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Ukrainian Conductor Oksana Lyniv Arrives at the Met Opera

The Ukrainian conductor Oksana Lyniv was preparing for a performance of Puccini’s “Turandot” at the Metropolitan Opera this month when she saw the news: A Russian drone had hit a building in Odesa, not far from the home of her parents-in-law.

She called her family to ensure they were safe. But images of the attack, whose victims included a young mother and children, lingered in her mind. When she conducted that night, she felt the pain of war more acutely, she said, praying to herself when Liù, a selfless servant, dies in the opera’s final act and the chorus turns hushed.

“In that moment, I saw all the suffering of the war,” she said. “How do you explain such sadness? How do you explain who gets to be alive and who has to die?”

Since the invasion, Lyniv, 46, the first Ukrainian conductor to perform at the Met, has used her platform to denounce Russia’s government. She has also set out to promote Ukrainian culture, championing works by Ukrainian composers and touring Europe with the Youth Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, an ensemble that she founded in 2016.

The war has raised difficult questions for artists and cultural institutions. Russian performers have come under pressure to speak out against President Vladimir V. Putin. Ukrainians have faced questions too, including whether to perform Russian works or appear alongside Russian artists.

Lyniv, who now lives in Düsseldorf, Germany, has sometimes felt caught in the middle. She protested last month when a festival in Vienna announced plans to pair her appearance with a concert led by the conductor Teodor Currentzis, who has come under scrutiny over his connections to Russia. (The festival canceled his appearance.)

She has also faced criticism in Ukraine for continuing to perform Russian music and work with Russian artists, like the soprano Elena Pankratova, who is singing the title role in the Met’s “Turandot,” which Lyniv is conducting through April 19.

Lyniv defended her work, saying, “We can’t be against each other just because of nationalities” and added that it was important that great composers be heard.

“The masterpieces by Tchaikovsky or Stravinsky and Prokofiev — these are not the property of Putin,” she said. “We can’t let politicians misuse the music, the art. Tchaikovsky would be against this war, I am sure of it.”

The choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, who grew up in Kyiv and recently created a ballet about the war, got to know Lyniv after seeing her impassioned posts on social media, where she has written remembrances of young victims and posted photos of bombed-out buildings.

“She has an unshakable inner strength,” he said. “She knows what she’s doing, and she’s very determined. It’s just beautiful to observe such a full artist and character.”

Lyniv, who trained in the opera houses of Ukraine and later at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich with Kirill Petrenko, has earned praise for the sensitivity of her conducting.

She has also emerged as something of a pioneer in a field still heavily dominated by men. In 2021, she led “Der Fliegende Holländer” at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany, becoming the first woman to conduct there in its 145-year history. And in 2022, she took over as music director of the Teatro Comunale in Bologna, Italy, the first woman to serve in that role.

Lyniv has had a warm reception at the Met, whose leaders have been critical of the war and have worked to promote Ukrainian artists and culture. Her portrait now hangs in a gallery alongside a dozen other Ukrainian artists who have performed at the Met, beginning with the mezzo-soprano Ina Bourskaya, who made her debut in 1923 in Bizet’s “Carmen.”

Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, said that Lyniv had brought energy and focus to the house’s beloved production of “Turandot.”

“She’s very clear in what she wants,” he said. “There’s always a danger for a work that has been played so many times to become stale. But these performances feel fresh and alive.”

Born into a family of musicians in Brody, a city in western Ukraine, Lyniv grew up playing piano, flute and violin, and singing in choirs. By the time she was 4, she knew she wanted to be a musician.

After conducting a school orchestra when she was 16, a teacher told her that while she was no Arturo Toscanini, the famed maestro, she could have a good career.

She enrolled in conducting studies at an academy in Lviv, and was the sole woman in the department. Her family had doubts about her choice, saying conducting was not a good profession for women. Some colleagues warned that her career would be confined to youth ensembles and choirs.

“But I didn’t hear any orchestra musicians say, ‘We cannot play with you because you are a woman,’” she said. “So I thought, OK, I will go on, and just to try to think in small steps.”

In 2004, when she was 26, she arrived on the global scene when she placed third at the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in Bamberg, Germany. (Gustavo Dudamel, now a superstar conductor, took first place that year.)

After the competition, she enrolled at the Hochschule für Musik Carl Maria von Weber in Dresden to hone her skills. Ekkehard Klemm, her teacher there, said that she came as a “gemstone that still needed to be polished.”

“I could see that she had enormous talent, an irrepressible will and a great deal of energy and creativity,” he said, adding: “She combines her art with the challenges of the times — that is the greatest treasure of her talent.”

She took a job as a conductor at the Odesa Opera and won engagements at European opera houses, including Graz Opera in Austria, where she served as chief conductor from 2017 to 2020.

Then came her Bayreuth debut. “The fact that I am a woman,” she told Deutsche Welle at the time, “does not make the score any easier or harder.”

The festival invited her back in 2022, as well as last summer, when she was joined by Nathalie Stutzmann, who leads the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The pair had their photo taken in a hall lined with portraits of conductors who have appeared at Bayreuth, smiling in front of a sea of male faces.

Lyniv’s success at Bayreuth, Stutzmann said, “proved at least that the mentality had changed in a good way.”

“The fact that we both succeeded,” she added, “means also that it’s not so risky to invite a woman there.”

At the Met, Lyniv has approached “Turandot” as a scholar, poring over scores, photos of the 1926 premiere and texts about Puccini.

The soprano Aleksandra Kurzak, who is singing the role of Liù, said that while it was clear that Lyniv “is connected to Ukraine with her heart and soul,” she was focused on the music.

“You feel very secure with her in the pit,” she said. “She gives a positive energy, and her gestures are very precise.”

After her Met debut last month, Lyniv sent a video of the extended applause for “Turandot” to her parents in Ukraine. She visited them last Christmas, in her first trip home since the war began. She watched her father conduct carols at a church in Brody, and ate her mother’s sweet varenyky, dumplings filled with berries, a favorite dish.

On the phone after that first night at the Met, she told her parents it was her dream to bring them to New York.

“I hope there is a day when the war will end,” she said. “I hope life can go back to normal.”

Anna Tsybko contributed reporting.

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