Opera singer Pavlo Hunka of England now known around the globe
by Olena Wawryshyn
TORONTO - Eighteen years ago, international opera singer Pavlo Hunka had almost resigned himself to a life in jurisprudence. Upon seeing his legal exam results in England's The Times newspaper, he called his parents and brother. They came over to celebrate his success, opened a bottle of champagne and drank to his future.
"At that moment, I realized that I could not continue in the law," said the 45-year old Mr. Hunka. "I wanted to know more about singing, to be able to explain to the choir I was teaching about how the voice works and to help them to improve."
Some might have thought it was folly to leave a stable career for a chance to pursue a life in the unpredictable music field, but Mr. Hunka's passion for music won out. "I fell in love with singing as soon as I sang in church as a kid; I loved everything about it," he says.
Following his heart has paid off handsomely for Mr. Hunka. The bass-baritone has sung in more than 50 operas, including in 30 major operatic roles in the world's leading opera houses in Paris, Vienna, Munich, Florence, London and Salzburg and has performed under the baton of such eminent conductors as Claudio Abbado, Jeffrey Tate and Zubin Mehta.
Last year Mr. Hunka made his Toronto debut to great critical acclaim in the title role in the Canadian Opera Company's (COC) production of "Falstaff" and as Hunding in Wagner's "Die Walküre."
Back in Toronto, on a day off, dressed in sweat pants and a hockey shirt, the larger-than-life singer has just come from a downtown gym where he works out in between rehearsals. Mr. Hunka has been preparing for his upcoming appearance as Alberich in the COC's production of Wagner's "Siegfried" (January 27-February 11). It is the second Ring Cycle opera in which Mr. Hunka has been cast by the COC, and he will be singing both roles again in Toronto's new opera house in 2006.
The message Mr. Hunka projects to audiences is always his foremost concern. He chooses roles based on their dramatic potential. "It's real theater that I want to do, and that's why I turn down an awful lot of work. I only do things now where I can really show the theatrical side of it," says Mr. Hunka, who has been called "one of the great singing actors of our time," by the COC's General Director Richard Bradshaw. And, he is fluent in the languages he sings in, including French, Spanish, Italian and German.
Mr. Hunka also speaks Ukrainian, which he learned at home. His father, Wasyl Hunka, was born in a village in the Ternopil Oblast, Ukraine. Taken by the Nazis to Leipzig as a forced laborer, he left Germany to return to Ukraine, but en route was arrested in Poland and sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where he was from 1942 to 1945. He joined the Polish forces after World War II, was demobilized in Italy, then sailed to England where he was in a Displaced Persons camp in Hereford, near the Welsh border.
Mr. Hunka's father settled in Coventry, where he met his English wife, Irene, and found work with Jaguar Cars. The couple had two sons, Stefan and Pavlo; both boys were active in the local Ukrainian community.
Growing up in Coventry, Mr. Hunka sang in the Ukrainian Catholic Church choir and later with the Manchester-based Homin, travelling to North America in the late 1970s with the choir's tour.
Homin's director, Jaroslav Babuniak, befriended Mr. Hunka. Mr. Hunka noted that Mr. Babuniak, "wanted to be an opera singer but things didn't quite work out for him. When he saw that I could possibly get there he put an awful lot of energy into me," "encouraging me, showing me what he felt was needed to be a singer."
It was with Mr. Babuniak that Mr. Hunka went to the decisive audition, at England's Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM), that launched his singing career, when Mr. Hunka wanted to get an assessment of his vocal talent.
As part of the audition Mr. Hunka sang a Ukrainian song "Hude Viter Velmy v Poli" (A Strong Wind Blows). After the first verse, the head of vocal studies, Joe Ward, asked Mr. Hunka to stop. "He [Ward] left the room and came back with the principal of the college," recalled Mr. Hunka. "I sang again and Joe was moved to tears. They promised that if I came to study they would support me financially. I was stunned."
The college secured him scholarships, including one from the Lord Wolfson Foundation. Through the foundation, he met the late Adele Leigh, a well-connected retired soprano, who, Mr. Hunka said, "eventually came to be one of the four ladies who helped me run my career for nearly 14 years."
Early in Mr. Hunka's career, Mr. Leigh introduced him to Sir Peter Moores, an heir to the Littlewoods mail order and pools empire and one of the richest people in England. For years, Sir Moores funded Mr. Hunka's singing lessons. Mr. Hunka says his benefactor told him: "If you can pass your law exams then you can become a successful singer."
