Rising Stars: An Interview with Albina Shagimuratova

The following interview took place under the auspices of the Houston Grand Opera, whose facilitation of this interview is deeply appreciated:


[Below: Soprano Albina Shagimuratova; edited image, based on a Pavel Vaan and Leonid Semenyuk photograph, courtesy of the Albina Shagimuratova.]

Wm: I begin my interviews with questions about each artist’s early experiences with music, drama, and opera. You were born in Tashkent, in Uzbekistan?

AS: Let me correct you right away. It is true that I was born in Tashkent, but I was not born in Uzbekistan. When I was born, Tashkent was part of the Soviet Union. I had a happy childhood there, but as part of the Russian community within the Soviet Union.

Tashkent is a much different place now than it was in 1979. Since 1994, after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, we have lived in Kazan, in Russian Tatarstan.

Wm: Since I’m one of the many persons who has written that you were raised in Uzbekistan, why don’t we discuss your family and how they came to settle in Tashkent?

AS: My grandmother was born in 1937 in Ulyanovsk – Vladimir Lenin’s birthplace – that is is present day Tatarstan. The year 1937 was just before World War II and was a hard year, because there was not enough food to feed the population.

My grandmother and her family were hungry, but learned that Tashkent, which was a wealthy city, had bread, buckwheat and potatoes. My great grandparents and my grandmother moved to Tashkent. My father and mother, then myself, were all born in Tashkent.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Tashkent became the capital of Uzbekistan. You really have to be Uzbek to be successful there now. My father decided that my sister and I would have a brighter future if we moved back to Russia, which we did in 1994.

Russia has so many nationalities. We are Tatars, as is bass-baritone Ildar Abdrazakov. Most of my relatives moved to Russia – to Kazan, which is capital of Tatarstan. Kazan is a very small city. My family is living there now. Life is hard there, and we help out some of our relatives financially.

Wm: What were your musical experiences growing up in Tashkent, USSR?

AS: My parents were lawyers, not musicians. They were always interested in music, especially folk songs, instrumental music and jazz, but not opera. I first heard opera when I was 12, living in Tashkent. I heard a recording of Maria Callas singing the aria Addio del passato from the fourth act of Verdi’s “La Traviata”. Her singing of that aria made me cry.

Actually, my father wanted me to be a professional pianist, not a singer. Although I was in love with opera, I never thought that I would become an opera singer. I never thought I had an operatic voice.

[Below: the Queen of the Night (Albina Shagimuratova, right) attempts to persuade her daughter Pamina (Ekaterina Siurina, left) to commit a murder for her in Sir David McVicar’s 2013 production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; edited image, based on a Mike Hoban photograph, courtesy of Albina Shagimuratova.] 

 Wm: You started with piano. When did you move to vocal performance?

AS: I started on piano when I was five years old. When we moved to Kazan, a teacher in the local music college told me that my hands were too small to stretch enough to be a pianist.

He suggested that it would be better for me to sing in a chorus than playing piano. Soon I wanted to be a chorus conductor and I learned how to conduct. My chorus teacher told me at age 16 that I had a voice and that I needed to study this art. I said I liked to listen to opera, but I did not sing it.

Then I met a tenor who had listened to me singing in chorus. He advised me to change from chorus to opera because I was gifted with right kind of voice to study opera. Again I told him that I didn’t sing opera, that I don’t have a big enough voice to sing an operatic solo, and that it would be too difficult for me to learn all the music in a three-hour opera.

But when he passed away, I couldn’t forget his words of advice. I didn’t forget. I told my father that I should learn voice.

Wm: Was your father convinced?

AS: Yes, he found me a very good teacher, who told me that I have a big voice and I would become a great singer. I learned opera over three years working with her in Kazan.

Then I asked my father to move us to Moscow, because there are so many opera theaters there with so many opportunities. In 1999 I applied to Moscow State University. Professors there said “you don’t have a voice”. For three years I would go to Moscow to take exams. It was on the third time I accepted as a student. My life has changed when I graduated from Moscow State Conservatory.

[Below: Gilda (Albina Shagimuratova, left) has sexually attracted the Duke of Mantua (Giuseppe Filianoti, right) in a Lyric Opera of Chicago production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto”; edited image, based on a Dan Rest photograph, courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.]

Wm: At the beginning of your career you were part of the Houston Grand Opera Studio. How did you come to the attention of the Houston Grand Opera?

AS: Houston Grand Opera’s Diane Zola heard my singing in Moscow. She asked me to come to Houston where I became a member of HGO Studio. Looking back on my career, I m so grateful that this opportunity came my way. My life totally changed since I came to America in 2006. I met such a different people with a different mentality than we have in Russia.

I didn’t speak any English in 2006. HGO offered me translator, who translated my lessons for my first six months here. I am enormously grateful to Anthony Freud, who was the Houston Grand Opera General Director at that time, to Diane Zola and to, HGO’s music director, Maestro Patrick Summers.

