(Photo Credit: andre uspensky)
Russian Mezzo-Soprano Aigul Akhmetshina is being hailed as one of the most exciting opera singers in a generation. Called “The New Netrebko” by renowned critic David Mellor, she sings with a rare, coloratura mezzo voice. A luminary of the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme, she debuted at just 21-years-old at the Royal Opera House in the role of Carmen before going on to debut at many of the famous opera houses of Europe.
Her future engagements include Wiener Staatsoper, Bayerische Staatsoper, Teatro Real, Opera de Paris, Royal Opera House, Metropolitan Opera, Glyndebourne Festival, Zurich Opera, Gran Teatre del Liceu, Theater an der Wien among others.
OperaWire caught up with Aigul at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden.
OperaWire: Congratulations on your current Werther performance! Press reviews have been rapturous, including OperaWire. What has been your response to all this adulation?
Aigul Akhmetshina: Thank you! This was my dream role to sing. The first time I heard the recording of this opera was from the Metropolitan Opera, around 2010 I think, and it was with Jonas (Kaufmann). I immediately fell in love with the music and score. I promised myself that one day I would sing this part. But I never imagined that I would sing this part alongside Jonas!
OW: You would have been a young girl of around thirteen or fourteen, then?
AA: Yeah, around that. When I was in school, I never dreamed of having an international singing career. I thought my limit was to perform at the Bolshoi Theatre or Mariinsky. But after nearly seven years of performing on prestigious stages, like the Metropolitan Opera and Covent Garden, I still haven’t performed at those theatres. However, starting my professional career in the UK has opened many doors for me.
OW: Yes, you debuted here at the Royal Opera House at 21-years-old. What are your memories of that?
AA: Can you imagine? I was only nineteen when I first auditioned at Covent Garden, and it was the first theatre I ever performed in. It was crazy to be on the stage instead of in the audience. Every time I come back, it feels like coming back home since people here saw my development from a young girl who spoke little English, to the artist I am today. I used to attend every event and was so curious about everything. This theatre is where I learned how this profession works and developed as an artist. However, it also brings a lot of pressure since people know me from my early days, and I feel like I have to be better every time I perform here. Many critics have followed my career from my first steps, and now that more people talk about me, I feel the need to prove myself as a good artist who is still growing and humble.
OW: It sounds like you feel you are facing a lot of criticism. Are you being unduly criticized at the moment?
AA: While I was a student, I faced a lot of criticism and was rejected by the Gnesin Academy because I wasn’t good enough and couldn’t afford the tuition. However, Jette Parker Young Artists Program and Royal Opera House opened lots of doors for me and helped my career grow quickly. I welcome constructive criticism, like suggestions to improve my French, which I plan to learn at some time, improve my actor’s skills, work on different styles of singing, etc.
When I perform a role for the first time, it never turns out the way I expect it to. However, I have come to realize that we cannot know everything immediately, and the most important thing is to learn and grow from both good and bad experiences.
Currently, I am singing “Werther,” but my lack of knowledge of the French language makes it imperfect. I am eager to learn the language because it is crucial for understanding the poetry and being more precise with the music. Despite my fears and a short rehearsal period, I have received great support from Tony (Antonio Pappano) and Jonas (Kaufmann) and it helped me to show myself well in this production.
I’ve been working non-stop for a while without any break, but now slowly, slowly I’m learning to prioritize quality over quantity and to take care of myself. I try to plan my schedule with some gaps to rest, which I learned the hard way after getting sick three times in less than two months before “Werther” rehearsals.
OW: When we first spoke, you said that Jonas Kaufmann had been supportive of you and had helped you “to find the right colors.” What has it been like to work with him?
AA: He’s truly an incredible artist. Despite struggling with a strong allergy on opening night, his passion for the story still shone through, giving me and the audience goosebumps. Some singers may have perfect vocal forms and techniques, but without emotion, they can’t touch our hearts. Being an artist in the theatre is a multifaceted skill that requires more than just singing. You must learn body language and acting, and work as a team to improve all aspects of performance.
When we worked with Jonas, I was nervous about my role, but he believed in me. Despite our age gap, he supported me and encouraged me to follow my instincts. He also shared with me, that even he had a difficult time with “Werther” when he first performed it. We had great chemistry on stage, and he sometimes helped me with the French language and asked for my input on how to present the story.
I always try to support my colleagues and help them if they have some difficulties and they are struggling because I believe that theatre is team work!
OW: Sir Antonio Pappano also played a major role in supporting you at the Royal Opera House, did he not?
AA: Ah, of course, Tony (Pappano), is a genius. He’s been looking after me since I started working with him, always checking if I sing the right repertoire and making sure that I’m not forcing myself too much. Even during the pandemic, he called just to see how I was doing. Because it wasn’t easy to lose all the work and stop performing for a while.
