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by Olivia Giovetti
Abdrazakov and Barbara Frittoli as the title role and Donna ElviraCoffee and tea have just been delivered at an oyster bar near the White House when I turn on my digital recorder. A Mephistophelean grin curls onto Ildar Abdrazakov’s face as he picks up the device and speaks into it: “Hello. My name is Ildar. Now I will try to explain to you my life, onstage and off.”
in Washington National Opera’s production of Don Giovanni, 2008
In a nonstop cycle of diet trends (Dukan, Paleo, Thin Shots) and hot exercises (Zumba, Piloxing, Spinlates), Abdrazakov’s fitness regimen is much like his plainspoken interview style or resounding singing voice: a refreshing throwback, stripped of pretense. When asked about his diet, he admits a predilection for Italian and Japanese cuisine. “Fish, meat, and vegetables agogo,” he says. “Simple and healthily cooked food.” His gym routine is equally no-frills: running for an hour followed by stretching and lifting weights. No personal trainers, no special systems.
Yet that isn’t to diminish the importance of fitness in Abdrazakov’s life. Owing to a genetic predisposition in his family to be overweight—“Not fat,” he says expanding his hands before drawing them closer, “just a little bit”—diet and exercise are key elements for the Russian bass. But, like a killer technique or polished diction, these two factors are mere tools: it’s how, and how often, they are used that truly counts. And they are nothing without the added virtues of pride and dedication.
Perhaps it’s something in the waters of Abdrazakov’s hometown in Ufa, capital city of the Republic of Bashkortostan, a federal subject of Russia and originally a fortress built per the orders of Ivan the Terrible. Economically essential for its oil refineries and mechanical engineering plants, there’s also a cultural element in Ufa exemplified by its most famous native son of the 20th century, ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev.
By the time Abdrazakov was born in 1976, Nureyev had become an internationally renowned cultural icon. Aptly enough, Ufa’s other great culture connection was bass Feodor Chaliapin, who made his professional debut in the city’s opera chorus in 1890 and who died the year that Nureyev was born. Perhaps it’s overly romantic to think, but one can’t help but sense that a petrochemical torch has been passed from one artist to the next.
Abdrazakov’s parents, too, were both artists (not to mention certified descendants of Genghis Khan). His mother was a painter, his father a director. Abdrazakov cut his teeth as a performer at age four when he played a small part in one of his father’s films, based on the life of the Bashkir version of Christopher Columbus (Abdrazakov played the title character’s son). “I couldn’t understand what was happening—the video cameras and the lights, other people around me, with the wigs, with the makeup, costumes,” he recalls of the experience. Even growing up steeped in the multidisciplinary world of the arts, Abdrazakov originally saw a different career path.
“I wanted to be a truck driver, to go between the cities,” Abdrazakov explains, pausing occasionally to find the right English word and sip his black tea. With Russia still behind the Iron Curtain and perestroika seemingly a world off, the young Abdrazakov envisioned life on the road as his only way to see the countryside. “I never thought about the world outside of Russia, because Russia at that time was closed. Ufa is so far from Moscow and St. Petersburg, it’s the frontier. If you wanted to go to another place, you needed many documents, the visa.”
By the time he was a teenager, however, Abdrazakov’s worldview shifted with the opening up of the former USSR’s borders. His brother, Askar—almost seven years Ildar’s senior—had already begun his own career in the opera world (both of the Abdrazakov men are basses and occasionally perform together). While Abdrazakov spent his childhood playing piano and catching 15 to 20 minutes of voice lessons as part of his school’s curriculum, opera became a more acutely defined world when he joined the Bashkir State Opera and Ballet Theatre as a super at 14.
Joining originally to make some spending money, Abdrazakov concurrently realized that, like his older brother, he also had vocal potential. He remembers being told by his school teacher, “You can sing. You have a good ear.”
“Of course,” he goes on to add, “You can’t say, ‘You have a huge talent.’ Because you are so young, you have to wait for when your voice changes, when you mature.”
