Legendary Leopolitans # 2: Opera diva Solomiya Krushelnitska
At the turn of the 20th century the art of opera was enjoying the period of its greatest ascendancy as the pomp and circumstance of the late imperial age boosted coffers at the world’s most famous Opera Houses. A mere handful of male singers led by Enrico Caruso dominated the headlines at the time and were among the first truly global super stars. They were joined by a young lady from rural West Ukraine who would go on to become one of the most celebrated voices in the history of opera.
Born in the West Ukrainian heartlands of Ternopil Oblast in the Habsburg Empire in 1872, Solomiya Krushelnitska was to prove a formidable talent from a very early age. She graduated from Lviv’s prestigious musical conservatory as top of her class in the early 1890s. Even before graduation she had already earned her first ravereviews for her performance as Leonora in a Lviv staging of Donizetti’s ‘La Favorita’. Within ten years she had been thrust from regional acclaim to global adulation as she triumphed on stage at the world’s most celebrated opera houses. Most famously, Krushelnitska was widely credited with single-handedly saving Puccini’s ‘Madame Butterfly’, which had been rounded booed by audiences during its initial Milan debut. Today this remarkable Ukrainian lady is honoured throughout her homeland and is the subject of a huge body of poems, tributes and biographies. Perhaps her most fitting memorial was the decision to rename Lviv’s Habsburg era National Opera House in her honour – a gesture than most Leopolitan cultural commentators would argue is the least her home city can to acknowledge the staggering achievements of West Ukraine’s greatest vocalist.
As is often the case with the elite performers of the world, Krushelnitska was a true professional and a hard-working perfectionist. Her schedule at the peak of her career in Milan included daily vocal and acting lessons as well as foreign language study. Aside from learning new parts in each opera performance she would generally set aside six hours to study every single day. Meanwhile, her leisure time was also spent improvingly, with trips to museums and attendance at the theatre. She also kept up an extensive correspondence with friends and colleagues throughout her life and was wide-ranging in her interests. As well as exchanging literary pinions and artistic commentaries, her correspondence are also striking for the obvious interest that the opera diva took in the fate of her homeland Ukraine, which at the height of her fame remained divided and dominated by the Russian and Habsburg Empires.
When on tour Krushelnitska could be expected to perform on five or six consecutive evenings. She was famed for being allegedly able to learn a new role in its entirety in just two days, and would then spend a further three or four days developing the personality and quirks of her new character. In a career spanning more than three decades she mastered a total of 63 different roles and is said to have brought something genuinely new and fresh to each one.
In 1910 Krushelnitska married Italian attorney Cesare Ricchoni. Then in 1920, at what seemed to be the height of her career, she left the opera in order to concentrate on solo concert tours. Solomiya’s knowledge of eight languages allowed her to include popular songs from across Europe in her repertoire. Following the death of her husband in 1938 Solomiya was left all alone and decided to return to her native Ukraine. Her timing was unfortunate and the erstwhile opera diva found herself thrust into the maelstrom of WWII. She initially arrived in the small Carpathian village of Dybina where her sisters owned a holiday home. She is said to have woken everyone up with a wonderful song, creating a joyful atmosphere in the late summer of 1939, just days before war broke out.
The family lost its Lviv townhouse to the Soviet authorities following the seizure of West Ukraine in September 1939 by the Red Army, leaving them with a small apartment to accommodate the entire family. Krushelnitska eventually survived the horrors of WWII in Lviv and the Soviet authorities offered her the position of teacher at the Lviv Conservatory in the post-war years. Despite the fact that she was an Italian citizen, the Soviet regime repeatedly denied the now elderly Krushelnitska the opportunity to return to Italy to tidy up her remaining business affairs in the country. Instead, the Soviet government forced her into requesting Soviet citizenship and then sold off her Italian villa without her consent. Krushelnitska did not just lose a property – she also lost her personal archive of paintings, stage costumes and memorabilia from what was one of the 20th century’s most amazing opera careers. Worse was to follow in 1949 when the murder of a well-known West Ukrainian communist writer by nationalist insurgent forces provided the authorities with cause for an intensification of the Soviet terror. The campaign included an assault on Ukrainian culture and led to mass dismissals from cultural institutions such as the Lviv Conservatory where Krushelnitska worked. When the world-renowned performer was asked to produce a valid Soviet diploma to prove her worth as a teacher, a confused and distressed Krushelnitska was left to search through the local archives until a copy of her 1980s qualification could be found. The great Solomiya Krushelnitska finally gave her last ever performance in 1949. She was 77 years old and already losing her battle with cancer but nevertheless gave a stunning performance at the Lviv Philharmonia. She died three years later and is buried in Lviv’s Lycharkiv Cemetery next to her friend and one-time contemporary Ivan Franko.
Today she is remembered for her staggering voice which provided the soundtrack for the swansong of the imperial age. Busts of Krushelnitska have recently been unveiled in Milan’s legendary La Scala and Warsaw’s Opera House, while local Lviv fans can catch a bit of the Krushelnitska ambience at the museum dedicated to her life and works at 23 Krushelnitska Street – her former address in Lviv.