Our Global Neighborhood: Local soprano connects Ukraine and Traverse City through opera
Award-winning, Ukrainian-born soprano Antonina Chehovska wasn’t even thinking about opera until music professors at the Grand Rapids Community College noticed something special in her voice.
Thus began Antonina’s journey to becoming an opera singer whose performances are described as “radiant” and an “audience favorite.”
Antonina was born in a small village just outside Kiev in Ukraine, when it was still a part of the Soviet Union. Deeply religious Christians, her family made the move to America in 1997, seeking a better life and freedom to practice their faith without discrimination. Antonina was just 11 years old.
Music was an integral part of Antonina’s life growing up.
“Father would always sit us down, and we would sing hymns at home, harmonizing by ear,” she says.
While Antonina says she was typically the soloist in the family, she did not have a sense of her unique talent until she was in her early 20s. In fact, she first studied to become a dentist.
She credits professors at the Grand Rapids Community College with noticing something special in her voice — a roundness or color in tone sometimes ascribed to East Europeans having wide cheekbones. The rest came with hard work.
“They were so much tougher on me than on other students because they saw the potential, they saw something deep in there, and my work ethic… and they held me to a different standard,” she says.
Antonina went on to earn two Master's Degrees from University of Michigan, in voice performance and conducting. She won U-M’s Concerto Competition in 2014 and in 2016 was the prizewinner of the prestigious George London Foundation Competition.
Antonina’s repertoire is vast (seehttps://www.antoninachehovska.com for more information) and includes performances in eight languages. But she describes singing in Ukrainian as something special, deeply personal and poetic.
“You grow up with your mother tongue… it’s in your blood and your bones… it’s something that comes from your very depth and represents your most vulnerable place,” she says.
One of Antonina’s signature roles is Tatiana from the beloved Russian opera, Evgeniy Onegin, written in verse form by the famous Russian poet Pushkin and set to music by Tchaikovsky.
“It is how I started many of my auditions at University of Michigan and won many of my awards. It is like Tchaikovsky wrote it for me,” she says.
It also became a special way of reconnecting with her roots after living for a decade in America. Antonina recalls learning after one of her recitals that her mother knew every word of the famous letter scene in the opera after learning it in school.
Today, Antonina’s faith keeps her steady while she continues to develop new roles not only in opera but in conducting, teaching and acting.
She remains a huge fan of community college because of the encouragement she found at the relatively late age of 21 to try a new path in life.
“I am so thankful to them … to see the potential in somebody, to see a dream in somebody and not prejudge them. I don’t know if I would have gotten to U of M without community college. I don’t know if I would have discovered what I do now without community college,” she says.
Antonina compares those opportunities to the rigid music conservatory system in Ukraine, which had turned her down as a child.
“America really is a country of dreams. There are so many opportunities that you can try,” she says. “That is not the case in many other countries. I think in Europe and the former Soviet Union, we prejudge and judge too quickly.”
This interview was conducted on Feb. 7, prior to the acceleration of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States.