Fresh Eyes

Breakout star mezzo-soprano Aigul Akhmetshina rocketed to fame in 2018 when, at just 21 years old, she jumped in at the last minute to sing the title role of Carmen at London’s Royal Opera, becoming the youngest artist ever to sing the role with that company. On New Year’s Eve, she brings her acclaimed portrayal to the Met, headlining a modern-day new staging by Carrie Cracknell opposite tenor Piotr Beczała as Don José, with Daniele Rustioni on the podium. Akhmetshina recently sat down with the Met’s Matt Dobkin to talk about her upcoming star turn in a production that looks to see Bizet’s perennial favorite in a new light.

How would you describe Carmen, as you portray her?
She’s a strong character and a free spirit, and she craves life. She is all about freedom, about honesty, about truth. She doesn’t lie to herself or to others, she says exactly what she thinks, and she allows herself to do things that we usually hold ourselves back from. If she loves, she’s not afraid to feel it very strongly. And if she hates someone, she doesn’t hide it.

Do you see her as a kind of role model?
I think we all want to be like Carmen—to be ourselves, and to be understood and accepted the way we are. It’s not about being rude, but about fighting for her beliefs. She’s always in survival mode, which I understand. I didn’t come to the opera world from a posh family. I’m just an ordinary girl from a small village in the middle of nowhere in Russia. My family is very simple, and my mother was raising three kids by herself. I had to start working very early and moved to the city when I was 14 to start building my own life.

What about the vocal aspects of the role? Is it just a natural fit?
Somehow, it’s very easy for me to sing, technically. And the music is just so fabulous—passionate, colorful, and with so much feeling. Every time you open the score, you discover new details. But for me, the most important thing is to get into the role of psychologist and to identify with the character and her state of mind. If I don’t feel that I understand the person and her story, and what we want to show the audience, I feel very insecure, and it immediately affects my singing.

A scene from an early technical rehearsal

What is the story that you and Carrie Cracknell want to tell about Carmen?
First of all, I’m really excited about working with Carrie because it will be my first time doing this opera with a woman director. It’s so interesting to approach the character from a female perspective because male directors mostly see Carmen as sexy and strong, always playing with the men. But why—what’s the reason she acts that way? With Carrie, we’re going to dig inside the psychology of Carmen to see why she is the way she is.

Carrie has set the opera in America in contemporary times. Does that create different kinds of challenges for you?
I think Carmen can be interpreted in many different ways and is actually one of the easiest operas to translate into the modern world without doing any harm to the music or the story. Even in our times, men are usually afraid of beautiful women with very strong personalities. They find it hard to approach such a woman. But here, we will see many different sides of her, including her vulnerable moments and her weaknesses.

What are some moments in the opera that you particularly love?
My favorite is the final scene between Carmen and Don José because it’s such a tense, passionate moment, and the music and the words are so juicy. You see these two people in this huge fight, and you don’t know what will happen. Are they going to kill each other, or are they going to have a great night?

How are you feeling about this major moment at the Met, starring in the premiere of a new production on New Year’s Eve?
I never dreamed of singing at the Metropolitan Opera at all. The first opera production I ever saw was actually the old Met Carmen, which I found on YouTube when I was 14. It was so beautiful, but I always thought that it was unreachable, that I’d never be good enough to sing here. So when I made my debut last season as Maddalena in Rigoletto, that felt like something huge, and now I’m immediately back for this big premiere—no pressure at all! Coming from where I come from, to be where I am, I don’t even know how to describe my feelings. It’s very emotional.