Studying, like his brother, under the Ufa State Institute for the Arts’ Professor Milyausha Murtazina, Abdrazakov developed an athlete’s regime with vocal conditioning. He started slowly as he navigated the cracks of puberty and began to see singing as an art form, yes, but also a physical regimen. He recounts a frequent conversation with Murtazina:
“What are you doing tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow is a free day.”
“Yes, but what do you want to do?” “I think I’ll go out with my friends. We’ll walk around the city or go to the cinema.”
“No, no. You need to come in and we need to work.”
“Sometimes, it was like that,” he explains. “Every day, one hour.” Fortunately, he didn’t have to pay for those lessons: communism negated the need for Murtazina to charge, and in the post-Soviet era, Abdrazakov’s potential earned him a tuition-free education. He still sees Murtazina, now 86, every two to three months when he visits his family in Ufa.
It was through her training that Abdrazakov began racking up laurels in various competitions throughout the late 1990s, including the Irina Arkhipova Moscow Grand Prix, the Glinka International Competition, the International Obrazova Competition, and the Rimsky-Korsakov International Competition. It was in 2000, when Abdrazakov netted the highest honor at the Maria Callas International Television Competition in Parma, that he gained international attention. The same year, he joined the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg (after debuting there in 1998 as Mozart’s Figaro). The following year, at 25, he made his La Scala debut, which gave the Russian bass his other major mentor in maestro Riccardo Muti.
In fact, it was Muti who helped to give Abdrazakov the impetus to become an opera singer in earnest. While studying voice, his brother showed him a video of Attila from 1991, conducted by Muti and starring Samuel Ramey as Verdi’s eponymous Hun. “That moment, I said, ‘Well, I want to be a singer,’” says Abdrazakov.
Did that in turn give him the impetus to set his sights on La Scala? “No, no, no, of course not,” he says quickly. “But inside of me, I knew I would like to have the experience. I would like to go there.”
The opportunity he was given at 25 was not squandered. Singing Banco in Verdi’s Macbeth, Abdrazakov was invited to also sing the role when the company went on tour to Japan. While there, Muti invited the young singer to his room to discuss a new production of Rossini’s Moïse et Pharaon.
“In that time, he said, ‘You know, I trust you. And of course, a lot of Italian singers now hate me because I don’t bring them to this role. But you have to do this role,’” he recalls of the conversation.
With no arias for the role of Moses, Abdrazakov confesses to some nervousness in developing the part under Muti’s baton, owing especially to the rumors surrounding the conductor’s tempestuous personality. But knowing that the conductor handpicked him for the role kept Abdrazakov’s jitters at bay—and his wits about him. “When you work with him, you need to know exactly each note, each line, the personage, who he was, when he was born, where he died,” says Abdrazakov of Muti. “You need to be prepared at rehearsal. And then, musically, he helps you.”
Helped it did. The performance was recorded for both DVD and CD, and Moses has become a staple in Abdrazakov’s repertory, serving as his debut role at the Salzburg Festival in 2009. Rossini has also factored into his résumé, as Basilio in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Mustafà in L’italiana in Algeri, Alidoro in La Cenerentola, and Assur in Semiramide.
Abdrazakov’s bass is a unique one, bearing some Chaliapin-esque brushstrokes but, as other critics have noted, sounding more Scala than Slavic. Singing Don Giovanni at the Washington National Opera mere hours after we spoke, his style—most notably in the serenade “Deh vieni alla finestra”—was a merging of the two cultures, Russian Orthodox shaped by Italian doctrine.
He talks of Muti’s theory of “covering the sound,” which helps in a high-reaching aria like “Deh vieni,” which pushes the far reaches of a bass’s range. Dividing the voice into three parts, Abdrazakov explains, “You need to ‘cover’ the high part of the voice for protection so you don’t damage it. You need to find the exact position of the voice with the high notes. It’s difficult; it’s very difficult to be everywhere from high notes to low notes sounding the same.”
