Soap Opera: Married singers Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu make beautiful music - and, say some critics, trouble

Tom Gliatto, Cathy Nolan, and Joanne Fowler, People Magazine, 21 June 1999

The night that brought together tenor Roberto Alagna and soprano Angela Gheorghiu has all the ingredients of a Puccini opera: tenderness, passion, anguish--everything but music and a tubercular cough. It's December 1994. Already acquainted professionally, they're in London on separate engagements. At a party they sense an attraction. He's a widower, but, Dio! her husband is very much alive. Yet they talk on and on, transfixed, until they reluctantly bid each other adieu at 5 a.m. when she drops him off at his building. Recalls Alagna: "I stayed on the doorstep outside. I couldn't sleep. I was thinking, 'What do I do? Go get Angela, kidnap her?' It was hard to say to her, 'Give up everything, come with me.' And then an hour later she arrived. In tears. I didn't say anything--I opened the door to let her in. I called her husband. I said, 'This is Roberto.' He said, 'She's with you?' I said yes. He understood."

Well, what's not to get? Married in 1996 by New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani the day before they were to sing La Boheme at the Met, the Alagnas instantly became opera's superstar couple, the Tom and Nicole of the big-lung world. The French-Sicilian Alagna, 36, and the Romanian Gheorghiu, 33, are magnetic, good-looking performers (he in particular has been touted as the Next Big Tenor). "They'll achieve a great status," predicts Placido Domingo.

But what the Alagnas consider a love duet, others sometimes view as two high-strung young stars screaming demands and behaving badly. The couple have been called "Bonnie and Clyde" by one exasperated director, and Gheorghiu has even been referred to in opera circles as "La Petite Draculette." In a notorious 1997 incident, she infuriated Met general manager Joseph Volpe by refusing to wear a blonde wig in Carmen. He sent out her understudy. The following year the Met refused to work with them after Alagna objected to set designs for La Traviata.

The Alagnas say they're just striving to do the best work possible. "If we want something, it's for good reasons," says Gheorghiu (pronounced ghee-yourg-you). But that wig bugs her. "There's not a single [singer] who hasn't said, 'I don't want that wig.'" Alagna backs her up: "You know how many times I've refused to wear trousers that didn't look good?"

Earlier hardships help keep their battles in perspective. "We don't forget," says Gheorghiu. Alagna, the son of Sicilian immigrants who moved to the Paris suburbs in the 1950s, lost his first wife, Florence, when she was 30, to a brain tumor, in September 1994. The homemaker died just as Alagna was enjoying his first successes after a slow, largely self-taught evolution from Paris cabaret singer to full-fledged tenor. "She suffered a lot," says Alagna quietly. Their daughter Ornella, now 7, lives mostly in Paris, usually in the care of Alagna's parents.

Gheorghiu still cannot talk about her own tragedy: Her sister Elena, also a soprano, died of a heart attack at age 30 in 1996. Unlike Alagna, Angela and Elena, daughters of a train conductor in Adjud, began training for the opera as children. "We were the divas of the village," she says. "We sang carols for the whole town." But the international career she longed for seemed impossible until President Nicolae Ceausescu's repressive regime was toppled in the bloody 1989 revolt. "You didn't know who was shooting," recalls Gheorghiu, who was studying opera in Budapest at the time. "It was complete chaos."

Each found a new anchor that winter night in London in 1994, two years after they'd first sung together in La Boheme. "It's a real love story," says Alagna's sister and assistant Marinella Alagna, 30. And one of the busiest acts in opera. When they have time off from the road--they'll do 50 solo and joint performances this year, including a return engagement at the Met, L'Elisir d'Amore, this fall--they relax at a rented mansion in Nyon, Switzerland. (Phil Collins is a neighbor.) "It's the tranquillity" that counts, says Gheorghiu.

But in a sense they're just as intimate when starring in an opera. "I rediscover Angela in every new role," says Alagna. "We don't get bored," agrees Gheorghiu, nodding. "So," says Alagna, "we advise everyone to sing."


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