Tenor Roberto Alagna's life was torn apart when his young wife was diagnosed with a fatal brain tumour. But even while she was ill he found the strength to sing and eventually he would find a new partner to share the passion of the opera.
'IT IS very dangerous for me to speak with you," says Roberto Alagna. The French tenor leans closer, his green eyes widening. I am intrigued. Is he a spy in his spare time? He explains that his voice is precious, and talking will take up vocal energy.
"For me, my voice is like a woman. It's like my wife. All the time I have to think of her, to please her, to be gentle with her, to invite her and to be very sweet with her. Sometimes we have fights, but all the time I have to try to avoid divorce."
"It's very sad because this voice is not with me for life. I know I have to give it back and this will be very difficult. You marry the woman, but you never know when she is going to go or maybe one will die before. My relationship with my voice is very sad."
It is the day after Alagna performed the title role in Gounod's Faust in Vienna's Staatsoper, thrilling the audience with his fine lyric voice (Irish audiences will get a chance to see him next Wednesday at the National Concert Hall). He sits in the opera house's adjoining cafe, nursing a glass of hot milk and honey. Roberto Alagna's story would make a great opera. It has it all -- the struggling years singing in a pizzeria, young love, fatherhood, tragedy and eventual happiness again.
Growing up in a suburb of Paris, Roberto had very little. His parents had emigrated from Sicily and life was a struggle. His father was a bricklayer and worked hard to put food on the table. Music had always been in the family. Roberto's father had a beautiful tenor voice and he would sing pop songs frequently. His great grandfather, who had a tenor voice too, was friends with Enrico Caruso and used to sing for the Mafia in New York There were singers on his mother's side of the family as well.
As a boy, Roberto was obsessed with music, but at family parties he was the worst singer and his siblings would plead with him to stop. His love for music was not matched by any tangible talent. All that changed with time.
"When I was 12, I started to get confident because my body changed and I started to have success with the girls. It made me happy and it gave me a lot of courage. Then I started to sing and had success with that, too."
From the age of 15, he started to sing professionally, while still at school. In the evenings, he would sing pop songs in a pizzeria. Then he studied singing, and spent his nights singing in a cabaret. From midnight until six in the morning, he would sing.
"In 10 years I slept only for three hours a night. That is probably why I do not sleep well now. It is in my organs. I am an insomniac."
His singing teacher told him that if he was serious about pursuing a career in opera he would have to stop smoking and quit working in cabaret. The late nights and smoky atmosphere would kill him. He did as he was told.
"After that, I studied very seriously. It became an obsession. But I had no money, no money at all, not even for a Metro ticket or a pair of shoes. I think it is very important to have difficult experiences like that because it makes me appreciate my life now."
He had tried his hand working in an accountancy firm, but they asked him to leave. While he was well liked there, he spent most of his working day composing songs and singing.
"My brain was all the time in music. I was a very bad accountant and the days went very slowly. In fact, I promised myself never to count anything after that. Even now, I don't want to know how much money I have, or how I spend it."
He got a job working with electricians but he had no clue about the trade. One of his work colleagues saw that Pavarotti was coming to town for a signing and organised that they all go to see him. In the queue, Roberto thought he had died and gone to heaven.
"I remember looking at him. He was like a god, like Bacchus and Poseidon at the same time. He opened the passion in me."
He spoke with Pavarotti, told him of his Sicilian background and of his aspirations to sing. After the signing, Pavarotti's assistant beckoned Roberto to join them for drinks.
"Luck. I have always had luck. Or maybe it is because of my beautiful green eyes."
Pavarotti told Roberto to write to him, and a year later he received a reply from the star, asking him to come and see him. Pavarotti's aim was for Roberto to enter his singing competition. Roberto had no money for a tuxedo, and so he entered another competition with the aim of getting the prize money to buy the outfit.He won and bought the necessary clothes. He and his father got the train to Italy and Roberto got through to the finals of Pavarotti's competition, which he went onto win.
He had just got a part in Glyndebourne touring opera as Alfredo in La Traviata and life was looking good. He was married and he had a young daughter.
"My life started to change and I was happy. I bought my first car and we had our little girl. Because of my economic ability, I helped my family and made sure that my father stopped working. That was very important for me. I felt like I was in paradise."
It was not to last for long.
"Then my wife started to have problems. She went to the doctor and we discovered that she had a brain tumour. We were told that she would last three months. She lasted a year-and-a-half. It was terrible for me. I cancelled everything in America but I sang in Europe. I kept going for her, and then each night I would sleep in the hospital, in the chair beside her. She died when she was 29-and-a-half. I died with her. Roberto from that time is dead.
"In that moment I understood that nothing is important, but health and the good relations between people. Money is nothing, materialism is nothing. Today, I am always very afraid when I am happy."
The tenor carried on singing, but the joy had gone out of his life. His mother looked after his daughter and all the time as he flew to opera houses around the world, he felt guilty because he wasn't home to be a father.
And then he met up with the beautiful Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu.
"We had met before the death of my wife. We sang together in 1992 in La Boheme."
They were lovers on stage -- she was Mimi to his Rodolfo. "It was terrible because we fell in love at the first instance but it was a platonic affair. We suffered a lot. There was something very strong between us, very powerful. I told my manager that I didn't want to sing with her and she told her manager the same, but all the time I was looking for her, listening to her on the radio."
The years passed and he was still caught up in the grief of his young wife's death. One day Roberto was at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and he was late for a rehearsal.
"I stood behind a door and I heard this voice. I was in love with this beautiful voice. So as not to be disappointed, I painted in my dreams the worst body and awful face to go with the voice, but then when I opened the door, I saw it was Angela. It was like electricity. After that we stayed together. We married in 1996."
Angela and Roberto have sung in many operas together. They stopped for a while, thinking that the audiences would tire of them, but people can't get enough of them. And they love it too.
"It's fantastic on stage with Angela. Often, we are lovers in an opera, but sometimes I get to kill her too, like in Pagliacci. Love and hate are very close." Sometimes they fight before going on stage and they go to the theatre separately.
"I don't want to speak to her and she doesn't want to speak to me and we go to the theatre without speaking. But when we start to sing on stage, love returns. That's the magic of it. Men like Don Giovanni have many women and I am very lucky because with one wife I can have a thousand wives -- Juliette, Violetta.
"Angela is theatrical. She is a diva but in the positive sense of the word, it comes from divinity. People think she is difficult, but in real life she is an angel."
In the past, Angela has said that she has to have sex after a performance because it calms her nerves. When I mention this to Roberto, his green eyes glint with pride.
"She says after the performance but I would like to say maybe before the performance, too."
He winks, then leaves me to go back to Angela, who is waiting for him in their hotel room.
Tenor Roberto Alagna sings at the National Concert Hall, with soprano Nathalie Manfrino, on Wednesday, November 5 at 8pm with the RTE National Symphony Orchestra and conductor Ion Marin. Tickets from €60 to €125. www.nch.ie or call (01) 417-0000.