It’s often claimed that a particular artist is “born to sing”, but rarely is it so literally true as in the case of Russian soprano Julia Lezhneva. Her future as an opera singer was foretold the moment she arrived in the world in December 1989, in a hospital on the Russian island of Sakhalin.
“Apparently when I was delivered, I shouted out so suddenly that the doctor almost dropped me and he said to my mum ‘she’s a born opera singer!’ Imagine that! It’s such an amazing thing.”
Anyone who witnessed Ms Lezhneva’s ravishing performance of Rossini’s Fra il padre at 2010’s Classical Brits, or has heard her early recordings on the Naive label such as her award-winning disc of Rossini arias or Vivaldi’s Ottone in Villa, will need no convincing of the 23-year-old’s already awesome abilities. Her debut CD for Decca, a collection of motets by Vivaldi, Handel, Porpora and Mozart, looks set to become one of the musical events of 2013.
“I recorded the CD in Barcelona with Giovanni Antonini and Il Giardino Armonico,” she reports. “The idea of doing motets came from Mozart’s Exsultate Jubilate, which is a special piece for me because I’ve been singing it for many years.
At first we thought of recording an all-Mozart album but, having further explored sacred motets with Giovanni Antonini, I completely fell in love with the idea of taking one motet from four of the great composers across the 18th century and showing the stylistic development of this genre: Vivaldi and Handel from the Baroque linked to Mozart by Porpora’s contrasting ‘galant’ style.”
Despite her Russian background, it’s the music of the European Baroque and classical periods that has always held the strongest allure for her. Partly she attributes it to hearing Cecilia Bartoli’s The Vivaldi Album when she was very young – “it made a really huge impression on me because I’d never heard any coloratura before” ? but also she has found that “my voice somehow always showed me that Russian music is not ideal for it, but it’s effortless for me to sing Baroque repertoire.”
Whatever the style or period, it seems that she was predestined to sing. Her parents, Alfiya and Mikhail, were both eminent geophysicists ? geologists who study the earth’s physical properties ? and wanted her to follow in their own professional footsteps, but Julia understood instinctively that her future would be in arts and music.
“It was difficult for me to do simple mathematical things at school,” she recalls. “My mother is very theoretical, and she had to really work with me so I could learn how to do them. Also, because I was so energetic and couldn’t sit still for a minute, it was difficult for me to concentrate on learning these things. But I had a natural feel for writing and an interest in poetry and literature.”
Fortunately, her parents were also enthusiastic classical music fans, so Julia was bombarded with it from her earliest days. “I believe when you’re pregnant and you listen to a lot of music the child hears it and learns musicality,” she reflects, “so when I was born my mother knew which music I liked to wake up to or go to sleep to. We used to have a lot of those old things like huge CDs which you put on the old equipment.”
LPs, you mean? On the Russian Melodiya label, perhaps?
“Yes! Melodiya, exactly. I listened to a lot of them when I was a child and I was very sensitive to music. One of my favourites was the “Dance of the Snowflakes”, from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker.”
Her musical gifts were initially channelled into learning the piano, but again her childhood hyperactivity caused problems.
“I’m getting a little bit more relaxed now I’m older,” she laughs, “but when I was a child I was always over-active. I was always crushing my fingers or banging my head, and my mother realised that I cannot be a pianist because it would be too stressful for both of us. By then I had discovered I had a voice and felt I should work on it.”
Even on the exotic but remote island of Sakhalin, which has had a long and complicated history of being struggled over by the Russians and the Japanese, Julia was able to get a first taste of a solid Russian musical education. But everything changed when she was seven, because the family moved to Moscow, where they’re still based. After finishing her school studies at 14, she entered college and continued learning piano while starting to work at singing too. Her voice had matured unusually early, and as early as age 11 she had a sense that an operatic future lay ahead of her. She remembers how one day she amazed her mother by standing in the bathroom and doing impersonations of famous opera singers (“she said ‘I thought it was someone on the TV, how did you do that?’”).