Like working out, the only solution to such a challenge—in Abdrazakov’s view—is a simple, yet substantive one: “You need to work each day.”
“Every day. The morning after my performance,” he starts, recounting a story from this summer following a concert of Shostakovich songs with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Muti, “[my publicist and I] ran 10 kilometers.” The weather was 98 degrees. “Discipline. It’s good,” he smiles.
Such athleticism extends into how Abdrazakov looks at his career in the long term. While his voice offers a number of possibilities—Dosifei in Musorgsky’s Khovanshchina, his favorites in the Mephistopheles roles across the board (Gounod, Berlioz, Boito), and perhaps a Boris Godunov in later years—Abdrazakov is still just 36, a young cub in terms of many bass roles. He demurs when asked what his strategy is with choosing roles, just as quickly as he does when asked about his workout routine.
“It’s not like I say, ‘I want to do Mozart here, there, and at the Met.’ It’s ‘Do you want to do Mozart?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Don Giovanni?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘If you have time, can you also do Le nozze di Figaro?’ ‘Great.’ It happens,” he shrugs.
Likewise, and unlike many singers, Abdrazakov doesn’t put much stock into the idea of using Mozart as a conditioner in between heavier repertoire, even if that’s what forms the bulk of his season this year (in addition to singing Don Giovanni in D.C. as of press time this fall, he also sings the role at the Metropolitan Opera, where he also sings the title role in Le nozze di Figaro, and at the Vienna Staatsoper). “I don’t know how Mozart helps the voice,” he shrugs. “If one doesn’t sing the roles that destroy the voice, you don’t need to have Mozart to help the voice. I don’t sing the operas that help the voice, but operas that are good for my voice, for my character, for my career. If it doesn’t work, I know it and I don’t sing it.
“But for the moment,” he adds, “everything works.”
Bit by bit, the heavier rep is being mixed in with Abdrazakov’s Mozartean standbys, each being added on like extra pounds to a barbell. He starred across his former Mariinsky colleague, Anna Netrebko, as Henry VIII in the Metropolitan Opera’s 2011-12 season opener of Anna Bolena, singing with authority and just the right amount of Khan-style recklessness in some ferocious duets opposite Netrebko’s Anne Boleyn and Ekaterina Gubanova’s Jane Seymour. Donizetti also served him well opposite Netrebko as the Raimondo to her Lucia, capitalizing on his youth when it came to accentuating the priest’s moral ambiguities in a sticky political situation.
His career highlights have increasingly erred towards the heavier side of Bel Canto. His main squeeze has become Verdi, in many ways culminating with Abdrazakov’s own performance of Attila under Muti (whom he now calls “father”) in the Met’s company premiere of the work. By happy accident, Ramey was also in the cast, singing the small but integral role of Pope Leo. It was also under Muti that Abdrazakov netted a Grammy award for both “Best Classical Album” and “Best Choral Performance” as the bass soloist in Verdi’s Requiem for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s in-house label, CSO Resound.
“I could tell immediately that this was a very important, very beautiful voice, with an extremely noble cantabilità,” Muti told the New York Times in 2010 when Attila was on the horizon. “Listening to Ildar, one would never guess that he’s Russian, because his schooling is so strongly Italian, free of the sounds thought of as typically Russian. Because his voice is so noble and his style is so classical, he is very well suited to sacred music . . . which requires an extremely measured, controlled line.”
Abdrazakov adds more Russian roles to the mix as well, singing Prokofiev’s Ivan the Terrible (the same founder of his hometown) in Berlin next month, but it’s the further exploration of Verdi that is a prime spot on his schedule this spring when he sings Filippo II in Don Carlos with the Torino Opera, both in Italy and on tour in Paris.
