Oleksandra Saienko
by Daryna Anastasieva
Short profile

Oleksandra Saienko — producer, director of the consulting agency Say&Co, cultural manager, founder of the festival of Ukrainian culture UStream, project manager Vyshyvaniy. King of Ukraine Opera

Choosing a relevant and little-presented aspect of Vyshysvaniy for your project, you chose the central genre of opera. Is this due to further promotion in Vienna and other European capitals? Why do you choose an opera and not, for example, a dramatic play or a movie?

—The primary thing was not the plot, but the need to create a modern Ukrainian opera. Coincidentally, (the management of the East Opera addressed Vsevolod Kozhemyaka as the Honorary Consul of the Republic of Austria in Kharkiv) the Austrian topic was chosen. And the image of Vasyl Vyshyvaniy is best suited for this genre. That is, the basis is cooperation with the opera house. As for the presentation of this product abroad, in my opinion, musical works have the best potential because music is an international language.

Vyshyvaniy is positioned in the project as the undeclared king of Ukraine. This is, albeit artistic, it is the positioning of a real historical figure. How will it be treated in Vienna: Archduke Wilhelm Franz of Austria was a subject of the Austro-Hungarian Empire? Moreover, it is planned to present the project in Austria, and to have Claudia Date translate (and probably publish) the libretto.

— Yes, it was my dream from the very beginning to publish a libretto in German. First, it is quite logical to publish a work about Habsburg in his native language and in his country. Secondly, both in Germany and in Austria, Zhadan is passionately revered. For a long time, I could not dare to start moving in this direction, but now the first step has been taken, and an agreement has been reached with the outstanding translator Claudia Date. She will undertake the translation of the libretto.
Even now, before the book appeared, all the Austrians I had to communicate with were very positive about the information about Vasyl Vyshyvaniy. Only a few knew about him before, while others were sincerely surprised and questioned with interest. And this is another perspective for me —
to expand the knowledge not only of Ukrainians but also of Europeans about our common history.

Is Ukrainian statehood able to survive without imperial ideas or without
opposition to the empire?

— Oh, what a question! (smiles). I cannot comment expertly on political history. I can only try to formulate my vision of the political character of Ukrainians. The forms of government inherent to us are a republic or an elected monarchy, which is a reflection of the national character. We have no inclination for imperial tradition, neither in history nor in mentality. On the contrary, we tend towards anarchy.

The multidisciplinary project "Vyshysvaniy" has a comprehensive and diverse structure. What does it consist of?

— The original idea was to create a modern national opera and transfer the work to the state theater, KhNATOB, named by Lysenko (or East Opera). When it became clear to me that the text of the libretto written by Serhiy Zhadan was a poetic gem, I decided that it deserved a separate edition. So, while the date of the premiere was postponed due to the epidemic and quarantine, we managed to publish an extremely good book and receive the award for the best book design from the Book Arsenal, develop a tour of "Vyshysvaniy Places" in Vienna, and present it to the international diplomatic corps. That is "Vyshysvaniy" — it's music, literature, and educational activities. There are preliminary agreements on the translation of the libretto into German. I am thinking of publishing a biography of the archduke.

Speaking of rethinking the space of the East Opera Theater: this is the first time when a multidisciplinary project is taking place in this location. How revolutionary is this project, given what happened in the theater before, if we talk not only about the material support but also about the project component which changes the landscape of the city and its content?

— Yes, indeed, this production is unprecedented. However, the East Opera is one of the country's leading theaters, which has made a very significant move in recent years towards experimental productions. Our project is revolutionary. For the first time, a full-fledged academic opera was commissioned to be performed by leading Ukrainian artists by a specific state theater. For the first time, a production team with such different geographic backgrounds was assembled. The cost of the production, financed by private patrons, is unprecedented. The amount of financing of the material component alone reached over 5 million USD. And all this equipment, from the unique stage construction made of aluminum — which can withstand choral and ballet groups of up to 60 people —
to spark plugs, costumes, and percussion, remains the property of the theater.

For the theater, this production was a real professional breakthrough: Alla Zagaykevych's complex electroacoustic music is a challenge for musicians, and Rostyslav Derzhypilsky's extremely expressive metaphorical production as well as with Olya Semyoshkina's choreography and Olesya Holovach's scenography are a completely new and unprecedented experience for both the artistic team and technical staff. I am very happy that I did this project in Kharkiv — in the city that became my home, and which I loved with all my heart, albeit belatedly (smiles). Today, in the last days before the premiere, I feel the city and the whole of Ukraine buzzing in anticipation of this opening. We all —
the managers and participants of the project — are aware that we are creating something completely innovative.

