She taught singing to children and studied opera. Then, she was compelled to flee Ukraine overnight

One year ago, she was living like probably most university students do on this planet: She was studying in the field of her dreams in university in Kharkiv, worked part-time, and had friends, a home, peace, joy, and dreams of the future. Her world collapsed within a single day. War burst out in Ukraine. Everything in the life of Olena Khalina, currently a student of the Music and Dance Faculty of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague, changed profoundly. She has changed too.

“If I were to compare myself before the war with myself now, I would find many differences for sure. Compared with last year, I feel more stable. I perceive the horrible developments in Ukraine with greater resilience. When the war began, I was anxious all the time; I was scared by not knowing what would happen tomorrow. I was stressed out by the constant fear for my family and friends; while that has not gone away, I can face it much better now. Although the war rages on, it doesn’t all look as terribly weird as it did about a year ago,” Olena Khalina explains.

The beginning of the war caught the singer, aged 24 now, as a university student in Kharkiv.

“I was studying in a bachelor’s programme in singing in my final year. On top of that, I managed a musical studio and taught singing to children. I had a wonderful life. My work made me happy; my professor in university was great and we were almost like friends. Then, everything changed suddenly. Chaos, panic, schools and shops closed, and public transit shut down, so you couldn’t get to the other parts of the city…”

Her school was right in the city centre, which the Russians started bombing as early as five or six days into the invasion.

“Bombs hit the university, destroying all the musical instruments and other equipment. My musical studio, which used to be in the city centre, next to the municipal authority, no longer exists either. Friends started leaving the city massively; some went to the countryside, some went abroad. It was hopeless,” Khalina remembers.

We didn’t think it would be a real war

She recounts her experiences in a matter-of-fact tone, trying to word her recollections as comprehensibly as possible. Despite that, she often pauses and says: “I don’t know how to explain this. Some of my ideas may not be comprehensible to someone without my experience…”

She is right. Even though I am a rather empathetic listener, I definitely cannot imagine certain situations, and at times it makes me feel like Olena is describing a film plot to me. I cannot conceive of the feelings that likely flood you when you realise the hard way that the country you live in is at war. When you start to realise that everything you had been building up to that point is gone. That life is no longer about when a lecture starts the next day, when you will see your friends, and what you will do in the summer – that, from now on, it is about surviving, first and foremost.

Olena Khalina recalls that, during the initial days, nobody would believe it would be a real war with everything that means. “At first, we all thought it would be over in like a month. But then, when I saw tanks heading for the city and heard gunfire every day, I understood it wouldn’t be over in a month. It was all just the beginning.”

Thirty hours in a queue for an evacuation train

It took two weeks in the war zone for Olena to realise there was nothing left to make her stay in Kharkiv anymore. Not her job, not the university, not her friends. When she received an invitation to study at Prague’s HAMU early last March, she chose to accept it. The decision-making was not easy at all, though.

“At first, I was thinking of how I could manage to leave my previous life in Kharkiv behind. My memories, places dear to my heart, my hard-earned university position, my working experience… I realised I would lose all of it. I would have to start all over again in a foreign country where I would be nothing at first. The next moment was even tougher. My mum: we live together, just the two of us. And mum is blind. Leaving her alone in Kharkiv was not an option. So, I called HAMU, described my situation, and I was eventually able to take mum with me.”

All that was left to do was convince mum. She would not go initially; the trip and the idea of living in a foreign country were hugely stressful to her. “She agreed in the end, because she knew that I wouldn’t leave without her and that, in Prague – unlike Kharkiv –, I would be able to continue studying and working. Most importantly, we would be safe here.”

The journey from Kharkiv was dramatic. Olena knew they couldn’t take an evacuation train; waiting for one usually took 20 to 30 hours in the street, and she couldn’t ask her blind mum to endure that.

Luckily, they managed to get bus tickets to Lviv and then caught another bus to Prague. Even so, the trip took four days. “We had one backpack each. In it, we put our documents, medication, and a few pieces of clothing. We thought we’d stay in Prague for a few weeks, maybe two to three months max, and then come back home.”

Olena and mum spent the first three weeks in a university dormitory in Prague, and then they got an opportunity to stay in the apartment with one of the Academy of Performing Arts teachers, where they are still living now.

Joys both big and small

When it became obvious that war in Ukraine would not end anytime soon, Olena passed the admission test for a two-year master’s programme in operatic singing and became a full-time HAMU student. While, as an opera singer, she has a great musical ear and thus certainly a better starting position for learning foreign languages than most, Czech was the first big obstacle she hit on arriving in Prague.

“I was unable to even say “yes” or “no” in Czech. And since my programme is in Czech, I had to start learning intensively. I understand Czech, speak Czech, and take exams in Czech, but to speak excellently, I have a long way to go. That said, it’s no longer as exhausting or stressful to me as it was initially,” Olena says.

