Nikolay Koval is a People’s Artiste of Ukraine and a leading master at the Shevchenko National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre, whose talent stems from the unity of three fraternal cultures: Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. He still continues dreaming of singing at Belarus’ Bolshoi Theatre.
“Why not,” he exclaims emotionally. “I can do much. During my lifetime, I’ve sung all leading baritone parts, and would be very pleased to perform Amonasro in your Aida, or Eugene Onegin. Moreover, I’d sing any song jointly with the Zhinovich Orchestra. However, it seems my fate hampers me due to some unknown reasons. It fails to take into consideration that I’m a Belarusian — belonging to the country to the core.”
Mr. Koval spoke of fate’s twists and turns, which failed to always meet his expectations, they were painless, but bewildering. He wondered why his native country actually pushed him away. Initially, we also failed to understand the reasons.
We met the famous Ukrainian operatic singer during our May business trip. In our talk, we attempted to clear out why the artiste remained unclaimed. In cases of this kind, when the ways of God are inscrutable, we can only blame fate. Sometime later (while exchanging our opinions on the topic), we assumed that it was Mr. Koval who actually failed to make wise choices and explore every avenue to make his dream of singing in Belarus true. He probably had something against someone or hesitated about realising his most ardent dream — to sing in his native country. Possibly, he was too hasty in moving to Kiev, where his family was offered accommodation. And the material side of life is extremely important, where family matters are affected. However, it’s also clear that dreams come true only if we are working hard to achieve them. In our discussion, we also assumed that Mr. Koval had a dominant ‘Ukrainian’ gene which took him to Kiev. As for me, I was born in Ukraine’s Kharkov District, but have lived in Belarus for many years, despite having many chances of living and working in Kiev after graduating from Kiev University. In my case, it’s probably the ‘Belarus’ gene which took me to Minsk. However, it’s the scientists’ job to study how genes work…
I recollect that, on meeting Mr. Koval at the entrance to the Kiev Opera, we spend some time looking for a quiet spot to have our talk. It appeared that the theatre prohibited anyone coming inside for interviews, even journalists from a friendly neighbouring state. In order for it to happen, one had to ask for permission well in advance. Actually, we were not insistent, although I would have much loved to have seen the backstage of the Kiev Opera House. Instead, we went to a small Chinese restaurant not far from the theatre and Kiev’s Golden Gates. The latter are a defensive architectural monument from the Kiev Rus’ times, which served as an entry to the city in the past. I then recollected my student years in the 1970s. Back then, the site was ruined. Mr. Koval and Nikolay Boiko, the journalist who had introduced me to the artiste informed me that the opening of the reconstructed Golden Gates was timed to coincide with Kiev’s 1500th birthday celebrations in May 1982. My companions even showed us a shop nearby that sold Belarusian produce. We were pleased to see that our dairy foods enjoyed such demand in Kiev, all of which has little connection to our main character.
During our stay in Kiev, the singer had no theatre performances, sadly, but we got acquainted with Mr. Koval’s mastery via his CDs, which he presented to us. Clearly, live singing is always much more impressive, but even his recordings were fabulous. Mr. Koval’s strong and deep-toned baritone touched the out heartstrings, and our imagination immediately brought his diverse operatic images to life. Nikolay performing Onegin in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Igor in Borodin’s Prince Igor, Andrey Bolkonsky in Prokofiev’s War and Peace, and Figaro in Rossini’s Barber of Seville, amongst others.
Mr. Koval is actually as bright a talker as he is a singer. While drinking jasmine tea, we were discussing his path to the operatic art, and his efforts to succeed in it. His eyes sparkled with hope after we promised to tell our magazine readers that the Belarus-born People’s Artiste of Ukraine, Nikolay Koval, would love to sing for his countrymen. He is ready to come to Minsk with a solo programme; ready to perform operatic arias and Ukrainian and Belarusian folk songs. The artiste passionately loves his native Belarus and often thinks of it, even though he has spent many years in Ukraine, where he has built a successful artistic career.