How important are immersive and technological solutions in opera? That is, do modern audiences, Ukrainian and foreign, need "special effects" in order to feel the beauty of a large musical canvas? And will it be difficult for a traditional theater troupe to execute the tasks demanded by a composer and director? 

— Yes, I have already mentioned that the work is complex, and its performance is a challenge for the theater team. But at the same time, this is the advantage of the profession: creativity, search, and development. In fact, constant movement at work is a big advantage. Modern humans cannot be satisfied with what the visitors of the opera were satisfied with even 50 years ago. The spirit of the time makes new demands. We must not lose the essence in the pursuit of outrage and impression, but we cannot ignore changes in the perception of information and in the need for multi-channel impressions. Even popular classical operas by Mozart or Verdi become material for staging experiments. Our opera from the very beginning is modern and is a complex multimedia phenomenon.

On what principle were the key executors of the project selected: the main parts, directing, costume making, etc.?

— When choosing a director, I was looking for a person capable of experimentation and who has experience working with musical material. Rostislav Derzhypilsky agreed immediately. He offered to invite artist Olesya Holovach to the project, who developed the scenography and sketches of costumes. The next star in our team became choreographer Olya Semyoshkina. We owe these people an awesome performance that will take place soon on the stage of the East Opera. It is difficult to remember how many trips these people made to Kharkiv and how many hours they spent on stage and in rehearsal halls to make this large-scale production. Watching their work, I always admired the team.

The performers' parts were distributed by the opera's conductor Yuriy Yakovenko. I am glad that East Opera has formed a team capable of doing such a project.

Will "Vyshysvaniy" be included in the repertoire of the East Opera and foreign theaters?

— Our plan from the very beginning was to create a modern opera to be included in the permanent repertoire of the East Opera. Property rights belong to the Ukraine XXI Charitable Foundation but are transferred to our theater for performance without restrictions. There will be a different story with other theaters. It is clear that the production deserves to be seen in Ukraine and in the world.

Is this a completely patron-funded project or will it be self-sustaining?

— Culture and high art do not pay off; it is impossible to adapt monetary formulas to them as in business. If you remember, the Vienna State Opera is usually filled to the brim with spectators. And so, these full houses at not actually low prices of tickets provide a return of only 30% of the expenses connected with the performance. The remaining 70% are state subsidies and private sponsorship.

Aren't large investors "embellishing" themselves by investing in such initiatives? Is culture a shield or a goal?

— How exactly do they "embellish" (laughs)? Do we have any indulgences for patronage? There are no official mechanisms for recognition and encouragement. There is no tradition or culture of respect for patrons in society. I assume that different initiatives have different motivations. In our case, all partners (and we have four of them, in addition to the organizing partner of the Charitable Foundation "Ukraine XXI") have publicly expressed their position. Each of these partners is not a global company, but a Ukrainian business and decisions were made by specific people: the owners of these businesses or heads of charitable foundations, with whom I communicated personally. These are the people who support the main mission of the project: the creation of a new Ukrainian identity through art. These are visionary people who are aware of the importance of ideas and spirituality for the development of the nation.

That is, we can talk about the return of the phenomenon of patronage in Ukraine and what is the priority — the development of culture?

— It seems to me that it is too early to talk about the permanent return of the phenomenon. According to my observations, our project and other patronage projects are rather separate episodes. On the one hand, the business elite has not yet been formed, which would treat patronage as the norm and a regular activity. Such actions are only sporadic. On the other hand, society does not show that level of respect for patronage, which should motivate them to invest in the development of the reputation of the patron.

Is there a person or a historical event at the heart of a great cultural initiative? What is the greater magnet: man or historical fact, whether or not fateful?

— People always need a person, a hero. No event in history would be possible without personality.

What impresses you personally about the figure of Wilhelm of Austria?

— For me personally, he has already almost become my family (laughs). When you work with a topic (in this case, with a person) for so long, it becomes an integral part of your life. I am impressed by his admiration for the nature of Ukrainians and how warmly he speaks about Ukrainians. I like his emotionality and romance. His devotion to his ideas is respectful. Even his imperfections seem very nice to me. Well, and, of course, his nobility in relations with people also commands respect.

As a producer, how do you set up media optics: do you filter resources or strive for the most mass coverage?

— Our project has therefore become multidisciplinary as I look for different tools and communication channels for different target audiences. I am extremely pleased that the project is of interest to very different media — from mainstream to intellectual, similar to Craft. Everyone finds interesting accents and facets.

I would like the broadest possible demographics of Ukrainians to learn about Wilhelm Habsburg, who became Vasyl Vyshivany, in one way or another, so that he would become a favorite hero in an unobtrusive, relaxed way. This is the central goal of the project and the communications around it. But in the process of implementing the project, I made so many discoveries and came to so many conclusions that not to share them would be irresponsible (smiles) and very unfortunate. Therefore, there are more professional conversations for professional audiences.

