Krushelnytska was born on 23 September 1872 in a small village in the Ternopil region into the family of a Greek Catholic priest. Her singing talent was evident from an early age and she received her preliminary musical education in a Ternopil gymnasium. At school she performed for the first time in public as part of the student choir. (It was also as a schoolgirl that she first met Ivan Franko, the great Ukrainian poet and writer, who later became a close friend.)
At that time, when Ukraine was partitioned between the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires, Ukrainian theatre hadn’t yet been institutionalised, and existed mainly as a collection of amateur travelling troupes. Ukrainian opera did not exist at all. The profession of an actress or a singer was considered to be rather unpromising, if not scandalous, especially for the daughter of a priest. But it was actually her father who took Krushelnytska’s talent and love for music seriously.
It was he who brought her from the countryside into Ternopil to sing with the choir and it was he who supported her in her desire to study at the Lviv Conservatory, before which she broke off her engagement with a local clergyman. Her close relationship with her father lasted the extent of her life.
The Krushelnytska Museum in Lviv displays her long, detailed letters to her father as well as the short postcards bearing just several heartfelt words: “Kissing your hands, your Solokha.” The Museum’s Iryna Kryvoruchko says, “Her father was a wise and progressive man. Solomiya got his official permission and his blessing as she went off to follow the path of her talent.” Years later, when her father died, she ordered a gorgeous white marble monument, which was, with difficulty, transported from Italy to Ukraine. “The monument is still there, in the humble country cemetery outside the village of Bila,” Kryvoruchko says.
Another turning point in Krushelnytska’s life was the decision to continue her musical studies in Italy. The story is that the famous Italian singer Gemma Bellincioni came to Lviv and heard the then-student Krushelnytska performing Cavalleria Rusticana. The opera had been written especially for Bellincioni, who at the time was considered the ultimate interpreter of the opera’s main role. But when she heard Krushelnytska she was pleasantly surprised. She looked the girl up after the concert and encouraged her to go West. With Bellincioni’s help Krushelnytska performed in Milan.
According to Kryvoruchko, despite her increasing fame, Krushelnytska was an intensely private person. “She didn’t leave any memoirs and she burnt many of her letters, but in those rare letters that have been preserved she wrote, ‘I need to overcome and bear everything, I need to prove that the Ukrainian soul can reach peaks of artistic expression.’”
It was in 1890 that Krushelnytska began her ascent. Soon the name Solomiya Krushelnytska guaranteed triumphal success on the best opera stages of Europe and America as she gave virtuoso performances in Verdi’s Aida, Faust by Gounod, Bizet’s Carmen and Manon Lescaut by Puccini. What she really wanted to do, though, was sing Wagner’s challenging music, so in 1895 she went to Vienna to study his work. That same year she debuted in Wagner’s Lohengrin in Krakow, to accolades from critics and audiences alike. She was soon acknowledged to be the world’s best interpreter of the German composer.
The next several seasons she spent as the prima at the Warsaw Opera, where she sang with Caruso and Battistini. In 1899, Krushelnytska performed before Russian Tsar Nikolai II at a home he owned near Warsaw. As always, she finished her concert with several Ukrainian folk songs and the tsar was frankly surprised, asking her what language she was singing. Krushelnytska replied, “These are the songs of my people, the Ukrainian people.”
Another career milestone was in 1904 when Puccini premiered his new opera Madame Butterfly, which flopped spectacularly. The opera was booed by the audience at its premiere in Milan’s La Scala and Puccini’s friends advised the composer to invite Krushelnytska to play the main role.
Three months later in Brescia, a revised version of the work, with Krushelnytska singing the leading role, was a major success. Grateful and touched, Puccini sent Krushelnytska his portrait, with the inscription: “To the most beautiful and most charming Butterfly.”
In Italy, Krushelnytska would not only find celebrity, but love, going on to marry Cesare Ricchoni in 1910, an Italian lawyer and connoisseur of music. Their UNI0N would last until in 1939 when he died, prompting Krushelnytska to return to her motherland in western Ukraine, despite warnings from her friends about the looming possibility of war. She spent the summer of 1939 with her sisters in the Carpathians, and sure enough World War II erupted leading to the Soviet annexation of her region, which by that point had become part of Poland. She returned to find her home and possessions had been confiscated, leaving her just a small apartment.
Her citizenship also caused her problems, Kryvoruchko says. “Our archive includes several documents stating that Krushelnytska, as an Italian citizen, had a temporary stay permit. Every time she went to the officials to ask about returning to Italy they would prolong her residence and not let her out.”
After the war, she looked for a musical job in Lviv. To work at the conservatory she had to be a naturalised Soviet citizen. So she became one. Her Italian villa was sold at auction and she ended up with a mere token of the sale price. “One of her students describes in his memoirs how he was supposed to go to a singing contest to Italy with Krushelnytska, but they weren’t allowed,” Kryvoruchko says.
During the last years of her life Krushelnytska suffered problems with her once-broken leg, but even in a plaster cast she could still sing Ukrainian songs to audiences. The great opera singer died in poverty in her Lviv apartment in 1952 and was buried in the city’s Lychakivsky Cemetery. Her tombstone features Orpheus holding a harp, a sign of her eternal relationship with music.
by Kateryna Kyselyova