You cannot confuse Mykola Kondratiuk’s deep, melodious, and unwavering baritone with anyone else’s. Kondratiuk was a superb opera singer and the premier performer of many Ukrainian songs, including the now legendary “Yaseny” (Ash-trees) and “Dva Koliory” (Two Colors) by Oleksandr Bilash. The well-known Ukrainian singer and pedagogue passed away one year ago. Last Wednesday a number of soirees were held in Kondratiuk’s honor in Kyiv’s House of the Actor, the SBU Center of Culture and the Arts, and the National Philharmonic.
“THE UKRAINIAN ITALIAN”
Valentyna Antoniuk’s study of the singer’s life and work, entitled The Traditions of the Ukrainian Vocal School: Mykola Kondratiuk, was recently published in Kyiv. In it, the author, Kondratiuk’s first pupil, recalls his internship at Milan’s La Scala, where the artist studied and took part in several productions.
“In the harsh winter of 1962, right before New Year’s Eve, the young Ukrainian singers Mykola Kondratiuk and Anatolii Solovianenko, who had taken part in the selection competition and won together with Vladimir Atlantov and Muslim Magomayev, were ready even to sing outdoors in the cold, exulting over the prospect of studying in Italy,” Andrii Sirosh reminisces. “Kondratiuk came back from La Scala full of hopes and plans.” The Rome-based newspaper Avanti wrote: “His voice is rich, mellow, and flexible, and has a noble timbre. With such technical training, this baritone will soon conquer the world’s best theaters.” At the Kyiv Theater of Opera and Ballet Kondratiuk sang 23 operatic parts, including such trademark roles as Ostap in Mykola Lysenko’s Taras Bulba, Count de Luna in Giuseppe Verdi’s Il Trovatore, Figaro in Gioacchino Rossini’s Barber of Seville, Iago in Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello, and Maksym in Heorhii Maiboroda’s Arsenal.
“But the years flew by after his internship, which gave practically nothing to Kondratiuk. The artist was maturing inwardly to make the final choice of a genre that would best suit his talent. Comparing the functioning of opera houses at home and abroad, he came to the sad conclusion that it was futile to make any efforts or attempts to change the Soviet repertory policy and the uncivilized attitude to productions in the original language,” Antoniuk notes.
After returning to Ukraine, Kondratiuk was allowed to sing in Italian in one matinee production, The Barber of Seville by Rossini, after which he received a “slap in the face” (a Kyiv newspaper published a satire on the “home-spun Italian”). Following these sad events, Kondratiuk moved to Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater, but returned to Kyiv two years later for family reasons. At the time, the singer’s wife Natalia Kondratiuk was working as a piano accompanist at the Kyiv Theater of Opera and Ballet. Experiencing an “inner crisis,” Kondratiuk decided to establish a “one-actor theater.” He became a soloist at Ukrkontsert and then at the Kyiv Philharmonic.
“The artist toured with the classical repertory of an opera singer, while in his native Ukraine his image was that of a ‘performer of Soviet and folk (Ukrainian and Russian) songs and lyrico-heroic works by contemporary composers,’” Antoniuk writes. Kondratiuk’s immense repertory also included four cantatas and oratorios, as well as songs by Western European and modern Ukrainian composers. He was the toast of the town throughout the 1960s and 1970s. When he later took up teaching, he never lost touch with his fans.
It was not easy being Kondratiuk’s pupil: he was very demanding of himself and others and did not miss a single mistake during a class, be it in a difficult operatic aria or a short song. Those who sang with Kondratiuk had to maintain the highest professional level. Yet he was not indifferent to other people’s pain.
Kondratiuk was friendly with the famous singer Borys Hmyria. It may have been from him that Kondratiuk inherited his attentive and intellectual attitude to vocal pieces, difficult opera arias and ordinary songs alike. The singer worked painstakingly on every work that he had to perform, to the point of researching the history of its creation. Thanks to this studious approach, the songs and arias that he performed always sounded fresh and were remembered for a long time by his listeners. The singer had an excellent command of Italian and was interested in psychology. He was friends with Prof. Kytaihorodsky and even dreamed of founding a new scholarly discipline — the psychology of singing. In everyday life Kondratiuk was a precise and easygoing individual, who respected traditions in any sphere of life.
In 1968 Kondratiuk began to teach vocal art at the Department of Solo Singing at the Kyiv Conservatory (today: the Peter Tchaikovsky National Music Academy of Ukraine) and was appointed rector in 1973. His pupils include brilliant singers, such as Shopsha, Antoniuk, Shokalo, Chornodub, Bondarenko, Kolybabiuk, and many others.
In the last years of his life Kondratiuk found comfort in raising his grandson Sashko. “In the winter of 1995 Kondratiuk came to the Teacher’s House to hear my recital. He liked walking,” Antoniuk recalls. “When the recital ended, he came to say hello to me and complained about pain in his knees. At the time, Kondratiuk was showing the first signs of Bekhterev’s disease (ankylosing spondylitis). Shortly afterwards, he became bedridden. In one of his last conversations the singer admitted: “If I had chosen a different profession and become, say, a radio technician, not an artist, I would probably have achieved success too. But one thing is obvious: I would have been surrounded by more well- wishers. Nowhere else are there as many demonic people as in the artistic milieu.”
