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Opera singer flees Belarusian oppression to revive career

By MARK PRATT, Associated Press

BOSTON (AP) — Ilya Silchukou was a cultural icon in his native Belarus, the principal soloist of the Bolshoi State Opera who represented his nation at official government functions at home and abroad and performed in operas across Europe.

He lived a privileged and comfortable life in his homeland.

Silchukou dared to speak out against Alexander Lukashenko, who ruled the former Soviet republic with an iron fist for nearly three decades.

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He now lives in the suburbs of Boston with his wife and three children and teaches music to college students while trying to revive his singing career in the United States, where he remains relatively unknown.

“I’m known in Europe, but I’ve never played in the United States, and it was like a blank sheet of paper for me, just a new page,” he said in a recent interview. in Boston. scratch here.”

When Lukashenko won a sixth term in 2020 in an election seen by his opposition and the West as fraudulent, Silchukou joined tens of thousands of Belarusians in election protests that were violently suppressed and culminated in the arrest of thousands of people.

“It was so obvious to all of us that we couldn’t keep quiet any longer,” he said.

He gave up three awards he personally received from Lukashenko.

His friends warned him of the risks.

“They said, ‘What’s wrong with you? You have everything you need,” he said. “I was well paid in Belarus and took full advantage of it. I said, ‘Yes, they pay me, but they don’t own me.’

His public opposition to Lukashenko got him fired from the opera for an “act of immorality” and he was blacklisted, he said. In response, he had another act of defiance – using his baritone voice in a video of the traditional Belarusian anthem, “Mahutny Bozha”, which means “Mighty God”, and became an iconic opposition anthem. in Lukashenko.

Yet it wasn’t until March 2021 when police came after his wife, Tanya, and accused her of defrauding the state-sponsored National Child Support Scheme and threatened her two years in prison that he knew he had to get out. He took it as a thinly veiled threat to break up their family.

“Many children in Belarus have both parents in prison,” he said.

When their children finished school in May that year, the family packed four suitcases with vital documents and photos and flew from Belarus to the nation of Georgia and then to Seattle, where their parents live. .

The family arrived on the East Coast about a year ago at the suggestion of Marina Lvova, who runs the nonprofit Belarusians in Boston, drawn by Boston’s cultural scene, proximity to Europe and expat community dynamic Belarusian.

Lvova and her husband saw Silchukou for the first time at one of her last public performances in Minsk and “fell in love with her voice”, she said.

But she was also impressed by his bravery in standing up to Lukashenko.

“Ilya is a true patriot of Belarus,” she said. “You cannot succeed in a country that is a prison, and unfortunately our country is a prison right now.”

Silchukou makes ends meet by teaching students in grades 5-9 at private school Star Academy.

“It’s quite amazing that he can share some of the experiences he has had in some of the best opera houses in Europe,” said Star Academy co-director Margarita Druker.

The school has many students of Eastern European descent whose families have similar stories of fleeing oppression.

“It was very brave for someone of his stature to walk away from everything he had in such uncertainty,” Druker said.

Silchukou returned to the stage, collaborating with pianist Pavel Nersessian, associate professor at Boston University, for two recent concerts in Boston and New Jersey.

For both he has put together a retrospective of some of his personal favorite pieces spanning his career from his first singing lessons to his time at the National Opera, including “Papageno” from “The Magic Flute” and “Cavatina Figaro” from “The Magic Flute”. Barber of Seville.” He crowned the shows with what he called the “concert gem”, a duet with his mezzo-soprano wife.

He recently auditioned with the Boston Lyric Opera and is trying to secure auditions with other opera houses in the United States, and is in negotiations with US agents.

“I’m waiting with hope,” he said.

One of these hopes is a return to his native country.

He remains in contact with friends and colleagues in Belarus who are “working in fear”, fearful of exposing Lukashenko.

“We hope to see them again, and for sure we will sing our songs in the squares on our real Independence Day,” he said.

Copyright 2022 The Associated press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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