From Mongolia To Italy: Opera Singer Ayana Sambuu

Ayana Sambuu, originally from Mongolia and now Artistic Director of New Opera Dimensions, tells us about her life as an opera singer in Rome.

Victoria Khalilova & Ayana Sambuu: Photo: Andres Arce Maldonado.

When she meets me for our interview, Ayana Sambuu has just finished practicing her arias for the day. That means, simply, three hours of singing her soprano favorites, like ‘Casta diva’ from Bellini’s Norma. Made famous by her idol Maria Callas, it’s an aria Ayana likes to practice to ease her way into the high mezzosoprano range for which she is known.

“Soprano arias help to make the notes much clearer. Repeating these arias makes it better and better,” she tells me.

Ayana Sambuu, besides being an opera singer, is now Artistic Director at New Opera Dimensions, a new cultural association based in Rome. She is originally from Mongolia, but came to Italy after graduating from the University of Arts & Culture in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital, and later studying with the UK Arts Council.

Today, it’s been a busy morning. Aside from her own practice, she has been interviewing younger singers for Vincerò, the new international opera singing competition. Judged by artistic directors from La Scala, London’s Royal Opera House, the New York Met and Deutsche Oper Berlin, the finals are to be held later this year in Naples.

“We are so looking forward to receiving the support of audiences when this period is over,” Ayana enthuses, referring of course to the pandemic.

To find out more about her life and work, I asked Ayana about her current projects, the people and places that inspired her, her Mongolian heritage, and thoughts on the future of opera.

Opera Singer Ayana Sambuu
Victoria Khalilova and Ayana Sambuu, Sala Baldini, Rome.

Ayana, you are a mezzo-soprano, the Artistic Director at New Opera Dimensions, and part of several other projects. Can you tell us more about your work and roles?

First, I would like to say how grateful I am for the wonderful opportunity to do this interview and the chance to say more about New Opera Dimensions. It is a very young cultural society, which we officially opened two years ago. However, already, we have received important recognition from top international music professionals as well as our wonderful public — especially the public of Rome. They were giving our international singers standing ovations during our concerts before COVID.

As President of New Opera Dimensions, it’s really a big responsibility to bring the projects to fruition, especially from a financial point of view. Despite the pandemic, we have been continuing our international collaborations. For example, we are working on at least five important international projects at the moment.

One of these, Vincerò, has already been officially announced. New Opera Dimensions is one of the partners of Vincerò, which is a tribute to opera worldwide and is organized by Euro Artists Management — one of the most successful Italian opera agencies. It will bring singers together from the best theaters in the world to give hope and encouragement to a new generation of professional opera singers.

The importance of this for opera is to show to the world community the value of Italian opera. This amazing opera belcanto art was born in Italy and has spread all around the world since about 1600. Its evolution, transformation and continuity has lasted until now, including the way we sing without any modern amplification.

So, soon the true ‘tsunami’ of the competition’s magnificent voices will make the energy in the air of this planet vibrate as never before. We have been contacted by young singers from 19 to 36 years old from all over the world — all so keen to contribute to this opera movement with their voices and arts.

Obviously, we have also been developing our Association by building bridges. We have been preparing our next concert performance projects and events abroad for as soon as the situation is safe. In Asia, eastern Russia (Buryatia, Lake Baikal), as well as in Europe in Paris, London and Belgium. There are also some possibilities to organize smaller events in New York and in Australia.

As for Italy, we will definitely be organizing concerts with international opera singers, here in the very heart of Rome at the magnificent concert hall of Sala Baldini, Teatro di Marcello, and some other halls. We will put on a concert with Paul Gerimon from Belgium, a great bass singer with a career spanning more than 40 years, for example. And we have some Italian singers and singers from South Korea lined up in collaboration with amazing opera vocal coach and conservatory professor, Hyo Soon Lee, singers from Russia, and Mongolia, all accompanied by our pianist Victoria Khalilova. Again, we will be collaborating with Euro Artists Management and its director, Angelo Taddeo.

There’s a beautiful project arriving again from Italy that has been in elaboration, involving not only opera, but also literature, visual arts, schools and the green movement, to protect nature.

With time we are planning to found our own opera music and management company, New Opera Dimensions Academy, by inviting international level and highly experienced professors. Meanwhile, we have already been doing some consultations and lessons online, as well as vocal coaching when it was possible to do singing lessons in person.

I read that you make all the costumes for the performances. What kind of clothes do you create, and how important are they in your job?

Oh, yes! It’s something that gives me great joy. I learnt sewing in my childhood, and sometimes I used to sew my school piano concert outfits for myself when I was only 11 years old. I used to sew curtains, elaborate armchair coverings, kitchen things, at first with very simple materials like cotton because my family was afraid that I could ruin expensive textiles, but I never did.

I learnt sewing mostly from my mother, who was actually a scientist in physics, mathematics and space exploration and worked at the Academy of Sciences, but making our costumes and outfits was how we spent our free time together. It was magic. The taste, color combinations, styles, I learnt it all from my mother. Unfortunately, me and my brother lost our mom very tragically when we were kids, and sewing brings back those precious moments of being together all over again.

