Ukraine’s classical music superstar Oksana Lyniv makes history again

Superstar Ukrainian conductor Oksana Lyniv is making musical history yet again. The 43-year-old native of Brody in western Ukraine was unveiled in October as the new musical director of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna in Italy. When she takes up what is envisaged as an initial three-year posting in Bologna in January 2022, she will become the first female conductor ever to be appointed as musical director of an Italian opera house.

Lyniv is no stranger to groundbreaking firsts. She has consistently been a trailblazer throughout a remarkable classical music career that has often seen her challenge gender stereotypes and rewrite the rule book.

Born into a family of Ukrainian musicians during the twilight years of the Brezhnev era, she began her rise to prominence while studying at Lviv’s Lysenko Music Academy in the late 1990s. Recognized as a young prodigy, Lyniv was able to gain important early exposure as an assistant conductor at Lviv Opera House before moving abroad to continue her musical studies in Germany.

While she has spent much of the past two decades building her career in the German-speaking heartlands of European classical music, Lyniv also enjoyed an extended residency in Odesa. From 2008 until 2013, she served as associate chief conductor at the Odesa National Opera, gaining valuable experience in the splendid surroundings of the Ukrainian Black Sea port city’s sumptuous late nineteenth century opera house.

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The Ukrainian star’s reputation as one of the world’s most exciting classical music talents was considerably enhanced in 2017 when she became the first female to be named chief conductor of the Graz Opera and the Graz Philharmonic Orchestra in Austria, a role she remained in until 2020. However, even this impressive achievement was eclipsed in summer 2021 when Lyniv made international headlines as the first female ever to conduct at Germany’s celebrated Bayreuth Festival.

Lyniv’s July 2021 Bayreuth Festival appearance in front of a star-studded audience including German Chancellor Angela Merkel was a genuine landmark event in the world of classical music that helped to consolidate the Ukrainian’s status as a global star. In the more than 140 years since the Bayreuth Festival was first launched by Richard Wagner himself in 1876, the iconic annual event had never before featured a female conductor.

“Of course it is very special to be the first woman since the founding of the Bayreuth Festival to conduct at this magical place,” Lyniv commented during an interview with German media outlet DW prior to her historic appearance at the festival in summer 2021. “Richard Wagner has written women into his operas with leading, action-packed roles and has portrayed them as very emancipated. That’s why I believe he would be proud that almost 140 years after his death, a woman will bring his wonderful music to life for the first time on the podium.”

Within weeks of her German triumph, Lyniv was entering the record books once more, this time in Italy. She actually made her first appearance at the Teatro Comunale di Bologna months before the Bayreuth Festival in March 2021 as guest conductor at a concert performed without an audience due to Covid-related restrictions. Two months later in May 2021, she returned to Bologna to perform before a full house for the first time. This proved enough to secure her new position as musical director.

In a social media post, the Ukrainian conductor acknowledged the historical significance of her appointment in the northern Italian city. “I have the honor and responsibility to become the first woman to be invited to become the musical director of one of the most important Italian state theaters, in a country where classical music has an extraordinary history that is felt in every corner and is an integral part of the national culture,” she commented of her upcoming role in Bologna.

Lyniv’s remarkable career has been recognized with a string of accolades and awards. In December 2020, she was named Conductor of the Year at Germany’s prestigious Oper! Awards. More recently, Lyniv received the novel honor of a Barbie doll in her likeness created especially for the Odesa exhibition “Dreamers and Inventors.” One of Lyniv’s most meaningful awards came in October 2021, when she was named as the recipient of the 2021 Saxon Mozart Prize together with the Youth Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, which she founded in 2016 in a bid to bring talented young musicians from across Ukraine together and help unite the country.

Peter Dickinson is Editor of the Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert Service.

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Image: Ukrainian Oksana Lyniv made history in October 2021 by being named as the first female musical director of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna in Italy. (Michele Lapini)