In the heart of London’s central Covent Garden district, the small church of St Paul’s is unusually bustling for a midweek evening.
As the clamour subsides, 130 members of a London-based Ukrainian choir make their way to their positions in the church, affectionately known as the city’s “actor’s church”.
A hush falls, and then, steadily, energy fills the air as the choir launches into a performance of an aria from a Verdi opera.
It is only the sixth time that the choir, many of whose members fled the Russian invasion of their country a year ago, has sung together.
Iryna Stepanova, 32, from the city of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, said it was imperative their cultural heritage be preserved.
“I think that now, more than ever, we need to defend Ukraine on the cultural front,” she said.
“We used to be known as the ‘singing nation’ and the music in our culture is very important,” she said.
The choir, which is being accompanied by 45 members of the chorus of the nearby Royal Opera House (ROH), performed on March 16 in a sold-out concert dedicated to Ukraine.
Stepanova said singing with top professionals from the ROH had made her feel nervous but excited at the same time.
“I’m a bit stressed but I’m mostly excited because I think it will be a unique experience for all Ukrainians,” she said.
William Spaulding, the ROH chorus director, who is guiding the choir before its performance, said he realised he was dealing with “something extremely special” when he first heard the group sing.
“What’s been really moving is when they sing their Ukrainian music – to hear that special connection between one’s native home, one’s native language, one’s native music.”
Jillian Barker, ROH director of learning, said they had been overwhelmed with applications to join the choir.
“We were hoping to bring together 45 singers, and we received 360 applications,” she said.
Those selected are from all age groups and are mostly women, as the men are fighting on the frontlines, she said.
Some are professionals while others had never sung before.
To make the project work, the organisers worked on a repertoire made up of opera arias “that can be sung by non-professionals” and Ukrainian patriotic and folk music.
Barker said the choir’s first meeting had brought tears to the eyes.
“The first rehearsal they sang on their own together, and we were just standing at the back crying because the sound is so powerful,” she said.
Barker said the group had immediately bonded and created an instant singing community.
As a professional singer, Dmytro Hovorov admits that he was apprehensive about singing with amateurs. “But I was really surprised, the level is very high.”
Originally from the city of Cherkasy in central Ukraine, the 22-year-old was living in Britain before the Russian invasion.
“A Ukrainian choir singing Ukrainian songs is really powerful and sends the message that we are still fighting, we are still strong, we will win, and it will be fine,” he said.
Ukraine will be at the centre of the Eurovision Song Contest in the northwestern city of Liverpool in May. The country won the 2022 edition but cannot host the event on its soil due to the war. – AFP/Valentine Graveleau