Actually, I never took seriously this idea of making performance costumes. It requires lots of time and creativity. I had great inspiration and encouragement from my closest friend and designer, the main costume designer of the Opera Theatre of Mongolia, Oyun, whose beautiful collection I brought once to one of the RAI3 TV programs. But the idea to literally create and sew by myself came from another friend, one of the most successful designers in Asia, Yumjir, during her visit to Italy. She said that this could be one of my characteristics as a performer.

Here in Italy, I have had collaborations with some theatre costume houses. One of the costume creators, after having seen one of my dresses, said: “Wow! Absolutely professional work.” That gave me lots of inspiration, so I decided to be more confident in my choices and styles. It’s definitely becoming important for my performances, bringing some uniqueness to them as the most costumes are completely original.

Ayana Sambuu and her daughter Anita. Photo: Andres Arce Maldonado.

When did you find out you wanted to be an opera singer and how did you achieve your ambition?

I would say the influence of my family was very important. Especially my grandfather. I was born to the family of Tseveenii Zandraa, Mongolia’s legendary, first professional filmmaker, who ushered in the golden era of national Mongolian cinematography. He received many awards for films that were seen in more than 17 countries and which, even now, are shown each year on various occasions as the golden era of Mongolian films.

My grandfather was a jury member for many important international film festivals, including the Moscow cinema festival between 1952-1990. He interspersed the music style that he called ‘vaudeville’ into his films. In fact, his love and respect for classical music and opera was immense. He was the first in Mongolia to introduce professional opera singers into his movies in 1950-1960.

Opera was therefore always important for our family, and it came to me quite naturally. Even if I had never really considered becoming a professional singer, I went to music school (4 days a week for 8 years) where I studied the piano and sang in the choir. At the age of 9 years old, I remember I had to do an analysis of Mozart’s opera, Nozze di Figaro just as homework. My Russian piano teacher used to live next door to us, and her husband was the famous Mongolian tenor Bandi, the soloist at the Theatre of Opera & Ballet. Listening to his singing and the sound of piano music coming from our neighborhood was very normal for me.

However, the actual decision to become an opera singer came quite late, after the tragic death of our mother. Singing for me became a great pain soothing, and little by little became a true passion that could balance my soul hurting from such a loss. I used to listen to Maria Callas CDs every single day, over and over, no matter what I was doing.

Then when I was 17-19 years old, I secretly won an English song competition at national level in Mongolia. I’d kept it secret from all people I knew, and my family was completely shocked.

“If you really wish to sing, you have to study,” my grandfather said. “Opera can’t be just a hobby, it’s a serious art, it reflects a profound philosophy that you have to comprehend and then express.” He took me to the University of Arts & Culture to take private vocal lessons with the famous Professor Khaidav, for a year and a half. That magic world completely overwhelmed me and my decision to become a singer remained firm.

After graduation from the Foreign Languages Institute of Ulaanbaatar, I entered right away into the University of Arts & Culture. Then, I took the same firm decision to come to Italy, to improve myself, after having met my first Italian maestro, world opera legend Paolo Montarsolo, who invited me to become his ‘allieva’ here in Rome. He completely changed me as a singer and influenced me tremendously as a person. At that point, I finished my other degree and diplomas here in Rome in vocal singing and performing arts.

Which artists and singers, not necessarily from opera, have inspired you throughout your career?

To tell the truth, I’m inspired by every amazing person with high moral values, great capacities or talent I meet in my life. Being surrounded by extraordinary friends or people I work with is absolute happiness, and I always try to give something back as well.

I have always been inspired by sculptors, for example, Michelangelo or Bernini. It was great to have met cinema maker Andrés Arce Maldonado, who invites me often to sing for his movie soundtracks. One of the most beautiful collaborations was singing for his film Bernini racconta Bernini, where I sang Lascia ch’io pianga by Handel as well as Bellini’s Casta diva. This collaboration has truly inspired me to rediscover Rome through Bernini’s nephew telling stories about his grand grandfather Lorenzo Bernini and his works.

I have been inspired profoundly by writers too. I think this is the main way to see and distinguish things clearly, one from another. After the great classical writers come great classical music composers.

I would say it’s not the people, but their qualities that always inspire me. The same quality for many artists of being extraordinarily talented, hardworking and unique combined in one person impresses me greatly, and this inspires me a lot. They may belong to different fields of arts, but these qualities unite them.

You are originally from Mongolia, but you grew up and studied music in Italy. What did both countries give you, and what is the most important thing from your homeland that you always bring with you?

Yes, I grew up in Mongolia, but now, practically half of my conscious life I have lived here in Rome. Mongolia formed me as a person, and Italy helped me to rediscover myself and I was reborn here in Italy. Both countries have given me family. One where I was born, the other where I created a family with my husband Marco.

