How Ermonela Jaho became the world’s most acclaimed soprano
WHENEVER dictators stifle dissent, the art which most often survives is music. So it is no surprise that the soprano who earlier this month carried off the annual prize for the singer most esteemed by the readers ofOpera Magazine, the industry’s bible, should have been born and bred in Enver Hoxha’s Albania. Ermonela Jaho recalls with affectionate amusement the paranoid, isolationist atmosphere in which she grew up: with one television channel and one state-approved comedian (Norman Wisdom, a Londoner); with baby boys being named Adriatik after the sea they had to cross to make their fortune; with hundreds of thousands of pill-box bomb-shelters studding the landscape; but also with a heady form of polyphony which has been sung at village weddings since antiquity.
Ms Jaho has great magnetism on stage, her singing complemented by a particular physical presence. When she sang the title role in Giacomo Puccini’s “Suor Angelica” at Covent Garden in 2011 she drew an ecstatic audience response every night; reviewing her reprise of the role in March, the critics ran out of superlatives. Angelica has been committed to a convent as punishment for an illicit affair. In this cruel drama she learns that her illegitimate son has died; she takes poison and dies praying for salvation. Ms Jaho’s performance took on a compelling momentum as shock reduced her to a seemingly lifeless corpse, before she gave way first to volcanic grief and then to wounded-animal rage.
“But that anger is also my anger,” she said afterwards. “When I sing, I draw on everything I have seen and heard in my life.” Her father taught philosophy and flew Russian fighters; her mother was a teacher, but her family was poor and her mother could never pursue the singing career she yearned for. A sense of failure pervaded her life. Born in 1974, Ms Jaho always wanted to be a singer. Her first ambition was to take up pop, until at 14 she went to a performance of “La Traviata”. “In that moment I saw a new horizon, a big door opening, and I wanted to go through it.” She has now sung “La Traviata” 232 times.
In person Ms Jaho is forceful and humorous, her ideas tumbling out seemingly unstoppably. She possesses an earthy beauty, with no hint of divadom, though she frequently refers to herself in the third person, as though watching her own progress with an objective eye. In later life she wants to spend more time as a voice teacher—something she already does whenever she travels back to Tirana—inculcating in younger singers the discipline which has allowed her to reach the heights without straining (and ruining) her voice.
Along the way, she has had a series of lucky breaks. The first was when Katia Ricciarelli, an Italian soprano, spotted her in a master-class at the Tirana conservatoire, and invited her to study in Italy, where she began her career. She married a childhood friend who was living in New York, and still lives there during the two months each year when she is not travelling.
Her breaks in London have followed a time-honoured pattern, stepping in for Anna Netrebko as Violetta in “La Traviata” at Covent Garden in 2008, and for Anja Harteros as Suor Angelica in 2011. When that invitation came through, at exceptionally short notice, she hesitated: she wanted to make the role her own, but her parents had both recently died, and she was too traumatised even to cry, she says. Singing the part was cathartic.
In the coming two years in London, New York, Washington and Paris she will again sing the title roles in “La Traviata” and “Madam Butterfly”, but she knows her vocal limits—she will never do Wagner. Next month Opera Rara will release its recording of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Zazà”, which depends on the charisma of its star. Only when the record company discovered Ms Jaho did it feel confident enough to go ahead with the recording. It will be her recording debut, and she finds the work full of echoes of her mother’s plight: “Some of Zazà’s lines I heard like a refrain from my mother, when I was a child. Singing this part was like having a knife go through my soul.”