Skip to main content

Ukraine, from Terra Incognita to Terra Cognita through Opera

Blair A. Ruble
Protestors against Russia's war in Ukraine
Austin, Texas - March 9, 2022: Protestors against Russia's war in Ukraine in front of the Texas capitol building.

Austin, Texas, has labeled itself “The Live Music Capital of the World.” With around a million residents, the state capital can claim the most diverse and robust menu of live musical performances per capita of any city around. Its iconic Austin City Limits dates back to 1974 and is the longest continuously running music television show. The show’s numerous spin-off festivals have spawned an ever more vibrant local musical ecosystem, which features a wide range of genres: country, folk, bluegrass, blues, jazz, Tejano, zydeco, new wave, punk, and indie music. Recently, contemporary Ukrainian choral music has been added to the mix.

In August, the Terra Incognita Ukrainian Choir made its Austin debut. Sponsored by the Greater Austin YMCA to benefit Lviv and the Ukrainian YMCA, the group performed the choral version of a striking contemporary opera, Ukraine—Terra Incognita, which was written in response to the tragedy of war during the 2014 Russian land grab in Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk. 

Many of Ukraine’s leading theater and music artists had wanted to bring traditional polyphonic Ukrainian song to the opera by layering ancient songs, traditional operatic music, jazz, and contemporary music. Their efforts found new, tragic meaning when Vasyl Slipak, a soloist at the Paris Opera, returned to Ukraine in 2015, in response to the fighting in the east. A volunteer fighting for his country, Ukraine, he fell to a sniper’s bullet. 

By 2020, support from the Ukrainian Cultural Fund, the International Renaissance Fund, the Ukrainian YMCA, and other donors moved the project ahead. Singer Ulyana Horbachevska created and directed the opera, working with composer Maria Oliynyk. Artem Shoshin choreographed the work, with performers from the country’s leading theaters and film studios taking the stage. Taras Demko and Ivan Ostapovych directed the Ukrainian Festival Orchestra, which added percussionist Ihor Hnydyn, saxophonist Mykhailo Balog, and Polish instrumentalist Richard Lyatecki. Taras Vergun conducted the premier performances at the Lviv Opera House in late 2021, which featured video art created by VJ group CUBE.

The resulting Ukraine—Terra Incognita, is formed around five ideas: “Home,” “Ancestry,” “Love,” “Steppe,” and “Iron-Heart.” Each forms the core of a self-sufficient segment which loosely joins the others for a non-linear plot. The performance combines the archaic singing of ancient Ukrainian songs, symphonic music, free jazz, video art, modern choreography, futuristic costumes, and the latest technology.  

The organizers abandoned their plans to take the opera on tour following the escalation of hostilities in February 2022. Many of the managers and artists involved were at the front, and some were wounded. The war made the logistics for mounting such a large-scale production too daunting. The Lviv YMCA stepped in and supported a choral rendition of the opera that could travel more easily. Drawing on international YMCA networks, a core half-dozen professional singers have traveled from Ukraine to Romania, Italy, Michigan, and now to Texas, raising money for YCMA programs and the arts in Ukraine. 

Beyond immediate support for the war, the opera’s creators always have had a larger goal in mind. “We want not only to talk about our pain and hope,” director Uliana Horbachevska has said. We want “to create a new area where we will introduce Ukraine to the world by speaking the language of art about our current challenges. It is important that our project is international while based on Ukrainian opera. I am convinced that [in] diving into the past and creating the future with European artists, we all discover our archetypes. Opera ideals and myths have a lot in common and they retell the same concepts.”

There are few better places than in the robust, hectic, innovative, groundbreaking Austin music scene to showcase such goals and achievements.

The opinions expressed in this article are those solely of the author and do not reflect the views of the Kennan Institute.

About the Author

Blair A. Ruble

Blair A. Ruble

Distinguished Fellow;
Former Wilson Center Vice President for Programs (2014-2017); Director of the Comparative Urban Studies Program/Urban Sustainability Laboratory (1992-2017); Director of the Kennan Institute for Advanced Russian Studies (1989-2012) and Director of the Program on Global Sustainability and Resilience (2012-2014)
Read More

Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier US center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more