Opera singers in the northeastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv are hoping to return to the stage more than 20 months after the Russian invasion began, performing in the basement of their theater to be safe from Russian airstrikes.

Ukraine’s second-largest city, which banned mass public gatherings when Russia invaded its territory in February 2022, is frequently targeted by missiles that take just 45 seconds to reach their target from the moment they are launched by Russian borders, which are 30 kilometers apart.

The Kharkiv State Academic Theater of Opera and Ballet, which stopped performances because of the danger, equipped its basement with a stage, a makeshift orchestra room and rows of seats.

Its artists plan to ask the authorities to allow them to perform regularly, as the basement essentially functions as a shelter.

On Friday, they held an official rehearsal in front of the theater staff, friends and family.

“We missed performing on stage,” says opera singer Olena Starikova.

“We’ve sung in many places—parking lots, forests, schools, kindergartens, hospitals—but nothing compares to the stage. Opera is a fairy tale. All of us, the ballet troupe, the opera troupe, are overjoyed,” she says.

The huge theater was designed as a Conference Hall for Communist Party members during the Soviet era, explains Andrei Turlobekov, the theater’s chief engineer.

“The building can withstand a lot. It is a monolithic and safe construction. The elite for whom it was built had to be safe,” he says.

Despite its proximity to the Russian border, Kharkiv was never captured by Russian forces during the invasion although some districts, especially its northeastern edge closest to Russia, have suffered extensive damage from bombing.

The distance to the border is so short that rockets can land in the city and explode before the air raid alert goes off, explains Ihor Tuluzov, the theater’s general and artistic director.

Earlier this month, the mayor’s office announced plans to build an underground school for children so they can attend classes safely despite the missile threat.

The city has already built dozens of classrooms on its subway system to allow some students to return to lifelong learning.

Schools have switched to remote education during the war due to air strikes.

The city is now bracing for a second winter of war and there are fears that Russia will target the national power grid and other vital energy infrastructure, causing widespread blackouts.

Despite those fears and regular airstrikes, authorities say many residents have returned to Kharkiv after fleeing at the start of the invasion.

More than 1.2 million people live in the city, which before the war had 1.4 million inhabitants.

Starikova says she is excited to return to the stage.

“It is a celebration because today we can safely perform opera for the residents of Kharkiv, people can be safe and we can give them our songs, our performances and give them joy in this difficult time for the country and our city”.