He’s a very special person who loves music so much that he becomes child-like when he talks about it. His eyes sparkle with enthusiasm. He’s so generous with his time and he is so humble. He never looks down at me because I’m young, but instead wants to learn from me and what I can bring to the music.
He’s a rare conductor who listens to singers. He gives me ideas and options but also lets me express myself. He always brings out the best in me, and that’s something you don’t see often in the industry. I admire him so much, and for me, he is music. He inspires me to be a better artist, and I feel so lucky to work with him.
OW: You have been described as the “New Netrebko.” How does that make you feel, and have you met or interacted with Anna?
AA: Anna Netrebko is someone I have always looked up to as an artist. In my opinion, she is a phenomenal artist, and I have so much respect for her. We’ve worked together a couple of times and we try to stay in touch. She sometimes congratulates me on my achievements on social media, which means so much to me. I admire her talent and dedication to the craft. She’s a true icon in the industry and when people compare me to her, I accept it as a compliment, and it encourages me to keep working hard.
OW: I think you sing certain phrases and passages that are reminiscent of her voice.
AA: Yeah, maybe. I see some similarities between our voices and acting styles. When I’m performing, I try to be myself, Aigul. I’ve come to accept that I’m a different artist, but I still appreciate when people compare me to her. It seems that these days many artists are compared to Anna, especially in terms of artistry and stage presence. She has certainly made a significant impact on the world of opera.
For me, I’m still developing as an artist. I focus on singing the repertoire that feels comfortable for me right now, which includes higher bel canto and a lot of French music. Singing itself doesn’t give me much trouble, it’s more about understanding the psychology and meaning of the character. I love delving deep into the character because if I don’t feel it, it’s harder for me to sing. I need to connect with the role on a personal level. Ironically, I always struggle with the role of Olga in “Eugene Onegin.” I just don’t feel a connection to her character at all. It’s kind of silly, but that’s how it is.
OW: And this is your own language!
AA: Yes, it’s in my native language, but I find myself constantly struggling with it. When I portray the role of Olga in “Eugene Onegin,” I feel like I’m not fully connecting with the character. There’s a lack of authenticity that bothers me. It may sound silly, but I even experience a sense of guilt (laughs), because I feel like I’m not being true to the audience. However, I always try to give everything I have, putting in a hundred percent effort despite these challenges.
OW: Tell me about growing up in Russia and what your musical influences were.
AA: Well, growing up in Russia, I didn’t have much exposure to opera. My musical influences were mainly Anna Netrebko, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Olga Borodina, Montserrat Caballé. Opera wasn’t something I knew much about until I was fourteen. It was at that age that I attended my first opera, driven by my love for theatre and the desire to combine singing with acting. Classical music felt like a natural fit for my voice, and I quickly fell in love with it.
However, there were moments when I struggled with being known as “Aigul the singer.” I had been on stage since I was three years old, and everyone would recognize me as such. They would shout, “Ah, that’s Aigul the singer!” It created a love-hate relationship with my own identity as a performer.
OW: So you were really famous back home from an early age?
AA: Because my name, Aigul, means “’Ai’- moon ‘Gul’- flower” in my native language. So whenever I sang or did anything, people would say things like, “Ah, a star is born! The moonflower is blossoming. Aigul the singer is this and that…” It became overwhelming, and I started to resent being constantly compared to that image. I felt like they didn’t see me as a person beyond my singing. It wasn’t until I came to London that I truly realized that being on stage is part of who I am. The stage became my sanctuary, a place where I could escape from reality. I can’t imagine my life without it. When the pandemic hit and I couldn’t perform for even just a month, it was agonizing. I craved being on stage. It was a painful experience.
I love my life, and I’m a dreamer with endless aspirations. My energy extends beyond opera. The opera world feels too small for me. Through my singing, I’ve come to realize that I can achieve more things. I want to be involved in charities and maybe one day open my own foundation or organization to support artists. There’s a need for a place where artists can go between conservatory and starting their careers, where they can receive guidance and find opportunities. Finding the right teacher, accommodation, and even basic information can be challenging. We need a supportive community and resources to help artists thrive.
It’s time for the opera world to unite. If we want to survive and attract a younger generation to classical music, we need to come together and grow in a supportive environment. We have so many talented artists and theatres worldwide. We should support and uplift one another. We need to find solutions on how art can change the world for the better. Not by forcing change, but by promoting love, respect, and understanding among people. Opera and theatre are perfect examples of how individuals from different countries, backgrounds, and languages can come together to create something amazing. Our uniqueness is what makes life interesting. Instead of spreading hate, we should be a shining example of how art can unite us despite our differences.