The Royal Opera's pre-Christmas treat this year is a rare production of Tchaikovsky's fairytale opera, The Tsarina's Slippers. Brimming with great tunes, the opera is set at Christmastime and, to add to the colour, will include a collaboration with The Royal Ballet. Director Francesca Zambello is in charge of the project, which brings together a largely Russian cast, which includes the veteran Russian baritone Sergei Leiferkus as His Highness.
Leiferkus is no stranger to the Covent Garden stage, having sung a number of Italian and Russian roles here in the past, including Boccanegra, Iago and Scarpia (the first two with Placido Domingo in the cast). 'I love working here,' he says. 'The Otello was a great memory for me, because to work with the legendary Georg Solti was a real privilege. I had done a couple of productions here before that, including Il trovatore with Placido in 1987, which is when we met for the first time, and we became great friends. But that's different. Bernard Haitink was the chief conductor of the house at the time, and he is another great conductor.
'But that Otello is something very special. It was the first time I'd done it. It happened very unexpectedly: Charles, Sir Georg's secretary, rang me up and asked if I was free the next day to meet Solti. I went to his house at Hampstead and met him for the first time. He asked me to sing parts of Pizarro and Telramund, and then invited me to do this Otello the following year. I wasn't sure about it, and said to him that I'm not evil-looking enough. But he replied, "My dear, I need Iago to have a really proud face. Only in these circumstances can Otello trust him." That was the key for the role.'
Leiferkus acknowledges that The Tsarina's Slippers is going to be a surprise for most people in the audience, but says he's loving working on it. 'I was born on Russia, and even there the opera isn't very well known. Few people know what the story is about, unless you tell them that it's based on Gogol's The Night Before Christmas, which is very well-known and popular in Russia. In the whole history of the Bolshoi Theatre, they've only done it a few times, and they've never done it at the Mariinsky. So it's very interesting that Covent Garden has decided to do it.
'My role is not big, but it's a fascinating one. It's a piece of Russian history. His Highness is the Prince Potemkin, whose eye was wounded in battle, and I'm wearing an eye patch in the production so that people know who I'm meant to be. I only appear at the ball at the Winter Palace, singing 'Glory to the Russian victory', which is a reference to the war with the Turkish Empire over the Black Sea.
'The opera itself is a typical Christmas fairytale: nice, simple, bright, attractive-looking, very Russian (because the designer is Russian). Francesca Zambello is a wonderful director, who I've worked with before. She's always surprising me with a fresh point of view, which is very important for me.
'This piece is a great contrast with all the tragedies that normally appear on the operatic stage! It's great for all kinds of audiences. The younger generation would love it, which is very important. If young people like what they see, they come again and again.'
From his comments, it's clear that it's always important to Leiferkus that he researches the background to the roles he performs in detail. 'When you're going any role, whether it's historical or not, you need to know what's going on. If you do Rigoletto, you need to know about the time when it's set and the society in which it was written. For the Shakespearean roles, I like to read the Shakespeare first, and then look at the music. How else can you understand what it's all about?
'Coming back to Otello, when Maestro Solti invited me to do it I started by reading Othello in Russian, then in English. I was surprised to find that it's quite different, because the phrasing and meaning are changed. It was the same when I did Macbeth: I thought about how that nice warrior became a villain. Who put him in these circumstances?
'The audience needs to know what's going on, and who's who. That's especially important when it's an unknown or unusual piece.'
The subject of his Russian heritage brings up an interesting response from Leiferkus. 'I am, actually. But that's a complex question, because I'm not talking about the Soviet years. What I mean instead is that Russia's a very powerful and interesting country: that's a subject to be proud of. And it's very rich in history. I know British history quite well, and the Cromwell period fascinates me, when he became a ruler. I was in the National Portrait Gallery with my wife, and behind each portrait is a piece of history and people's lives. It's not just the life of an individual, either: it's the life of a whole nation. It tells us how England became what it is today. I have double citizenship in both Russia and Britain, and I'm very proud of Great Britain too.
'Of course, I'm very proud that I was born in Russia, though I'm not 100 percent Russian because my grandparents were German. I grew up in St Petersburg, and it was great to be there.'
Immediately after The Tsarina's Slippers, Leiferkus will give a recital at the Wigmore Hall, where he's appeared on many occasions. 'I've done various variations of the programme with my pianist, Semyon Skigin, and we sent it to the Wigmore Hall, who chose a combination of Schumann and Musorgsky. So the first part is completely lyric, even with the passion in the poetry. Then I have Musorgsky, who always has his feet firmly on the ground. I find that a great combination of musical colours.'
