Solomea Krushelnytska – Ukraine’s Finest Opera Singer – Once a World-Class, Famous Star

Nov 24th, 2012 | By | Category: Culture, History, In Depth, Ukraine, Ukrainians Worldwide

by Andriy Semotiuk

I confess right off the bat that I am not the kind of guy you are going to find at an opera house. Believe it or not however, that is where you would have found me last week if you were in Lviv. That is also where you should have been had you been there. That was because November 16th, 2012 marked the 60th anniversary of the death of Ukraine’s most successful and once-world-famous opera singer Solomea Krushelnytska  A festival in Krushelnytska’s honour held in Lviv this year included various theatre performances, a conference about her life and a religious service at the Lechakiwsky cemetery in her memory. I attended an opera, one of the conference sessions and the religious service. There was a special reason for my presence there: Krushelnytska was my grandmother’s sister. Even without the family tie hover, there was good reason to attend since there was a lot to learn about Solomea Krushelnytska, good history that highlighted Ukraine and her Ukrainian achievements. I want to summarize that history here.

Solomea Krushelnytska, who was born in 1872 in Bila, Ukraine and rose to world fame starting at the Lviv opera theatre that today carries her name. She spoke seven languages, including English, and knew the entire score and full lyrics to some fifty operas by heart. She performed at La Scala in Milan, one of the ultimate theaters of the opera world back at the turn of the 20th century. She also traveled throughout Europe, Egypt, North and South America including appearances in New York and Montreal. She sang with the famous Italian tenor Enrico Caruso, to whom she was a mentor, and with other great opera singers of her time. She performed with conductors like Arturo Toscaninii and worked with composers such as Richard Straus and Giacomo Puccini. But her most significant contribution to the world of opera came in 1904 with her role in the opera Madame Butterfly. Naturally this opera was part of the festival activities this November and I had the opportunity to view it in the Lviv Opera House.

This next part of this article is important for every Ukrainian to know.

Madam Butterfly is about Cio Cio San (“Butterfly”), a Japanese Geisha girl who has a love affair with an American Naval officer stationed in Japan in the late 1800s. Giacomo Puccini, the Italian composer, first staged his new opera at La Scala in Milan on February 17th, 1904.  To assure Madame Butterfly’s success, Puccini chose the strongest opera stars for the lead roles. Among them were soprano Rosina Storchio and tenor Giovanni Zenatello.  To his shock and humiliation, the performance was a fiasco. According to articles later written in the New York Times as well as those in opera magazines, not only was it a failure, the auditorium responded with jeers, whistles, catcalls and various other admonishments. The reviews of the following day were no more forgiving. Headlines screamed out “Puccini Hissed,” “Fiasco at La Scala,” and “Butterfly, Diabetic Opera, The Result of an Automobile Accident.” Devastated and crestfallen, Puccini described the incident as a “lynching” and decided to close down the theater run.

Not knowing what to do with his newest creation, Puccini turned to his good friend Arturo Toscanini for advice. It was Toscanini who steered Puccini in the direction of Solomea Krushelnytska, a rare spinto soprano with a vocal range from middle C to high D. Although the opera failed in its initial presentation, nonetheless Krushelnytska agreed to take the risk of playing the lead role of Cio Cio San when it was restaged. This was no small risk given the serious costs involved and the danger of a second failure to the careers of both Puccini and Krushelnytska. But in the moment of Puccini’s deepest anguish, Krushelnytska was prepared to risk her successful career for the sake of helping her friend give the world the great treasure of this opera.

As mentioned earlier the opera is about a Japanese Geisha who falls in love with Pinkerton, an American naval officer. The officer goes through a form of marriage with Butterfly yet  does not consider himself bound it. He is then recalled to America but promises to  return to Butterfly if she will wait for him. He leaves not knowing that Butterfly is pregnant with his child. Butterfly gives birth to Pinkerton’s son but as months of waiting turn to years, her faith in his promise to return is severely tested. In time Pinkerton does return but with a new American bride in tow. After he learns of his son, Pinkerton and Butterfly confer on what is best for the boy – to leave him with his poor mother in Japan or to send him to America with his father and the new wife.  Butterfly is persuaded to allow the boy to return with his father. In  the course of reaching this resolution and in contemplating her own death, Butterfly sings that it is better to die with honour, than to live without it. This was just one of a series universal themes that tug at your heart throughout the course of the performance. Earlier in the performance, for example, she sings she is so happy that she dares not utter one word for fear she will die. Later, after learning of Pinkerton’s new bride, she sings to her, “You are the luckiest woman on earth.” Then, near the end of the opera, Butterfly sings these final words to her son, “Look at this face. It is the face of your mother. Remember it, for you will never see it again.”

Such powerful, noble themes cannot help but melt the coldest of hearts.

That was why going back to the opera’s origins, it was so important to try to stage this opera following its first debacle. Visibly shaking and riddled with anxiety over the possible outcome of this, his second effort on stage for his beloved piece, Puccini stood in the wings of the theater awaiting the reaction of the audience to his revised version. He was not the only one who was tense. Everyone was apprehensive. At exactly nine o’clock on May 29th, 1904 the curtain went up at the Teatro Grande, in Brescia some one hundred miles southwest of Milan. Puccini need not have worried about the success of the new venture. The opera was repeatedly interrupted by loud applause. At the conclusion, all of the cast and the composer were called out on to the stage no less than seven times for recognition! The opera went on to tour Italy and found international acclaim. Thus in 1904, Krushelnytska triumphed and then toured the opera houses of Europe with the opera.

The opera house in Lviv was the ideal place to stage the opera this November. A four-story structure painted in a light cream colour with gold trim designs and red-coloured seats it was where Krushelnytska started her meteoric rise to fame, a fact that was certainly on my mind and likely on the mind of most of the audience members that night. As for the opera itself, if you have not yet seen Madam B utterly, even if you are not an opera fan, it is well worth your time. Reviews pronounce it to be America’s favourite opera.

As for Krushelnytska herself, following the success of this opera, Krushelnytska toured opera houses across Europe. Then, after retiring from opera performances, she went on a world concert tour and sang until she reached her mid-fifties. In 1937, her husband died in Via Regio where the two lived in Krushelnytska’s villa on the Italian Riviera. Then in August 1939 she returned to Galicia, then under Polish rule, to join her family in Lviv. Shortly thereafter World War II broke out and the Iron Curtain came down making it impossible for Krushelnytska to return to the West. Mussolini nationalized her villa on the Italian Riviera and Stalin nationalized her home in Lviv in Western Ukraine.

At the conference about Krushelnytska this November, I talked about my family that lived with Krushelnytska in the building that now houses the Krushelnytsky Museum. at 23 Krushelnytska st. I talked about how Krushelnytska ended up under Soviet rule since, unlike my family members who escaped before the Red Army invaded Western Ukraine at the end of World War II, she could not leave because she was looking after her sister Anna who was mentally ill and could not travel.   I talked about how the last few years of Krushelnytska’s life were very trying and how she died in Lviv in 1952. While she has passed on however, her memory and her fame have not. And we as Ukrainians should ensure it continues.

Andriy Semotiuk is a U.S. and Canadian immigration attorney who now writes freelance articles from time to time. A former United Nations correspondent, Mr. Semotiuk now lives with his family in Toronto.



Picture of the author at the Lychakivsky cemetary in Lviv in front of the memorial of Solomea Krushelnytska.

Picture of the author with Lesia Keryk of the Krushelnytsky Museum in Lviv at the Lviv Opera Theater next to the bust of Solomea Krushelnytska 

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