Interview with Grammy Award Winner and opera superstar Ildar Abdrazakov

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Interview with Grammy Award Winner and opera superstar Ildar Abdrazakov
Ildar Abdrazakov as Filippo II in Don Carlo, Teatro Regio di Torino (2013)

“When talent, looks and intelligence come together”

At 38, Ildar Abdrazakov is one of the most sought-after basses on the international opera stage. His dark velvety voice, flawless technique, musical integrity, classy sense of style and acting skills are just a few of the many qualities that have made him one of the favorite singers of the world’s most prestigious conductors and opera houses. Born and raised in Ufa, the capital of the enchanting Bashkortostan, the historic region of the Khans located in the Southern Russian Urals, he grew up in a very artistic and intellectual family. Although his late father was a well-known film director and his mother is a painter, Ildar and his seven-year older brother Askar both became opera singers.

With your father being a film director, I would expect that you and your brother would have become actors, but instead you are both opera singers. How come?

Ildar Abdrazakov: “That’s an interesting question… I don’t know. Well, first of all we started playing music from our early childhood – or rather – I started. At the time, my brother neither played an instrument nor sang. We had a piano at home and I would play all kinds of tunes on it, just by ear, playing around. Later on I learned some actual pieces and, when I would play the piano, my father, who also played different instruments, would take out his violin and we would play Bashkirian songs together, our national music. At a certain point he must have thought that I had musical talent and brought me to a music school. That’s how I ended up studying music. I didn’t really think about becoming an actor, because you see, there was just this one provincial theatre where plays were performed in Bashkirian or the Tatar language. There is a Russian theatre in Ufa, but let’s say that I didn’t really see a lot of possibilities for growth in that direction. Being an actor could be great if you lived in Moscow or Saint Petersburg, but growing up in Ufa, I didn’t really consider the possibility. But certainly, had I lived in one of these big cities, with all the theatres, I might have studied acting. You know, now everything is different. The world has opened up and there are so many more opportunities, no matter where you come from. No, I thought I would sing at the Bashkirian Opera house, because I loved singing – I love music.

But anyone who has seen you on stage can tell that acting is in your blood. As a child you had roles in some of your father’s films, and a few months ago you performed in a film called ‘Christmas Tree 1914,’ playing the role of yet another great bass from Ufa.

Ildar Abdrazakov: “Yes, I was only four when I played my first small part in one of my father’s productions. It was for television, a New Year’s Eve show. That first time I didn’t really do much more than wave my little hand, but yes, I practically grew up on television sets and theatres. My father was also an actor. In the film you’re referring to, I played only a small part, the role of the famous Russian bass Chaliapin.

People still consider him the ultimate Russian bass. As a contemporary opera star and Russian bass in particular, how do you place Chaliapin?

Ildar Abdrazakov: “Fyodor Chaliapin was a great bass with phenomenal acting skills. His style of singing is particular and isn’t necessarily suited to all kinds of music. It is great for art songs and for Russian opera. It’s the manner and style in which great opera singers back then used to sing. Let’s just say that now things are rather different, but I hasten to add that I don’t consider one style of singing better than another.”

But can one make an international career today singing in that style?

Ildar Abdrazakov; “It really depends on what repertoire you want to sing. If you want to sing Russian music only, than yes, you can. Today there are very specific expectations for specific roles, sound and style-wise. For example, today you cannot sing Don Giovanni with a Chaliapin style and sound. But then again, Chaliapin didn’t sing that part, or any other Mozart part. Of the Rossini repertoire, he sang only the Barber of Seville. He was such a phenomenal actor, he could just as well have done Mustafa in Italiana in Algeri, but I guess they didn’t propose it to him and by that time he was already very set in singing almost exclusively Russian Opera.”

Did your parents take you to the opera when you were a child?

