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Oksana Lyniv, Bayreuth's first female conductor

Anastassia Boutsko | Gero Schliess
June 25, 2021

The Ukrainian conductor is the first woman to head the orchestra at the Richard Wagner festival. She told DW how important a conductor's personality is to being successful.

Oksana Lyniv
Oksana Lyniv at workImage: Oliver Wolf

Oksana Lyniv has arrived in Bayreuth, which gives her six weeks to rehearse Richard Wagner's The Flying Dutchman with an international ensemble.

On July 25, she conducts the premiere that opens the renowned Bayreuth Festival. The conductor met with DW reporters Gero Schliess and Anastassia Boutsko during a rehearsal break.

DW: You've already had a moment to check out the legendary orchestra pit at the festival theater — what did you think?

Oksana Lyniv: I quite like it, I can see the stage well and can conduct standing up, I'm just the right height — this pit was after all tailor-made for Richard Wagner.

… who was just 166 cm tall. How does conducting in that space work for your taller colleagues?

Oksana Lyniv, in casual dress, stands smiling in front of theater building.
Weeks ahead of the festival, a relaxed Oksana Lyniv in BayreuthImage: Gero Schließ/DW

It depends, maybe some are seated. Basically, the pit and the entire orchestra apparatus are very special — the seating arrangement, too, is quite different from that in a conventional hall.

You are conducting the "Flying Dutchman," a premiere production on the Green Hill. What is your approach to this work?

For me, it always means immersing myself in the composer's life and spiritual world. To prepare for this work, I visited, among other places, the city of Meudon near Paris, where Wagner worked on the opera when he was a young man, dirt poor, unsuccessful and disappointed by the flop at the Grand Opera.

view of a room in Richard Wagner's house in Meudon.
This is where Richard Wagner lived in MeudonImage: Oksana Lyniv

From the first bar of the Dutchman, you hear this youthful anger, this urge to "show everybody." That clicked for me. This work cannot be perceived and interpreted from the position of the mature Wagner.

As a young woman, you, too, fought your way through a profession that is still a male-dominated field. And you did it in Ukraine, which is more of a patriarchal society. How difficult was it to assert yourself? And to what extent has that shaped you to this day?

When I started studying to be a conductor, I was the only woman at the college in Lviv. Over and over again, I was told: "Why do you want this? It's never going to work out."

But I felt drawn by the profession. What attracted me was never the conductor's podium itself, to stand up front and tell everyone which way to go.

It was and is always about the music, the composers' works. Conducting Tchaikovsky's Sixth, or Puccini's Tosca, Wagner's The Valkyrie or Mahler's symphonies — that was really important to me, that really intoxicated me, and it has always encouraged me to continue on my path.

Let's talk about what the whole world is talking about right now: You are the first woman to conduct at the Bayreuth Festival. How important is that for you?

The fact that I am a woman does not make the Flying Dutchman score any easier or harder. The fact that I, a woman, can stand at the podium here is perhaps a symbol of our time.

Of course, I hope to set a positive example. That would be important not only for me personally, but also — if you want to take a lofty view — for the world and for the future.

Orchestra pit
Uncomfortable workplace: the Bayreuth theater's orchestra pit Image: Günter Gräfenhain/imagebroker/imago images

You come across as very determined when you are conducting. There is no doubt that you are the boss. Does a female conductor have to be stricter than a male conductor?

No, she doesn't have to be stricter. Woman or man, I think it's basically the same. It's personality that always plays a key role for a conductor.

How would you describe your personality?

Oksana Lyniv outdoors, seated, wearing folk dress.
Lyniv enjoys wearing folklore outfitsImage: Oleg Pavlychenko

The precise realization of my musical ideas is important to me. It takes good reasons for that not to happen. I am always open to compromise, opera would not work otherwise, but the composer's idea, the form of the work must not be compromised. At the same time, I am very self-critical and also suffer a lot.

Perhaps your personality can be of help at the Bayreuth Festival, an institution that is heavy with traditions and entrenched structures. Do you have respect for, or are you maybe even in awe of, such a task and such an institution?

There is no fear. It is difficult to describe. Bayreuth is a very special world, a world of its own, a truly magical place. It's not just about performances of great works with top-class artists.

This is about Richard Wagner's total work of art, his "Gesamtkunstwerk," and his philosophy.

You can feel the incredible, titanic energy with which he took the art of opera, indeed all of music, in completely new directions. He opened the doors for the new music.

There is something Buddhist about it: in order to make a pilgrimage to this place, you first have to leave your everyday life behind and take on a challenge.

Do you recall your first visit to Bayreuth?

Of course — that was in August 2013. Kirill Petrenko conducted The Valkyrie and I was allowed to attend the performance because I had been invited to be his assistant at the Bavarian State Opera. I traveled from Lviv to Bayreuth for just this one performance.

When the lights went out, there was complete darkness. You couldn't see the conductor, but you could sense the expectation of thousands of people from all over the world.

Suddenly, the orchestra started to sound, and you couldn't pinpoint where the sound came from. It sounded almost mystical, as if it emanated from the earth. Even now, I get goose bumps when I talk about it. I don't know anything that can be stronger. For me, this is one of the most important experiences in life. For us musicians, Bayreuth as a "Gesamtkunstwerk" is a kind of religion.

You work with an international team on "The Flying Dutchman." How German is today's Bayreuth?

In fact, our Dutchman, John Ludgren, is from Sweden, Asmik Grigorian, who sings Senta, is of Armenian-Latvian descent. Dmitri Cherniakov is from Russia, I am Ukrainian. Musicians from more than 30 nations make up the choir and the orchestra. I think Bayreuth is just as international as the whole music world, maybe even a bit more so.

In 2017, you conducted at the Campus Project of Deutsche Welle and Beethovenfest. What role did this project play in your career?

A very important one — mainly because supported by Deutsche Welle, the German Federal Youth Orchestra and Beethovenfest, it led to the creation of a new orchestra. The Youth Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine (YsOU) is celebrating one success after the next. This orchestra and the idea of reconciliation associated with it are central for me as a Ukrainian.

Lyniv conducts musicians.
The Ukrainian conductor in Bonn in 2017Image: DW/F. Görner

When you take the podium in Bayreuth, you will be wearing one of the beautiful outfits that have become your trademark — a thoroughly feminine variation on the conventional conductor's suit, with a wide, almost Cossack-like sash. Off stage, you shine with brilliant folk costumes. How did you find your style?

My conductor's outfit is a kind of armor. I have to feel totally secure. But it should also be elegant and, above all, comfortable, so I can concentrate fully on the music. Ever since my state exams, a costume designer from Lviv, who also works at the Lviv Opera, has designed my stage outfits. As for the sash, it reminded me of a Japanese kimono. Otherwise, it is very practical: it helps you keep your posture.

As for the traditional costumes, I am a passionate collector. The Ukrainian folk costumes, the "vyshyvankas," are more than just pieces of clothing. They are the soul of the people, every region, every place had its own color, its own embroidery pattern. I wear them in everyday life and for festive occasions. They help me stay connected when I am abroad.

"Kultur 21"/Arts21" – "Meet the artist" has a special edition featuring Oksana Lyniv on July 30.

This interview has been translated from German