The price you pay: The ‘curse’ of a superstar soprano

The price you pay: The ‘curse’ of a superstar soprano

Superstar soprano Ermonela Jaho has just emerged from rehearsals for the opera Adriana Lecouvreur and appears on the verge of tears. She apologises and takes a moment to collect herself.

The title role in Adriana Lecouvreur concludes with the lonely death of actress Adriana.

Ermonela Jaho: ‘If we don’t share our souls, our feelings together, why do this job?’Credit:Janie Barrett

“When I sing Adriana somehow I bring my soul with her on stage,” says Jaho. “At the end she dies with her loneliness. She’s no longer beautiful because life and age comes for everyone. Every time, even rehearsing, it brings me to this state. If we don’t share our souls, our feelings together, why do this job? Why stay on the stage?”

Albanian-born Jaho, who has been hailed as the world’s most acclaimed soprano, is celebrated for her ability to inhabit completely her signature roles, investing in characters such as Adriana, Cio-Cio-San (Madam Butterfly) and the title role from Suor Angelica. She gives them an extraordinary intensity of emotion. Even in rehearsal, apparently.

All of which comes at a personal cost.

Ermonela Jaho as Anna Boleyn and Leonardo Cortellazzi as Lord Percy in Opera Australia’s 2019 production of Anna Bolena.Credit:Prudence Upton

“When I come off stage I feel empty,” she says. “Sometimes I don’t want to come back even for the applause. Sometimes I cannot sleep the whole night. I don’t have filters. It’s a blessing and a curse at the same time. But only in that way can you feel the magic that the music, the theatre can give. It’s the price you pay whether you want to or not.”

Born in Tirana in 1974, singing was a way for the young Jaho to feel free from the repressive regime then in power.

“Somehow I kept inside everything,” she says. “And the only way to let it go was singing.”

Initially, she was captivated by dreams of becoming a famous pop singer and then, aged 14, she saw her first opera, La Traviata, sung in Albanian at Tirana’s National Theatre.

“It was love at first sight even after the overture,” she says. “Oh, my god, I loved it! I loved it! At the end of it I told my brother that in the future I would become an opera singer and that I will not die without singing Traviata once in my life.”

In the intervening years, Violetta, the doomed heroine in Verdi’s opera, has become Jaho’s best-loved role.

“Ten days ago I sang my Violetta number 306 at the [New York] Metropolitan,” she says proudly. “I am counting them because it’s bringing me to my dream.”

Jaho was 17 when she came to the attention of legendary Italian soprano Katia Ricciarelli, who invited her to study at her academy in the north of the country. After that, she continued her music studies for five years in Rome.

And then, in 2008, a relatively unknown Jaho replaced an indisposed Anna Netrebko at excruciatingly short notice to sing Violetta at London’s Covent Garden.

In 2008, Jaho stepped on to the stage at Covent Garden with barely three hours’ notice.Credit:

With only a brief technical rehearsal in a studio and no chance even to meet the other performers she waited behind the curtain on the storied stage to hear the announcement that Netrebko had been taken ill and she would be singing instead opposite the legendary Jonas Kaufmann and Dmitri Hvorostovsky.

“No one heard about me at that time and they are booing without me even opening my mouth,” she says. “Could you imagine what’s coming up? But then in my mind I went back to Ermonela when she was 14 years old and the whole story came to me and I thought, let’s see what you can do.”

After a shaky start, the 2000-strong capacity audience warmed to Jaho and the theatre stood when she took her bows.

“It was a success,” she says. “And after that I went back twice a year.”

On Monday, when Jaho returns to the Sydney Opera House for the first of seven performances of Adriana Lecouvreur, audiences can be assured that, as always, she will leave nothing on the stage.

“I go on stage like it’s the first time and last time of my life,” she says. “And every time I leave I kiss the stage because I don’t know if I am coming back tomorrow.”

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