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Japanese conductor opens opera season in Odessa and encourages Ukrainian audiences

Courtesy of the Odesa National Academic Opera and Ballet Theater
Hirofumi Yoshida conducts a rehearsal at the Odesa National Academic Opera and Ballet Theater in Odesa, Ukraine.

Japanese conductor Hirofumi Yoshida, who lives in Italy, was in the pit on Sunday for the opera season opener of the Odesa National Academic Opera and Ballet Theater in the southern Ukrainian city of Odesa. Yoshida, 54, conducted Puccini’s opera “La Boheme” as the opera house’s permanent guest conductor.

Yoshida entered Ukraine via Moldova on September 5 and rehearsed the opera several times with the theater orchestra. The almost full audience of 1,500 people received Puccini’s masterpiece to loud cheers and gave the performance a standing ovation. Quite a few spectators were dressed in military uniforms and some said “Thank you” with tears in their eyes. “I think the performance was food for the soul,” Yoshida said proudly after the performance. But he added that the occasion made him acutely aware that Ukraine is at war.

Yoshida moved his career base to Europe when he was 29 and has held a number of important positions, such as principal guest conductor of Il Teatro Comunale di Bologna in Italy. He visited Ukraine for the first time in December 2020 at the invitation of the Odesa Theater and conducted Puccini’s ‘Madama Butterfly’. He took up the position of principal guest conductor of the opera house in January 2021 during the global lockdown period due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Then in February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. In June last year, Yoshida received a request from the Odesa Theater, which had just resumed operations, to conduct the opening performance of the 2023-2024 season. He accepted the opportunity for his second visit to Ukraine.

However, Yoshida was offered as a guest conductor because the opera house’s music director, a Belarusian conductor who is also an acquaintance of Yoshida, was suddenly fired. Apparently the theater took issue with the fact that the conductor had performed at an opera house in Azerbaijan linked to the husband of a Russian singer on the Ukrainian government’s sanctions list. Although Yoshida boosted the audience’s morale and received good feedback from Sunday’s performance, he said he also had mixed feelings. “I never heard [the Belarusian conductor] agrees with the invasion,” Yoshida said.

The elimination of Russian culture and Russian artists continues in Ukraine and some other countries. However, in Italy, where Russian operas were at one point shunned, the shunning emphasized the works’ existence and even led to reappraisal.

“The invasion is inexcusable,” Yoshida said. “But music has the power to transcend boundaries and touch people’s hearts. It should not be influenced by ideologies.”

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