Dynamics of perception and understanding of Ukraine abroad: two years ago and now. How do you know you are achieving your goal? Are you satisfied with the pace of change?

— There are dynamics, though not in the context of two, but rather seven years —
since the beginning of the war. The main shift is that Ukraine is finally (!) not considered part of Russia. That is, Ukraine is only now gaining subjectivity. Of course, such a pace can not suit it. There are positive changes. I am happy to note them in personal conversations with acquaintances and strangers and with those who know Ukraine better or do not know it at all. The bilateral year of Ukraine-Austria culture in 2019, which was organized by the Ukrainian Institute on our part, shifted many processes and became the beginning of many collaborations.

Once, when I invited a philanthropist to our concert as part of the UStream festival, who had been helping Ukrainian orphanages for many years in a row, I heard him say enthusiastically, "Ukraine has never done anything like this! .. And Russia does it all the time." This case made me realize that we are doing everything right. Ukraine is gradually turning from a source of problems to a source of positive energy and interesting phenomena.

What stereotypes about us are the most prevalent abroad?

— The main stereotype is that Ukraine is mainly a source of trouble and a territory of war and corruption. In general, little is known about Ukraine, hence the stereotypical perception. Although we are partly guilty here: we ourselves communicate with the world while abusing stereotypes: embroidered shirts, wreaths, beautiful women, dumplings ...

Have there been any changes in the relationship between official and unofficial diplomats recently? Is the work of institutions strategically coordinated and systematized?

— Ukrainians abroad are a great potential resource of the state in achieving external goals —
political, economic, whatever. No full-time diplomat can boast of the level of knowledge about the country, integration into society, and immersion in the local context that Ukrainians living in the respective country have.

Unfortunately, I have no reason to say that there is an awareness on the part of state institutions of the importance and value of this resource, as the interaction between diplomats and organizations of foreign Ukrainians is currently not systemic and is not regulated by documents. Everything happens mainly on the principle of "can we make a deal" and "our people — not our people". It's a pity; in fact, Ukraine loses a lot because of this...

Take the role of individual artistic and cultural initiatives in comparison with state or institutional ones: what works best if you can compare?

— I can not speak in general terms, because I do not have enough research material. Our UStream festival in Austria — a volunteer patronage initiative of the organizers of the Vienna Euromaidan —
became the first systemic initiative in this direction. And it remains the only one. The state did nothing like that.

The advantage of private initiatives is that they are implemented by motivated people. But they cannot be counted on as a serious tool in promoting public interests: even highly motivated and ideological people can be disappointed and stop their volunteer work. Sustainable achievements require public policy.

The eclecticism of an opera production, a separate work of art, a published libretto and further realizations of the project — does the intermediality of the project speak of you as a postmodernist personality, or more of a modernist one in an effort to systematize and create a single ecosystem?

— You formulated very precisely about the modernist personality in the pursuit of ordering the elements. My modernist nature has not given me peace since childhood (smiles). It seems that I was born with the setting "Ordnung muss sein" (a well-known German expression, which means "Order must be"). I can't stand the gaps; the "white spots" cause a disturbing feeling of lack of control. Unresolved problems, unanswered questions — all this has no place in my environment. Of course, it is not always possible to solve everything, close it, and put it in order. But when I succeed, I am extremely happy. Our project is seemingly eclectic: it has a stylish modern aesthetic and meets the tastes and needs of modern people. Inside, it is organized very logically around the idea: the creation of a new Ukrainian identity, the formation of national pride and dignity without archaic, patriotic rhetoric, support for culture and art — areas that are intangible, valuable foundations of the nation.

Everyone is talking about Ukrainian identity: Vyshyvaniy once chose it for himself, cultural managers are working on its reconstruction, Ukrainian society is trying to rethink and return it, and the community abroad — to understand it. What is Ukrainian identity for you?

— I'm afraid it is impossible to describe such a complex and multi-layered phenomenon in one sentence. But the most pronounced, in my opinion, are our traits such as mobility, the spirit of freedom, and indomitability, which from time to time borders on anarchy. Despite centuries of total repression and attempts at destruction, we remain a bundle of energy in the heart of Europe, living, fighting, evolving, and enriching the world with vital creative energy. Unfortunately, we did not form a real national elite yet, but it is obvious to me that positive changes are taking place in this direction.

Translated by Kateryna Kazimirova

Short profile

Oleksandra Saienko — producer, director of the consulting agency Say&Co, cultural manager, founder of the festival of Ukrainian culture UStream, project manager Vyshyvaniy. King of Ukraine Opera