Determined diva: soprano Angela Gheorghiu
The life story of soprano Angela Gheorghiu is as dramatic as the operas in which she stars. Ciara Dwyer met her in London to hear her tale of passion, tragedy and new romance
'When I was a girl, I didn't think, I will sing for the love of it. I sang because it was stronger than myself. I followed my destiny,"says Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu. We are in The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Angela has just finished her day's rehearsal of Tosca - "my Tosca," as she calls it. Far from tired, she tells me that she is "fine." She certainly looks it. She has a luxurious mane of long black hair and perfect porcelain skin. Her flowery perfume lingers in the air. Her chocolate-brown eyes are brimming with excitement, as she tells me about her life as a soprano, her beginnings and the determination it took to make it to the top.
Ever since her debut in Covent Garden in 1994 in La Boheme, she has played in most major opera houses all over the world. Renowned for her intense performances and velvety soprano voice, she is still soaring. A month before we met, she got rave reviews for her Tosca in the Metropolitan in New York in which she sang the famous aria - Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore - I have lived for art, I have lived for love.
"That aria is like a hymn for me, and for my life," says the sporano who will sing at the NCH, Dublin on March 12. "It is like my curriculum vitae. If you think about my life, I'm not only living for art and for love but I also live for my public. I understand why I am on stage - to make people dream. I give to my public on the same level as I give to my art. Everybody wants a photo."
She enjoys her position at the pinnacle.
"All my life is a sacrifice," she says. "I'm always sleeping in hotels. I'm always preparing a role. I have a life, but not in my home. I live between countries - Romania and Switzerland. It's always been like that. I go whenever I can. I cannot cut my life into two - my private life and my artistic life. It's like, I am Angela everywhere. I am the same. I adore to laugh and have a nice time but I'm always very serious about my work."
Angela came from humble origins. Growing up in a bungalow in Adjud, a small town in Romania with her sister, Elena and her parents - her father was a traindriver and her mother a dressmaker - the world of opera was far away. But she and her sister both had good singing voices.
"My voice was strong and the teachers in kindergarten heard something very unusual," says Angela.
She and Elena sang Romanian Orthodox hymns in church.
"In my country, they adore the human voice. In my church, there are no instruments. Everything is vocal."
From the age of 14, she studied music at boarding school and later, at Bucharest's Academy of Music.
"I worked very, very hard. I knew that I must be better than everyone else in the world because I was from nowhere. That period under Ceausescu was the worst time. Living in Romania was like being in hell. But I kept telling myself, I need to do it, I want to do it, I must do it."
The year Angela graduated, Romania revolted and overthrew its dictator. She was free. "At the age of 18, I was ready. I knew exactly what this profession was about and I knew about vocal technique. I was conscious that I only had one voice and two little cords and that I was responsible for myself. I had a gift and I knew that I needed to be careful all the time, not only with the voice, but especially with what I was doing on stage."
Angela's life off-stage has always been as dramatic as her operas. When she first went to London, she was married to a Romanian engineer Andrei Gheorghiu but when she was cast as Mimi in La Boheme opposite French-Italian tenor, Roberto Alagna, the stage lovers became lovers in real life too. He was a young widower. His wife had died from cancer and he was left to rear their daughter Ornella, who was two when her mother died. She divorced Andrei and then in 1996, Angela and Roberto married after a matinee performance of La Boheme at the Met in the manager's office there.
That same year tragedy befell Angela's family. Her sister, Elena, was killed in a car crash. She had a two year-old daughter Ioana with her surgeon husband. Four years later, Elena's husband had a heart attack while driving and died. The wound of these deaths remains too raw for Angela and she has never spoken about them. To cope with his grief, her father became an Orthodox monk in a monastery.
"We all need to respect his choice," says Angela. "When you lose your child, you are the only person on earth who can understand how you feel and how you can make your life afterwards. You are another person. It was absolutely horrible, but you go on." Angela looked after her late sister's child as if she was her own and eventually adopted her. They formed a family unit with Roberto and his daughter, who was only a year older than Ioana. They travelled together and saw each other in between operas and school-terms. For many years, Angela and Roberto thrilled audiences with their operatic performances, frequently playing lovers on stage. Like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, they made a glamorous couple.
"From a musical point of view, our voices matched very well," she says. "And the passion was real. Nothing was fake."
But it was not to last.
"I didn't want to sing with him all the time," she says. "I hated it because I had double emotions and also, it was all the time. I wanted to sing with others. I had enough."
Angela refers to her niece as her daughter. She tells me that they adore each other but I wonder if she ever wanted to have a child of her own.
"I decided not to have children," she says. "I was very clear from the very beginning, first with Andrei and then Roberto. Neither of them objected. I made this decision because of work. Once I asked a doctor friend of mine what would happen to my voice and my body if I had a baby. He told me that nobody can predict how your body would respond and each voice and body has its own mechanism. There is a history of women who are sopranos and after pregnancy, their voices change.
"I decided not to have this kind of panic. But at the same time, I didn't have this urge to have a baby. Also, I had Ioana from the very beginning. She was like my daughter and also, Roberto's daughter. I was their mother for a lot of the time, so I have this experience which is really enough."
Angela prefers to talk of the present and with good reason. There is a new man in her life - a Romanian doctor who is 27 to her 50. They met in Covent Garden three years ago. He sent her flowers backstage.
"He's a real fan of opera and mostly, a fan of me." She tells me that from then she was worried about being with a younger man but there is no difference.
"Sometimes he pinches himself that he is with me. But we just accept it. His dream is just to make me happy. I say, 'Are you for real?' He knows the type of life I had before and now, it's the opposite. He's really handsome inside and out. I feel really supported and loved. I'm able to breathe normally and feel in harmony. This is the most important thing for me."
No wonder she is glowing.
We walk to the stage door and there is a tall, blue-eyed smiling man waiting for her. Dressed in chinos and a dark jacket, there is nothing showy about him. He looks a little like the violinist Joshua Bell. They kiss, she introduces me and then I watch them walk hand-in-hand down Floral Street. Who says a diva can't do normal?
A Gala Concert with Angela Gheorghiu at the National Concert Hall with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra on Saturday 12 March, 8pm as part of its International Concert Series. For further details see www.nch.ie
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