Sydney Opera House

Fatykhova the perfect Countess

Fatykhova the perfect Countess

Elvira Fatykhova, the tiny Russian soprano who has moved Australian audiences like few other singers have with her heart-rending portrayal of Verdi’s Violetta Valéry, seems cut out for the role of another betrayed heroine: Mozart’s Countess in The Marriage of Figaro. Yet Fatykhova never thought of the role until she was approached to sing it in Benedict Andrews’ new production of the Mozart/Da Ponte masterpiece, which opened at the Sydney Opera House this month.

“I’m a lyric coloratura, which means that the role sits in the middle of my register – vocally I don’t have to work very hard to perform it,” she says. She’s glad for the opportunity to enjoy a role without having to lose sleep over its top notes. “Mozart is such a pleasure to perform. Everything about his music is so beautiful and so perfectly conceived.”

For Fatykhova the challenge lies in giving a convincing dramatic performance. When we speak for this story, at the Opera Centre in Surry Hills, the Figaro cast has come to the end of the studio rehearsal period and is about to move into the theatre. Creating a role with a director is always give and take, the soprano says, and in this case, working with a film and theatre director meant that singers had to learn to be a little more flexible, while Benedict Andrews had to come to terms with the restrictions of working in opera. “With singers, movement is always compromised by the demands of the music,” she points out. “We concentrate on the timing of each movement because for us, every moment counts and every detail is important. This can be frustrating for a theatre or film director – I think we sometimes drove the poor man mad!”

When working with a director, often a singer has to do things in a very different way from what he or she might have expected. “It’s the director’s opera; we can make suggestions, or ask for changes, but it’s not about what we would like. We find ways to accommodate everybody’s needs though, and in the end we have a good result.”

Mozart filled his operas with ensemble pieces such as duos, trios and quartets, which take hours of rehearsal time to get right. “And Figaro is particularly complicated – so many things happen,” Fatykhova says, with a laugh that reveals a pair of dimples that remain hidden in the tragic roles for which she has become known. 

Working with a cast that one knows well – she’s done Lucia, Rigoletto and three La traviatas with Michael Lewis and three Traviatas with Dominica Matthews – is like working with old friends; family even. “It helps a great deal to develop an understanding – a kind of shorthand – with your colleagues.”

Born and bred in Ufa, Russia, Fatykhova’s hometown is still the only Russian city in which she regularly performs, the reason being that distance and finances compel Russian opera houses to have their own ensembles, rather than to make extensive use of guest artists, like their European and North American counterparts do. “To sing with a Russian company, generally you have to join the ensemble, which ties you down and which isn’t very well paid,” she says. 

Travel is so much a part of her life that she can hardly imagine living without it now. “At the end of the Figaro run I’d have been in Australia for five months, but I don’t mind it at all; I get bored when I stay at home for too long. It helps that I’m not too severely affected by jetlag. And of course that I love Australia and have many good friends here.” Her 20-year-old Russia-based son sometimes visits her when she’s performing in New Zealand, Austria and Turkey.

Fatykhova likes Australia because it’s “comfortable and calm”. Having grown up in communist Russia, and lived through the changes, comfort and calm are luxuries that she does not take for granted. She remembers how, when her son was little,  the shops in Ufa were empty. “You couldn’t buy food or clothes. It was a horrible time. Now Russia is like any European country.”

Her hometown is more traditional than the big Russian cities, and although it did not offer much opera when she grew up, her parents and their friends loved singing folk songs at social occasions. “It was part of the culture.” Fatykhova could sing before she could talk. At age 10 she stayed with her grandparents for two months, and had to entertain herself. “So I invited the neighbourhood kids over and sang for them. I was shy, but not when I was singing.”

After school she studied opera at the Ufa Academy of Arts and started singing professionally after graduating in 1997, making her debut as Norina in Don Pasquale. Two years later she was offered a contract with Ankara Opera House, and from there she began to travel and perform in Eastern Europe, Australia and New Zealand. 

“I loved it in Ankara; I still do. There were many excellent musicians working for the company, and they helped me to improve my singing and acting skills. Ola Rudner invited me to Australia after we’d worked together in Turkey.”

She’d love to sing more French repertoire; Juliette is a dream role. More Donizetti and Bellini would be welcome too, as their repertoire is perfectly suited to the lyric coloratura voice. Russian repertoire? “I don’t really aspire to it because so few Russian composers have written for my voice type. There’s nothing for me in Tchaikovsky or Borodin, and although Rimsky-Korsakov did write for lyric coloratura, very few of his operas are regularly performed today.”

Once, she was offered a role in Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel, at the Komische Oper in Berlin. “I’d have had to have learned the German translation, because the Komische Oper only performs in German, which would have been bizarre for a Russian singer!” As it happened, she had to turn down the role because it clashed with her schedule.

Fatykhova might perform in Berlin one day, or in Paris or London or New York – she is certainly talented and accomplished enough to shine on any stage. But she’s not the kind of singer who dreams of performing at a particular house. “I love to sing and I don’t really care where I do it. Singing is all that matters.”


The Marriage of Figaro is playing at the Sydney Opera House until 24 March. Click here for more information and tickets.