One of her college music teachers recommended that she should audition for a specialist vocal professor, and despite not yet having reached the official minimum age of 15, she was enrolled on a full-time singing course. She instantly began to blossom, and caught the attention of some influential musical opinion-formers. At 16 she entered the singing competition held by renowned Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Obraztsova (where the judges included such legends of the operatic stage as Christa Ludwig, Renata Scotto and the bass-baritone Bruno Pratico), and Obraztsova told her “you have such agility, you have to sing Rossini, you are a Rossinian voice”.
The following year she entered the competition again and won it, which earned her an invitation to appear at the Rossini festival in Pesaro, Italy. Doors were suddenly swinging open for her, and “they offered me everything to sing, but I agreed just two pieces, the Rossini Stabat Mater and the opening gala with Juan Diego Flórez. What I remember is that I knew nothing about how to do it! I was only 18 and I just had to trust my impulses about how to perform the music. I was not strong enough even to sustain a big duet scene from La donna del lago, although it’s fantastic for my voice. But Flórez was very sweet, and completely respectful of my age, and I never felt pressured with him.”
She gained an honours degree from the Moscow State Conservatory Academic Music College in 2008. Then, to give herself a more international outlook, Julia came to the Cardiff International Academy of Voice, where she studied under the tutelage of veteran Welsh tenor Dennis O’Neill supported by the generous Kempinski Arts Support Programme.
“I was so shy and I’d never lived abroad before,” she remembers. “It was quite a big step in my life. But working with Dennis was one of the best experiences I’ve had. He’s a great person, his heart and soul are full of generosity and he is fantastic teacher, who’s still singing beautifully. I am so happy I had this chance to meet and study with him.” But when she planned to spend a third year at Cardiff, she was aghast to learn that courses were being suspended owing to financial problems. By now she’d met Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, and appealed to her for help.
“She has a reputation for helping young talent, and I asked her ‘would you please help me find a place maybe in London, perhaps the Guildhall or the Royal College of Music?’ She said of course, and she called both colleges. I went to auditions for each of them and finally chose Guildhall.”
It was Dame Kiri, too, who would recommend Julia for an appearance at the Classical Brits, and it was through her that Julia would first make contact with Decca. But it was inevitable that so prolific a talent as Julia’s should find itself in demand from many directions, and already she has performed with some of the leading names in the classical and Baroque fields. She worked with Fabio Biondi’s Europa Galante on Vivaldi’s L’Oracolo, performed with Philippe Jaroussky under Diego Fasolis and I Barrochisti, gave recitals with J. C. Spinosi and his Ensemble Matheus, sang with the Cleveland Orchestra under Franz Welser-Moest and performed with the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra under Louis Langrée. She toured and recorded Vivaldi’s Ottone in Villa with Il Giardino Armonico with great acclaim, and is planning concerts for 2013 with René Jacobs, Sir Roger Norrington and Giovanni Antonini.
She has found a particular champion in Marc Minkowski. It was he who introduced Julia to the international stage and invited her to make her first recordings: Bach’s B-minor Mass when she was only 18 and, two years later, her first solo album of Rossini arias. Minkowsi has subsequently invited Julia to Salzburg’s Mozartwoche and Festspiele as well as offering her leading roles – such as Fiordiligi in Cosí fan tutte – and, perhaps most memorably, the part of Urbain in Les Huguenots in Olivier Py’s production at La Monnaie in Brussels. This gained Julia one of opera’s most prestigious awards: Opernwelt’s “Nachwuchssängerin des Jahres” 2011. Marc persuaded Julia to sing the role of Asteria in Handel’s Tamerlano in Salzburg in 2012, opposite Plácido Domingo singing Bajazet. Julia was worried that she wasn’t ready for the role, but looking back, she’s delighted she did it and has been particularly praised by the exceptional press.
“It was Plácido Domingo who made us a real team. He was like a father for all of us, and he was generous and kind to everyone as if we were all his children or his relatives. I was very impressed by him, and I think it made a big impact on my quality in this role. I think sometimes you have to take a risk when you see it’s the right time to do it.”
We can take it for granted that plenty more risks and rewards lie ahead of her.