Difficulties with Czech aside, it was much tougher having to draw a clear line under her previous life in Ukraine and start from scratch.

“For instance, I was used to teaching and working with children, which gave me joy and fulfilment, but I can’t do that here because my Czech is flawed. My studies at the Music and Dance Faculty of the Academy of Performing Ars in Prague are also fundamentally different – the people are different… and my friends are far away. A few have stayed in Ukraine, but most of them are scattered all over the world. Luckily, though, I have some friends here already, among both Ukrainians and Czechs. I think the language barrier will stick between us forever, but we can go for a beer together after an exam now, and it’s actually getting better all the time,” she smiles.

In fact, she almost never quits smiling. Her face turns gloomy only when speaking of really hurtful topics, remembering the beginning of the war, but other than that, she is full of optimism and faith that everything will be in order again one day. For the time being, she is trying to face all the difficult things by fully concentrating on her studies and her new job in the State Opera choir. As she says, she cherishes every bit of joy that life brings her. 

“For example, it’s a joy for me when someone comes to visit from Ukraine. The concerts I perform are a joy as well. As a musician, those are special occasions to me. Today, I’m happy that the sun is shining,” Olena says. 

My singing is different after the horrors I have seen

Joy and, more importantly, a sense of stability and assurance, is what she gains from living together with mum. Given her handicap, she doesn’t work but maintains a home for the two of them – and this is, without a doubt, a matter of vital importance for someone with the refugee status.

“Mum helps me a lot by cooking and taking care of the household, since I’m either in school or at work and couldn’t manage it all. Other than that, mum listens to audio books and Ukrainian radio stations. Every now and then, we have a nice day together and go out for a cup of coffee or a walk. I have a friend over here, a Ukrainian who studies at FAMU and also lives with his mum, and we introduced our mums, so when I sing in a concert, we all go together. Still, it’s tough for mum here. She cannot speak Czech, and until I get back home, she is all alone most of the time. She wants to go home to Ukraine, which I can understand but cannot imagine doing, even though our flat in Kharkiv is fine and we have a place to go. It’s just not possible yet. But I know we cannot live the rest of our lives like refugees, so we’ll have to resolve what to do next at one point in time or another.”

I want to know how much the fateful events of last year have affected Olena’s singing: to what extent can powerful emotion experienced influence one’s voice – its depth and the overall perception of vocal expression.

Without a hint of hesitation, she answers that, as an opera singer, her vocal expression is definitely different now. “It may seem strange, but I feel it’s calmer somehow. It’s connected with what I said at the beginning of the interview – despite my experience, I am more stable and balanced now. Everything I’m experiencing happens inside, and I appear to be completely calm on the outside, including my vocal. When I watch my videos that are over one year old, I can see that my singing was more emotional, livelier, even a bit more nervous, but it sounds different now. It’s hard to describe, but I perceive a big difference. If I were to describe my singing, it has more volume, more roundness to it now…” Olena Khalina explains. 

Her favourite pieces to sing are arias by Giacomo Puccini. “I’m a dramatic soprano, which is great for Puccini. His music has both depth and space, in which I feel great and free.”

I ask if singing gives Olena moments when she can forget about everything that happens around her and be alone with just herself, her voice, and music. “It certainly gives me moments of happiness. Why would I sing otherwise?” Olena laughs. She quickly adds, though, that it is not all about forgetting all the worries and hardships while on stage.

“Opera is mostly about what you feel, what you experience, and how you perceive music. Human voice as an instrument is a miracle. Then again, if a singer is empty inside, their singing cannot touch listeners – it will fly over their heads, and the emptiness is always perceptible in the expression. So, having the horrible personal experience I have, I can have a better understanding of what I’m singing about; I can immerse myself in it more deeply and express it better.”

I cannot really look into the future

What does Olena see in her future? Did the war rob her of her ability to dream or stay optimistic?

“It’s very difficult. I could say, I’ll be back in Ukraine, but it’s quite unlikely. First, I don’t know when the war will end, and second, I have no idea of what will happen then. I believe that Ukraine will win the war, but at what cost? What will it be like living in post-war Ukraine? Will everybody be able to get back to whatever they did before the war? Most likely not, because some people will have no place or no one to come back to…”

Her job is one of those that may not be highly in-demand just after the war. “When people have nothing to eat or nowhere to live, they obviously won’t go to the theatre. With that said, I don’t want to change my job. I will stay here for two more years no matter what, studying in my master’s programme. Unfortunately, I cannot really look into the future. All I know for sure is that I want to sing. Where that will happen, I don’t know. If it’s in Prague, great; if it’s in Kyiv, even better because that’s my home, our country is beautiful, and I miss it so much. But everything has changed so profoundly over the past year that I am too afraid to plan anything.”