Opera singer Agur Akhmesina talks her career, ‘Carmen’ and more

Russian mezzo-soprano Aigul Akhmetshina has just turned 28. The youngest artist.

Her trajectory began some 2,700 miles east of London.

Akhmechina was born in the Kyrgyz-Miaki village in the Bashkortostan region of western Russia, which is closer to Kazakhstan than Moscow. She was one of three children of a single mother, a Soviet-era police officer, who worked in the passport office of a police station.

She was only 3 years old when she first sang on stage, and at 14 she fled to the nearest city, Ufa, to study music. As a teenager, she was discovered by a talent scout at a vocal competition in Moscow and was invited to perform in London’s Royal Opera House’s Jet Parker program for young artists. At the age of 22, she sang on the main stage as an understudy in “Carmen” and gave a career-changing performance in the title role.

Akhmesina came to London after singing Carmen, one of eight Bizet operas she performed at major opera houses this season. In an interview between rehearsals for an evening gala at the Royal Opera House, she discusses her dynamic career and mission to spread her love of opera.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed.

What were you like as a child?

Everyone knows me as Aigul, the village singer. I am a free spirited person and an old soul. I would give advice to anyone who asks me a question. I have been interested in psychology and philosophy since I was a child.

For me, the village is too small. I always say, “Why can’t I be free to go anywhere? I want to see the world, I want to explore, I want to learn.”

Describe what it was like to be a 22-year-old understudy and be asked to sing Carmen at the Royal Opera House.

I got a call saying they didn’t have anyone to play Carmen if I could quit want to. Part of me was scared, but another part of me thought, “I can do this.” I always like a challenge. If I wasn’t addicted to adrenaline, I wouldn’t have chosen this job.

I’ve always felt a strong connection to the character of Carmen. I think I understand her. Carmen is more than just a sexy woman who plays with men. She’s a very interesting character and deserves a deeper look into her psyche.

Then came the fear. Before the curtain went up, I was sitting on the main stage and I thought to myself, “Agulie, what are you doing?” At that moment, I thought to myself, “Either I’m going to shut down my career for a few years because people will Think ‘she’s not ready, she’s too young’, or this would be a really good start – and then what?

I knew nothing about the show except that the curtain went up and down. But it’s awesome. I have the support of everyone at the Royal Opera House, which is my home theatre. At the same time, I also feel a heavy responsibility. Sometimes, I know they trust me more than I trust myself.

How does it feel to be the youngest mezzo-soprano ever to sing Carmen at the Met and Royal Opera House?

I’m basically climbing a mountain and at some point, I’m going to have to come down. It’s just the cycle of life.

Some say I’m at my peak. I don’t think so because I haven’t done my best yet, Carmen. I don’t know if I’ll be able to achieve this goal one day.

The mezzo-soprano’s repertoire is more limited than that of the soprano. Mezos doesn’t usually get title roles. Looking at you on stage, you seem to be someone who wants to be the center of attention.

But you can also do it in smaller roles. I love transforming into different characters. I really think the alto is more interesting to play because there is more color and variety to the alto role. You can play different characters that you would never explore in your daily life.

The future of opera as an art form sometimes seems uncertain as funding continues to be cut. How to make opera accessible to more audiences?

I think we’re slowly getting there, with live streaming and open-air shows that anyone can attend.

All art forms are suffering. I believe we can work with pop music and jazz to introduce classical music to more people. I support artists who combine modern music with classical music. My favorite DJ — French DJ Leblanc — mixes classical music with electronic music. People love it. I see how it slowly affects them.

The film industry is making films about artists, conductors. Maybe they weren’t good movies, but at least they tried.

How do you promote opera as an art form?

I sometimes enjoy singing spontaneously on the London Underground and wowing people. While on vacation in Dubai recently, I was on the beach and people asked me what I had done. When I said I was an opera singer, they said they had never seen an opera and I said “Now you will.” I sang them the “Habanera” aria from “Carmen” on the beach. They’ve never heard of it and they say, “Oh, I really should go.”

I often do this if I see people who have not had the opportunity and have never been exposed to classical music. They feel the vibrations of your voice so closely that they actually think: maybe I should experience this.

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