On February 24, 2022, baritone Andrei Kymach woke up early for no reason. He was in Cardiff, Wales, where he was performing the title role in Don Giovanni with Welsh National Opera. His wife and two small children were at home in Kherson, Ukraine. He was still in bed when his phone lit up with a text message.
“I got a message from my wife, with a photo taken from our window, of an explosion at the airport.” Just a few miles away from the family’s apartment, the airport had been bombed, as had others in cities across the country. Russia had made good on its threat to invade Ukraine.
What followed was the extreme stress and anxiety of being separated from his family, with little information about what was happening. But as he kept in contact with loved ones and followed the horrors of a nightmarish war beginning to unfold, he had a job to do.
“It was very difficult,” he remembers. Nevertheless, as soon as he stepped on stage, a sense of calm descended. Kymach, first-prize winner of the 2019 Cardiff Singer of the World competition, was ready. In fact, singing helped him. Performing as Don Giovanni was “like anti-stress.”
Off the stage, his focus instantly returned to his family. Soon Kymach and his wife Inna formed a plan for her and the children to join him in Cardiff. At the beginning of April they loaded into the car and drove away from Ukraine, leaving friends, family, and the life they had known behind. The children each traveled with notes in their pockets, carefully placed by their mom, with their names and Kymach’s contact information. The idea was that “in case something happened to them, somebody would call me,” he says now, remembering their fear.
After a four-day drive—and 47 days after the war began—they pulled into Warsaw, where Kymach met them. The relief was immediate, but of course bittersweet. Together, they headed to Wales, where the family still lives today.
Many Ukrainians Kymach knows have refused to speak about the war. He understands that. It is incredibly difficult for him, too. Nevertheless, he feels compelled to do so. He thinks back to a not-long-ago time when Ukraine was a peaceful country. He was still living there, a young singer watching coverage of another war, this one in Syria, and it “looked like some movie.” He wants people to know that the war in Ukraine is real, and for all the horrifying coverage we’ve seen, things are worse—“much worse.”
Since reuniting with his family, Kymach has continued to keep in touch with loved ones while closely following events back home. Other members of his family, including his parents and sister, remain in Ukraine, enduring a war that continues to rage as President Volodymyr Zelensky leads a fierce and brave defense of the country. Kymach feels lucky that so far, no one close to him has been killed.
But the devastating news out of Ukraine seems to hit closer and closer to home. In July Russia launched an attack on the city of Vinnitsa, in the same region where Kymach grew up, killing 20 and destroying the concert hall, the House of Officers. “It was very sad news for me,” he says.
Then, just last week, the world learned that Ukrainian conductor Yuri Kerpatenko was murdered in his home by Russian forces in Kherson, after refusing to conduct a propaganda concert at the Kherson Regional Philharmonic. Kymach’s wife, also a singer, had known the conductor. “I wasn’t surprised, honestly,” Kymach says. “I was very upset, but I wasn’t surprised, because I know what terrible things are happening in Kherson now.”
Through the devastation, Kymach has kept working, and his star has kept rising. His Welsh National Opera performance as Don Giovanni back in February received rapturous acclaim: “Kymach… is an arresting, dangerous, even violent Giovanni,” wrote The Arts Desk, “with plenty of fine, ringing tone, brilliantly athletic in ‘Fin ch’han dal vino,’ sweet and alluring in ‘Deh, vieni alla finestra.”
The baritone is currently here in Houston, set to make his American operatic debut at Houston Grand Opera, where he is performing as Giorgio Germont in La traviata. Other debuts are on the way for the 2022-23 season, including at Opera Australia, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the Grange Festival.
Richard Bado, HGO’s Chorus Director and Director of Artistic Planning, says at final rehearsals in Houston, Kymach blew everyone away. His voice is “unbelievable,” Bado says, adding: “he is going to be a major star.”
Kymach was always an opera fan, but he decided to pursue music relatively late, after graduating from the Shevchenko Ukrainian National University with a degree in philosophy in 2010. Within a decade he was named the Cardiff Singer of the World, having prevailed in competition against singers from across the planet, the best of the best in their home countries.
It was Kymach’s wife, who he met singing in the chorus of an Orthodox church back home, who originally encouraged him to pursue a career in opera. “I didn’t believe it,” he remembers. But she said, “you have the talent. You have the voice. You can do this.”
It is happening now, but not the way he wanted.