Angela Gheorghiu waltzes down to the lobby of the Plaza Hotel in New York. We will have a tête-à-tête in the Champagne Bar. Who is Gheorghiu? In prosaic terms, she is a Romanian soprano born in 1965. In less prosaic terms, she is “the most glamorous and gifted opera singer of our time.” I have quoted from her website. This is publicist’s hyperbole, of course — but it is not far off.
Gheorghiu is not only an extraordinary singer and performer, she is great copy. There is often controversy swirling about her, as well as excitement. She has run-ins with opera administrators and stage directors. She has marriages and romances. People love to gossip about her, snipe at her, hate her, adore her.
She is certainly a top-notch interviewee. In the Champagne Bar, she is amusing, frank, coquettish, catty, and smart as hell. She speaks in a flavorful English, mixing in French, Italian, and Romanian. It is an opera-world patois. And her name, by the way, is pronounced (something like) Ghee’or-GHEE’oo.
It is now the evening after a concert performance of Adriana Lecouvreur at Carnegie Hall. The title role was taken by Gheorghiu, of course, and she, Adriana, is an actress. So is Gheorghiu, very much. In fact, she tells me, the National Theatre in Bucharest has invited her to appear in a play, just straight, “basta with the music.” She is looking forward to it.
We talk a bit about Ionesco, the late playwright, whose daughter she knows. (“Elle habite à Paris.”) We also talk about Enescu, the composer. “Did he write any songs?” I ask. (I can’t remember.) Oh, yes, she says. Gheorghiu has done recitals, and done them well. But she does not look with favor on, for example, an all-Schumann evening. “It’s nice,” she says, “but not nice enough. Something is missing. It’s like a prelude to making love. I want more!”
What she is, principally, is an opera star, born to be. She is fully aware of this fact. “Shame on me!” she says. She has no problem whatsoever with being a prima donna. “I’m proud of it,” she says. “I’ve always been proud of it. And I always knew it” — always knew she was one. When she was five years old, she sang with her sister in front of an audience. She saw the emotions in that audience. She saw similar emotions in Carnegie Hall, for her Adriana. “I have seen this reaction all my life.”
Her sister, Elena, died several years ago in a car accident. When she mentions her death — maybe halfway through our conversation — she falls suddenly silent and somber.
Romania, when they were growing up, was one of the worst of the Communist dictatorships. There were not many opportunities for budding singers (or for anyone else). “Imagine me to be an American!” says Gheorghiu. Imagine if she had been an American. “Everything I did, I did only because of me — moi!” She worked and scrapped for everything she achieved.
She did have a teacher, of whom she speaks gratefully. Her name was Mia Barbu, and she taught Angela for some five years — from the time the girl was 14 until she was 18. “I did my canto lessons,” says Gheorghiu, “pure canto. All the studies” (the Vaccai method and so on). But she did everything “very quick.” What can take others years, she says, took her just a day. She remembers a particular occasion: Barbu said to her, “Breathe.” Angela breathed. The teacher said, “That’s it! Don’t ever change that.”