‘The Singer in the Village’ Who Became an Opera Star

The Russian mezzo-soprano Aigul Akhmetshina only just turned 28. Yet she already has a couple of operatic records under her belt: She’s the youngest artist ever to have sung “Carmen” at the Metropolitan Opera and at the Royal Opera House in London.

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

Akhmetshina was born in the village of Kirgiz-Miyaki in the Republic of Bashkortostan region of western Russia, closer to Kazakhstan than Moscow. She is one of three children of a single mother who worked in the passport office at the police station, whose own mother was a police officer in Soviet times.

She was 3 years old when she first sang onstage, and 14 when she decamped to the nearest city, Ufa, to study music. Scouted in her teens at a voice competition in Moscow, she was invited to try out for the Royal Opera’s Jette Parker program for young artists in London — and got the gig. By 22, she was stepping in as an understudy to sing “Carmen” on the main stage, and delivering a career-shifting performance in the title role.

Akhmetshina was in London after singing in “Carmen,” one of eight productions of the Bizet opera that she is performing in this season at major opera houses. In an interview during a break from rehearsals for a gala at the Royal Opera House, she discussed her action-packed career and her mission to spread her love of opera.

The following conversation has been edited and condensed.

What were you like as a little girl?

Everyone knew me as Aigul, the singer in the village. I was free-spirited, and an old soul. I would give advice to anyone who came to me with a question. I was into psychology and philosophy from an early age.

For me, the village was too small. I was always saying: “Why can’t I just be free to go everywhere? I want to see the world, I want to explore, I want to learn.”

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

I got a phone call saying that they didn’t have anyone to perform Carmen, and that I could withdraw if I wanted to. Part of me was scared, but another part of me thought, “I can do it.” I always love a challenge. I wouldn’t choose this job if I wasn’t addicted to adrenaline.

I also always felt a strong connection with the character of Carmen. I felt I understood her. Carmen is not just a sexy woman who is playing with men. She’s a very interesting character to dive into psychologically.

Then the fear came. I was sitting on the main stage before the curtain went up, thinking, “Aigul, what are you doing?” In that moment, I thought to myself: “Either I will close the doors on my career for a couple of years, because people will think ‘she’s not ready, she’s too young,’ or it will be a very good kickoff — and then what?”

I remember nothing of the performance except the curtain going up and the curtain coming down. But it was amazing. I got all the support from everyone at the Royal Opera House, which is my home theater. At the same time, I felt a heavy responsibility. At times, I knew that they were believing in me more than I believed in myself.

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

I’m basically climbing the mountain, and at some point, I will have to go down that mountain. It’s just the cycle of life.

Some people say I’m at my peak. I don’t think so, because I still haven’t done my best Carmen. And I don’t know if I will achieve that any day.

The mezzo-soprano repertoire is more limited than the soprano repertoire. Mezzos don’t often get the title roles. Watching you onstage, you seem to be someone who wants to be the main attraction.

But you can do that in a smaller role, too. I love to transform into different characters. I really think that mezzos are more interesting to play, because there are more colors and diversity in mezzo roles. You can play different characters which you would never explore in your ordinary life.

The future of opera as an art form seems uncertain sometimes, because funding is constantly being cut. How can opera be made accessible to bigger audiences?

I think we’re slowly doing that, with livestreamed broadcasts, and open-air performances where anyone can come.

All art forms are suffering. I believe we can do collaborations with pop music, with jazz, and introduce more people to classical music in that way. I support artists who combine modern music with classical music. My favorite D.J. — the French D.J. Leblanc — mixes classical music with electronic music. People love it. I see how it slowly impacts them.

The movie industry is making movies about artists, about conductors. Maybe they’re not good movies, but at least they try.

How do you promote opera as an art form?

I love to sometimes spontaneously sing in the London Underground, shock people. On a recent holiday in Dubai, I was on the beach and people asked me what I did. When I said I was an opera singer, they said they’d never been at an opera, and I said “Now you will be.” I sang the “Habanera” aria from “Carmen” for them right there on the beach. They had never heard it, and they said, “Oh, I really should go.”

I do that often, if I see that people don’t have the opportunity and were never introduced to classical music. They feel the vibration of your voice so closely that they really think: maybe I should experience this.

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