The Metropolitan Opera’s benefit concert for Ukraine started at 6 p.m. on Monday evening. But by 4:30 p.m., there was a small gathering of people already sitting in the plaza, looking up at the giant yellow and blue banners representing the Ukrainian flag draped over the Met's facade.
One couple, Marta and Orest Lesiuk, sat by the entrance, dressed in statement pieces from family members in Ukraine. Orest, 70, had on a vyshyvanka (an embroidered shirt), and Marta, 69, wore an embroidered shawl along with a coral necklace from a cousin.
The cousin, who lives in the Western part of Ukraine, has been trying to decide whether or not to leave, they said.
“She was going to stay," Marta Lesiuk said. "She says, ‘It's my house, I know people. My farm — everything!’ It's her life, but I think she is getting a little bit nervous.”
The Lesiuks said they try to call their cousin twice a week, if connection is possible.
The opera house was packed with Ukrainian-Americans wearing yellow and blue, assembled for a sold-out night with all ticket proceeds going toward relief efforts in Ukraine. Many shared stories similar to the Lesiuks, including the Ukrainian bass-baritone singing on stage, Vladyslav Buialskyi.
“My mom can not leave my hometown, because we have a sick grandmother," Buialskyi told Gothamist. "She takes care of her, and she cannot go somewhere else.”
He sang a solo during the Ukrainian National Anthem, which opened the evening’s concert.
From the stage, Buialskyi – with his hand on his heart – could see some audience members draping their own Ukrainian flags over the balcony. Below the flags, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations, Sergiy Kyslytsya, was seated in the guest of honor position in the opera house, and waved during a standing ovation.
The anthem – its opening line translating as “the glory and freedom of Ukraine has not yet perished” – is exactly what so many members of the diaspora wanted to hear beaming out from one of the world's most renowned stages.
“I brought napkins," Marta Lesiuk said as she teared up. "Look at me; I'm just talking about it... but I cry very easily.”
For her, the event meant celebrating her cousins, her connection with her parents and her culture, a respite from the horrible news coming out of her ancestral home.
“My first language was Ukrainian, we went to Saturday Ukrainian school," she said. "We went to Ukrainian scout groups, church, camps – I mean, everything. My dad would turn around and say, 'What language are you talking?' We were really brought up Ukrainian."
While the Leisuks and Buialskyi thought about absent family members during the performance, others tried to celebrate small reunions.
“We left when the bombs started the first day with my sons," Galina Bulygina said. "My husband is still in Kyiv. But luckily we have friends in New York, who are letting us stay with them for a while until this is over.”
Bulygina was standing with her daughter, Kate Shymkiv, who has been attending to school in Connecticut. Shymkiv was wearing the Ukrainian flag like a cape. She came into New York to welcome her mom to the U.S. and attended the performance with her.
For those who were unable to come, the performance was broadcast throughout Europe, including on Ukrainian public radio. Maybe Bulygina’s husband, the Lesiuks’ cousins, and Buialskyi’s mom and grandmother were able to take part in some way, too.