MANSFIELD – The horrors of the Russian invasion in Ukraine are more than a tragic headline for Sophia Pavlenko-Chandley. They’re an attack on her homeland.
"The atrocities, what I hear every day is absolutely inconceivable," she said. "Right now it's a war of the principles -- of democracy versus dictatorship."
Pavlenko-Chandley, a world-renowned pianist and composer, lives in North Carolina with her husband, fellow pianist and conductor Paul Chandley.
The couple met in 2000, when Pavlenko-Chandley was touring the United States with the Kiev Symphony Orchestra. The pair hit it off immediately, bonding over their shared love of music, and got engaged three days after meeting.
After one year of international courtship, the couple married in Troy, North Carolina.
Since the invasion of Ukraine, the Chandleys have put their talents to use by hosting benefit concerts for Ukraine relief organizations.
The couple will travel to Mansfield in May to join performance of "Two One Act Operas" by the Mid-Ohio Civic Opera.
The show will feature professional opera singers as well as Pavlenko-Chandley on piano. Chandley will conduct.
"Two One Act Operas" opens May 20 at 8 p.m. at the Mansfield Playhouse. MOCO's portion of the ticket revenue from the opening night will be donated to Army SOS, a non-governmental organization that provides supplies to Ukrainian soldiers.
Artistic Director Joel Vega said he wanted to support his friends' efforts to help Ukraine.
“Ukrainians are passionate patriots. They’re all patriotic," Vega said. “I want to make a contribution. I want to make it so (Sophia's) art, her music was contributing to the thing that’s always in the back of her mind.”
Pavlenko-Chandley grew up in the Ukrainian capital city of Kiev. Her mother is a Russian-born opera accompanist; her late father was an opera soloist. Both were prominent members of the nation's opera scene.
Pavlenko-Chandley said her mother’s career took off when she moved to Kiev. She later became a Ukrainian citizen.
“(My mother) did really well in Ukraine,” she said. “She never felt like she was persecuted for speaking Russian or being Russian. There was just none of that.”
Once the invasion began, Pavlenko-Chandley's family managed to evacuate her young nephew from the most dangerous part of the city. Her mother, stepfather, sisters and nieces remain.
They refuse to leave.
"I try to give them the opportunity," Pavlenko-Chandley said. "My mother, she's a woman of faith. She thinks God will protect them, in spite of all of the horrors which she’s seen happen, all those massacres."
When not performing, Pavlenko-Chandley spends most of her free time communicating with family and friends back home, leveraging her on-the-ground connections in both countries to coordinate aid efforts and supply donations.
She said her efforts to help those back home are the only thing that keeps her going. On the day she spoke with Richland Source, she was running on two hours of sleep.
"I had to coordinate the delivery of these medical kits," she said. "Then I had to call those military units and make sure what they would need and I had to translate for them. So I didn't sleep."
Two countries, one spirit
Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union in August 1991. The Soviet Union fell the following December.
A few years later, the United States, Russia, Britain and Ukraine signed the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. In the agreement, the nations agreed to respect the independence, sovereignty and existing borders of Ukraine and refrain from the threats or use of force against the country. In return, Ukraine agreed to surrender the sizable nuclear arsenal left behind by the Soviets.
The memorandum left the nation vulnerable after Russia failed to keep up its end of the bargain.
“What you're witnessing right now, it's a repetition of World War II with Hitler. Just replace Hitler with Putin,” Pavlenko-Chandley said.
Pavlenko-Chandley loves both her homeland of Ukraine and the United States. She sees them as two nations cut from the same cloth -- one of democracy, capitalism and freedom.
In her mind, Ukraine's efforts to ward off the Russian invasion are similar to the Revolutionary War waged by the American colonies.
"(Ukrainians) would rather die than to be slaves," she added. "Live free or die, right? That's your slogan during the Revolutionary War."
Pavlenko-Chandley believes the invasion in Ukraine is more than an attack on one country. It's an attack on democracy itself.
“If we as a country will not support the other country in this kind of a fight, we’re setting up the precedent for that sort of thing to happen in the future – China moving on Taiwan, Russia moving everywhere else.”
"Two One Act Operas"
“Two One Act Operas” will feature a pair of 20th century operas, “Trouble in Tahiti” and “Gianni Schicchi."
“I love one act operas; I think they’re very digestible," Vega said. "They’re like short stories. These are two of my favorites."
“Trouble in Tahiti” is an English language opera written by Leonard Bernstein, who also wrote the music for West Side Story. The work explores a day in the life of a mid-20th century couple struggling to connect.
“They are living in suburbia, living the American dream but they are super unhappy," Vega said.
As the story progresses, a jazz trio interjects with showtune-esque melodies. Vega described the style of the trio as similar to retro jingles from the 1950s and 1960s.
“Gianni Schicchi” by Giacomo Puccini follows the large family of a recently deceased wealthy patriarch. Upon his death, the family immediately stops mourning and quickly tears the house apart to find his will.
“It's the funniest one act opera I have ever heard in my life," Vega said. “It’s like reality television, it’s families behaving poorly.”
The hidden will reveals that the old man left all of his money and worldly possessions to a group of church friars, with nothing for the greedy family members.
Without an inheritance, a young nephew is unable to marry his beloved – until he and the young woman’s father, town fixer Gianni Schicchi, come up with a plan to change the will.
"Gianni Schicchi" is in Italian, but supertitles will be available.
"Two One Act Operas" opens May 20, with subsequent performances on May 21, 27 and 28 at 8 p.m. and May 29 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets range from $8 to $13 and can be purchased on the Mansfield Playhouse website.