Music surrounded Leiferkus from an early age. His grandmother took him to the Mariinsky Opera (then the Kirov) when he was very small, to see a production of Rimsky-Korsakov's Sadko. 'We sat up at the top of the theatre and I was thrilled by all the machinery and the old trap doors.' But he didn't start vocal training until he was sixteen. 'The human voice takes time to mature, and until my vocal cords had settled down there was no point in training. But I always wanted to be a performer – performance was always what attracted me.' Gradually, he started to appear in school productions and to find out that his true passion was for the theatre.
'Later, I became a member of the university choir, even though I wasn't a member of the university itself, and then I found my voice teacher. I became a soloist for the chorus later on, and then went to the conservatoire.'
Eventually, Leiferkus joined the operetta theatre. 'When I became a principal there, though, the opera started to interest me a lot more. I was on a real stage in a real theatre, and I wanted to join the opera. Two years later, I received an invitation from the second opera house in St Petersburg to become a soloist there, and soon I became a principal singer there. I spent six years there, and then was invited to join the Kirov in 1977.'
1 February 2010 will be the fortieth anniversary of Leiferkus' stage career, and he's planning to celebrate in style. 'I have a couple of events in Russia: I'm doing two concerts at the operetta theatre. The end of January is the anniversary of the siege of Leningrad, and the operetta theatre was the only one to continue to work during the siege, so every year they have a concert for the veterans. So I'm doing a charity concert for them. Later on, I'm also doing two events at the Mariinsky Theatre, including the lead role in Schehedrin's Dead Souls with Gergiev, plus Tosca.'
Leiferkus portrays a life of hard work during his early years at the Kirov, where he says that he was referred to as 'Iron Leiferkus' because he sang up to twelve performances per month in addition to recordings, concerts and tours. 'That was easy for me, and I did it with pleasure, and I did almost everything written for baritone. But I never did Rigoletto. I was invited to do it twice by German opera houses where they would only provide short rehearsal periods, which I didn't want to accept for my first Rigoletto, and the other time I was asked to do it, my diary was already full. Maybe one day!'
Opera fans may be surprised to hear that some of Leiferkus' early appearances on his move to the West in the 1980s were with English National Opera. 'I felt like a shark who was circling round the country – first I went to ENO, then Wexford, then Opera North, then Scottish Opera, and finally to Covent Garden. I am very proud to be probably the only Russian singer to have appeared at ENO: I did Carmen in the David Pountney production, and then The Pearl Fishers. Charles Mackerras was the conductor, and he told me to do it because I was doing The Pearl Fishers with Opera North in French six months later. But it was a huge challenge for me to do these roles in English at that time, and even now I can remember Escamillo's lines: "Thank you all, let us raise our glasses to drink a toast to what we share tonight." I loved that production – it was very much in the tradition of English National Opera in being very dramatic and theatrical.'
After those ENO appearances, everything came together. 'In my view, a singer should be a great actor, too. You can't just sing beautifully. You need to show your character. ENO is a fantastic school for acting – I saw lots of great productions there. So from there, it was an easy jump to the Royal Opera House in 1987 with Trovatore. It was a great time for me, and I worked with lots of fantastic singers over here. Even now, I am learning things from my colleagues. I never tire of learning.'
When I ask what he's been most proud of, Leiferkus' answer is both intriguing and modest, as well as meaningful. 'I'm really proud of meeting friends and colleagues. That's the most important thing for everyone. I'm proud I sang with Luciano, and Carreras, and Placido, and Cura. I sang with Kiri Te Kanawa; Mirella Freni became my friend. Many singers and conductors who I've worked with are both great musicians and great friends. The most important privilege is to meet people – not to use them, but to meet them.
'And it's interesting: I've noticed that when I have really good partners next to me onstage, my performance is on a much higher level. It gives you the courage to lift up what you're doing onstage.'
The future brings many things for Leiferkus, both in concert and in opera. 'My wife said "I'm going to divorce you if you don't stop learning new parts!" But how can I stop?! I'm doing some very interesting pieces with Vladimir Jurowski in February with the LPO: Shostakovich's Gamblers and two monologues for The Nose. I'm looking forward to Dead Souls at the Kirov. I'm also learning a world premiere for Amsterdam, The Heart of the Dog. It's a major new role – completely contemporary music, with a great character. I've heard that English National Opera are planning to do it in English in London in a couple of years' time – so who knows!'
Sergei Leiferkus appears in The Tsarina's Slippers at Covent Garden from Friday.
Tsarina's Slippers designs: Tatiana Noginova and Mikahil Mokrov.
Join the debate: if you have any comments on this or any of our articles, visit our forum