I learned so much at the Houston Grand Opera Studio. When I finished my first year as a student, it was suggested that I enter the 2007 Tchaikovsky Competition. It is a difficult competition, especially in the first and second rounds in which you have to sing songs as well as arias. I felt that contestants would need to have a professor in the jury or someone who could support them.

The pianist who was my accompanist in Houston was quite stubborn about taking part in the competition. She said that I must go to Moscow. So, when I finished first year in the HGO Studio, I flew from Houston to Moscow and entered the competition. Surprisingly, I won first prize in the Female Vocal competition. Members of jury told me that as soon as I sang an aria, they thought that I would be a winner.

The next week, Maestro Riccardo Muti invited me to come to Austria to audition for the role of the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” for the Salzburg Opera. When I arrived in Salzburg there were so many Queens of the Nights auditioning.  It was nine o’clock in morning, which I thought was too early for me to sing. But I did sing and the next day Maestro Muti chose me to be a Queen of the Night in Salzburg’s 2008 “Magic Flute” production.

[Below: the Queen of the Night (Albina Shagimuratova, above) has enlisted Prince Tamino (Michael Schade, below) as an ally (for the time being) in the Pierre Audi production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” for the 2008 Salzburg (Austria) Festival; edited image, based on a Clarchen Baus-Mattar and Matthias Baus photograph, courtesy of Albina Shagimuratova.] 

Wm: I first heard you when you performed the Queen of the Night at the Los Angeles Opera in January 2009 under Maestro James Conlon. My review observed that you were “fully in command of both the soulful legato and stratosphere-reaching coloratura requirements of the Queen’s vocal performance” [See Shining L. A. Opera “Magic Flute” on Sunny Matinee Day – January 11, 2009.]  Thus you debuted at Salzburg, the Deutsche Oper Berlin and Los Angeles as the Queen of the Night within a period of a few months, while still part of the Houston Grand Opera Studio.

AS: When I received the offer from Los Angeles, Maestro Conlon permitted me to arrive for rehearsals two weeks late, so that I could fulfill other commitments.  I was pleased that the great Placido Domingo, Los Angeles Opera’s general director, was in the dress rehearsal audience and complimented me on my singing.

Performing the Queen of the Night is a huge undertaking for a young singer. I was only 28 in Salzburg, 29 in Los Angeles and then I made my Met debut at age 30. Meanwhile, Houston Grand Opera offered me the title role of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” and Gilda in Verdi’s “Rigoletto”.

Wm: Obviously, as a Houston Grand Opera Studio alumna, you were able to work with Maestro Summers at a formative stage in your career.

AS: With Maestro Summers, I prepared Gilda, Violetta in “La Traviata”, Mimi in Puccini’s “La Boheme”. He’s been a huge supporter of mine.

I can tell you that being an alumna of the HGO Studio is very special. When I came back to Houston in early 2017 after a five year break I could feel how happy so many people were to see me. This is a rare thing when I visit other cities. In Houston, HGO donors would take me to restaurants. Then HGO had a big dinner in my honor. I really feel that HGO has my back.

Wm: Gilda was the occasion for your very successful San Francisco Opera debut under Maestro Nicola Luisotti.

Then you sang the Queen of the Night at that company in 2015 in Jun Kaneko’s new production with its hip English language version created by San Francisco Opera general director David Gockley. What was that like?

AS:  I like new productions with new staging. I feel it’s always such a great opportunity. Jun Kaneko is so quiet and so modest as a director.

For me, it was not easy to sing the Queen of the Night in English. To sing a role that lies so high in the voice and sing it so that an English-speaking audience could understand me was quite a challenge.

[Below: Albina Shagimuratova as the Queen of the Night in the Jun Kaneko production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”; edited image of a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Wm: David Gockley expressed his deep appreciation for you learning the role in a translation that you probably wouldn’t encounter in other opera houses.

AS: I felt it was a great honor for me that David Gockley cast me, a Russian singer in a new production in English, surrounded by this wonderful American cast.

I spent most of time with David Gockley. He changed so many words, and I needed to learn the new words very quickly.

Wm: What do you look for in a stage director?

AS: I like to work with directors who are demanding and interesting, and from whom I can learn a lot. But above all they should care about the singers. There are conductors and stage directors of this generation who I believe think only of themselves, and are there for the money rather than trying to do something that makes the opera performance special.

Wm: You’ve mentioned conductors you enjoy working with and learn from. Are there stage directors that you like work with?

AS: I enjoyed working with Graham Vick for a “Lucia di Lammermoor” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and with Francesca Zambello for her beautiful “Traviata” at the Bolshoi.

I’ve been directed by Dmitri Tcherniakov, who is tough but very interesting. His production was psychologically very difficult for people to accept, with lots of boos from the audience. But I really understood the insights that he brought to the opera.

[Below: Albina Shagimuratova, standing near a Bolshoi Theater balustrade; edited image, based on an Andrei Bogdanov photograph, courtesy of Albina Shagimuratova.]

