Soprano Aida Garifullina was born in 1987 into a Tatar family in Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan in the Russian Federation, some 500 miles east of Moscow. Aida’s mother, a choral conductor, noticed her daughter’s love of singing very early, and her first public performance took place when she was 5 in a televised children’s competition in Moscow.
At the age of 11 she was accepted for singing lessons at the Kazan State Conservatoire, and at 13 she appeared at the Tchaikovsky Great Hall in Moscow – the city’s most prestigious venue – during the Festival of Gifted Children of Tatarstan.
The childhood of dedicated young musicians can look very intense to outsiders. “It is true that I didn’t have much time to play with dolls or run around with my friends. I would have school in the morning, then solfeggio class, then I went to a singing teacher – and then to ballet school and finally to a drawing class. At some point they realised you can’t overload a child and decided I should stick with singing – so my fate was decided”.
Her teenage years were spent in the same way until, in 2005, Aida received a grant from the Mayor of Kazan to study abroad. Happily, Aida wasn’t a rebellious teen. “I never dyed my hair pink or became a punk. In fact I had always been a hard-working home girl, so when I went alone to Germany at 17 it was a bit daunting”. She went to Nuremberg to study with the heldentenor Siegfried Jerusalem at the Hochschule für Musik. “My parents thought I should study abroad, to learn different languages and cultures. Of course it was a bit of a shock to go and live abroad. But you can only learn how to sing lieder properly in Germany, and I also learned the language of Mozart”
In Nuremberg Aida worked on some of the songs featured on her debut album for Decca Classics. “Rachmaninov’s romances – Lilacs and Zdes’ khorosho – seem full of nostalgia and they reminded me of home… I was 17 and homesick and thinking about my parents and the countryside.” She was also inspired by recordings of the legendary soprano Anna Moffo, a singer whose career became an inspiration for her. “She was unique: she had wonderfully rich low notes, but soft, glittering high notes too, and so many colours in her voice.” Her recording of Rachmaninov’s Vocalise was a particular draw. “I listened to many different recordings, but hers was the best: I wanted to match it, but in my own way. And it was so interesting to me that a non-Russian soprano could do this heavenly music – which seems to carry a kind of bright sadness, of suffering and unrealised hopes – so beautifully.” Aida regularly includes these items in recitals, along with Tchaikovsky’s lilting Serenada (from Six Romances, op 63), a piece full of gentle yearning and desire.
Aida spent two happy, hard-working years in Germany with Siegfried Jerusalem, but her father (a landscape architect) and musician mother had always wanted her to study in Vienna. “So after two years, without telling anyone, I bought a train ticket to Vienna and sat the exams for the Vienna University of Music and Performing Arts. It was very hard – the exams there are not just vocal but also in harmony and solfeggio. Well, I got in, and only then called my parents to tell them!”
While in Vienna Aida studied with the American soprano Claudia Visca, who had learned with the singing teacher of Anna Moffo, Aida’s heroine. Aida made her stage debut in 2009 as the maid Despina in a production by the Conservatoire opera students of Mozart’s Così fan tutte. After her graduation in 2011, she has regularly partnered Juan Diego Flórez, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Andrea Bocelli and Plácido Domingo on stage.
She soon attracted the attention of conductor Valery Gergiev, who immediately offered her the role of Susanna in the Mariinsky’s Marriage of Figaro alongside Ildar Abdrazakov. She also then sang Adina (L’elisir d’amore) and Gilda (Rigoletto) for the company. “I was worried about Gilda; I thought maybe I was too young. Usually sopranos wait until they are in their 30s before they tackle it – it’s quite a dramatic role. But I did it in my own way, played her as a young girl. It seems believable to be singing about a first love like that at 25, but who can believe it at 35?”
Aida’s greatest breakthrough happened in 2013 when she won first prize in Plácido Domingo’s Operalia competition. “I really didn’t think I was ready for such a competition, but my mother got the last available form, and filled it in for me. The last form! I think it was a sign…” Having got through to the final rounds of the competition in Verona, Aida worked for five hours a day, in forty-degree heat, with a vocal coach. On the first day, as she later learned, she was awarded the highest marks for her performance of ‘Eccomi in lieta vesta’ from Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi. “I decided I should just be myself, not try to sing louder than everyone else but to get inside the characters, to penetrate the work, really to be Giulietta.”
