Saturday, 22 July 2017

The art of saying no: soprano Albina Shagimuratova on Semiramide, Aspasia, Mimi and Turandot

Albina Shagimuratova as Aspasia - Mozart: Mitridate Re di Ponto - Royal Opera House (Photo (c) ROH, Bill Cooper)
Albina Shagimuratova as Aspasia - Mozart: Mitridate Re di Ponto - Royal Opera House 2017 (Photo (c) ROH, Bill Cooper)
The Russian soprano Albina Shagimuratova has been wowing London audiences with her command of relatively rare repertoire. Last year she sang the title role of Rossini's Semiramide at the BBC Proms with Sir Mark Elder and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (see my review), with whom she has recorded the opera for Opera Rara. When I recently met up with Albina she was in the middle of singing the role of Aspasia in Mozart's Mitridate, Re di Ponto at the Royal Opera House conducted by Christophe Rousset, and talked coloratura, pregnancy, how to keep your voice healthy and the art of saying no.


Albina Shagimuratova (Photo Pavel Vaan / Leonid Semenyuk)
Albina Shagimuratova
(Photo Pavel Vaan / Leonid Semenyuk)
Albina comments that the role of Aspasia is not an easy part, even though she seems to always be singing tricky roles such as Semiramide. The role of Aspasia is tricky from the start with a complex opening aria right after the overture, with lots of coloratura and high notes, she describes it as more difficult that Queen of the Night. Though singing only difficult roles sometimes 'drives her crazy', she admits that she does enjoy it. She marvels at how Mozart could write such music at the age of 14, even though the opera does not compare to Die Zauberflote or Don Giovanni. And it is not just the role of Aspasia, it is difficult for everyone as the arias are long, as is the opera (lasting over four hours). This was her role debut as Aspasia and she found it fantastic to work with the director Graham Vick (the second production which she has worked on with him), as he helped her to build the character as drama. 

Singing Semiramide at the Proms in 2016 was a huge challenge and she is grateful to both Mark Elder and the OAE, and she feels that she learned so much from Mark Elder. The opera was performed (and recorded) complete which is something that has almost never been done. Albina points out that even Isabella Colbran (for whom Rossini wrote the role) made changes, but the whole idea of the performance and the recording was do to it exactly as in the score. She found singing at the Proms a fantastic experience, she finds singing in London very special and the response of the audience at the Royal Albert Hall was terrific.

Many colleagues think of Albina was a working machine with all of her high notes and coloratura, but she likes to bring character and drama on stage. She enjoyed her period working on Mitridate with Graham Vick, describing him as her type of stage director, everything he did came from the score, he does not create 'something crazy'. In Mitridate there are lots of recitatives, and she worked extensively on these with him over the three week rehearsal period, and she comments that he never let her be empty on stage, she was always Aspasia. She also comments on the superb cast that they had (Michael Spyres, Lucy Crowe, Bejun Mehta), and she found the whole experience very enjoyable. She is also complimentary about the Royal Opera House Orchestra, calling it one of the great orchestras of the world.


Albina Shagimuratova as the Queen of the Night - Mozart: Die Zauberflote - Royal Opera House 2013 (Photo Mike Hoban)
Albina Shagimuratova as Queen of the Night - Mozart: Die Zauberflote
Royal Opera House 2013 (Photo Mike Hoban)
When working on a new production, with a technically demanding role, she tries to speak to the stage director to let him know what she can and can't do. Usually this involves compromises, finding a solution. She will never say 'No, I can't do that', and always likes to find a solution which is good for both herself and the director.

The role of Semiramide sits a little low for Albina, and she did add some high notes. She comments that she would not have accepted the role earlier in her career. It is thanks to her pregnancy in 2014 (she and her husband have a daughter called Adelina) that her voice has got bigger in the lower register without affecting the top, she is still singing the Queen of the Night, though she will be finishing with the role next year (when she will have been singing it for 10 years). But her middle range is stronger, more secure and her breath control is stronger.

She thinks that Mozart is healthy for the voice. She currently also sings Donna Anna in Don Giovanni (a role she sang at Covent Garden in 2015, see my review), and Konstanze in Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail, and she would love to do Fiordiligi in Cosi van Tutte on day. In Albina's opinion, most sopranos take on the role of Fiordiligi way too early. Fiordiligi is a demanding part, that needs to be well sung and ideally the soprano should already have experience of singing the Countess (in Le nozze di Figaro).

Albina Shagimuratova as Donna Anna - Mozart: Don Giovanni - Royal Opera House 2015 (Photo Mike Hoban)
Albina Shagimuratova as Donna Anna
Mozart: Don Giovanni
Royal Opera House 2015 (Photo Mike Hoban)
Albina always wanted to be a singer, though her parents were lawyers. She is grateful to them because they encouraged her to play the piano at the age of five, and she learned by listening to the music around her. She heard Maria Callas singing on the radio when she was 12, and when at the age of 18 she told her parents she wanted to be an opera singer they said 'are you crazy?', and wanted her to be a lawyer but she knew she wanted to work in music and the theatre. She did not have a good teacher, and had to learn for herself how to sing. At the time she had a normal lyric voice without the extreme high notes, but she heard the Queen of the Night and tried to extended her voice through exercises and without pushing the middle voice achieved the high F. Albina's voice has always been growing and she feels that the Queen of the Night which she sang at the Salzburg Festival in 2008 was very different to the Queen of the Night which she sang at her Covent Garden debut in 2013.

