You broke into the industry very quickly. Can you describe your early career?

It’s true, I started very young – I’m only 39 years old but I’ve had almost 18 years of this career. I was just 20 when I became a student at the Voronezh State Theatre, and I had only started to learn singing two years before that.

Irina LunguIrina Lungu. Photo © Amati e Bacciardi

From there things happened very fast. I was singing at a concert my first year there and the artistic director came onstage and announced to the audience, “I give these flowers to the new soloist of our theatre”. I hadn’t even auditioned to be a soloist, and suddenly I was making my professional debut in a new production of Les pêcheurs de perles the next year, when I was just 21.

It wasn’t long before you went to study abroad, is that correct?

I was doing lots of competitions at the time so my next big break came when I got third prize at the Belvedere Competition in Wien when I was 23 years old. One of the jury members asked if I wanted to audition for Riccardo Muti which I didn’t think twice about. I took the train from Wien to Milan and was on the stage at La Scala at 10 in the morning singing for him the day after the competition final. They asked me if I wanted to be a part of the Accademia Alla Scala, the young artist program, and of course I said yes.

La Scala then became a hugely important place for you not long after that.

I was very lucky. La Scala was looking for a cover for Barbara Frittoli for its season opening production of Moïse et Pharaon. I had to learn this super difficult aria of Rossini in four days to audition. Maestro Muti appeared because I think he had remembered me from my Accademia audition, and he said okay. I was attending all of these rehearsals with great singers like Frittoli and Ildar Abdrazakov and Erwin Schrott, just learning everything I could, and then I sung at an orchestral rehearsal and they decided to give me one performance. So I was just 23 when I had my debut at La Scala as a singer in a principal role, with Muti conducting. It was at that point that my career started.

Who were the singers that meant the most to you at that time?

My teacher gave me these cassette tapes, one by Renata Scotto and the other by Montserrat Caballé. I would listen to them from morning till night, every day, and it was because of them that I fell in love with opera. I asked my maestro if I could learn one of my favourite arias sung by Scotto, Ah! non credea mirarti from La Sonnambula, but we didn’t have the music. I went all the way to the music library in Moscow and copied by hand the entire aria and the cabaletta and came back and learned it. It was the aria I sang in that concert when they accepted me at the Voronezh State Theatre.

What struck you most about Scotto?

Renata Scotto was a perfect musician and if you are a musician you can really do everything. For me the important thing is to be convincing as the character, and you do that through phrasing. Once I heard her give an interview about Verdi singers and she said, if you can phrase like a Verdiano, you are a Verdiano. I cannot say that she had the perfect voice or volume or tone for Madama Butterfly, but she was one of the best Butterflys. She shaped how I think about the voice.

Did you ever meet her?

When I was 23. I had won the Elena Obraztsova competition and was invited to sing at a concert honouring 40 years of her career and Renata Scotto was in the audience. She came to me afterward and it was before I’d moved to Milan to study at La Scala. I asked her what she thought about it and she was very encouraging, she said be careful with teachers, work on your musicianship and phrasing and that you’re a great talent. It was a short moment but so important. Now of course I would ask her about so much more.

You’re appearing as Marguerite in Faust for Opera Australia next. I understand it’s one of your favourite roles.

She is an incredible character, almost a perfect victim, very sincere and pure and naïve but full of love. She goes through a real journey and it’s a real tragedy what happens to her. I think it’s a perfect role because different kinds of sopranos can do it, both leggero and lyric sopranos, which is right for the direction I’m going with my voice now. I love the challenge of the part as well, to find the right French style, very elegant, light and poetic. French Romantic operas are very different from Italian Romantic operas – “I love you” in Italian, “ti amo” is very different to French, “je t’aime”. I made my debut in the role at La Scala in 2010 with a great French conductor, Stéphane Denève. We met one year before rehearsals to work on it and he taught me every word, every phrase, how to get the right French diction. Now the top notes and agility and freshness that you need all come naturally to me so it’s a character I really adore and that I feel is mine.

Has acting always been something that has come naturally to you?

For me, singing and acting go together, I cannot separate them. To act for singers is different than to act for actors because we have to express through the voice in every moment. So I’m always working on the acting and the rehearsal room lets me try things, interact with my stage partners and work with the orchestra and conductor. To be a part of the whole piece. But it’s important to say that a lot of preparation happens before that, at home in my studio, and there’s where I try to find my own colours, my own personality, a little bit of myself in the character. If it comes to me easily it’s because I love to do it, but it always needs preparation.

You mentioned that you’re at a turning point in terms of voice and repertoire. Can you talk about your new direction?

Like I said, I started singing quite young and I’ve mostly performed the light lyric repertoire. I’m still singing Lucia di Lammermoor and Puritani which most sopranos leave after taking on new roles. I started my career in Italy and they have an idea about Russian sopranos, that they have heavy voices, and I was offered very heavy roles as a result, like Iolanta and Luisa Miller. I sung them but at a certain point I thought I have very easy high notes which I have to keep. So when I had the ability to accept and reject offers, I accepted only the light roles and worked hard to keep my high notes without losing the deep tones of my voice. I really concentrated on developing colours to portray more sides of one character, so light and girlish but also more dramatic and tragic.

But now I’m almost 40 I would love to do more of the fuller lyric repertoire. Actually, I did my last Gilda in Sydney which was very sad because I love her very much, she was so important for my career and I arrived at the Metropolitan Opera with this role. But I knew I couldn’t improve it anymore, not because of the vocal aspect but because it’s hard for me to act so naive now.

So the roles I’m most interested in are the more matures one like Contessa from Le Nozze di Figaro, Desdemona in Otello, some more bel canto roles. I’m back here in Sydney as Maria Stuarda. In a couple of years I think I will be ready to do Norma but it should be in a good context, with a good conductor, because it’s not easy for sopranos. And I do have a dream role but it’s far off into the future, and that’s Adriana Lecouvreur. But one step at a time!

Opera Australia’s Faust is at the Sydney Opera House, February 10 – March 11