Ildar Abdrazakov: “Oh yes, absolutely, but you know, at that time, there were more people onstage than offstage! (laughs) Only people in the more prestigious and larger cities went to the theatre. It had to do with a lot of different factors: first of all people had and still have a lot of other things on their minds, so they don’t really make it to the theatre. Secondly, there was no possibility to create beautiful productions. I think people come to opera to escape from reality. They want strong emotions and colors, something they lack in their lives. But today, even in the West, stage directors literally use just black and white. Don’t get me wrong, black and white can be great if the accent is on very strong acting. For example, there was a production of Don Giovanni by stage director Johannes Schaaf at the Mariinsky theatre in mostly black, grey and white. Maybe it wasn’t the most colorful production, but he worked with us as if we were actors – every movement, every glance – just like a movie director. If other directors – the once that are staging all these black and white productions all over the place – would work in that same way, our perception would be very different and probably, we wouldn’t even mind that there is no color. What bothers me is that today opera directors are mostly after a kind of ‘look’ or ‘picture’ they fancy, some cheap effects which I do not understand. They don’t work with you as an actor. They just tell you at this moment you stand there, while singing this you do that, and so on. How you fill this in is up to you. It’s OK if you have sung that part a hundred times and you know the character very well and know what to do, but otherwise, you are on your own. People come to this kind of production and do not get what they should out of it. People should come to the opera and…. I mean, you know with the old productions I often experienced that when the overture was finished, the curtains opened and people started applauding because the stage design was so beautiful. Today the curtain opens, but I don’t hear people applauding. I don’t know, maybe it has to do with the financial restrictions opera houses encounter, after all, black and white are the least expensive kinds of paint. (laughs) No, seriously, I just feel that people who come to the opera house should get satisfaction both from the beauty of the music they hear, and also visually. The want to see something beautiful.

Do you think eve
ryone can get this satisfaction, I mean is opera accessible to everyone?

Ildar Abdrazakov: I don’t think so. Certainly a lot depends on whether you have someone who can introduce you to opera. A child or anyone who comes into contact with opera for the first time should see something that is as light and accessible as possible. Mozart or Rossini, or something like that. The fact that we have supertitles today also helps. Once you are introduced to opera and you like it, you can slowly move on to more ‘serious’ operas like Verdi and Wagner. But that first contact is very important. Still, opera is a difficult medium, it’s not for everyone. Not everyone is looking for these strong emotions and inner feelings. Imagine what society would be like if we all had such a large scale of strong emotions!

Like a madhouse?

Ildar Abdrazakov: Exactly! (laughs) Even now, especially in Europe, and also in the large opera houses of Moscow and Saint Petersburg, we sing for full houses most of the time. So a lot of people do come to the opera, but not in the same numbers as go to the cinema. It’s inherent to the more difficult medium of opera.

You obviously fell in love with opera when your parents took you to the theatre as a child. When did you actually start taking singing lessons?

Ildar Abdrazakov: “I started quite early. I was 14 when I started with my teacher M. Murtazina. At that time my elder brother Askar was studying with her. I was still at school and had a lesson a month with her. Once I finished school, at 16, it was natural that I enter her class at the Art Academy in Ufa. Sometimes people get confused and think that I also studied with Irina Archipova, but it’s my brother Askar who studied with both Murtazina and Archipova. He did a post-graduate in her class, and Archipova also helped my brother a lot. She helped me as well as a young singer by introducing me to the public through her concerts, and by giving me good advice and tips. But strictly vocally, I never studied with her.

Interview with Grammy Award Winner and opera superstar Ildar Abdrazakov
Ildar Abdrazakov with his brother Askar and his/their teacher M.G. Murtazina

Maybe people think you did study with her because you have this very profound, and at the same time vertical sound production that people associate with the late Irina Archipova.

Ildar Abdrazakov: “I think this feature is probably a mix of my vocal nature and my schooling. Anyway, except for some masterclasses, I studied only with one teacher, and that’s Murtazina. She’s the teacher who gave me a stable technical basis. People think that because I started my career very early, I hardly studied and have everything by nature, but that’s a completely wrong presumption. I worked very hard with my teacher and after I started in her class at the age of 16, we worked together for seven years. I just loved working with her. We worked every day for a few hours and sometimes, when I asked her if I could have a lesson on Sunday as well, she agreed. And besides this, we also sat in on other students’ lessons. Sometimes it is easier to understand when you look at things from a distance than when you are singing yourself. It was very useful and I loved it, I often shirked other classes just to sit and listen. (laughs) When you are as interested and eager to learn as I was, you can learn a lot faster. There’s also the question of trust. You have to trust your teacher completely. I was very focused on singing and had blind trust in her. She is a very good teacher. Some teachers want all of their students to sing like they do. They want their students to be their clones. They all have to sing in the same way. I think that’s very wrong. Each person has his own unique voice and works with a different instrument. It’s impossible for people to sing in the same way. Anyway, I was blessed with a great teacher and I was eager. These factors all contributed to the fact that I started my career so young. I started singing at the Mariinsky theatre when I was 20, but also continued studying and singing at the Ufa Opera house, where I was also working. I flew back and forth from St. Petersburg to Ufa, taking planes all the time.

An omen of how your life was going to become?

Ildar Abdrazakov: “Exactly, (laughs) I started feeling like I was a well-known singer traveling around like that (laughs). But yes, that’s how it all started and I’ve been traveling ever since.”