In addition to Mozart, and what she describes as her crazy ladies (Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, Elvira in Bellini's I Puritani) she also sings in her native Russian, including Rimsky Korsakov's The Tsar's Bride. She would love to sing more French repertoire, and bemoans the fact that Delibes Lakmé is not more often done. She tends to learn two new role per season, she does not find it too difficult learning these complex roles. She learned Aspasia in three weeks, studying six hours per day. At the beginning, if she does not know a part, she listens to recordings so see what is going on but does not listen whilst she is learning.

She was born in the Soviet Union in an area which, after the collapse of the Soviet Union became Uzbekistan. The collapse of the Soviet Union was not an easy time for her family, and her father decided to move to Russia; she feels that this was the right decision looking back, because her relatives still in Uzbekistan still struggle, and she would not now have a career as an opera singer if she had stayed. She studied at the Moscow Tchaikovsky State Conservatoire and now lives in Moscow.

Albina Shagimuratova as Lucia - Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor - Teatro alla Scala 2014 (Photo Brescia / Amisano)
Albina Shagimuratova as Lucia
Donizetti: Lucia di Lammermoor
Teatro alla Scala 2014 (Photo Brescia / Amisano)
In 2006 she was invited to join Houston Grand Opera's young artists scheme. She had no English and found the change of culture a complete shock. She sees a completely different mentality between the USA and Russia, but she was very happy with what happened and she found the level of musicianship, coaching and languages very different in Houston. Moscow State Conservatoire did not teach how to sing Mozart or Bel Canto, she learned this in Houston. In Moscow they concentrated on the voice; she comments that the Russian vocal school is all about loud singing and this was not for her. Her intuition told her that it was the wrong way, and she always listens to her intuition.

In future she would love to sing Bellini's Norma and Donizetti's Tudor Queens (Anna Bolena, Elisabetta in Roberto Devereux and Maria Stuarda). This is her style of repertoire, having sung so many Queens she does not feel that Gounod's Romeo et Juliette is for her, it is neither her style nor her character. But she is currently in discussions with the Royal Opera about possible future roles.

Looking ahead she is about to return to Russia to sing Donna Anna in Don Giovanni at the Mariinsky Theatre with Valery Gergiev conducting, and next year will make her stage debut in the title role of Rossini's Semiramide at the Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich (in the production which comes to Covent Garden in the Autumn with Joyce DiDonato in the title role). Albina will make her role debut as Elvira in Bellini's I Puritani at Chicago Lyric Opera in early 2018. Plans also include a final Queen of the Night in a special production, as well as a recording of Mozart's Die Zauberflote for Deutsche Gramophon, with conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin. She will also be doing Violetta in La Traviata in Houston in September. She has has sung Violetta before and sometimes likes to return to roles. She does not find Violetta technically challenging to sing, but loves the character as an actress, she is such an interesting woman, and there is so much to find in the role, so many colours.

Once, when she was at the Met in New York, singing Konstanze in Die Entfuhrung, James Levine told her than when she was 45 or 50 she would sing the title role in Turandot, she laughed and said Liu perhaps, but Levine insisted but all she says is 'We will see'. Whilst Musetta in Puccini's La Boheme is a role which she sang as a student, she would love to explore Puccini further, and is interested in Mimi (in La Boheme). Regarding Madama Butterfly she says not yet, but maybe one day. Puccini is, for her, a different technique, and this applies to much of Verdi too. She thinks perhaps that in seven or eight years she might be able look at Desdemona (in Otello) or Luisa Miller. She had an offer to do Abigaille in Nabucco three or four years ago, but she said no; this is a role for a real dramatic soprano.

Rossini Semiramide at the BBC Proms, 2016 - Susana Gaspar, Daniela Barcellona,  Albina Shagimuratova, Barry Banks, Gianluca Buratto, Mirco Palazzi,  Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Mark Elder - photo Chris Christodoulou
Rossini Semiramide at the BBC Proms, 2016 - Susana Gaspar, Daniela Barcellona,  Albina Shagimuratova, Barry Banks, Gianluca Buratto, Mirco Palazzi,  Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, Mark Elder - photo Chris Christodoulou
Albina wants to have a long career, and whilst she has realised she cannot sing the Queen of the Night for ever she is careful about what she agrees to. She thinks that it is hard to say no to tempting offers, but a singer has to if they want a long career. And it is to this caution, her ability to say no, that she attributes her career and her vocal health at the age of 37. And she returns to Semiramide saying that one of the main reasons for adding such a challenging role was because it involved working with Mark Elder, she adores him and feels lucky to have worked with him on the project.

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