The most important thing from my homeland is my family, where I was born, and the moral values that I was brought up with. That stormy busy rich life we always used to have, my friends with whom I am always in contact, that air I used to breath, the street where I was born, those incredible landscapes and stars in the summer night sky. All this always sounds like a great symphony in my mind and soul wherever I go and whatever I do. It’s always in my heart.

In your opinion, which aspects of the Mongolian artistic scene (and more generally from your country) most deserve to be known by the general public?

One of the most famous films our grandfather made is called Our Motives (Manai Ayalguu, 1956). He tried to collect melodic and musical aspects of Mongolia, and he brought the film to many international cinema festivals, winning great public interest and a number of awards.

If I could, I would repeat the same cinema script written by my grandfather and shoot the same film, but focusing my attention on Mongolia’s contemporary life, both urban and rural: its rich traditional music melodies, incredibly well-developed opera, classical music and fashion, its literature.

I think it’s time that Europe and Western countries stop seeing Mongolia mostly from an anthropological perspective, but recognize those universally accepted values that have been present in our culture since ancient times. They should see that, even closed between giants like Russia and China, our country has been successfully making great efforts to achieve a fully developed modern life. Mongolia is greatly considered in business and economics, and the national economy has been constantly growing over the last few decades thanks to the mining businesses.

Moreover, Mongolia was once the greatest empire that ever existed, of course, with an incredibly important history. This left a cultural imprint on a great number of nations that were under the control of the Mongol Empire. Many people, without knowing it, say some words that come from our old Mongolian Uighur language, for example, the word ‘yogurt’. Yogurt, the dairy product, was invented in Mongolia millennia ago. We call it ‘tarag’. However, at the time, populations under the Mongolian Empire would call Mongolian people ‘Uighurts’, and our milk and dairy foods they called the food of uigurts. Over time our traditional tarag was renamed as yogurt.

The first passport was invented by the Mongolian Empire. The modern postal service takes after the identical delivery system invented by Mongolian Empire militaries. The first diplomatic letter officially delivered from Asia to Europe was to the Pope in Rome, via ambassadors from the Mongol Empire. These are interesting facts that could enrich the imagination and vision of anyone today.

Opera Singer Ayana Sambuu
Traditional Mongolian queen outfit. Photo: Andres Arce Maldonado.

Coming back to Italy: what is your favorite spot in Rome? And what are the best places for people seeking opera there?

I love Rome. It is a truly eternal city. Most of all I love the Fori Romani, the zone around the Colosseo, Terme di Caracalla and Teatro di Marcello’s Sala Baldini, where we often organize our opera concerts, in the very heart of Rome.

Before 2020, you probably never imagined doing operatic collaborations and performances over the Internet. What have been the challenges of COVID-19 and the high points of doing opera online?

You are right. I would have never imagined opera performances online. Never! However, after a moment of total desperation last year in the first lockdown, I was pulled out of this state of mind and soul by my amazing colleague from New York, Lynn Kao, a wonderful orchestra director and pianist. She invited me to create a video performance recorded over distance, simply by using our mobile phones (this was not without the help and technical support, again over distance, of my friend Dmitry Tagan).

That was my very first performance we did remotely, and it was not without a touch of fantasy and imagination. We interpreted Gluck’s aria Oh, del mio dolce ardor inspired by Star Wars Queen Padme Amidala and space. Now I am in the very beginning of the process of learning to use some new computer programs, getting used to the idea of recording and sharing online. Well, I am trying to become adequate in these methods!

Honestly, there is no high point in doing opera online as it doesn’t transmit the most important thing and the scope of this art: the vibration of live sounds, the energy of the live voice and the acoustics of the musical instruments. Opera was born to be heard live. No techniques can transmit it the way it sounds and has an effect in real life.

What is your vision for the future of opera in Italy? How do you think it will survive the fallout from this long period of lockdown?

I think there will be a great revival. Not right away, but there will be. There will be a great movement of rebirth, as people have truly missed its vital energy. It’s like the air: many never notice it until it starts lacking.

As happened after the Second World War, as soon as we get over this pandemic, we’ll start reconstructing our life anew. And, as the opera has been an enormous and immense cultural achievement of mankind (it was born here in Italy, after all), Italian people won’t throw away such a treasure just like this. It will be cared for much more and better than it used to be before.

Finally, can anyone become an opera singer? Is it a matter of practice and persistence or is it something you have to be born with?

Anyone may learn to produce some certain operatic voice sounds, or even sing, which is very good for our health, but not just anyone can become an opera singer. It’s much more than just a talent or type of the voice.

To be an opera singer means to be like an enormous architectonic and spiritual conglomerate of everything, put all together in harmony and balance with almost surgical precision. Talent, culture, performing arts, energy, expressiveness. The entire scenic presence that transmits emotions to the public on the base of all the qualities a certain singer works out for the moment of the performance. To see this process whilst a singer performs, living those moments together with that singer, I guess is the most beautiful experience in opera.

But, it is also a matter of nonstop practice and persistence, like true sport athletes — that essence of being a singer is something much more than just some practice and exercise. It’s that profound internal process the singer goes through each single instant of singing and performing. That’s what makes each singer unique and unrepeatable.

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