Natalie Semotiuk worked with the Toronto International Film Festival’s Rising Star Program starting in 2015 and took over as Producer from 2017 to 2019. She was invited to be a judge for the 2019 Juno Awards to select the Comedy Album of the Year. Through her platform, Natalie sheds light on the ongoing war in Ukraine. She intertwines her cultural roots with her artistic pursuits. Solomea tells the story of Solomea Krushelnytska, a Ukrainian soprano, considered to be one of the brightest opera stars of the 20th century. A national treasure in Ukraine (the Lviv National Opera was named in her honour), this year celebrates the 150th Anniversary of her birth, which has been commemorated by UNESCO and the Ukrainian Government issuing an Official Decree marking the auspicious occasion. —Vita Daily
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your project?
I am a Ukrainian-Canadian filmmaker with a background in casting, teaching, and producing. Professionally, I’m probably most well-known for being the producer of the Toronto International Film Festival’s Rising Stars programme, which, in my humble opinion, is one of the best talent development programmes TIFF has to offer. Currently, I am working on my feature film debut, a documentary titled Solomea: Uncovering a Family Legacy. This project is incredibly personal to me as it traces the journey my father and I embarked on to uncover our family history through researching the life of Solomea Krushelnytska, a once-world-renowned Ukrainian opera singer.
Who was Solomea Krushelnytska and what Inspired you to tell this story, and what do you hope people will take away?
Solomea Krushelnytska was an international opera legend in the early twentieth century, a cultural ambassador, and a national treasure in Ukraine to this day. She was a contemporary of opera legends like composer Giacomo Puccini, conductor Arturo Toscanini, and tenor Enrico Caruso. If you’ve heard of the opera Madama Butterfly, then you need to know that Puccini came to Solomea to help him rescue it after its initial disastrous debut. If you want the full story, you’ll have to watch the film. Solomea was more than a soprano; she was a beacon of resilience and an embodiment of Ukrainian identity at a time when women’s voices were often overlooked. My inspiration to tell this story comes from my family connection to Solomea, but also from the desire to highlight the rich cultural history of Ukraine. When most people think of Ukraine now, they picture war zones. But Ukrainians have a rich culture and history. I hope that people watching the film will gain a deep appreciation for Ukrainian culture, and feel inspired to stand up for cultures that are under threat of annihilation. In a time when Ukraine’s sovereignty is under attack, sharing Ukrainian stories becomes a vital act of cultural preservation and resistance.
How do you see Solomea’s cultural impact resonate today?
The 150th anniversary of Solomea’s birth, commemorated by UNESCO and the Ukrainian government, is a testament to her enduring cultural impact and a point of immense pride for my family. It signifies the recognition of her contributions to the world of opera and Ukrainian culture. Solomea’s spirit of resilience, her passion for her craft, and her dedication to her Ukrainian identity continue to resonate deeply, providing inspiration for multiple generations. The opera in the city of Lviv is named in her honour and there are museums in her former homes in Lviv and Bila, Ukraine, that continue to teach people about her many contributions. There are even streets named after her! She is still treasured as the voice of Ukraine to this very day. To have her legacy remembered is a great honour and we hope to share her legacy outside of Ukraine’s borders.
How was she a champion for women and Ukranians all over the world?
Solomea was indeed ahead of her time, not only an outstanding artist but also an ambassador for women and Ukrainians worldwide. Despite her humble beginnings and societal constraints, her success made her a symbol of female empowerment and a role model for aspiring artists. She was outspoken about women’s rights and education. Even the fact that she became an opera singer was breaking traditional gender roles and expectations for women of her era. Not to mention, she was one of the first women ever to drive a car. When it came to her Ukrainian identity, many other nations tried to claim her as their own. But she always spoke up about who she really was and was proud of her Ukrainian identity. Her international acclaim highlighted Ukraine’s rich cultural heritage and talent.
Your journey has taken you all over the world; was there a place in particular where you saw Solomea’s greatest impact?
The journey of making this documentary has taken me to many places where Solomea lived or performed, Italy, Poland, France, and Argentina. However, her impact was most palpable in her homeland, Ukraine, where her name is still revered and her contributions celebrated. There are people who have dedicated their lives to commemorating her legacy in Ukraine. Her contributions to the world of opera continue to inspire and elevate artists in Ukraine. We hope this film will revive her legacy internationally once again.
Your documentary is a visual chronicle that accompanies your father’s new book, Solomea: Star of Opera’s Golden Age. What was it like to tell the story of your family’s legacy from an objective lens while working with your dad?
Creating this documentary in tandem with my father’s book was a fascinating and enriching process. I studied history and theatre at University and this project was a historian’s and performer’s dream. It was challenging to strike a balance between the personal, familial connection and the need for an objective lens as a filmmaker. I tried to maintain objectivity but when the war started it became exceedingly difficult. I don’t know if I always did because the events became all too real. The people we were working with in Ukraine were under attack. Instead of planning shoots there, we were messaging our friends and family, asking if they were ok, as we watched missiles rain down across the country. But I ultimately had a responsibility to tell Solomea’s and our family’s story. We were able to create a compelling narrative that honours our family’s legacy and provides a broader audience with a captivating historical account. When it came to working with my Dad, I got lucky. He was just as motivated as I was to tell this story. Of course, there were times when we had artistic differences, and without a doubt, our relationship fluctuated between storytellers and collaborators to father and daughter (particularly when either of us needed a snack or a nap). But I trusted him to be the holder of the historical lens and he put his faith in me as a filmmaker to tell the story and we got to a really beautiful place. It certainly made us closer and if nothing else, I’m grateful for that.
What’s next for you?
Having just completed Solomea: Uncovering a Family Legacy, I am looking forward to seeing audience reactions and engaging in conversations about the film. I’m hoping it will show at a few film festivals (fingers crossed). I am committed to using my platform to elevate important narratives, speak out for marginalized communities, and contribute to the global cultural dialogue. As long as there is a war, I will continue to use my platform to draw attention to Ukraine to speak out on behalf of its right to freedom and sovereignty as well as raise awareness for the activists and humanitarian organizations that are providing help to those who have been affected by the war. I am also excited about future storytelling opportunities. I want to see what other iterations I can make about Solomea’s story. It is such a rich story and goes through such a dynamic period of history, with characters that are larger than life. Aside from the documentary, I am captivated by the idea of making a bigger, wilder version of her story. I’m excited to find collaborators who might also be intrigued by this possibility.