After more than 20 months of Russia’s war, opera singers in Kharkiv, in northern Ukraine, plan to return to the stage by giving performances in the theater’s basement, where they will be secure from the fear of Russian airstrikes.
Missiles that can take as little as 45 seconds to land from the moment they are shot across the Russian border 30 km (20 miles) distant frequently target the second city of Ukraine, which was prohibited from hosting large-scale public events when Russia invaded in February 2022.
The Kharkiv State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre, which stopped performing on stage because of the risks, has kitted out its basement with a stage, a make-shift orchestra pit and rows of seats.
It plans to ask city officials to allow them to perform regularly, as the basement essentially serves as a bomb shelter. It held a dress rehearsal in front of theatre staff, friends and family on Friday.
“We missed performing on stage,” said troupe member Olena Starikova.
“We sang at many places – garages, forests, schools, kindergartens, hospitals – but there’s nothing like the stage. Opera is a fairy tale. All of us, the ballet troupe, the opera troupe, we are all incredibly happy.”
The hulking theatre was designed as a Congress Hall for Communist Party members in the Soviet era, said Andrii Turlobekov, the theatre’s chief engineer.
“The building can withstand a lot, it’s a monolithic and safe construction. The elite it was designed for needed to be safe.”
Despite its proximity to the Russian border, Kharkiv was never occupied by Russian forces during the full-scale invasion, though some districts, particularly its northeastern rim closest to Russia, have been badly damaged by shelling and strikes.
The distance to the border is so short that missiles can land in the city and explode before the air raid siren has even gone off, said Ihor Tuluzov, the theatre’s general and artistic director.
Earlier this month, the city’s mayor announced plans to build an underground school for children to study safely despite the missile threat.
The city has already built dozens of classrooms in its underground metro system to allow some pupils to return to in-person tuition. Schools have been teaching online during the war because of the air strikes.
The city is now preparing for a second winter at war with fears Russia will target the national power grid and other vital energy infrastructure, causing sweeping power outages.
Despite those fears and regular air strikes, officials say many residents have returned to Kharkiv since fleeing at the start of the invasion. More than 1.2 million people live in the city that had a pre-war population of 1.4 million, they say.
Starikova said she was delighted opera was returning to the stage.
“It’s a celebration because performing opera for the residents of Kharkiv can now be safe, the people can be safe and we can gift them with our songs, with our performances and bring them joy at this difficult time for our country and for our city.”