Wm: Over the past few years you’ve taken on several new roles. Which ones do you find most challenging?

AS: I’ve added Donna Anna in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” at the Royal Opera House with Maestro Antonio Pappano.

I also sang Konstanze in Mozart’s “Abduction from the Seraglio” with Maestro James Levine and I thought that that role was difficult. Then I sang the title role of Rossini’s “Semiramide” at the Royal Opera House.

[Below: Donna Anna (Albina Shagimuratova, right) considers the plea of Don Ottavio (Rolando Villazón, left) in the Royal Opera House production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”; edited image, based on a Mike Hoban photograph, courtesy of Albina Shagimuratova.]

The famous 20th century Semiramides, including Joan Sutherland and Montserrat  Caballe, sang the opera with big cuts,  which is much easier. I performed onstage and recorded Semiramide without any cuts. I worked with Maestro Mark Elder, whom many regard as the most demanding conductor of our time. I did find him challenging, but I learned so much from him as a singer and musician.

I’m fortunate to have worked with with great conductors including, besides Elder, James Levine, Patrick Summers, Riccardo Muti, Antonio Pappano, James Conlon and Nicola Luisotti.

I also like to work with Maestro Valery Gergiev, who doesn’t like to rehearse. He comes to a performance five minutes before the show starts. Because of that, everything that is happening during the perfomance is taking place without rehearsal. But when Gergiev conducts, he’s always listening to the singers and is creating magic.  There are a few stage directors and a few conductors that I feel are trying to create a beautiful picture on stage.

[Below: Prince Tamino (Charles Castronovo, left) bows to the Queen of the Night (Albina Shagimuratova, right) in Sir David McVicar’s 2013 production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden; edited image, based on a Mike Hoban photograph, courtesy of Albina Shagimuratova.] 

Wm: What roles are you considering adding in the future?

AS: Definitely the title roles of Bellini’s “Norma”, of Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena” and “Maria Stuarda” and perhaps Donizetti’s “Lucrezia Borgia”, whose last act aria I do sing.

I’m not planning to move into Norma quickly. I never expect to sing any of Puccini’s operas, but will stay within the realm of Mozart and bel canto. Earlier this year, I added the role of Aspasia in Mozart’s “Mitridate” for the Royal Opera House Covent Garden.

I’m 37 now and none of the roles in my repertory are easy ones.

Wm: You will be opening the Houston Grand Opera 2017-18 season as Violetta in “La Traviata”. Since you first came to love opera through Callas’ Violetta, and have sung the role in Houston and elsewhere, I want to get your perspective on the role itself.

AS: Violetta is very interesting role. It is challenging without being technically difficult for me. The challenge for the artist is to portray an attractive, real woman who has great passion, and who is deathly sick, but is determined to be strong.

I find the second act’s scene with the Elder Germont to be especially difficult, requiring so many colors and emotions that I have to show through vocal expressiveness.

The fourth act is the most challenging of all. You have to be a dramatic actress, especially for the aria Addio del passato, which for me is far more difficult that the first act’s Sempre libera.

After my role debut in Houston, I couldn’t get to sleep until 5 in the morning.

Although I strive to be believable in every character I sing, for Violetta  it is especially important to be believable.

When I sang the role at the Bolshoi in Francesca Zambello’s production, people cried.  I had lost myself in this character. That evening I was totally Violetta. There was a huge ovation and long curtain call.

I don’t often get lost in a character as I do with VIoletta.  When I sing Mozart’s Konstanze I still thought of myself as Albina singing the role, but I get immersed in VIoletta.

I had a conversation with Renee Fleming, a great Violetta, who said she required three days off after any performance as Violetta, because the role takes so much energy and emotion. I find myself as empty as a potato after performing Violetta. I don’t talk to anyone, nor watch TV. I can’t even think.

Wm: Are there other roles that have are similar in the emotional and dramatic demands, that it drains your energy after a perfomance?

AS: Yes. Performing either Lucia di Lammermoor and Semiramide has the same effect on me as performing Violetta.

[Below: Albina Shagimuratova in the mad scene from the 2014 Los Angeles Opera production of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor”; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]

Some of my other roles are not so emotionally intense for me. Gilda is a 16 year old girl, who is becoming a woman, but VIoletta is already a woman.

Violetta is rich, whose life has been full of attention from men, but she has never been in love before she meets Alfredo. Then at the moment that she finally finds happiness, she is persuaded by the Elder Germont to sacrifice that happiness for persons she knew nothing about.

Wm. You will also be opening the season in Houston’s Resilience Theater, which has been created as a performance venue during the months of repair to the opera’s home following the disaster of Hurricane Harvey. As an artist who has had such a long relationship with the Houston Grand Opera, these performances must have special significance to you, do they not?

A.S. These performances in a new and different venue will be very special for me, and I am very much looking forward to singing for Houstonians.

Wm: Thank you, Albina. I look forward to your Violetta.

A.S. Thank you.