An Upcoming Opera Will Tell the Story of Ukraine’s Kidnapped Children

Commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, the work will be based on the accounts of mothers who traveled 3,000 miles to get their loved ones back

The Ukrainian flag hangs on the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in February 2023
As part of its ongoing support of Ukraine after the Russian invasion, the Metropolitan Opera has commissioned a work based on true stories of Ukrainian mothers rescuing their abducted children. Angela Weiss / AFP via Getty Images

Last May, Ukrainian mother Oksana Stetsenko undertook a daring journey to find her son Nikita.

The previous fall, in the midst of fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces, the Russian military took Nikita and 12 of his classmates from their boarding school in the Ukrainian town of Kupyansk, NBC News reported in June.

For months, Stetsenko had no idea where her son was.

“Tears soaked my pillow,” she told NBC News. “I had no idea where to start, or how I would ever get him back.”

Then, the nongovernmental organization Save Ukraine contacted her with a plan. It aided and funded her journey, covering 3,000 miles, so she could retrieve her son from Perevalsk Special Correctional Boarding School in Russian-occupied Ukraine. There, Nikita and his peers were forced to wear Russian military uniforms and follow a Russian curriculum, reports Sarah Rainsford for BBC News. The journey included multiple stressful border crossings and Stetsenko’s second-ever airplane flight, but it ended with a successful reunion.

Now, as part of its ongoing pro-Ukrainian efforts, the New York City-based Metropolitan Opera has commissioned a work based on the stories of mothers like Stetsenko, who made perilous journeys to retrieve their kidnapped children. Ukrainian composer and oboist Maxim Kolomiiets will write the music for the piece, collaborating with American playwright and librettist George Brant.

“We’re proud to continue to support Ukraine on the cultural front,” says Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, in a statement. “The heroism of these Ukrainian mothers in the face of Russian atrocities is a story that should be amplified theatrically and is in the good creative hands of Maxim and George.”

Gelb hopes the new opera, part of the Met Opera/Lincoln Center Theater New Works Program, will be able to premiere in 2027 or 2028.

“It’s my hope it will end up as a full-blown opera and hopefully on our stage,” he tells the Associated Press (AP).

Brant, for his part, tells the New York Times’ Javier C. Hernández, “I feel like there’s thousands of stories that could be told and should be told about this conflict, but this one seemed to convey both the scale of the horror that the Ukrainians face and the courage and resilience of its people.”

Since the beginning of the war, Ukraine says the Russian military and its collaborators have moved at least 19,000 Ukrainian children into Russian-controlled territories, “PBS NewsHour” reported in July. Though Russian officials say they have merely been keeping the children safe and have offered parents opportunities to retrieve their loved ones, Ukraine says they have not willingly returned any children.

In March, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russian Presidential Commissioner for Child Rights Maria Lvova-Belova and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Prosecutor Karim A. A. Khan KC accused the pair of the “unlawful deportation and transfer of Ukrainian children”—a war crime—with the intention “to permanently remove these children from their own country.”

The idea to tell the kidnapped children’s story came from a meeting Gelb had with Ukrainian First Lady Olena Zelenska during her visit to the Metropolitan Opera last fall, according to the statement. After the conversation, the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture invited composers to apply for the project, receiving 72 applications, which were then vetted by the Met.

Ultimately, the Met chose Kolomiiets because of his experience in opera and understanding of Ukrainian musical traditions, Gelb tells the Times. Kolomiiets feels “a responsibility to create something great and to show something very dignified about my country,” he says to the Times.

Thus far, Kolomiiets and Brant have worked out a story framework; a piano-vocal score and libretto will be written in the next year or two, the AP reports. Once the pair produce these elements, they will be able to organize a workshop.

Kolomiiets, who has been residing in Germany since last year, tells the Times that as he writes the opera, he’s trying to envision a peaceful and thriving Ukraine.

“The story has a happy ending,” he says of the opera. “And it’s really important for us to have a happy ending right now.”

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