Guest author Alisa Alekseeva talks to Russian baritone Aleksei Isaev
Russian opera singer Aleksei Isaev regularly sings at the major European theatres. Last month he finished a run of performances at The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden where he was singing Vodník in Rusalka, a role he also sang for the opening of the current opera season at the Théâtre du Capitole in Toulouse.
Isaev was born in Tver Oblast in Russia, studied at the Gnessin Academy of Music in Moscow and joined Moscow's Helikon Opera when he graduated. He is now one of the most sought-after Russian singers abroad, thanks to his strong velvety voice and sound Russian training.
Isaev is adamant that art should remain outside of politics. However, what is it like to be a singer from Russia today, and what difficulties are there for a Russian singer with an international career?
Alisa Alekseeva: There have been cases during the past year when people have tried to ban Russian music. I have travelled through three countries recently, yet everywhere Tchaikovsky's music was playing.
Aleksei Isaev: Music is not politics. Culture lives forever. I think it is wrong when someone starts infringing on Russian culture.
AA: Is it about tolerance to divide art and other spheres of life?
AI: Of course. Democracy implies certain freedoms, especially in art. I think what is happening now in sports and science is terrible. If we imagine that American and Russian scientists, doctors, and chemists who are working on the same medicines, have suddenly started to act separately. What is good about that? We must work for the good of the world, without exception.
AA: Yesterday the Théâtre du Capitole in Toulouse announced its 2022-2023 season, and you were invited to participate and sang an aria from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. What did you feel at that moment?
AI: Of course, it is a special feeling and a special thrill to be able to perform Russian music abroad today. I could feel the frisson among the public – Europeans like Russian culture. Yesterday, it was not only me, but the string ensemble played fragments from the operas Boris Godunov and Eugene Onegin, which was nice.
I adore the theatre of Toulouse. Its casting director, Christophe Ghristi, yesterday mentioned in his speech that culture should not be connected with anything else. I agree with him. It should build bridges between countries.
AA: Have you experienced other attitudes towards Russian culture?
AI: I have encountered a certain fear among casting directors. Some of them are afraid to employ Russian singers, but often there is not a political motive, but it comes from a business perspective. If you imagine that a theatre invites a Russian singer to Europe, but this singer cannot obtain a visa, or does not have a bank account to receive his payment… It has become more difficult to organise business relations, and if a Russian singer has to cancel, then there are only a few days to find a new cast. By this time, all the good singers are already busy, and the theatre must take a singer they did not want.
AA: Some years ago, Helikon Opera, where are you working now, had a triumph when it toured Estonia. How was it?
AI: It was a unique tour, one of the best. It showed how culture builds bridges between countries. The President of Estonia and the Prime Minister were listening to us, and everyone was very happy. At that moment, it seemed to be obvious: culture makes a connection between countries. The audience gave us a 25-minute standing ovation.
AA: Can you imagine such a tour now?
AI: It is impossible. There has always been a sacred rule: sports, science and culture are untouchable. No matter what happens. Today we see that everything has changed. Even in Soviet times there were tours, and our opera superstars, such as Elena Obraztsova, also toured.
AA: How did your collaboration with Théâtre du Capitole begin?
AI: I sang at the premiere of Rubinstein's The Demon in Bordeaux, and in the auditorium, there was the casting director of the theatre. The whole of a singer's career is like chain mail: you sing somewhere, an agent notices you…
AA: How did your international career start?
AI: It all started with Helikon Opera. The next step was the audition for Ariana Hollander, who today is one of my agents, and the audition for the casting director of the Dresden Opera. I got my first independent contract at the Semperoper Dresden, together with the Russian soprano Venera Gimadieva for Lucia di Lammermoor.
AA: Were colleagues from your hometown theatre pleased?
AI: I heard rumours that everyone was surprised.
AA: It sounds to me that you already have a European accent, as though you're looking at Russian music from the outside, so there is a kind of double interpretation.
AI: I sing a lot of Italian music, and it leaves a certain accent. Dmitri Hvorostovsky had a unique accent, but it was part of his charm.
AA: How was your recent debut at Covent Garden in Dvorák's Rusalka? You were reviewed by the British press for the first time.
AI: It was amazing, except for the difficulties in obtaining a visa. I was two and a half weeks late for rehearsals. However, everything ended well, and the critics were positive. I am delighted with Covent Garden, the acoustics of the hall, and the whole creative team.
AA: Do you have some advice for young singers?
AI: If you want to become an important artist, then you should give yourself completely to the profession and be willing to take risks. People who give their best on stage can limit their emotions, if necessary, but those singers who do not give it their all have no place to take energy from. It's like a steam locomotive: it is possible to make a smaller flame out of a large flame, but it is very difficult to make it out of smouldering coals!
Alisa Alekseeva was born in Moscow. She graduated from the historical-theoretical-composition faculty at the Gnessin Academy of Music in Moscow and now works as a television editor. In her spare time, she writes pop songs for various artists and sings in her own singer-songwriter project “aliceonthestage”.
Culture is not politics? Are we all easily delight in a happy recognition of its innocence and a purported detachment from the dirty reality? Do we blissfully forget that “culture” did not save the readers of Goethe and admirers of Wagner from the most repugnant human atrocities? And how we determine the point where culture meets ethic and honesty? The interview hides these critical questions behind the veneer of becoming “an important artists” to quote Mr. Isaev:)