“The role is more cantabile. The aria is cantabile. The duet with Rodrigo is more cantabile,” he says of the role, highlighted by the aria “Ella giammai m’amò.” He notes that it’s a stretch, but a good one—one where there’s only a few moments of push, found in his duet with the Grand Inquisitor. “Sing, rest, sing, rest,” he explains.
Like a good and proper workout, he finds the physicality in such roles. There’s the physicality that comes from performing onstage, moving around, interacting with colleagues. However, there’s also a physicality that comes with the act of singing, the act of resting in between recitatives, sung lines, and arias. It’s another reason that Giovanni is also one of his favorite roles.
“It’s short,” he says of the amount of time he spends singing. “But it’s three arias. I did Masetto [his house debut at the Met in 2004], I did Leporello many times, and I did Giovanni. And if someone asked me to pick one of the three roles, I prefer Don Giovanni.”
Beyond the music, he also finds the character to provide a mental workout. His Giovanni for WNO revival of John Pascoe’s production was intensely physical, even when he stands still he carries the Don’s personality in his shoulders and across his chest. There’s swordplay and tumbles with many of the women onstage and an informed sense of who Giovanni is in his physical deportment. In addition to the musical score, there’s a movement score, one that depicts Giovanni as an addict with a nobility that gives way to animal instinct.
The physicality also owes itself in some part to Muti, who was quoted in the same New York Times article on Attila as praising Abdrazakov’s “statuesque physical presence [which] the character requires.
. . . Verdi does not treat Attila as merely a barbarian. He needs grandeur.”
“It’s who he is on the inside,” Abdrazakov says of the Giovanni role. “He’s a nobleman. He’s serious. He loves Donna Elvira, for sure. He jokes with other women—I don’t know if he has sex with all of them or not. For me it doesn’t matter.”
As Abdrazakov also adds, however, it depends on the production. Michael Grandage’s production for the Met, which Abdrazakov steps into from November 28 to December 20, is far less abstractly sexual than Pascoe’s, which culminates in Giovanni being dragged down to hell by a chorus of female dancers. Grandage’s Don Giovanni focuses more on the relationship between Giovanni and Leporello than Giovanni and the women in his life, but requires as much stage activity, even if it works out different parts of the body.
There’s something, too, about the team dynamic in opera that Abdrazakov embraces. While he took a break from singing as a child to allow his voice the proper transition and growth, he played for a year on a local soccer team, in one game scoring 27 goals—a feeling he compared to singing Attila with Muti, and also a camaraderie that he enjoys fostering between cast mates. It also probably breeds a competitive nature that’s just as important for singers as the gene that fosters collaboration and cooperation (the standard of performance there manifests itself not only in Abdrazakov’s performances onstage, but also in his addiction to Angry Birds, which he plays only for three-star scores).
Yet, at 36, Abdrazakov still remains a figure as elusive as his tongue twister of a name. With some finessing, a meaning is sussed out: Ildar in Bashkir means “gift to country” (Il = country, dar = gift), while his last name translates to “slave of God” (Abd = slave, razak = God; the ov was added by the government during the days of the Soviet Union). Likewise, his secret to staying a singer in top physical form isn’t a convoluted one any more than his rather straightforward strategy to developing a long-term career map.
“I put the signal to my brain: I need to do this. And I go,” he shrugs. “It’s also good for the breath. It’s not to be a Schwarzenegger. It’s just to be less fat. It builds for the voice a foundation.”
The simplicity doesn’t diminish his dedication—in fact, it helps to fortify it, allowing Abdrazakov to focus on frequency rather than gimmicks or mercurial routines. He also finds that it allows him to be attuned to what happens within his body, which is perhaps how he is able to tell early on what works for his body—and instrument—and what doesn’t.
Simplicity and earnestness, devoid of contrivances, novelties, or fads? What a concept in 2012.
Olivia Giovetti has written and hosted for WQXR and its sister station, Q2 Music. In addition to Classical Singer, she also contributes frequently to Time Out New York, Gramophone, Playbill, and more.