In 2001, when bass-baritone Ildar Abdrazakov made his debut at Milan’s La Scala in a recital at the age of 25, after winning the International Maria Callas Grand Prix Opera competition, he was scared. “For the first time I go to La Scala, for each thing, for each rehearsal, my knees were shaking,” he says. “But the audience was very fine with me. I did a good enough job for a great conductor [Riccardo Muti] to say nice things to me.”
Abdrazakov is now 38, and, although that’s still young for a singer with his vocal range, he has been regarded for some time as one of the top opera singers in the world.
The singer — who was born in Ufa in Bashkortostan, now a part of the Russian Federation — is scheduled to appear at New York’s Carnegie Hall on Thursday in a program that features pieces by Gabriel Fauré, Franz Liszt, Maurice Ravel and selections from the Russian golden opera repertoire, which includes songs by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Modest Mussorgsky and Mikhail Glinka. When asked what the Russian choices mean to him, he says, “It’s our music, coming from the heart, from everything, and especially the story of each composer in the music.”
Why do so many of the current crop of already famous and rising opera singers and classical musicians hail from Russia or parts of the former Soviet Union? Abdrazakov — who is a member of the Turkic Bashkir minority in Bashkortostan and sometimes features traditional Bashkir songs as encores to his performances — attributes this partly to the fact that, when he was young, there were “a lot of classical programs; we grew up with that. Twenty-five years ago, there were only two TV channels, and it was opera or ballet or nothing.”
He adds, “We still have a lot of music schools in Russia, and children, [like] my children, study music in school, study piano in school. My son told me, ‘I would like to sing like you,’ so I said, ‘We’ll see.’”
Music and classical performing in general are highly competitive in Russia and the former Soviet Union. To be taken seriously, or to attend a conservatory, “If you are a singer, you have to be a very good singer,” Abdrazakov says. “If you are a guitarist, you have to be a very good guitarist.”
His late father, Amir Abdrazakov, directed films and TV dramas, his mother is an artist and his older brother, Askar, is also a bass-baritone on the international circuit. Ildar grew up playing roles in plays and films, taking on his first part at the age of four; it was this which piloted him in an artistic direction.
Asked if he’s competitive with Askar, he demurs. “He started seven years earlier than me; he is older than me,” he says. “I actually started with the same coach in conservatory. I knew already the music, the pieces when he sang; afterward, I sang. Each gave the students the same repertoire.”
As for taking care of his voice, the performer says he does “voice exercises, [I] warm up [my] voice every day, 10 minutes, 15 minutes. Opera singers, we’re not muscle men; you have to be careful about your work.”
He was exercising with care while on vacation in Courchevel, France, from where he was speaking and which he described as his first skiing vacation ever. “There are so many Russians here — I thought, ‘Are we in Russia or in France?’” he says. “In Courchevel today, I got six hours of ski lessons. That’s beautiful. I did green [bunny] slope. For the first time, my first day, I will continue slow, slow, because it’s dangerous work onstage, and I need to move. I play golf and I play chess, and sometimes I go to the gym. On the airplane or between acts when I do the performance, I play Candy Crush to forget what happens around me, just to be alone not thinking.…You need to clear your brain.”
Abdrazakov is known in the opera world for his big, warm personality, effervescent good humor and charm. In clothing choices, he says he’s a fan of John Varvatos, Giorgio Armani and Diesel, while Ermenegildo Zegna has made his tuxedos for 12 years.
Abdrazakov and his ex-wife, mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina, sang on the recording of Verdi’s “Requiem,” with the Chicago Symphony, directed by Riccardo Muti, which won two Grammys, for best classical album and best choral performance, in 2011. “I’m lucky, because there are a lot of singers who would like to be in my place,” he said. “It’s an emotion I couldn’t explain. It’s fantastic; it’s just unbelievable. I never, never thought one day I will sing at La Scala or I will get the Grammy. I’m lucky. I work a lot with a teacher, with my coach.”
And he’s looking forward to taking on some roles he’s not quite ready for now. “One day, I’ll go for my first Boris [in Chaliapin’s ‘Boris Godunov’]. Maybe seven years, five, 10 years — we’ll see. I don’t want to predict the future. It’s a long period. You never know.”