Ms. Leigh advised Mr. Hunka to leave England after he completed his studies. "She told me: 'If you get to somewhere in the center of Europe you can find 25-30 opera houses within three-four hours of you and you've got a chance to work to learn your trade,' " Mr. Hunka noted.
Graduating with distinction from the RNCM, Mr. Hunka heeded Ms. Leigh's advice. He turned down an offer to sing with Covent Garden, and signed an 18-month contract in Basel. There he met the second of the four women who defined his career: the late Maria Sandulescu, a Romanian mezzo-soprano vocal teacher who helped him hone his vocal skills.
Mr. Hunka met the third influential woman in his life, Rita Schütz, who became his manager, in 1995 when she introduced herself after his performance at the Bregenz Opera Festival in Austria.
The fourth woman, Larysa, his British-born Ukrainian wife, has been the most instrumental to Mr. Hunka's professional success and personal happiness. Larysa attends her husband's rehearsals and performances, giving him feedback. "I'm very fortunate that Larysa creates a home for me everywhere we go," said Mr. Hunka.
Recently, during Mr. Hunka's rehearsals for "Siegfried," Larysa made the traditional repast to celebrate Sviat Vechir (Ukrainian Christmas Eve) with friends. "If she, God forbid, passed away tomorrow, I'd pack it in immediately. I don't think I would sing again. She's my lifeline," says Mr. Hunka of his wife. "She knows what it means to be a singer."
The Hunkas are very gracious and generous people. Mr. Hunka invites friends back stage and the couple often hosts after-performance parties. Though he's a star, recognized by fans the world over, Mr. Hunka rarely forgets a name. An animated storyteller, he dominates a room, whether it's an opera hall seating thousands or a church basement. His enthusiasm for his pet projects is infectious.
In England, he is the artistic director of the Bulava Choir, which was started when he returned after 10 years in Europe. The choir performs Ukrainian folk, classical and religious works. Though it began as an all-male choir, now women also sing with the group. All choristers audition and pay a membership fee, and many travel from all over England to attend rehearsals. "The idea is to have something in England that still holds the torch on the cultural side," said Mr. Hunka.
In the Ukrainian community in Toronto, Mr. Hunka has generated a similar buzz. His arrival in Toronto for "Falstaff" spurred a group of Ukrainian Canadians to organize the Art of Singing Master Class, which was taught by Mr. Hunka in September 2004. Mr. Hunka plans to be in Toronto frequently as he will be performing in several leading COC roles, including Berg's Wozzeck, over the next five years.
The Toronto group is now rallying around Mr. Hunka's newest project, recordings of a series of Ukrainian art songs, starting with those of composer Kyrylo Stetsenko (1882-1922). "This is an excellent opportunity to document Stetsenko's unique songs. Almost all his art songs are completely unknown to the world. It is high time they were all recorded in one complete document," noted Mr. Hunka, who plans to record about 40 of them with world-renowned pianist Albert Krywolt. The lyrics of the songs are poems, many by Oleksander Oles (1878-1944).
Afterwards, Mr. Hunka aims to record songs of Mykola Lysenko (1842-1912) and other Ukrainian composers.
As for Ukrainian opera, Mr. Hunka said he finds Kostiantyn Dankevych's opera "Bohdan Khmelnytsky" (1951; new verion, 1953) and the works of Kereyko, Maiboroda and Meytus impressive. "Lysenko has moments that are masterpieces, like the aria of Ostap [Scho Ty Vchynyv," from "Taras Bulba" ] - it's fantastic," he added.
"Ukrainian opera has to be brought to the fore not only for its music but for its dramatic content," said Mr. Hunka. He believes the universal messages within Ukrainian operas must be conveyed and that non-Ukrainian directors could do this more readily. "Unless a Ukrainian has a lot of experience in life outside the Ukrainian cocoon that we all grow up in, they will be very much drawn to clichés of traditional costumes and setting," he observed.
"Directors need to take risks with productions and make people think that Taras Bulba is beyond the steppes, "sharavary," "chupryna," and see it for what [universal] themes it's representing. The narrow message of Taras Bulba will always be there. The issues of greed, love, hate, ambition - those things are never brought out - that's what makes something universal because greed and ambition are characteristics present in every society," he explained.
"We've got to show through our culture how similar we are to the world as opposed to trying to make out how different we are," said Mr. Hunka. "When I was growing up I was always taught Ukrainians are different - and that's wrong - on the cultural side, you have to show that universal streak."
Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, January 23, 2005, No. 4, Vol. LXXIII
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