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Prima Donna Assoluta

by Jay Nordlinger

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.”

According to Gheorghiu, she has never had any teaching or coaching help since she was 18. There are two reasons for this, she says: “First, I really want to be original. Even if I make a mistake, it’s me. Second, I understand canto very well, trust me. You can ask my colleagues.”

Her first trip out of the Eastern bloc was to Vienna, where she was agog at the beauty and the abundance. She couldn’t understand why people weren’t celebrating in the streets. They were walking around as though such beauty and abundance were normal. She stared at the meat, the fruit, the flowers. I mention to her that René Pape — the Dresden-born bass — had the same reaction when he first went to Austria. She says, “The shops in Romania — not like in Germany, excuse me — were completely empty. Just white. Just white.”

In 1994, she had a big breakthrough, singing La traviata with Georg Solti in London. As she reminds me, the conductor was then 82, and cried when hearing the young soprano sing “Addio del passato” in a rehearsal room. Overcome, he had to leave that room. He made a much-circulated statement, to wit, “The girl is wonderful. She can do anything.”

Two years later, having ditched her husband (whose name she retains), she married Roberto Alagna, the Italian-French tenor. The ceremony took place during a performance of La bohème on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani presiding. In the years that followed, the legend of Gheorghiu grew and grew. She walked away from productions, and was dismissed from them. She made incendiary and delicious statements to the press — e.g., “If directors want to do something new with operas, why not do something beautiful?” She canceled performances on what seemed like whims.

They are never whims, says Gheorghiu in the Champagne Bar. If she feels she cannot do her best, why should she suffer, and why should the audience suffer? Callas did the same, she says. “She said, ‘I’m not good enough tonight — ciao, ragazzi.’” That is what a prima donna worth the name should do, says Gheorghiu.

Her latest album, by the way, is called Homage to Maria CallasFavourite Opera Arias (EMI). In conjunction with this album, she has made a video that takes advantage of some technical wizardry: She appears to sing a duet with Callas herself. “Why not?” says Gheorghiu. “She’s with EMI. She’s my colleague.”

For her conflicts with directors, Gheorghiu makes no apologies. She feels she must stand up to those who would undermine composers, librettists, and their operas. In her mind, she is defending art against the barbarians. Take the current Faust at the Met (please). She was to appear in it but withdrew because she could not abide the production. It transplants Faust into the nuclear age (etc.). This production was a “fiasco” at the English National Opera, Gheorghiu says, and it is a fiasco here in New York. Moreover, why should she and other experienced singers be good boys and girls and obey a “Mr. Nobody” (i.e., the director)?

I can assure readers that many, many singers wish they could take the stands that Gheorghiu takes. But they lack the status and independence. Frankly, they may lack the guts as well.

In a Met Traviata two seasons ago, Gheorghiu clashed with Leonard Slatkin, the conductor. He did not return after the opening night. Slatkin has admitted that he was ill-prepared for the opera, but has also claimed that the diva was intolerable to him (not hard to believe). I ask her, “Do you have any regrets about the Traviata with Slatkin?” She does not recognize the name, or affects not to do so. After a few moments, she says, “Ah, the conductor. He left. This happened.” Okay, but why did he leave? Gheorghiu makes the general point that people often use her as a scapegoat. “My name helps, you know what I mean?” If a person is having problems, he can blame the raven-haired terror from Transylvania. “I don’t care. Use my name, but use it well: Ghee’or-GHEE’oo!”

There are books of opera anecdotes, and I suggest to this soprano that books in the future will have whole chapters devoted to her. Yes, she says, “and I’m not finished yet!” I ask her about one of my favorite stories: Did she really demand hair and makeup for a radio interview? No, she says: There was a photo-shoot the same day as the radio interview. Too bad, I say, it’s such a good story. Yes, she says, “but I have lots of others.”

Unquestionably, she is the target of some envy, jealousy, and overall resentment. She lets me in on a secret: It’s worse from men than from women. “Really?” I ask. “Yes,” she says. I ask whether she can explain this. She hesitates (which is unusual for her). I hazard, “Is it because men desire you and, when they can’t have you, get angry?” She gives me a look that says, Bingo. That is a major reason, yes. “Thank you for helping me,” she says.

Gheorghiu provokes big emotions, in colleagues and audiences alike, in a field of big emotions. She is an especially operatic personality in a field (naturally) filled with them. And an opera role takes a lot out of her, she says. “I’m not just making a sound. I am living that sound. I am living the personnage. And it costs me.” She cites her latest outing in Adriana. “After the monologue, I thought I was going to faint.”

Singing cannot go on forever, and I ask Gheorghiu a delicate question: Does she fear retirement? Not at all, she says. She has thought about it for a long time. And an idea has come to her strongly in just the last month: She will direct. I say, “Then you will be the boss.” “No!” she protests. In opera, there can be no boss, as it is a collaborative process. Everyone has a part to play, and each part is connected to another. Once, she relates, a conductor was trying to boss her around. “I’m doing the personnage,” she told him. He retorted, “I’m not [merely] accompanying you.” She answered, “Oh, you’re not accompanying me? Then change your job, dear. Ofcourse you are accompanying me. Excuse me?”

Gheorghiu loves being famous, as she readily confirms. But she says there is a big downside to having the kind of career she has. You are “everywhere and nowhere,” and are “alone almost all of the time.” There is always a post-performance tristesse, “a little emptiness.” You go back to your hotel room, talk on the phone, click through YouTube. The roar and adulation of the crowd are gone. And “I want it back!” says Gheorghiu. “All that love, I want it back! It’s never enough for me.” But then there is another performance, more roars, more adulation — “a rinascimento” (rebirth).

After we say goodbye, she goes off with companions to a concert by Sting. She has a nickname for him: “Stingo” (rhymes with Ringo). “He’s such a nice artist,” she says. Gheorghiu herself is an artist and a half: a great opera singer, an immortal. And whatever else you may say about her — and you could say plenty — she is just about the fizziest guest the Champagne Bar will ever see.

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