BOSTON (AP) – Ilya Silchukou is a cultural icon in his native Belarus, the leading soloist of the State Opera Bolshoi who represents his country at official government functions at home and abroad and performs in opera houses throughout Europe.
He lives a privileged and comfortable life in his homeland.
And he gave it his all.
Silchukou dared to speak out against Alexander Lukashenko, who ruled the former Soviet republic with an iron fist for almost three decades.
He now lives in suburban Boston with his wife and three children and teaches music to middle school students while he tries to revive his singing career in the US, where he remains largely unknown.
“I’m known in Europe, but I’ve never performed in the United States, and it’s like a blank piece of paper for me, a new page,” he said in a recent interview in Boston. “We have to start from scratch here.”
When Lukashenko won a sixth term in office in 2020 in an election that his opposition and the West considered fraudulent, Silchukou joined thousands of Belarusians in election protests that were violently suppressed and resulted in arresting thousands.
“It’s very clear to all of us that we can no longer be silent,” he said.
He rejected three awards he personally received from Lukashenko.
His friends warned him of the risks.
“They said, ‘What’s wrong with you? You have everything you need,’” he said. “I’m well paid in Belarus and I have all the benefits from that. I said, ‘Yes they pay me, but they don’t own me.'”
His public opposition to Lukashenko got him kicked out of the opera for an “act of immorality” and he was blacklisted, he said. In response, he had one more act of defiance – using his baritone voice in a video of the traditional Belarusian hymn, “Mahutny Bozha,” which means “Mighty God,” and became a rule that Lukashenko’s opposition anthem.
However, it wasn’t until March 2021 when the police went after his wife, Tanya, and accused her of defrauding the country’s state-sponsored child support system and threatened her with two years in prison that it was known He said he had to get out. He sees it as a thinly veiled threat to break up their family.
“Many children in Belarus have both parents in prison,” he said.
When her children finished school in May of that year, the family packed four suitcases with some important documents and photos and flew from Belarus to the country of Georgia, then to Seattle, where his parents live.
The family went to the East Coast about a year ago at the suggestion of Marina Lvova, who runs the nonprofit Belarusians in Boston, drawn by the cultural scene of Boston, close to Europe, and living Belarusian expatriate who community.
Lvova and her husband first saw Silchukou at one of her last public performances in Minsk and “fell in love with her voice,” she said.
But he also admired her courage in standing up to Lukashenko.
“Ilya is a true patriot of Belarus,” he said. “You cannot succeed in a country that is a prison, and unfortunately our country is a prison today.”
Silchukou self-taught 5th through 9th grade at Star Academy private school.
“It is incredible that he is able to share some of the experiences he has had in some of the best opera houses in Europe,” said Margarita Druker, the co-director of the Star Academy.
The school has many students of Eastern European descent whose families have similar stories of fleeing oppression.
“It’s very brave for someone of his stature to walk away from everything he has in so much uncertainty,” Druker said.
Silchukou returned to the stage, collaborating with pianist Pavel Nersessian, an associate professor at Boston University, for two recent concerts in Boston and New Jersey.
For both, he put on a retrospective of some of his personal favorite pieces spanning his career from his first singing lessons to his time at the national opera, including “Papageno” from “The Magic Flute” and “Cavatina Figaro” from “The Barber of Seville.” He ended the shows with what he called “the jewel of the concert,” a duet with his mezzo-soprano wife.
He recently auditioned at the Boston Lyric Opera and is trying to get auditions at other opera houses in the US, and he is negotiating with agents in the US.
“I’m excited to have hope,” he said.
One of the hopes is to return to his homeland.
He remains in contact with friends and colleagues in Belarus who “work in fear,” afraid to speak out against Lukashenko.
“We hope to see them again, and we will certainly sing our songs in the squares on our real independence day,” he said.