Interview with Angela Gheorghiu: Sweetness and bite
Fiona Maddocks, London Evening Standard, 3 July 2003
Angela Gheorghiu is easy prey. Most articles about the Romanian soprano delight first in praising her for being a prickly, old-fashioned diva, then pillory her for having the gall to behave like one.
Interviewers have made sport of her elaborate requests for a make-up artist and someone to iron her dress before photo shoots. When a top footballer's wife makes the same demands, there is no comment.
"What can I do? It's about being professional," Gheorghiu says, half in resignation, half boredom. Languor suits her. She seems even more molten-eyed and chisel-featured face-to-face than on stage.
Having recently lost several kilos, she is no longer curvaceous but svelte, and on this occasion dressed in a Eurotrashy sequined T-shirt and grey joggers. She is also on impeccable behaviour. In fact, disarmingly, she radiates charm and something close to good sense.
Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu
Orange Festival, August 2002
"For models or actresses it is quite normal to have a limousine, make-up artist and so. Am I to drag myself and my dress through wind and rain or on the Tube? You tell me next time you see Catherine Zeta-Jones doing that. Pshaw! If stars tell you they do that, it's a lie.
"Let me tell you, though, that in the opera house I always do my own make-up. I understand theatre. But a photo in a magazine? It's not my territory. They want this kind of Angela; I am that kind of Angela. They are two people. But I am one. I am me."
This sudden plunge into existential paradox has lost me for a second. One of the difficulties is that Gheorghiu's English lacks subtlety. She uses the word "normal" as a synonym for understandable, necessary or ordinary, which has led to some fun at her expense. Yet to raise an eyebrow at such apparent vanity is entirely to miss the point of Gheorghiu and the business she is in.
Opera is all about revealing truth through grand artifice. Last year, she brazenly decided to fix her vermillion lipstick on stage in the middle of a televised live performance of Verdi's Requiem, which was conducted by Claudio Abbado and also featured her husband, Roberto Alagna. She was resting between solos. The camera was not on her at that moment, but would be again soon; as the top soprano in the world, she could not let appearances slip.
Gheorghiu is in London to sing her first Nedda in a monumental Pagliacci at the Royal Opera House (she is in four of the production's 10-20 July performances). It is directed by "my very old friend Franco" (Zeffirelli) and co-starring another very old friend, Placido Domingo.
The performance on 16 July will be relayed live on big screens to various London parks and Gateshead and Belfast. "It is a very good and clever idea for the big public to hear la grande musica for nothing. Normal people from the street can share in this most impressive world, expensive world of opera."
She was born, she says, with a gift she needs "to share". But no talent, even of this magnitude, has any worth without the discipline, artistry and technique that she has honed since childhood. Growing up in Romania, the daughter of a train-driver, her talent was obvious from an early age. Her entire upbringing has groomed her for operatic stardom, first at a specialist music school in Bucharest and later at that city's conservatoire.
She practises hard on her roles and, unlike many singers who work with coaches, prepares for them herself. "First I read the words, over and over and over like an actor. Then I sit at my kitchen table, alone, and work through the score, note by note. Even if I am wrong, it is my fault."
When talking music she is straightforward and serious. The French and Italian repertoire for which she is best known - and which she often sings with Alagna - is only one area of her taste.
She would love to meet a composer who would create a role for her, perhaps based on "a nice subject. Someone like Jackie Kennedy, perhaps. There are many similar women who would make nice subjects. But composers today do not understand singers like they did a century ago."
She promises "some lighter Wagner" next year but "hates" Schoenberg and Berg "who knew nothing about the voice and are completely bad for it. Wozzeck? No thank you." She longs to sing jazz and considers her voice well suited. Is not this dangerously-close, however, to the kind of cross-over music she has freely condemned?
"You mean like Andrea Bocelli? Pshaw!" Her dark eyes are fixed in an expressionless stare. What does she think of Bocelli? Long silence. " Nothing." Nothing? "Nothing." Pause. "He is a pop singer who wants to sing opera. That is fine. But it is far from being an opera singer. You have one in England, too."
She means Russell Watson. "An opera singer is a person who sings on stage with me." Her smile is decidedly acid as she says this.
There is another side to Gheorghiu. She has a reputation for being difficult, but her off-stage responsibilities are immense. In 1996 her sister and brother-in-law were killed in a car crash, leaving Gheorghiu to bring up their young daughter, now 12 and at boarding school in London. Alagna, too, has a daughter, aged 13, at school in Paris, from his first wife, who died of a brain tumour.
Gheorghiu and Alagna work hard to spend time as a family, "but you ask any of my colleagues how they manage with children in this profession, with complex schedules and dates all over the world. Our problems are no different."
Roberto, she says, was in London last week watching her in rehearsal before fulfilling his own singing commitments in France. She scorns endless rumours of their splitting up because they cannot always work together. "We are not Siamese. It's good for Roberto and good for me to do the work that suits us.
"Have you heard his amazing Don José in Carmen [issued on CD last year]? To work with him is wonderful, with such double emotions. In that role he is breathtaking, scary, the best Don José ever."
If this outburst of affectionate praise for Alagna is for my benefit, I am taken in. "Everyone writes the same things because they read all the old pieces. They do not listen to what I say. They repeat false tales of Roberto and me falling out with the Met, but now we have a ton of work in America. They say I stormed out over having to wear a blonde wig in Carmen, but really it was just a funny story. Most things written are completely false or exaggerated. But I am very straight and sure about my profession. I sing with my head and my heart and my soul. I am preoccupied with new roles, not with scandals."
Is she, I ask as we finish, going off to rehearse Pagliacci now?
"No, I go to Buckingham. A charity, for some children."
Buckingham? Is this the new, soft Angela Gheorghiu, traipsing out to a village hall near High Wycombe or Stoke Poges to meet the ordinary people "from the street"? No. She means Buckingham Palace. Her audience is the Queen and Prince Charles.
What, in the world of Angela Gheorghiu, could be more normal?
This page was last updated on: November 24, 2003