Are all basses either ferocious bad guys, cunning cheats or worst of all, devils in the world of opera?
I had an interview date with one of opera's infamous devils last week during which I asked him just that question. And this particular "devil" also claims to be a direct descendant of Genghis Khan!
His name is Ildar Abdrazakov, (pronounced Ab-dra-ZAH-kov), and he was born 37 years ago in Ufa, the capital city of Bashkortostan, also the birthplace of the late great ballet star Rudolf Nureyev. Now a Republic in the Russian Federation, the area was likely one of Genghis' old haunts back in the 10th and 11th centuries.
But no need to fear. Abdrazakov is not here in the Bay Area to wreak havoc. Rather, he is singing the title role in Arrigo Boito's magnificent opera, "Mefistofele," on San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House stage from Sept. 3 through Oct. 2. San Francisco Opera music director Nicola Luisotti will conduct. Abdrazakov's co-stars will be tenor Ramon Vargas, soprano Patricia Racette and a huge chorus.
Abdrazakov, a tall, handsome Bashkir with a shock of thick black hair, a broad, playful smile and an iron-man build, has had ample experience in the portrayal of opera's devils. In addition to Boito's bad guy, he's sung the alternatively spelled Mephistopheles role in Gounod's "Faust," as well as Berlioz's "La Damnation de Faust." Vargas, now his close friend, has sung Faust to Abdrazakov's Mephistopheles in productions of all three of these operas based on Johann von Goethe's famed 1806 novel.
Some of Abdrazakov's other bad-guy portrayals have been wicked English King Henry VIII in Donizetti's "Anna Bolena," as well as the doomed-to-be-damned title role in Mozart's "Don Giovanni" and the ferocious conqueror in Verdi's "Attila." On the concert stage, he's sung the sepulchral declamations of the devilish tsar in Prokofiev's cantata, "Ivan the Terrible." In spite of his admission that he would someday like to sing the role of yet one more bass bad guy, Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov," he assured me that there were indeed some rather merry good guy basses who get the girl (or at least enjoy romantic interludes with her) on operatic stages. Among these are Massenet's "Don Quichotte," a role he would one day like to sing, and of course, Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro," a role he has often sung.
Considering Abdrazakov's origins, it's no surprise that he should be so musical. His late father was a stage and film director and his mother, a painter. Askar, his elder brother by seven years, is also a well-trained operatic bass. The two of them starred together in Verdi's "Aida" and recently sang the roles of the Don and sidekick Leporello in the Washington National Opera's "Don Giovanni" production.
Young Ildar began acting in his father's productions at age 4. By age 6, he was enrolled in a music school, where he began piano lessons and sang with the children's chorus. The piano, however, was a pain to him. Contorting his face into a grimace and his voice into a wail, he said "I could hear my friends outside playing soccer while I was expected to stay inside practicing the piano. It was like torture!"
Fortunately, his choral director came to the rescue. Noting the boy's beautiful, clear voice and excellent ear for music, he suggested that Ildar should change schools and concentrate on voice. By age 16, his clear soprano had changed to a resonant basso cantante.
After graduating from the Ufa State Institute of the Arts, he joined the Bashkirian Opera and Ballet Theatre. By the late 1990s, he had won a number of vocal competitions, including the Moscow Grand Prix and both the Glinka and Rimsky-Korsakov competitions. Conductor Valery Gergiev heard him sing when he was 22. As a result, he made his Maryinsky Opera debut as Figaro in Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" with Anna Netrebko as Susanna. In 2000, he won the Maria Callas International Television Competition in Parma, Italy, after which he made his international debut in "La Sonambula" at La Scala in Milan. Since then, he has risen to become one of the world's greatest basses and is in great demand by conductors in opera houses all over the world.
Details: Performances of "Mefistofele" will be at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., at 8 p.m. Sept. 6, 14, 20, and 24; 7:30 p.m. Sept. 11, 17, and Oct. 2; and 2 p.m. Sept. 29. Tickets range from $28 to $285. Call 415- 864-3330 or go to http://sfopera.com/Season-Tickets.aspx.