Interview:Aytaj SHIKHALIZADA on Giulio Cesare
(NB: the interview took place in July 2019)
--You trained as a singer both in Baku, where you come from, and in Vienna. This summer, you are singing Olga in Eugene Onegin at the Bregenz Festival.
Yes, we are at the final stage of rehearsals right now. Bregenz is surrounded by beautiful nature and we have a great team, so I can't wait for the first night. I love playing Olga. She may seem like a simple character, but she is very open-hearted with a childlike purity, and always a cheerful presence. This is my interpretation of her.
--Your approach to your roles is very theatrical. Although you're still young, the roles you've played show your ability to dig deep into the characters.
It's very nice of you to say so. A lot of this is due to the training I received at the Baku Music Academy. The curriculum at the Academy not only consists of music, but also training as an actor who conveys the drama on stage. We were taught that if you only sing, you are a "singer", but if you stand on the operatic stage, you are an "actor".
--We've noticed that opera singers from the former Soviet countries including Azerbaijan have very high acting skills, and we wondered if this was founded on the education.
That's right. Each of the former Soviet countries have their own cultures, so if we wanted to stand on stage, we had to study not only our own literature and music but those of our neighbouring countries too. In such an environment, we develop the ability to view and grasp the drama of the story and the personalities of the roles.
In my case, I subsequently studied in Western Europe too - in Vienna - after Baku, and the teaching there was different in many ways, but it is because of the training in both places that I am here today. I would say that the former Soviet countries and the Western countries have different values.
--At what age did you begin studying music?
I was six years old when I started at a music specialist school. But I also had to receive normal education too, so I went to two schools. Furthermore, my mother was a music teacher so I also received music education from her. When I was eight I wanted to become a pianist, so singing was secondary, but I became more and more interested in singing and by thirteen, singing became my main study. When I entered the Music Academy, I had decided I wanted to become a singer.
--Who were your vocal idols?
I adored Cecilia Bartoli - the quality of her singing was amazing. Also, Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Among Russian mezzos, I looked up to Elena Obraztsova. I hope one day I can become star singers like them. At the same time, I also want to be a good human too. These are my dreams and goals.
--Have you been to Japan?
Not yet. I've always been very interested from watching Japanese movies. I'd always wanted to sing in Japan - in this distant land - so when I received the offer from the New National Theatre Tokyo, I thought my dream has finally come true! And what's more, in the role of Giulio Cesare. I'm so excited.
--Have you sung the role of Giulio Cesare before?
It's my first time actually, but when I lived in Vienna, I worked a lot on Baroque music with a specialist teacher, pursuing how to sing this repertoire in the appropriate style. So I'm happy to be able to show the fruits of this intensive work. In Baroque music, there is such a wide range of expressions to choose from, and it's very difficult to choose the most appropriate one for that work. Sometimes, even when I think this is the way I want to sing it, the teacher or the conductor has different ideas. It's not simple at all.
--You mentioned that Cecilia Bartoli has been one of your role models. Do you admire her because of your interest in Baroque music?
Partly, yes. But actually my interest in Baroque music stemmed from my studies. I don't want to confine my repertoire to a particular genre or style. At first I was attracted to the music of Bellini and Rossini, which doesn't strain my voice, and this then lead me to Baroque music. I think the Viennese environment was a big influence. Vienna is a perfect place to pursue the music of Mozart and Händel, and my love of Baroque music was nurtured in this city. Of course, I've learnt a lot from Bartoli's singing style too.
--In history, Julius Caesar was in his late middle age when he met Cleopatra, but Händel portrays him as a young man. How will you portray him?
My interpretation is that he's not too young but not too old either - perhaps in his forties. He has to be a certain age to have a thrilling relationship with Cleopatra. She was a very clever woman, and he wouldn't be able to compete if he is too young. But if one portrays him as a cunning, mature man, it wouldn't work as an opera. So I want to focus on his relationship with Cleopatra. She is a tough nut to crack. I will work really hard to present my interpretation of Giulio Cesare on the stage perfectly.
--Have you worked with the conductor Rinaldo Alessandrini or the director Laurent Pelly?
No, this will be my first time. Both are very distinguished figures, so it will be a great experience for me. I am also grateful to be part of such a high-level team.
--We are so excited at this rare opportunity to see the opera Giulio Cesare. Do you feel any pressure?
It's a great joy to perform my first Cesare in front of the audience. The fact that it will be in Japan gives me extra special energy. I am certain that this energy will enliven my spirit. I also love visiting unknown places. No doubt Japan will become a part of my soul. I look forward to meeting you in the theatre in April!