"The most important thing is to love what you sing to bits". Following this simple guideline, Russian mezzo-soprano Maria Ostroukhova found her way to the final of the London Handel Festival vocal competition. Her love for singing Handel is obvious. Her eyes glow with excitement when she speaks of her latest "concert" where she performs two of her most favourite Handel arias with a conductor she has worked with before, Laurence Cummings. I met this young singer last Sunday and discovered a sparkling personality, witty, moving, always passionate and strikingly wise despite her saying that she is only 24 years old.

Maria Ostroukhova © Denis Vasilyev
Maria Ostroukhova
© Denis Vasilyev

Entering the Handel competition was a genuine choice: not only does Maria love the composer, but committing to the Baroque repertoire is a very dear matter to her. She originally trained as a pianist and harpsichordist in Moscow and turned to singing at 17. But her strong interest in Baroque music was restrained by her Russian musical education where this repertoire is completely set apart. "Having to sing Puccini, I almost lost my voice." She had to stop for two years and went back to following a professional career as a pianist. What brought her back to singing was watching Sarah Connolly in Handel's Giulio Cesare from Glyndebourne on television; she fell in love with singing again. Therefore moving to London seemed the best way to continue, to be closer to her role model, closer to her desire to perform Baroque music. She was accepted into the Royal College of Music, where she is now in her final Masters year. Connolly used to adjudicate the Handel competition for years, and that is another reason why Maria wished to take part. (Sadly she was not on the panel this year.)

Why such an interest in Baroque repertoire? My curiosity was even more intrigued when I heard that Maria always struggles to adjust her perfect pitch one semi-tone lower. The young mezzo says Baroque music is healthy for singers; it requires plenty of stamina, but you can't harm your voice with it. Many Baroque traditions are quite recent, so there is a freedom to choose how you want to perform it. "I know my interpretations are unusual, there is some Maria in it – it is youth! - but at least no-one will be indifferent. And this does not mean I want to shock."

In any case, dignity on stage is her motto. Keeping Sarah Connolly's example in mind, she advocates not trying to engage with every single member of the audience on every single note; this would shrink Baroque music to something too superficial. "Some people might find it easy-going and boring, but it can be very vulnerable and touching. To make it sexy, you have to hide it, and the suggestion is exquisite. If you don't hide, you will still not attract superficial people." And here is the lovely feedback she got at the end of the second round from a person in the audience : "You were not flirting with us"...

Vocal competitions are a "mystery" to Maria: you never know what is going to happen, you don't always get the decisions... but what is sure is that you have to trust three elements: your teacher, the conductor, and the panel. If not, it is counter-productive to take part. "It is hard enough to build self-confidence, but you are doomed to fail if you don't trust your general in the army." Maria never really suffers from stage nerves. To the contrary, she is eager to sing, even to a reckless point where she knows she can still damage her skills. She did not recognize herself when singing the fast aria from Alcina "È gelosia" in the second round: she smashed it with excitement, showing some of the most brilliant coloratura she has ever done. This Russian idiom was therefore acknowledged: "If you don't take risk, you don't drink champagne"! Maria also leaves space to decide the ornamentation on the spot: "I know the framework, I then want to work in partnership with the composer. I might ruin his work but at least it is on good intentions!"

Describing herself as still a baby, despite the maturity she acquired as a pianist, Maria can only take from her experiences to advise young vocal contestants. Firstly, don't listen to other singers during the competition or to previous winners on the Internet. You never know what the panel is looking for and it is harmful to compare yourself with others. Secondly, if you are short-sighted, take off your glasses. You won't misunderstand the grin on the adjudicator's face – perhaps due to stomach ache? – as an effect of your singing. Thirdly, don't abuse your voice by drinking too much water before singing. And most importantly, concentrate on small things. "I always do crochet with invisible needles. It helps me calm my nerves and get in focus."

Maria Ostroukhova in the final of the London Handel Singing Competition © Chris Christodoulou
Maria Ostroukhova in the final of the London Handel Singing Competition
© Chris Christodoulou
First prize is not the most rewarding goal: the journey means more than the destination itself, no matter what the final decision. Having been asked about the dangers that come with winning a competition, Maria says: "I don't think I'll ever be in danger of feeling like a superstar. I know there is so much still to learn." Therefore, being in the final, pleasing the audience, having the opportunity to express one's musicianship, there is nothing like it. And after all, who will buy the tickets in the end ? No, the main danger of winning a competition for Maria is the following: "I won a competition once in Russia and got a diamond pendant as an award. I lost it soon after... that sums me up nicely !"

Maria is often touched by the response she receives from the public, especially when it wonders about her unusual timbre. She confesses having a bet with her mother, trying to guess in advance how she will be categorized in the next review. For one production, three reviews were written, describing her in every vocal category ranging from mezzo to soprano, including alto! "It is sweet to see how people have very individual ears. No one should be labelled." In the final of the Handel competition, in order to give a clear image of her indescribable timbre – and maybe blur the audience a bit more! - she chose to sing the slow aria "Nel passar da un laccio all'altro" from Giove in Argo. The second one is the cheeky "Se in fiorito ameno prato" from Giulio Cesare where she competes with a chirruping bird from a solo violin to seduce Cleopatra – a more challenging aria. The emphasis is definitely more on musicianship: "At my age it is foolish to compete with the technique of older singers." To achieve this, she promises to engage more through body language than she used to and laughs at her previous habits on stage, describing herself as "struck by lightning" or "zombie-like..."

One of the main highlights of interviewing Maria was her insistance on how grateful she was, both to her teacher in Russia, Larisa Mirzayan, and to the Royal College of Music and the honour she has to represent it in the final round alongside a fellow soprano, Sarah Hayashi. It is a way to say thank you to the institution for its unfailing support, and especially to praise her teacher, Nicholas Sears, Head of Vocal Studies. "I owe all my vocal improvement to him." As a hint, she would like to suggest the idea of providing mental support as compulsory lessons in musical institutions.

Maria Ostroukhova as Carilda in <i>Arianna in Creta</i> © Chris Christodoulou
Maria Ostroukhova as Carilda in Arianna in Creta
© Chris Christodoulou

Maria is not unknown to the London Handel Festival. She was Carilda in last year production of Arianna in Creta. A brief anecdote about this: the cast was doubled for every character, and one night she was called 30 minutes before the opera started to step in for the other Carilda who was sick. Taking off her pyjamas (she wanted to go to bed early to get some rest for the show next night), she rushed to the Britten Theatre, warmed up quickly with Ottavia's aria “Disprezzata regina”, went on stage and opened the mouth for her first aria, only to find she was about to deliver the one she'd just sung off-stage, before switfly getting back to the right tracks. "I have never been so scared!" Funnily enough, she got her best reviews from that night.

Her next project will see her as Mrs Herring in RCM production of Britten's Albert Herring ("I think I'll be younger than my son!"), where she will be in the same cast as Janis Kelly, a guest professional soprano invited to teach the students in the field. "It is so valuable to get this experience." Maria has also been offered the role of Emirena in Pergolesi Adriano in Siria, taking place next September in Cadogan Hall with Opera Settecento. And when Russian venues start loving her Baroque singing as much as London does – and politics don't interfere with musical matters – her secret wish is to get back to her home country and teach Baroque repertoire.

 

Maria Ostroukhova took second place in last night's final, receiving the Michael Oliver Prize. Read our review of the final here