Anita Rachvelishvili (Carmen)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore (2013)

Milan has a very special place in the heart of Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili. She studied at the La Scala Academy, working with the famous Turkish soprano Leyla Gencer, during which – in a remarkable big break – she made her debut as Carmen for the celebrated La Scala season opener. If Carmen is the quintessential mezzo role, Rachvelishvili has been gradually adding the great Verdi roles to her repertoire, building up a portfolio of some of opera’s most powerful characters.

She sang jazz and soul at high school, but it was being taken to a performance of Don Giovanni in Tblisi that ignited the spark in Rachvelishvili to want to become an opera singer. “I loved it very much,” she explains, “the costumes, the voices, the music, the orchestra when they were tuning up at the beginning. From that moment, I really wanted to be on that stage singing opera and being part of this magic.”  

In 2007, she joined the La Scala Academy, selected from nearly 400 applicants. Leyla Gencer, the Turkish soprano who spent much of her career working in Italy, was on the jury and Rachvelishvili made an immediate impression on her. “I remember my first day of auditions,” she recalls. “I was one of the last students called so when I arrived at the room, the jury members were already tired, listening to candidates all day. I remember Leyla Gencer putting her head down on the table – she was exhausted and she didn’t even look at me when I entered the room.

Aleksandrs Antonenko (Don José) and Anita Rachvelishvili (Carmen)
© Ken Howard | Metropolitan Opera (2014)

"I had chosen to open with “O mio Fernando” from La favorita, a difficult aria but I wanted to start with something I’d really worked on. Of course, my voice and technique was very far away from where I am now, but Leyla Gencer looked at me straight away and listened intently. When I finished the aria, she started talking with the other jury members and they told me they didn’t want me to sing anything else, but that same night they informed me I was there for the second day and for the finals too. Later, when I was studying at the Academy, one of the professors told me that Gencer had decided on that first audition that I was already in. She really wanted to work with me.”  

Rachvelishvili holds Gencer in the highest esteem. “She was an amazing woman. She was very special – very difficult too – but she was also very smart. She knew voices and how to relate to young singers, which is very important. She was tough, but I learnt a lot.” Gencer died in 2008, a few months after their studies, but Rachvelishvili went on to compete in the Leyla Gencer Voice Competition that year in Istanbul, where she was a prizewinner. She acknowledges that such a competition is very helpful for young singers, as is the chance to study abroad. “If you are from a small country like Georgia, even though we have very good musical traditions and we have beautiful voices and very good teachers, you need to go abroad and to learn languages and to experience many different places, theatres, coaches, conductors, so it was very important.”

Anita Rachvelishivili in the finals of Leyla Gencer Competition 2008

Her studies in Milan prepared her well for life on the professional stage, but her big break came about in exceptional circumstances whilst she was still at the Academy. Rachvelishvili confesses she loves telling the story. “I went to the audition to sing Mercédès in Carmen. Daniel Barenboim [Music Director] and Stéphane Lissner [General Manager at La Scala] were there along with the casting director who had invited me to come for the audition. Barenboim asked me to sing something from the opera. Now, Mercédès doesn’t exactly have much to sing, so I started to sing Carmen’s habanera. After a few moments, Barenboim stopped me and told me to walk around the stage whilst singing. He wanted to hear my voice from every single acoustic point. And then he asked for the Seguidille... then the Chanson bohème... and then the Card Scene! It came to the final scene and I joked, ‘But maestro, we have no tenor!’ ‘But we do have a tenor, he’s right here!’ And at that moment I saw Jonas Kaufmann sitting behind him, listening to the audition! I was completely shocked. But that was just Barenboim’s little joke and we finished the audition on the Card Scene and he and Lissner called me and told me that, instead of Mercédès, they wanted me as cover for Carmen.

Rachvelishvili was certainly thrown in at the deep end. “When the mezzo originally cast fell sick, Barenboim decided that I’d be singing Carmen for the opening of the Scala season. I thought it was another of his practical jokes and I wondered if there was a secret camera somewhere filming me! It was too much, a huge, risky decision, but he said that I was a hard-working person and he trusted me. When someone tells me they trust me, I’ll always do my best. So I digested the news and went home and studied hard. I knew Carmen a bit but to do it on the La Scala stage it had to be perfect. They paid for me to go to Paris to study with Janine Reiss, who coached people like Maria Callas. She taught me the role from scratch, cleaning every single note and my French language so I was ready when rehearsals started in October.”

Anita Rachvelishvili (Amneris)
© Guergana Damianova / Opéra national de Paris (2016)

Carmen was a great success for Rachvelishvili, after which she has sung the role in many of the world’s great opera houses including The Met and Covent Garden. In a bid to “escape from Carmen”, she has turned to new roles, all of them strong women. “During the 19th century, when women had no voice, no rights, we have all these important operatic roles of strong women with voices who can fight for themselves, so I admire all these roles a lot.” She’s had to be strong herself. “I’ve been doing this job for years now,” she tells me, “and to make a career and sing on the world’s biggest stages, you have to be strong and resilient.”

After Dalila in concert at the Concertgebouw, she went on to sing Amneris (Aida) and lately Azucena (Il trovatore). Tackling these heavy mezzo roles at such a young age was never an issue for her. “It’s not about the age, it depends on the voice. Many young singers have to wait years for these big roles, but with a voice like mine it was necessary, otherwise I’d have stayed singing Carmen for years.”

Amneris gives her a big thrill, particularly her great Act 4 curse – “You feel the world is yours at that moment!” – while she sees Azucena as a crazed woman.

Anita Rachvelishvili (Azucena)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore (2016)

“Imagine someone who went through all the terrible things Azucena went through. It’s a crazy story and nobody can emerge from that with a healthy mind. There are a few moments of light when she comes back to reality in Part 4 but it’s a very painful moment for her as she’s in front of a huge tragedy again.” She considers Verdi’s writing is perfect. “Every mood change is in the music, so you must follow his dynamics. It doesn’t all have to be heavy – ‘Stride la vampa’ is very light in places.”

Her next Verdian challenge is the big one – Eboli in Don Carlo which she will sing in Paris (in Italian) in 2019. “I’ve sung both the arias for years. The Veil Song is another light one but ‘O don fatale’ is very dramatic, almost in soprano territory.”

And if she woke up one day to discover she was a soprano for 24 hours? “I’d want to sing Tosca and Turandot – both crazy roles, but both strong women again! I love Tosca’s music and whenever I hear someone singing it, I want to run there and join in. Dramatic mezzos can take on something like Lady Macbeth, but Tosca and Turandot are an impossible dream. But if one day, like you told me, I wake up as a soprano, those are the roles I’d sing!”


Article sponsored by the Leyla Gencer Voice Competition