“I was born in the Polesie’s village of Azdamichi, in the Brest Region’s Stolin District. Later, I attended a local school. My mother, Yelena Koval, came from the neighbouring village of Algomel. Her maiden name was Lasko. Her father (my grandfather) was Savva Lesko. His origin is unsure. People said that he was born in neighbouring Tolmachevo, and that he had no parents. My grandmother’s family name was Kardash. She was born in Bolshoe Maleshovo. If you look at a map of Belarus, all these villages are situated close to each other.”
“My artistic life is very complicated; it would make a good book. I inherited my singing ability from my mother, who sang wonderfully. Jointly with my father, they sang extremely beautifully and were often invited to village weddings to perform. When I was a schoolboy, I dreamt of being invited to such a party but never asked myself as I was too shy, probably due to my character or upbringing. Even now I’m sometimes reluctant to take the initiative. Moreover, my teacher of music marked me down as ‘good’, seeing no true talent. He failed to see me as an equal. Our modern life also distinguishes people as ‘us’ and ‘not us’. I was also fond of sports, and participated in the discus and javelin throwing and shot-putt. I was even close to receiving a Master of Sports degree. After graduation, my school continued to display my medals and diplomas in an honourable place for another five or even ten years. That was no surprise, as I was a district champion. In my 9th and 10th years at school, my godfather, Daniil Kadolich, headed our class, and I remember him asking me to take part a concert, singing jointly with girls. Alongside him, my teacher, Stepan Dubeiko, the same man who marked me as ‘good’, and also oversaw club activities at that time, also asked me to participate. I even remember him coming to my house for this purpose. I then sang The Song of Nieman and Naryan-Mar, with Mr. Dubeiko accompanying me. My solo performance created quite a stir…”
“My father bought me a harmonica in my 5th year at school. I had a good ear and was able to repeat any melody sung by my mother. Over the course of time, I began accompanying local dance parties. However, I had no intention to devote my life to music or singing, as I dreamt of becoming a naval officer. In 1969, I passed all necessary examinations with an aim of entering Sevastopol’s Nakhimov Naval School. Those who know the city are aware of its Dutch Bay, where the submariners are trained, and Streletskaya Bay, where my would-be unit was situated. I think I could have entered, but my mother wrote me a touching letter, wondering whether I really wished that path. I took the letter and showed it to the School Headmaster, who asked, “Didn’t your mother know?” I answered that she knew, but that I had no idea that she was so worried. Several other Belarusians wished to enter as well, but eventually, all of them, including me, got the wind up and returned home. As a result, I entered the Pinsk Agricultural College’s Zoo-technical Department. This was how my mother ‘built’ my life. She took me from the sea as she was so afraid for me, and I was an obedient son. After my first year at the College, I was called up for military service. I wished to join the fleet but failed because of my blood pressure. On the evening before, I celebrated the call up jointly with my friends, but next morning, my pressure was high. As a result, I was sent to hospital, for seven days, and my ship ‘sailed away’… Obviously, a life at sea was not to be my fate. I appeared to be too weak and indecisive to become a naval officer. Instead, I served in Pechi, at a medical-sanitary battalion. During my army service, I participated in the battalion amateur band, and remember singing ‘The moon hides behind clouds and night banks are dreaming’ jointly, with our commander’s wife. After that concert, the Head of Tachanka ensemble approached me and invited me to join them. Of course, I agreed. After that, I commanded a squadron, but also attended rehearsals on weekends. I even had holidays, thanks to Tachanka.”
