Music in Chicago and has since won prizes at the Montserrat Caballé International Singing Competition in Spain, the Queen Sonja International Music Competition in Norway, the Ottavio Zino International Singing Competition in Italy and the Monastero Foundation Bel Canto Competition in the US.
Yet it is the same lack of opportunity and failure to connect with art which Yuriy started off with that he now sees as a major factor in the ongoing war of attrition which could erupt into international conflict at any time.
“Young people in Russia do not have the same access to the arts as their counterparts in the United Kingdom, where there are choirs, for example.
“Young people in Russia have nothing like that to fall back on in that regard, which, with a lack of education, can mean some of them can turn on others, happy to go and kill.
“This is why we cannot allow art to be overlooked.”
Yuriy is used to the larger challenges in life. While only in his late thirties, it is just over six weeks since he had a hip replacement operation.
He has been plagued with hip pain and problems since the age of three, which became increasingly debilitating as he grew older until an operation proved unavoidable.
And his problem may very well be a result of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant explosion and disaster in April 1986.
“No one will ever be able to tell us for sure, but one of the doctors suggested the failure of my hip to develop properly could have something to do with [Chernobyl],” he said.
“I am now recovering from surgery and it is going really well,” he said.
Yuriy’s sister recently made it out of Kyiv and is in Germany, but his mother and father are still in the embattled city.
He prefers not to give their names or ages to prevent drawing any further attention to them, but he is in regular contact with them.
“The war is such a complicated and difficult topic for me.”
In an earlier interview he said there had been no time for his parents to flee “because, up until the last moment, Russia insisted they were not going to launch a military conflict”.
But Yuriy has no issues when it comes to questions of his own citizenship and identity, which can be complex and multi-layered for many.
“I am definitely Ukrainian. There is not much doubt about that,” he said.
“So I think the last six months, for me, the focus has been on raising awareness. It is a black hole in terms of the resources needed to help Ukraine, so it has been on helping to raise money.”
The baritone was one of the first Ukrainians to sing the Ukrainian national anthem for peace outside 10 Downing Street on February 24, followed by the Concert For Ukraine on April 15 and events at the Roundhouse and Royal Festival Hall in London, which have all helped push funds raised towards £1m.
“It has been eight concerts in all so far,” he said.
And Yuriy also continues to support his parents directly, as he always has done.
La Traviata will reunite Yuriy with his friend Noah Stewart, the internationally renowned tenor, and they will be playing father and son, respectively.
Northern Ireland Opera is also reuniting with the Ulster Orchestra for their first collaboration since before the pandemic, with rising soprano Siobhan Stagg also making her debut in the tragic love story sung in Italian but with English subtitles.
Some celebrities in Ukraine, such as the boxer Oleksandr Usyk along with tennis and football stars, have been declared exempt from the country’s war, even as the bulk of the population between ages 16 to 60 has effectively been put on standby.
But though his work has seen him linked to show business luminaries including Goldie Hawn and political figures such as Barack Obama, Yuriy does not consider himself ‘exempt’.
“I want to do all that I can.
“There are all the hidden costs of the war also — such as the people who are not being taken for their cancer treatment or heart surgery,” Yuriy continued.
After performing in Belfast Yuriy will be heading to Brussels for another major production, but while here he will be working with local talents Ellen Mawhinney, Margaret Bridge and Owen Lucas, with Rebecca Lang also returning to the company.
La Traviata will take place at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, on September 10-17. For more details/to book tickets, see www.goh.co.uk