The cast of Verdi's Il Trovatore bowed one last time to rapturous applause before the curtain fell in the war-torn eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk. Though the area is at the center of a separatist effort that has threatened to tear the country apart, the audience was surprisingly full of locals eager to enjoy the tragic love story.
Despite power cuts, a business shutdown, curfews, and near-daily shelling, residents of the rebel-held city flock to the Donetsk Opera and Ballet Theater on weekends in search of respite from the reality of life within a conflict zone.
"It has not been easy," Igor Ivanov, the theater's deputy director, told VICE News after the performance. "It's difficult for people to pay because the banks are down, and we have to stage our performances during the daytime."
As we spoke, the sound of shelling drifted from the city's eastern suburbs, where pro-Russia militiamen regularly exchange fire with Ukrainian forces. Roughly a third of the theater's performers fled when war broke out, including key singers and all four of its conductors. A further setback occurred when a wayward missile destroyed the warehouse where it stored most of its stage sets.
The opera was forced to close amid heavy clashes last July before it recruited new staff and restarted operations the following September, around the time that representatives from the Ukrainian government, Russia, and the self-proclaimed republics in Donetsk and Luhansk signed the first Minsk peace agreement, which only briefly halted the fighting. The first performance of the season in October was free to the public, with the auditorium bursting to capacity.
Despite the ongoing hostilities and challenging circumstances, Ivanov said that audience figures at the 960-seat theater have been impressive since its reopening.
"It was a real surprise, we were overloaded," he remarked. "So many people were coming, and we have had lots of soldiers."
In the cloakroom downstairs, camouflage military jackets were hung among civilian furs and overcoats. An elderly woman working behind the counter pointed proudly at one that bore the flag of Novorossiya ("New Russia"), a historical idea of the region north of the Black Sea that has been revived by the separatists, who have confederated their rebel republics under its banner.
The Novorossiya flag was a point of controversy in December when the Russian opera star Anna Netrebko posed alongside it with a rebel official after handing him a million rubles (about $18,500) for the Donetsk theater, which cannot access its bank account. Operations are a volunteer effort — token salary payments have been irregular, to say the least.
"The presence of the flag was unplanned and caught me off guard," Netrebko later said on Facebook, stressing that she had only intended to support the arts. "I actually did not recognize it at first and realized only later what it was."
Though the theater presents itself as apolitical, the rebel leadership is providing exhausted separatist militia fighters with free tickets to the opera as a gesture of recreational relief, and many of them are attending the performances.
Anatoly Kalmius is one of them. A heavyset fighter with cropped hair and a tidy uniform, he trailed his two young children by the hand as he left the auditorium.
"You can't imagine how scary it was," he said quietly, referring to his experience fighting on the front line in the nearby town of Shakhtarsk. "It was such a psychological rest to come here the first time. The performance was so beautiful."
In the devastated ruins of the city's airport, located just a few kilometers northeast of the opera house, the contrast could not be starker. Twisted passenger planes and burnt out military vehicles lay amid the skeletal remains of airport buildings. The runways have been reduced to eerie crater-filled moonscapes, blanketed with shrapnel and the detritus of war.
Despite a ceasefire introduced in mid-February, anxious separatist fighters told VICE News that they continue to face shelling almost every day.
"It is not the safest place in the world," a rebel who gave only his nom de guerre, "Bad Guy," told VICE News as he sat in a cramped sleeping area in the remains of a nearby warehouse, a figurine of Lenin on his bedside table. "It will not be a surprise if they start shelling right now. We are waiting for shelling constantly."
But while rebel fighters are perhaps most in need of a break, the fighting has upended the lives of everyone in Donetsk.
"We're all so wound up," a soprano named Oksanna who was playing Il Trovatore's heroine, Leonora, told VICE News. "We feel like we're under fire all the time. But it's important that people know we have this temple of peace here. If we have the power to create these moments of peace, we must continue to do it."
Oksanna has been singing at the theater for over 20 years, but the conflict brought unfamiliar challenges. She said that outbursts of shelling make it difficult to concentrate on stage, describing how the bombardment during a children's play performed on New Year's Eve became so fierce that the lights started swinging and the ground shook.
"We had to avoid panic, so we just carried on and finished the show," she recalled.
Theatre officials say they steer clear of politics, but for one Russian baritone, coming to perform in Donetsk is an act of solidarity with the people of the new rebel republic.
Vladimir Vyurova, a big name in his native St Petersburg, decided to offer his services for free after seeing television footage allegedly showing atrocities being committed by the Ukrainian forces against civilians. Sipping red wine in his dressing room after the performance, Vyurova told VICE News that he was on a "humanitarian mission."
"People are angry in Donetsk. They need fresh air, a place to breathe," he explained. "It's like the siege of St. Petersburg by the fascists in World War II. The Ukrainians came with heavy weapons and started shelling civilians."
For Ivanov however, the theatre fulfills a higher purpose.
"We don't do political performances," he insisted. "It's high culture — just the classics. Culture must be a priority now, and this theater is the base of cultural growth in the Donetsk People's Republic."
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Photos by Tommy Trenchard