“After being discharged from the army, I returned to the College, joining its Rovesnik (Peer) pop ensemble as a soloist. The band was headed by Pavel Rubets, who works in Pinsk now. Since my graduation from college in 1973, I’ve never seen him, sadly. Meanwhile, the Polesie dance ensemble, led by the Honoured Figure of Arts of Ukraine, Mr. Smirnov, as far as I remember, worked under the Pinsk House of Culture. We toured Belarus’ leading Komsomol construction sites, also giving concerts in Latvia and Poland. I sang during the breaks, while the dancers were changing their costumes, accompanied by an accordion. Tulikov’s Homeland, Yaroslavia and The Song of Nieman were on my repertoire then, among other songs. During one of my performances, I was heard by the Secretary of Pinsk’s Regional Party Committee, Ms. Pitunova. After the concert, she approached me and advised to study singing professionally. “Move to Minsk and enter the Conservatory,” she suggested. I then collected all my documents and went to the capital.”
“I arrived at the Lunacharsky Conservatory, and my live audition was in front of Nikolay Serdobov, who’s in the kingdom of heaven now. At that time, this People’s Artiste of Belarus was a soloist at the Opera Theatre. After singing Tulikov’s Homeland, I was told to return in September. However, I soon received a letter stating that the Conservatory had chosen not to enrol me. Being a young specialist, I had to work at a specified job for three years. The Agricultural College’s Deputy Head, Mr. Stolyarov, told me then, “Go to the Ministry of Agriculture. I’ll call them, asking to release you.” He wanted me to continue studying and, eventually, everything was a success: I went to the Ministry and received the required release papers. I then entered the preparatory department and, once I had finished it, began full time studies. During that period, I was taught the art of breathing by Mikhail Zyuvanov, the People’s Artiste of Belarus who boasted a unique bass. He advised me to move to Moscow to continue my studies. The city evidently had much space and many possibilities for artistic growth. As far as I am aware, he also advised Mikhail Zhilyuk, Belarus’ Honoured Artiste, to enter a Moscow university. Mr. Zhilyuk was born in the Transcarpathian Region. He is a Ukrainian but sang at your Bolshoi Theatre. I’m a Belarusian, but sing for the Kiev Opera. Really, things happen…”
“Probably, there were Ukrainians among my forefathers. As far as I was told, my great grandfather, Nikita Perebrodkov, floated timber. His father originated from Perebrod, which is Ukrainian territory now. However, it seems to me these are not distances which define a nationality, but a lifestyle.”
“Finally, I went to the Moscow Conservatory in 1976. However, I moved in the status of a ‘national employee’, and was obliged to return home after graduation. I remember Vladimir Olovnikov, the People’s Artiste of Belarus, composer, public and party figure and author, saying that he would let me go only as a ‘national employee’. I was paid a scholarship for three years but after that all payments ceased. At the Conservatory, I was taught by the wonderful Vladimir Atlantov (tenor), Alexander Ognivtsev (bass) and Gugo Tits (baritone).”
“After graduation, I took part in the ‘Youth Fair of Operatic Singers’ where I was invited by many leading operatic theatres of the USSR — St. Petersburg, Kiev and Novosibirsk. I was also invited to the Smolensk Philharmonic, where I was also offered a two room flat to live in, Krasnodar and other cities. However, being ‘a national employee’, I returned to Minsk. On coming to the theatre, I was welcomed by Yuri Mikhnevich, who was the Minister of Culture at that time, and other officials. They asked me whether I could sing for them. I answered that I’d definitely sing and then realised that I had had such a ‘cool’ education. I arrived in Minsk jointly with my wife, Tamara, an Honoured Figure of Arts of Ukraine, soloist at Ukraine’s National Opera and author, but she also failed to find a job at the Belarusian Opera Theatre. Actually, judging by the above mentioned questions, I was not an ‘appropriate’ candidate as well. Probably, it was not my fate to work in Minsk. It seems to me I’ve done everything possible to return home. As a result, we went back to Kiev which welcomed us with open arms, and I was employed to perform primo characters. Since 1986, I’ve been a soloist at the Kiev Opera. Just a couple of weeks after our arrival, we were provided with accommodation and, before too long, my wife was also employed.”
