Albina Shagimuratova was going to be a concert pianist. Growing up in what has become the independent republic of Uzbekistan, she was 12 years old when she heard a recording of Maria Callas singing the role of Violetta in La Traviata. "I was crying. I was really deeply moved by her singing. That's how I started to love opera, but I never thought I had a voice."
It wasn't until she was 20 years old that Shagimuratova, urged on by professors who'd heard her performing in a chorus, found out she did indeed have a voice and began focusing on that at the Moscow State Conservatory.
And on January 27 the Russian soprano is coming back to Houston to make her debut in the role of Violetta with the Houston Grand Opera's production of Verdi's La Traviata.
She's a former HGO Studio student -- when she came to the United States she had no English, and now speaks it pretty flawlessly -- who went back to Russia and won the Gold Medal in the 2007 Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. She was immediately offered three roles with the HGO -- Gilda in Rigoletto, Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor and La Traviata -- by HGO music director (and now HGO artistic director as well) Patrick Summers and then HGO CEO/general director Anthony Freud.
Now 32, she travels the world doing roles, including her signature role of the Queen of the Night in Mozart's Die Zauberflöte which she's performed at the Salzburg Festival, and the Metropolitan Opera, with more performances ahead. This spring she'll debut in San Francisco in The Magic Flute.
"I'm a very lucky singer. I would say for a Russian singer to sing everywhere, that's great. Mostly Russian singers sing just in Russia or just in Europe. It's quite hard to find interesting offers to sing in America. Just the top singers can do that." Because she was invited to HGO Studio in 2006, she said: "My life has completely changed.
"I can't imagine my life without opera. I'm becoming a person of the world."
La Traviata was written originally for a mezzo-soprano voice, but now is sung by sopranos. "You have to have really good technique to sing La Traviata, especially the first act, the scene where she falls in love with Alfredo. I'm 32 now .For this role, I'm a little young to sing," Shagimuratova said, "but this role helps me develop as a musician, as an artist, as a singer."
"Violetta is a very important role in a soprano's repertoire. And such beautiful music. Audiences love it so much; Houston Opera added two extra performances.
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People love this opera because of the music and its story, she said. "This is a story all about sacrifice. It's about love too. She made a sacrifice. Yes, she's sick and she's dying. It's of much more interest she's a very strong woman. Nobody loved her before Alfredo. She was in love with him just three months. When his father came with this crazy offer to leave his son because she's a courtesan and she's a low class woman, she made that decision that only a strong woman can make."
She said she's been rehearsing "seven to eight hours every day" since December 27 in preparation for the role.
David Lomeli, a tenor from Mexico who is singing the part of Alfredo in La Traviata, has worked with Shagimuratova before and describes her singing ability as incredibly powerful. "Albina, we are staging her aria which is one of the most difficult parts not only in the opera but in the classical repertoire in the world and most sopranos don't even dream to finish it in the famous high note. But Albina not only did it once in the staging, she sang it 12 times in rehearsal full voice and every single one hitting the final high note. It just is not real."
Shagimuratova promises that this staging will not be overly sentimental, but the story of a strong woman who made a difficult choice. "This kind of interpretation is really different." Houston Grand Opera's production of La Traviata runs January 27 through February 12 at the Wortham Theater Center's Brown Theater, Texas Avenue at Smith Street. For tickets call 713-228-6737 or go to www.houstongrandopera.org.