Ermonela Jaho is the winner of the ICMA 2021 award in the « Vocal Music » category with the album « Anima rara », published by Opera Rara and dedicated to the repertoire of Rosina Storchio, with particular emphasis on that commonly defined as verista-naturalista. The great Albanian singer, who has lived in Italy for 18 years, now resides in New York, but did not think twice about getting on a plane and coming to Vaduz expressly to receive the award and to sing, at the gala with the Sinfonieorchester Liechtenstein, a simply memorable ‘Addio del passato’, which earned her a standing ovation from the audience present. The day before the concert, ICMA Jury member Nicola Cattò (Musica, Italy) met her for a long conversation, in which Jaho spoke about many topics, starting from her arrival in Italy in 1993.
How was the world of music back in 1993?
I came from Albania, which had been under Communism for 50 years: everything was closed, what happened outside was unknown to us. And the world of opera was for us the one that passed through the Italian films in black and white, with the biographies of Bellini and Verdi. For me singing in Italy, at La Scala was a dream. So much that – I am moved to remember it – before going to Italy I wrote a diary in which I noted my life goals, my professional resolutions. And today I realize that I have achieved them all! When you want something desperately, it’s your soul that wants it.
But you made your debut in Albania, in La Traviata, when you were a young girl…
It was an experiment, a madness: in Albania I didn’t know that my age wasn’t right, that I would have to wait. My parents were not opera lovers, so I knew nothing about it. And when I saw this opera for the first time when I was 14 (it was sung in Albanian!) I fell in love with it immediately and told my brother: « I will not die without having sung it ». Since then I’ve had over 300 performances!
Were there any opera stars in your country at that time?
Not exactly, only the soloists of the Tirana State Opera. But I did not belong to that environment. Perhaps the first diva to have international resonance was Inva Mula, who is 11 years older than me, and then Enkelejda Shkosa. After me, in terms of age, came Saimir Pirgu and Gëzim Myshketa.
Why did you choose, for the ICMA gala, just Traviata and the aria ‘Addio del passato’, ‘Farewell of the Past’?
It is part of the CD with which I won the ICMA Award, and for me it is a sort of ‘obstinate bass’, a dream that has always represented me and lives with me. I don’t know if I will always sing Violetta, because it is a role that consumes me psychologically and physically: a sort of marathon. And a marathon at 50 is hard to imagine.
Are some roles, therefore, marathon and others 100 meters?
Certainly. Marathons are Traviata, Manon, Manon Lescaut, Butterfly. One hundred meters are Antonia in Contes d’Hoffmann and Suor Angelica, with a terrible ending, where the intelligence of the singer must make him understand how much you can give and how much you must control yourself.
You alternate between the Belcanto and the veristic repertoire: can it be done, then?
I used to think it couldn’t be done, but as I studied, I changed my mind. I am a pure soprano lirico, neither leggero nor spinto, who adapts to coloratura singing. However, as a good Balkan, Mediterranean, I have tragedy in my blood and I have always wanted roles with a high emotional temperature like Violetta or Suor Angelica. The first time I sang Butterfly, everyone warned me not to do it, because I would have risked losing my voice quickly. So I reread the letters of Puccini or other composers of that period, to understand how their music was performed at that time. This is the case of the CD Anima Rara, because Rosina Storchio was a light soprano, whose timbre Puccini associated with the idea of youth and vulnerability. Cio Cio San is 15 years old “netti netti”, as she sings. Of course, in some pages a certain weight is needed to avoid being overwhelmed by the orchestra, but the whole part must render the fragility of the protagonist. So I wanted to try it too. On the other hand, every singer has a thermometer in his throat: if you get tired, you’ll immediately understand. But it didn’t happen. Just think of Butterfly’s entrance, so rarefied and delicate. And this is also true for Anna Bolena or Capuleti, which I have tackled. The secret is to be able to tell, and not sing loudly. There will always be a voice bigger than yours!
Even Sonya Yoncheva, whom I interviewed recently, told me that in order to keep your voice flexible, you not only can, but must alternate between Händel and Puccini!
She is right. Each composer has a whole story behind him, and it is up to the singer to respect the style. In any case, an important parameter for singing an opera is the type of theater in which you do it and the skill of the conductor. I’ve sung 175 performances of Butterfly, and I’ve generally always done well. But once in Germany, a conductor complained that, upon my entrance, I should sing louder because « the orchestra can’t play softer. » I’ve seen too many colleagues burn themselves out by unnecessarily pushing voices that were light in nature.
You devote yourself a lot to French opera, even singing a very high-pitched role like Thaïs. What changes at a vocal level?
French opera, compared to Italian opera, teaches you to hold your voice more. It is a sort of therapy for me, it helps me to interiorize passions and feelings. Thaïs is all about colours and nuances.
The ICMA award is the last in a long series of international awards for you. What strikes people about your voice? Perhaps the emotional ‘violence’ that is so rare to find today?
You are absolutely right. Today there are many voices that are more beautiful than mine, but maybe not so many that, like me, focus on the intensity of expression. You see, when I arrived in Italy I had nothing, I saw my peers and envied them. But I was able to transform my weakness, my vulnerability into a strength that I unloaded on stage. Music is the language of our soul, and it is impossible to hide. You can do it outside, but in the theater we are naked. What you have inside comes out, and this is true for all artists. Behind every character I play there is a part of me, and only in this way does it become credible. Maybe you don’t want to admit it, because it can be painful, but that’s how it is. When I have to scream, I scream, when I have to cry, I cry. And when I finish a play, I have serious trouble recovering. My freedom is not outside, it’s on stage. In short: to connect with the audience, you have to uncover within yourself what hurts you.