“My Tamara is Russian. She studied at Moscow’s, Tchaikovsky Conservatory, learning from renowned teachers and professors, like Irina Arkhipova, People’s Artiste of the USSR and Vazha Chachava, People’s Artiste of Georgia. As a wonderful soprano singer, she performed the leading parts in Lysenko’s Natalka-Poltavka, Borodin’s Prince Igor and Verdi’s La Traviata and Rigoletto. I’m proud that Tamara was also acknowledged one of the most unique chamber singers of Ukrainian 18th-21st century vocal music. We often jointly sing at Kiev’s concert grounds. I also sing duets with Veronika, my elder daughter. Several years ago, she became a laureate at the International Opera Singers Competition, named after Solomeya Krushelnitskaya, which was a true joy for us as parents. Veronika graduated from the Moscow Conservatory, learning from a People’s Artiste of the USSR, Bella Rudenko. She sings duets with her mother as well, performing brilliantly. They both boast clear and truly spiritual voices. My junior daughter, Ksyusha, is a director-choreographer. Since about 1992, I think, my wife also lectures solo singing at the Kiev Music Institute. I began teaching solo singing in 1995, at the Kiev National University of Culture and Arts. I’m a professor, and a member of a range of associations: Ukraine’s Theatrical Figures, the All-Ukrainian Union of Belarusians, the Kiev Association of Submariners and the International Organisation of Ukraine’s Kazaks. I’m also an honourable member of Ukraine’s Academy of Sciences. I’m now a significant person who has many titles,” he chuckles.
“Importantly, I’m a high rate professional; able to sing jointly with an orchestra, under piano accompaniment or perform operatic roles, of which I have over 30. I have taken part in European festivities in Wiesbaden, Dresden, Strasburg and Paris, and have won numerous international contests. However, I’ve failed to perform in my native country. Several years ago, the Belarusian Embassy invited me to take part in the Slavianski Bazaar in Vitebsk Festival, but as an honourable guest only. I then sent them my repertoire, and was ready to prepare a sound record, but I was denied. I was invited to come without my songs but I’m not blind or mute. I’m not a celebrity-for-hire so far.”
“My dear homeland sent me another invitation as well — to participate in the Independence Day celebrations. I really hope this will come true one day.”
“I have many familiar submariners in Belarus. I never served on board, but have friends among seamen, sharing a single soul with them. I’m probably inspired by the sea’s romanticism. No celebrations and congresses are organised without my participation; I sang at the World Submariners’ Congress in Moscow, and took part in events in events Kiev, Brest and Warsaw. I usually perform the seamen’s favourite songs there, such as Evening at an Anchorage, A Submarine, Farewell Rocky Mountains, and others. Seamen view me as their equal, which is pleasant.”
“Once a year, I visit my native Azdamichi where my elder brother, Alexey Koval, lives. He is a universal engine driver and has many awards, including the Order of Glory of the 1st Class, the Order of Glory of the 2nd Class and the Order of the Red Banner of Labour. I am always happy to visit him. As a rule, I tend to drive to my homeland, the place where my soul rests.”
By Valentina and Ivan Zhdanovich
Dominant genes, fate and the grand dream of an artiste
[b]Nikolay Koval is a People’s Artiste of Ukraine and a leading master at the Shevchenko National Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre, whose talent stems from the unity of three fraternal cultures: Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. He still continues dreaming of singing at Belarus’ Bolshoi Theatre.[/b] “Why not,” he exclaims emotionally. “I can do much. During my lifetime, I’ve sung all leading baritone parts, and would be very pleased to perform Amonasro in your Aida, or Eugene Onegin. Moreover, I’d sing any song jointly with the Zhinovich Orchestra. However, it seems my fate hampers me due to some unknown reasons. It fails to take into consideration that I’m a Belarusian — belonging to the country to the core.”