Aigul Akhmetshina interview: 'It's Fifty Shades of Carmen!'
The mezzo-soprano on dying for a living, loading up on carbs and housework in the early hours
In February she will be expiring several times more at the prestigious Metropolitan Opera house in New York, and in April 2024 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. But before then she will play a Carmen with a difference. Singing a single number from Bizet’s tune-filled opera, she is one of seven singers recreating some of the most famous roles of Greek-born star Maria Callas.
With Carmen’s seductive, Spanish-infused 'Habanera' she makes her debut with English National Opera at the Coliseum in a new, cross-media project by performance artist Marina Abramović, 7 Deaths of Maria Callas. She laughs wryly at the fate of many female characters in opera. ‘Every time we go on stage we die, again and again. The problem is, we feel more.’
The characters she play may be expiring, but the singer herself is firing on all cylinders to the end, fulfilling the visions of the conductor, the director and the choreographer and remembering all her words and music while looking unconcerned.
Aigul Akhmetshina as Rosina in The Barber of Seville at Covent Garden. Photo: The Royal Opera House
She may even have to rapidly rewrite the opera, as happened earlier this year when a scene change jammed between Acts 3 and 4 in a performance of Massenet's Werther at Covent Garden. With co-star tenor Jonas Kaufmann she had to pretend that he had shot himself offstage, rather than in his own lodgings, which refused to appear, and had staggered to the home of her character, Charlotte. ‘The audience didn’t even notice!’
For that run, she faced a succession of tenors, including Juan Diego Florez, whom she met one hour before curtain up. But her co-stars in 7 Deaths will be six of today’s leading sopranos, including Sarah Tynan, Nadine Benjamin and Sophie Bevan. Abramović herself will appear, threading together the great arias, in a show that will attract followers of contemporary art as well as opera-goers.
Despite having sung the role of Carmen dozens of times, and with performances stretching ahead for years – 'It's "Fifty Shades of Carmen!"' – she finds something new in the character every time she goes on stage, and different directors bring different interpretations. ‘I’m always open to experiments if there is logic and an idea.’
Working with Abramović brings her face to face with an artist she has long admired. ‘I knew about her a long time ago and discovered her artworks on the internet.’
Booked until the 2030s ... Aigul Akhmetshina. Photo: Lera Nurgalieva
Aigul talks with passion about her work after her first runthrough with Abramovic, at the Coliseum, in impeccable English, despite having arrived in London in 2017 with not much more than ‘Hello’ and a phone app to translate. Since then she has adopted the capital as her home. She has not returned to her native Russian for three years, and is currently studying for her British citizenship test.
‘I have lived in every part of the world but I don’t feel at home anywhere but here.’ Home is an apartment in Blackheath, and her spare time is spent on admin and catching up with friends. But when she is between shows abroad she treats herself to a full day in bed. ‘I watch rubbish TV and eat rubbish food. It’s my treat….’ Such indulgences are rare, because the diary is crammed. She is fully booked for years ahead, and now looking at 2031…
She laughs at her need to load carbohydrates and a steak after a performance too, having refuelled on Coca-Cola before curtain-up. ‘If anyone says they’re just having a salad….!’ she exclaims, dismissing that unsatisfactory notion. Being on stage burns a lot of calories and the adrenalin keeps rushing. After singing she can rarely settle before 3am or 4am, and finds herself cleaning the flat in the early hours of the morning to unwind.
It’s been a whirlwind career since she arrived in London to join the illustrious Jette Parker Young Artists scheme at Covent Garden, invited to apply after a spectacular competition win elsewhere and one of only five singers chosen out of 365. Singing first in Gerard Jones's small-scale version of Carmen, at Wilton’s Music Hall, and at the age of only 19, and a year later, in Barrie Kosky's full-scale production in the main house at Covent Garden, with her striking looks, feline movement and luscious voice, she fitted right in.
Aigul Akhmetshina as Lola in Cavalleria Rusticana at the Royal Opera House in 2022. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Seven years on she is a Covent Garden favourite, and she has also appeared at Glyndebourne Festival Opera, as well as at houses worldwide. But her Carmen is still evolving, still growing out of the singer’s own experience. She wonders constantly about what drives this speedy lover, who burns out so often. ‘With Carmen, everyone can find something of themselves in her.’
Only a few days ago she had to go on stage in the role having just heard of the sudden death of her own father. Carmen is not just a sexy flirt: she has surely known loss too.
In Aigul’s childhood in rural Bashkortostan, there was no formal musical training, but everyone in the family sang and took the folk repertoire seriously. As a toddler she was experimenting with sounds before she could talk, was on stage at the age of three and attended music school from the age of six. At 14 she left home to attend the music conservatoire in the regional capital, Ufa, before moving to London.
‘I still consider the Royal Opera House my home theatre.’ she says. But she has watched the attacks of English National Opera funding with alarm. It’s sad what’s happening with ENO, and with the arts in general in the UK. In seven years I have seen the degradation – is that the right word? – of the arts. Hopefully, after every storm the sun comes through….’
7 Deaths of Maria Callas is at English National Opera 3-11 Nov 2023: click here for tickets. Carmen is at the Royal Opera House with Aigul Akhmetshina 4 April to 1 May 2024, and with Vasilisa Berzhanskaya 5-31 May 2024: booking opens on 11 Jan. The performance on 1 May 2024 is screened at cinemas across London and nationwide: click here for details