Your career is very international and you very rarely sing Russian opera roles. Many people who hear your voice are surprised to learn that you are Russian. Your voice sounds very Italian, the perfect Verdi sound, I would say. Do you think it’s the result of a different vocal technique or…

Ildar Abdrazakov: “No, I think it’s the voice itself that is different. You see, my genetic roots aren’t Slavic. I have a Bashkirian voice. (laughs) Actually we have a lot of very good voices in Bashkortostan, but most of them want to sing Bashkirian folkloric music. It’s very different. In order to sing opera you need to spend more time training your voice.”

At the age of 25, in 2001, you debuted at La Scala in Milan, followed almost immediately by other major opera houses and the most prestigious festivals. You’ve been traveling from the Met to Paris to the Wiener Staatsoper to La Scala, Salzburg, Verbier etc. for more than fifteen years now. You must receive so many proposals for work, I’m curious to know what your priorities are when you accept a role.

Ildar Abdrazakov: “My main and first priority is always the vocal aspect. The part has to be right for my voice. Very important as well is the character of the role. Sometimes you may feel ready to play a certain role, as an actor, to portray a certain character, but realize that your voice is not quite ready for that role. Sometimes it the other way around: you can sing the part, vocally it’s right for you, but you don’t feel the character. Obviously there are also other factors, but for me as a singer I want roles that my voice is ready for, so my priority is mainly vocal.”

In a recent interview with Jonas Kaufmann, he complained about the fact that he has to engage himself years in advance, not knowing how his voice is going to develop. He compared it with painters having to decide what colors they are going to paint with in a few years’ time. Do you feel the same?

Ildar Abdrazakov: “No, I don’t. I can only speak for myself of course, but I have a pretty good idea of what is right for my voice around what age. As I said, it would be ridiculous for me, at my age, to accept roles like Grand’ Inquisitore (Don Carlo, Verdi), but I do have an engagement to sing Boris Godunov in a few years. You know your own voice. Anyway, if for some reason closer to the actual production date, you feel that a certain role, despite all expectations, is really not going to work for you, you can take it up with the opera house. In my experience they are
really nice about it. So, honestly, I don’t really see a problem there. This is just the way opera houses have to work.”

Besides opera, you are also a gifted lieder singer.

Ildar Abdrazakov: “At the Art institute in Ufa where I studied, we had a special class where we only sang chamber music/lieder. Folkloric, national songs as well as art songs are very much part of Russian culture. Of course you also have to prepare art songs for competitions. I love singing art songs. I had my first big recital at La Scala five years ago. This year in January I sang a recital in Carnegie Hall and there are other recitals planned at the Big Philharmonic Hall in Saint Petersburg and next year at La Scala in Milan.”

You have a crazy schedule, yet when the great Elena Obraztsova asked you to become the artistic director of her International Academy of Music, you agreed. In spite of her sudden and tragic death earlier this year, her dream for this international academy is becoming reality.

Ildar Abdrazakov: Yes, the creation of the International Academy of Music was kind of Elena Obraztsova’s sacred dream. It’s both a unique and very ambitious project. For the first time in Russia, we are creating not only a system of classical and traditional education, but also are hoping to establish a lasting link between the generations for the sharing of experience between young talents and real stage professionals. It’s a historical event. For me personally, it is the first time that I’m not just a singer and a performer. As the Artistic Director of the Academy, I assume the role of a real ‘Creator,’ giving me the opportunity to do something significant for music and even for culture on the whole, not just for Russia, but internationally. I feel a great responsibility, and I’m very proud to share my life experience with other musicians and singers. I want to point out that it is not just a Russian, but rather an international project, where both children and adults can study and improve their skills, talents and abilities. We’ll have the opening on the 8th of August this year. Lessons will start from the 1st of October. As I already mentioned, the educational process will not be limited to tutorials with teachers. The studying process will be supplemented by intensive courses and workshops with the world’s top professionals in different areas of the art. It really is a large-scale project, and now we are involved with the most complicated phase of the process: the start-up. I’m sure that very soon it will become a giant smithy for new talent.

Your whole life revolves around singing. Is there something outside the world of opera that interests you, that you really love doing? I know that for example Anna Netrebko is a very talented drawer.

Ildar Abdrazakov: “Despite the fact that my mother was a painter, I can’t draw at all. (laughs) I do love playing golf. Whenever I get the chance to go to a golf course, I go for it. I just love it! I also run and go for long walks.

Griet Leyers

Ildar Abdrazakov sings Mephistopheles in Gounod’s Faust at Teatro Regio di Torino, on June 3, 5, 7, 9, 12, 14. On June 27, in Concert on Koenigsplatz, Munich, in company of other opera superstars Anna Netrebko, Jonas Kaufmann and Dmitri Hvorostovsky.