November 2021
Alan Dean Foster

A Force of Nature

Vocal prodigy Diana Ankudinova coming into her own

Over the course in this column I’ve mentioned a fair number of artists: Floor Jansen of Nightwish (and the rest of the band), Jinjer, the wonderfully inventive band from Ukraine featuring their extraordinary singer Tatiana Schmaylyuk, Angelina Jordan, who is now signed to and working with Republic Records, and Cortney Hadwin, who seems to be lying a bit low these days. A couple of years ago I also mentioned and recommended Diana Ankudinova, the Russian prodigy.

Remember that name. “Dee-ana An-ku-DEE-no-vah.”

She first burst on the world with her renditions of “Rechenka” and the Chris Issak song “Wicked Game” on a Russian television show and talent contest for children who have undergone hardship. Diana’s story redefines the word “hardship. ”Much of it is available on the net, but briefly: cast out by her birth mother at the age of three (in winter and with a broken collarbone no less), found by an aunt and taken to an orphanage, eventually adopted by one of the workers there at the urging of that woman’s own daughter, she was so traumatized she could not be made to talk. Someone suggested having her try to sing and, well, the rest is history (and she talks just fine now).

There are many good singers, fewer great singers, and a very small number who are unique singers. Diana is a natural dramatic contralto. This is the lowest range for a female singer. She is also polyphonic. Roughly, this means that when she sings she often sounds like more than one person singing at once. As you can imagine, the combination is extraordinary. So too is her full range.

I’m mentioning her now because while she was remarkable at 14(“Rechenka”) and 15 (“Wicked Game”), she just turned 18 and for the past year has been studying at the prestigious Russian Institute of Theatre Arts in Moscow, and those studies have enormously aided her in developing not only her control but her upper register. The Russian music entrepreneur and composer, who has worked extensively with Dimash (another name you should know if you do not), bought her an apartment in Moscow so she could safely further her musical development. She lives there today with her adoptive mother, Irini Ponik, and Irini’s birth daughter.

Singers at age 14 can do things that astonish us. Witness the careers of Jordan and the Dutch prodigy Amira Willighagen. But even when included in this company there is something special about Diana. I love the performances of the two singers I just mentioned, but they are (perfectly) controlled and measured. Diana is more akin to a force of nature. One of the most common descriptions of her performances is “shamanistic.” Some of this has to do with the remarkable timbre of her voice, some with the sheer intensity of her performing. In this she is closer to Floor Jansen. With both women you can see as well as hear the intensity, the emotion, contained with both the lyrics and the music. A duet between the two would be something magical.

If I’m not mistaken Diana has won every musical competition she has entered (save for an early one accused of being politically corrupt).In the very first one she wins, where she sings “Rechenka” (and “Derniere Danse” — in French) she received 49% of the general vote. The second-place finisher received 9%. That gives you some idea of how she dominates such venues. Currently she is singing for nine weeks in another Russian competition called ShowMaskGoon (get it? “Show must go on”). Performances are every Saturday, and you can bet hers will be posted by Youtube reacters almost immediately thereafter.

Her first two-minute performance on the show (all the initial performances are brief) is of a very dark version of Elvis Presley’s “Can’tHelp Falling in Love.” I’m not sure what you anticipate hearing, but I guarantee it won’t be anything like what you expect. The show’s production values are also outstanding.

Two things I noticed immediately when comparing this performance to Diana’s previous ones: first, her control shows the results of ayear’s worth of professional voice training, and second, as she matures her power is becoming fully unleashed. When someone says she blows you away, it carries a literal meaning. I can’t wait to see what the show’s next eight weeks bring.

One concern I’ve always had about Diana’s career is that much of her singing to date has revolved around folk-style traditional music. I think it’s time for her to break out with a song to attract non-Russian listeners, even if, like the Presley, it’s a cover. That’s assuming it’s something she wants. She’s given glimpses of that (an in-home take on Aha’s “Take on Me,” for example).

And boy, would I love to hear her tackle metal.

Prescott resident Alan Dean Foster is the author of 130 books. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster. com.