WAYLAND — By the time Ilya Silchukou performed upon the steps of the Bolshoi Theatre of Belarus in Minsk, more than 6,000 protesters had already been detained.
It was August 2020, one tumultuous week after President Alexander Lukashenko, often described as “Europe’s last dictator,” had claimed victory in a widely disputed election. His opponent had already fled the country. The government had briefly severed Internet service, as police fired rubber bullets and beat demonstrators who’d clogged the streets to protest.
Silchukou, one of the country’s best-known opera stars, had already publicly renounced three awards he’d received from Lukashenko.
And now he was prepared to use his most powerful tool to support the cause, channeling his rich baritone to sing “Kupalinka,” a beloved song that had become an anthem of the protests.
Two years later, Silchukou, his wife, Tatsiana, and their three children live a quiet life in a rented house in this town west of Boston, where Silchukou tends the owner’s garden of eggplants. Their furniture is entirely donated, and Silchukou, once a star soloist at the Minsk Bolshoi who sang at opera houses across Europe, now teaches music at Star Academy, a private K-8 school, as he seeks to establish a stage career in the United States.
“It’s going to be hard,” said Silchukou, who remains all but unknown to US audiences. “On the other hand, I’ve found so many new friends who support us and help us. I look forward with optimism.”
Among those new friends is renowned Russian pianist Pavel Nersessian, who will perform a concert of songs and arias with Silchukou on Saturday at First Church Boston in Back Bay.
Nersessian only recently met Silchukou, but during a recent rehearsal at Boston University, he described the singer’s voice as “multicolored,” capable of subtly expressing the full spectrum of human emotion. He added that although Silchukou is starting over, he remains “lucky.”
“His choice is made,” said Nersessian, who teaches at BU. “He can consider himself a person with a backbone.”
Silchukou joined the Bolshoi Theatre when he was just 23, making a name for himself as a soloist with leading roles for baritone, such as Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” and Marcello in Puccini’s “La Bohème.” He traveled abroad frequently for singing competitions, winning the 2011 Hans Gabor and Helicon prizes at the prestigious International Hans Gabor Belvedere Singing Competition, among others.
As he built his repertoire, adding roles such as the elder Germont in Verdi’s “La Traviata,” and Valentin in Gounod’s “Faust,” he landed parts at major opera houses across Europe, including Teatro dell’Opera in Rome, Oper Frankfurt, and Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels.
Peter de Caluwe, general and artistic director at the Monnaie, first encountered Silchukou as the third-place winner of the Concorso Lirico Internazionale di Portofino, a singing competition. De Caluwe, who serves on the competition’s jury, said he was struck immediately by the baritone’s stage presence, noting his “beautiful timbre and strong voice.”
“His musicality was striking,” said de Caluwe, who hired Silchukou for a role in Rachmaninoff’s “The Miserly Knight.” His voice “combines mellifluousness with poise and style, amazing technique, and breath control.”
Those same qualities endeared him to audiences in Belarus, where Silchukou frequently appeared on television and a was a featured performer at the opening ceremony of the 2nd European Games. Still, he walked a fine line: He quietly disapproved of Lukashenko’s grip on power, but as an employee of the national opera, he was often called upon to perform at official functions.
“I was well-paid for that, but everyone knew that I would not support certain things,” said Silchukou. He recalled how he repeatedly declined to perform at annual celebrations commemorating the Russian revolution and once declined to appear under Belarus’s current “red communistic flag.” “I don’t want to be associated with that flag, because my flag is my parents’ flag, my ancestors’ flag: white, red, white.”
In the months following the 2020 election, however, Silchukou felt compelled to take a stronger stance. He signed an open letter calling for an end to the violence and an election recount. He publicly supported other artists who’d been fired for speaking out, and he indicated his support from the stage, flashing the “victory” sign as performers received red and white bouquets from the audience, a sign of resistance he said was later prohibited by the theater.
He wanted to go further, but there was his family to consider. And Tatsiana, a mezzo-soprano on maternity leave from the Bolshoi, cautioned him against taking a more public stand.
“You’re a target,” she recalled recently over breakfast at their Wayland home. “What should we do if you don’t come back?”
She later joined the protests, too.
That October, Silchukou collaborated with other artists in a video calling for a national strike. He was fired within days, his working card stating he’d committed “an act of immorality.”
Stuck at home with COVID-19, Silchukou decided to play his last card: a highly produced video he’d recorded of “Mahutny Bozha,” a hymn that has become an anthem of the anti-Lukashenko movement.
“That video was in my pocket,” Silchukou said of the searing indictment that would go on to rack up more than 500,000 views. “I’d been afraid to publish it because I was still working in the theater, but then I said, we have nothing to lose.”
The family fled the following summer, when the police called Tatsiana into the station for an interview, indicating they’d launched a criminal investigation into whether she’d improperly received state maternity payments.
“They couldn’t affect me, but they could reach Tanya,” said Silchukou, who worried the family wouldn’t be able to leave the country if the police brought charges. “We have to flee.”
He closed out the family bank accounts, packed four suitcases, and headed for the country of Georgia, and from there eventually made it to Seattle, where Silchukou’s parents live.
They arrived in Boston a few months later after meeting a Belarusian Bostonian at a concert in Seattle. They were lured by the city’s rich musical life and, compared to the Pacific Northwest, relative proximity to European stages. Here, they’ve tapped into a rich network of eastern European emigres, whose members have helped them with everything from their immigration status to Silchukou’s job at the school where their children also attend.
“People tend to hold on to little things they have that make them comfortable,” said Maria Eliseeva, whose nonprofit, Sound Ways, is producing Saturday’s concert. Eliseeva, an attorney who’s also helping him with immigration issues, added that Silchukou “had many things to lose.”
“It’s a very courageous decision,” she said. “I think that’s rare nowadays.”
Silchukou packed just three family photos when he fled Belarus. The faded images depict five generations of Silchukou men — an uninterrupted line from his great-great grandfather to Silchukou himself. He dreams of one day returning to Belarus, where he hopes to sing “Mahutny Bozha” at a concert in Minsk’s Independence Square.
“I dream to see Belarus free,” he said. “I belong to that land.”
In the meantime, he and Nersessian are planning to present the concert again later this month in New Jersey, where Eliseeva has invited US talent agents so Silchukou can gain a foothold in the States.
Among the pieces he will perform is Count di Luna’s aria from Verdi’s “Il Trovatore.” The piano part is reserved, with long pauses punctuated by delicate notes, but it is a bravura piece for voice — demanding a dazzlingly high range for a baritone coupled with prodigious stamina.
As Nersessian played softly during a recent rehearsal at his BU office, Silchukou sustained the aria’s impossibly high pitch, which he described as “too high for the baritone and too low for the tenor.”
“It’s torture,” he said, adding the aria offers little in the way of dramatic distraction, focusing only on voice.
“There is a lot of music where you can hide yourself,” he continued. “But then there is this moment when you are observed by the public, and you have nothing to hide.”
Ilya Silchukou and Pavel Nersessian: Songs & Arias for Baritone and Piano
First Church Boston, 66 Marlborough Street. Sept. 17. @ 8:00 PM. Tickets $35, available at https://silchukou.eventbrite.com/ and at the door. Additional information: email@example.com or 617-833-7015