Were you inspired by any artists of the past?
At the beginning the model was Maria Callas, who remains a reference point in her going beyond the voice; but then I preferred to rely only on my human experience. We are always surrounded in equal measure by beautiful things and dramatic ones, and the artist translates this according to his sensitivity. People may like me or not, but I am honest: we sing human feelings, but emphasized, to have an effect of catharsis, just like in ancient Greece.
Do your colleagues, directors and singers, always understand this effort of yours?
Sometimes it is difficult, you risk appearing hysterical, exaggerated. But I am not a drama queen, I am simply myself. However, when there is a common purpose, you can reach truly remarkable artistic heights.
Like, in my opinion, in your Trittico with Pappano…
You read my mind! At that time I had lost my parents, but I hadn’t said anything to anyone. I received an offer for Suor Angelica, which I hadn’t yet tackled, and I accepted. I arrived in London almost in a trance from the personal pain, and the rehearsals with Maestro Pappano were wonderful. He always knows before you, how you will breathe, how you will sing. When I sang the opera, my pain was naturally transmitted to the character I was playing: when Angelica receives from the Aunt Princess the news of her son’s death, at that moment I was not crying for him, but for my parents. I was traumatized, I cried for the first time, and it was liberating. The audience felt that strange energy, that tension. I was hiding behind Angelica, but it was my loss. When the truth comes from the heart, hurts and touches you personally, and you manage with technical and vocal ability to convey it, well, no audience can remain indifferent. Some conductors prefer more neutral readings: but it’s the drama, the passion that connects us. Which is not to say, of course, hysteria.
This CD comes after the recording, again for Opera Rara, of Leoncavallo’s Zazà: an opera that is nowadays very far from our listening habits, which may even appear ridiculous. How did you deal with it?
You have to believe in it, but with a bit of detachment, finding what is still valid today. Everyone has dreams, but they don’t always come true. For Zazà the dream was to marry the man of her life. But reality can be painful, and you can’t change it. So the subject of Zazà today may seem ridiculous, but at its base there is something eternal. I must say that the English audience liked the opera very much, the spectators were moved.
Coming to ‘Anima Rara’, how was the tracklist chosen?
I didn’t want to do a classic Verismo recital, as many illustrious colleagues have done: the idea was to make people understand how Verismo has a lesser-known side, how it cannot be identified only with ‘screams’ and passion, big voices and high notes. And even the style had to be more lyrical, less exaggerated: far from certain prima donnas of the past.
Which works, among those recorded here, would you sing in their entirety?
I have never heard it completely, but I think Lodoletta is very interesting. The last scene alternates in a few minutes different moods, with great effectiveness.
Many years ago you sang, in a minor role, Massenet’s Sapho!
True, the part of Irene, in Wexford. A true masterpiece, a sort of Traviata or Rondine in which the protagonist does not die at the end: but it takes a real company of singer-actors. Who knows, before Covid there were so many projects, now we are all more cautious.
Exactly: how did you live this period of restrictions?
It was complicated. I had just finished La Traviata in Munich and I was supposed to go to Marseille for my debut in Adriana Lecouvreur, which didn’t take place. It was the first of eight cancelled contracts. I suffered from the fact that it was not a gradual stop, but a sudden one. I hadn’t rested for many years, and vocally it was certainly good for me. However, I felt almost dead, I had moments of depression, I thought I was useless, that my life no longer had any meaning. I saw how little importance was given to art and culture. I studied, I tried, but I lacked the tension of performing live, the competition with colleagues (in a good sense): I even tried streaming, but I ended up in tears. Music is made to listen to each other. I taught, via zoom, and so I had to force myself to comfort my students. But realistically, I could afford this break. Some colleagues couldn’t survive financially, they had to change job. That’s why when I started performing again, I found myself thinking: « I have to give it everything because it may be the last time ». It’s only a matter of time. The important thing is to never spare yourself, to give everything every time.
Are there any other recording projects?
I should have recorded Zingari for Opera Rara but unfortunately the dates were not possible for me [Krassimira Stoyanova will replace her, editor’s note]; let’s say that we will continue in the veristic sphere, since Zazà was the first experiment for that label in the post-romantic sphere, then continued with the original version of Villi, in which Puccini’s love for Wagner and Saint-Saëns can be seen.
I will start with a recital in Spain, always related to ‘Anima Rara’, then several Butterfly (Seville, Hamburg) and finally I will debut in Adriana in Vienna, with few rehearsals. I will return to Bohème after many years, and something French, like Thaïs and La voix humaine in Madrid. Next year I will make my debut in La Juive as Rachel. I am not a real falcon, but I have already sung Valentine in the Huguenots. And I will also sing Nedda in Pagliacci, a role I had reservations about, in London with Tony Pappano and Jonas Kaufmann (and there will also be Anita Rachvelishvili in Cavalleria): Nedda’s aria is a state of mind, it speaks of the compromises we all make in our lives. A life that wants to change, but can’t. The direction will be by Damiano Michieletto.
Your girl’s diary, in short, has been satisfied!
I would say so: now I want to enjoy every moment.