To be sure, as Kondratiuk was winning acclaim in his country and abroad, he was experiencing not only the love of audiences but also the envy of his fellow artists. Some of them even tried to instigate a quarrel between him and another star, Dmytro Hnatiuk, by assigning them an identical repertoire. But in reality, the two singers had a warm and friendly relationship.
The concert “Echo of a Solo Song,” held in Kyiv’s Actor’s House, was the first of several events marking the first anniversary of the death of this distinguished Ukrainian singer and educator. This program offered the audience the rare bel canto singing style. Among the performers were Valentyna Antoniuk’s pupils and several students of the Tchaikovsky Academy: Valeria Tulis (soprano), Anastasia Khilko (mezzo-soprano), and Hu Fang and Wu Xsiao (sopranos, China). The presence of these young female singers at the Kondratiuk commemorative soiree was not accidental, Antoniuk said, as he is the vocal “grandfather” of her pupils whom she taught the bel canto technique.
The concert program featured the works of Marcello, Vivaldi, Legrenzi, Monteverdi, Gluck, Rossini, Offenbach, Mysliwczyk, and Ukrainian folk songs arranged by Mykola Lysenko.
The second Kondratiuk tribute concert, entitled “Do You Hear, My Brother?” was organized by the SBU Center of Culture and the Our Home charity. It was part of the project Their Talents Are the Glory of Ukraine, which organizes soirees in honor of well-known Ukrainian artists of the past and present, such as the poet Andrii Malyshko and the singers Oksana Petrusenko, Yevhenia Miroshnychenko, Yurii Bohatikov, and Mykola Kondratiuk. The concert was noted for its warm atmosphere and absence of lengthy, bombastic speeches. The mistress of ceremonies, Vira Bondarchuk, reminded the audience of the importance of memory in human life, “which bridges the past and the future.”
This idea seemed to be reflected in Bach’s Adagio played by the violinist Kyrylo Bondar, a student at the Music Academy. The next to perform was a string quartet from Kyiv’s Gliere Music School. The concert program consisted of opera arias, Ukrainian folksongs, Soviet songs, and works by contemporary Ukrainian composers, which were part of Kondratiuk’s repertoire. Among those who performed at the soiree were several generations of his pupils. The audience also heard the voice of Kondratiuk in a 1960s television recording of the song “I Lived in Such Times.” This song was also performed during the concert by the young bass singer Denys Vyshnia, who also sang the popular song “Ash-trees” from Kondratiuk’s repertoire. The baritone Markian Sviato, a soloist at the National Music Academy’s opera studio, sang Prince Igor’s Aria from the homonymous opera by Borodin, impressing the audience with his deep and realistic portrayal of the hero’s feelings.
Yurii Rakul gave a brilliant and virtuoso rendition of Figaro’s Aria from Rossini’s Barber of Seville. The audience was also moved by the humorous Ukrainian song “Father Told Me” (arranged by Lysenko), which the singer learned under the guidance of his teacher Mykola Kondratiuk.
Valentyna Antoniuk gave a beautiful performance of two songs — arrangements of 17th-century Ukrainian folk songs — from Vitalii Kyreiko’s cycle “Ten Ukrainian Folk Songs from the Poltava Region,” “I’m Here Today” and “Why, Mother?”
The audience had the impression that the singer’s spirit was hovering over them when they saw photographic images of Kondratiuk on the streets of Milan (the La Scala studies), on stage with Miroshnychenko, as well as a billboard of a Milan theater production in which he had performed. This was followed by several songs from his repertoire: “Fog in the Valley,” “Snow on a Green Leaf,” “A River Flows,” and “Eyes like Cornflowers.”
The concert lasted for two and a half hours without an intermission, but once the singer Oleksandr Vasylenko came on stage, the audience got their second wind. He sang a number of songs with different moods, including “Song of Love,” “My Sweetheart,” and “Eyes like Cornflowers.” After a thunderous ovation, Vasylenko said, “Mykola Kondratiuk was a handsome, serene, and warm personality.”
Meanwhile, the Kondratiuk commemorative soiree at the National Philharmonic of Ukraine was a true gift for music lovers who pine for classical art and beautiful songs.
Kondratiuk’s voice is available on LP recordings and CDs. The favorite Kondratiuk albums of music lovers and retro music fans are “Fog in the Valley,” “Opera Arias Sung by Mykola Kondratiuk,” “Ukrainian Pop Music Hits of the 1960s,” and others.
THE DAY’S FACT FILE
Mykola KONDRATIUK (1931-2006) was born in Starokostiantynivka, Khmelnytsky oblast. After graduating from the Kyiv Conservatory, in the early 1960s he did his advanced studies at La Scala (Milan, Italy).
1957 to 1959: soloist, Hryhorii Veriovka State Folk Chorus.
1959 to 1966: soloist, Kyiv Theater of Opera and Ballet.
1966 to 1974: soloist, Ukrkontsert and the Kyiv Philharmonic.
1973 to 1974: head of the Music Society of Ukraine.
1972 to 1983: head of the department of operatic training, Kyiv Conservatory.
1974 to 1983: rector, Kyiv Conservatory.
From 1994: head of the Department of Solo Singing.
Kondratiuk toured in 40 countries. Named People’s Artist of the USSR and People’s Artist of Ukraine, he was also awarded the Shevchenko State Prize and a number of other medals.