The next day, Domingo requested her to sing an aria from Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Snow Maiden (also included on her Decca album) , an opera about an icy fairytale princess who melts for love. “I was so thankful to maestro Domingo. It’s such an emotional piece, and I’ve been singing it since I was a child. I think of it as my signature aria. I always feel good about performing it – so it was my lucky day.”
Her luck nearly ran out when — because of nerves — she fell down the stairs of her Verona hotel and believed that she would have to cancel her next participation. “Somehow my mother helped me to get to the venue. I was so nervous, I forgot about my pain.” Even with this formidable setback, she was awarded first prize, and her life immediately began to change. “The very first email I received afterwards was from Decca, asking me to sign with them. I didn’t have to think too long about that! The second email was from the Vienna State Opera, asking me to join their ensemble – it was my greatest dream. [Aida’s roles in Vienna have included Zerlina, Adina, Clorinda and Musetta.] And I also found a wonderful agent too. All this finally gave me a chance really to believe in myself.”
Soon afterwards, Aida starred at the Mariinsky as Natasha in Prokofiev’s War and Peace (for which the Financial Times hailed her as a “major new talent”) and as the Queen of Shemakha in Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel. This is a high coloratura role, and initially Aida – a lyric soprano – was afraid of tackling it. “But Gergiev told me that he believed in me, and this gave me power and confidence.” She learned the whole role in just a month, and added it to her growing list of triumphs. She includes two arias from the role on her album.
Aida’s coloratura skills also impressed film director Stephen Frears, who cast her as soprano Lily Pons in his 2016 film Florence Foster Jenkins starring Meryl Streep. She sang ‘The Bell Song’ from Lakmé by Delibes, a notoriously difficult coloratura showpiece aria which was transposed down a tone to suit her lower voice. “It was one of my dreams to sing this piece: I had thought only coloraturas would ever sing it. I tried to make it sound deeper and richer than it’s often sung – perhaps it feels more grounded than usual .”
Another aria with important coloratura elements which she includes is Je veux vivre from Roméo et Juliette by Gounod. “I sang this at the Opera Balls in Vienna and Dresden, and had a wonderful response – people began to recognise my voice afterwards, so I was enormously keen to have it on my Decca recital.”
Aida’s debut album reflects her life and musical tastes as well as her Tatar ancestry. Alluki is a popular Tatar song with words by Ğabdulla Tuqay, one of the greatest Tatar poets. “The most important thing in Tatar folk music is how you sing the melismas,” says Aida. “Each singer does it in her own way – this is where the beauty comes from.” Alluki, roughly translated, means ‘lullaby’, and there are several other pieces from this genre in her programme. ‘Maria’s Lullaby’ is a hauntingly beautiful aria, sung by the mentally fragile heroine of Tchaikovsky’s opera Mazeppa as she cradles a dying man in her arms after a battle. Cossack Lullaby is another Russian favourite, with words by Lermontov set to a melancholy folk tune.
Many of the pieces also reflect the Eastern side of Aida’s culture and character. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov was the greatest exponent of Russian Orientalism, enthusiastically using motifs from Russia’s Asian territories. His Oriental Romance is typical, with its exotic melody and augmented intervals. “It always makes me think of the story The Nightingale and the Rose by Oscar Wilde – it has the same sadness and the same depth.” The Song of the Indian Guest from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera Sadko is written in the same Orientalist vein, and – despite being composed for a tenor – has been a favourite of several legendary sopranos, including Lily Pons (whom Aida portrayed in Florence Foster Jenkins) and Rosa Ponselle.
Like many other opera singers, Aida is fond of popular songs and ballads. “I grew up in a musical family where all kinds of music was playing the whole time. It is nice to sing these lighter songs sometimes.” She includes the song Midnight in Moscow (also known as Moscow Nights), which she performs over an instrumental version taken from the 1962 Mercury LP Balalaika Favourites, the first LP made by a Western company in the Soviet Union. It is a wonderfully fitting mix of cultures for a soprano who looks set to conquer the world from the furthest east to the furthest west with her talent and beauty.
But Aida’s heart and career remain firmly rooted in opera. “Very few people can sing opera – it is the hardest thing. You have to be healthy and resilient, full of stamina, and ready for an immense amount of work – as well as having the vocal qualities and a good strong voice.”