Fate dogs Carmen's heels. She turns the cards to read her fortune, but the omens are not auspicious. Just as Carmen cannot escape Fate, Aigul Akhmetshina cannot escape Carmen. Not that she wants to. “She is everything a woman can be!” she enthuses, eyes wide. Carmen was the first role the young – she's just turned 23 – Russian mezzo sang when she joined The Royal Opera's Jette Parker Young Artist programme. That was in 2017, in Peter Brook's condensed version, La Tragédie de Carmen, at Wilton's Music Hall. A lot has happened since, including a main stage jump-in last December. Ahead of another three performances of the title role in Barrie Kosky's notorious staging, she reflects on the role and her time as a JPYA.

Aigul Akhmetshina
© Eugenia Romanovskaya

Akhmetshina was the clear stand-out in that Wilton's performance, channelling Amy Winehouse in a grungy update. “Her sultry Carmen is the real deal,” I wrote, “and she's destined to perform the full role many times in her career.” Hardly a wild prediction, I confess.

She barely spoke any English at that stage, but has made up for lost time, her words flowing in an excitable torrent, accompanied by gestures and even hand choreography to demonstrate Otto Pichler's dance moves. Who is Carmen? Akhmetshina has just returned from singing the role in her national theatre in the Republic of Bashkortostan, a traditional production as far removed from Kosky's as can be imagined. “Carmen is not just a sexy lady,” she explains. “She’s also a very deep character. Bizet's music is fantastic, very passionate and dramatic and you can show a lot of different aspects to her each time.”

It was in Kosky's staging that Akhmetshina made her main stage debut, but not in the title role. She sang Mercédès, one of Carmen's sassy sidekicks, opposite Anna Goryachova's Carmen. What was it like working with Kosky? “Barrie is an incredible soul. He lives in his own world and he tries to draw everyone in the room into his soul, into his mind. He is like water that is always simmering, always bubbling.”

Jacquelyn Stucker (Frasquita), Anna Goryachova (Carmen) and Aigul Akhmetshina (Mercédès)
© ROH | Bill Cooper (2018)

It's clear she was enraptured but Kosky's production, which peels Seville from the setting and replaces it with a huge flight of stairs, has divided audiences and critics. Akhmetshina is philosophical. She admits to preferring traditional stagings, appreciating how directorial concepts can complicate things for the audience, but she sees Kosky's version as something different. “I can’t look at this Carmen like a proper Carmen! For me it’s a show, a cabaret! This Carmen is a game – a provocation between Carmen and the audience.

“As Carmen, I need to play with my audience. So you start with ‘Oh, you came to watch me? You want to see this story? No, no, no. I will show you only what I want to show you!' Carmen dressed as a gorilla? It’s just provocation, Carmen saying 'I want to be a gorilla. Why not? Sure. Habanera.' It’s a performance within a performance, like a Lady Gaga, provoking all the time. If you try and fight against this production, it will not work. Approach it as if it’s a completely different opera. You have to open yourself to something new. Many people said they wouldn’t come and see this again, but with every new Carmen this production works differently.” She concedes that the “problem” with Kosky's staging is that it requires singers who buy into it and can provide the energy required.

Aigul Akhmetshina (Carmen)
© Andrei Uspensky (2018)

Akhmetshina has worked with three Carmens already, playing Mercédès to Anna Goryachova (“very light, very playful”), Gaëlle Arquez (“very deep”) and Tanja Ariane Baumgartner. As the official cover, she had the chance to step into the gorilla suit herself before Christmas, a superb role debut which I attended. “I remember counting as I moved down the stairs at the very beginning, saying to myself 'You are not Aigul now, you are Carmen!' When I reached the stage, I calmed myself down and I lost Aigul and started playing this game with all my puppets here in the audience.” Was there any doubt about taking it on? “My manager had told me I could say no, but I love to challenge myself. I knew I had enough strength to do it. In our profession, it’s okay to be wrong. We’re not perfect, we are humans. Nobody’s going to die if we make a mistake!”

Aigul Akhmetshina (Carmen)
© Andrei Uspensky (2018)

Otto Pichler's choreography demands a lot from singers but, despite telling me she's “horrible at dancing”, Akhmetshina obviously relishes the challenge. “As a child, I went to classes but was told, 'Aigul, it’s not your skill. Just sing.' I was like an ugly duckling who couldn’t co-ordinate herself. But I love to dance, I really feel the music now. I love salsa and enjoying going to salsa bars.”

She explains – demonstrating – how Pichler taught the show's many dance routines by using sounds to correspond with every movement. Yet she was surrounded by professional dancers. Was that not intimidating? “My little Aigul was running in my head calling for help!” she laughs. But this “ugly duckling” has taken to Pichler's moves like a duck to water. She also danced his choreography as Preziosilla in a couple of shows in La forza del destino, where she was urging everyone to include even more movement. She's taken up sports, mainly for the adrenalin rush, preferring something very physical to things like fitness yoga. She's even sporting a wrist injury sustained whilst kick-boxing.

Fitness and strength are vital in what is a real physical workout as Carmen, dancing, navigating stairs all evening and also coping with a spectacular skirt in Act 4 that almost covers the entire flight of steps. “It's really heavy, especially when the dancers fan it in a wave and it pulls you back sharply. You have to stand firm and your Escamillo has to support you.”

Aigul Akhmetshina (Isabella) in the JPYA summer performance
© ROH | Clive Barda (2017)

Akhmetshina graduates from the JPYA this summer with a big chunk of Act 2 from Samson et Dalila, one of her dream roles, and performs Dulcinée in Massenet's Don Quichotte at Wexford Festival Opera in the autumn. “I'm really excited. Dulcinée is very playful. I love Spanish culture – I’ve been having flamenco classes. In Russia, I was dancing on the table as Carmen and playing my own castanets!” She plans to continue her French studies and is busy scheduling future seasons, working out flights between contracts and trying to plan holiday time. It's clear she's going to be in great demand. “It’s impossible to say yes to everything. Our profession isn’t just about talent, it’s about a lot of hard work. You also need a little bit of luck and I’ve been very lucky. I have wonderful people around me, my agent and all my friends are fantastic.”

At such a tender age, Akhmetshina is discovering new things in her voice all the time. Her register covers three full octaves – she used to sing soprano – and she is interested in exploring lots of repertoire. She suspects Mozart is becoming a harder fit for her voice, but “I can still play with Rossini” and she adores Baroque opera, although hasn't had the chance to sing any for years. In due course, the heavier Verdi roles are a given.

Aigul Akhmetshina
© Andrei Uspensky

Another ambition is to sing Charlotte in Werther and she also wants to return to La Cenerentola, which she sang at Opéra de Baugé in 2017. “I was terrified,” she confesses. “I sometimes put extra pressure on myself because of my Russian mentality. In Russia, we believe that everything should be hard. People put you down and you eat yourself up to be perfect. Here, I’m more relaxed. I should be who I am, not what people expect me to me. So I’ve started to open up, to blossom – my name means “moonflower” – and I feel like now I’m opening up my petals, little by little. I also dream of singing Octavian, but I’m not sure my voice works in this repertoire.” When you’re 23, I suggest you can dare to dream.