x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Hitting the right notes

Ahead of tonight's performance in Abu Dhabi, the renowned tenor Roberto Alagna talks about music, love and fate.

Tenor Roberto Alagna prepares for his Abu Dhabi review.
Tenor Roberto Alagna prepares for his Abu Dhabi review.

It's 9.45pm and the man they once called the fourth tenor has still not appeared. Somewhere in the distance we can hear the faint strains of Christoph Gluck coming from the Emirates Palace auditorium. Roberto Alagna is rehearsing for his Abu Dhabi debut tonight. Before rehearsals and on the day of a concert he tries not to speak. So there is plenty of time to ponder the life of a top-rank opera star who appears to have acquired a reputation for diva behaviour. He and his wife, the Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu have been nicknamed the Bonnie and Clyde of opera.

When the door opens, I prepare myself, but in walks charm itself, all disarming smiles. He sighs at the mention of his "difficult" reputation and tries to explain what happened in Milan during a performance of Aida three years ago when he reportedly stormed off the stage, shaking his fist at the audience in anger. The words come tumbling out in broken English interspersed with French and the occasional Italian word.

"You know, I am really not like this, and every time I meet people they say the same thing. People love the gossip. I did leave the stage once but it wasn't anger. It was very, very gentle. I was brought up to respect people. If I invited people to my home and cooked them a meal and they didn't like it I wouldn't force them to eat. When I left the stage it was not angry and rude. It was like a salutation from Cyrano de Bergerac. I didn't shake my fist. I just sort of shrugged and gave them a salutation as I walked off the stage," he says demonstrating an elegant, theatrical wave and bow.

He tells the story with great charm before explaining the strain that comes with the burden of expectation. "When you are performing at a high level people expect a lot. I can understand that. They expect you to perform miracles but you are a human being. People are very difficult in opera. They expect a lot from the tenor - maybe too much. "I don't get upset when people say I am not singing well. It's normal. It's something very human. Sometimes you don't need to listen to other people because when you are not good you know better than them."

He says it's normal for many singers not to speak all day before a performance. It's a matter of protecting his voice. "You have to be very gentle with your voice because it's not your voice. You receive the voice as a gift. You have to take care of it and be very careful with it like you are with your wife. You have to be warm and gentle with her. When she is tired you say 'go and rest and sleep'. And then nature says 'Oh yes, he is gentle with the voice. We will let him keep it', but if not they take it away.

"It's difficult for me because I am Sicilian and we like to speak. Angela is different and she sometimes takes some rest. I try in the afternoon not to speak and to be calm. It's the same with a marathon runner. They have to lay on their beds and rest the muscles." Tenors, he says, are largely self-taught because of the nature of the voice. "The real teachers for tenors are the other tenors because nobody else can understand what is going on inside."

At first, Alagna struggled to establish himself as a singer. He was born in Clichy-sous-Bois, France, the son of a Sicilian bricklayer, and says everyone in his family was a singer. He was inspired by the story of Enrico Caruso and dreamt of following in the great tenor's footsteps. His great grandfather was a tenor in New York and knew Caruso. "I come from a very modest family but it was a very happy one because of the music. Everybody sang and everybody played. We were very artistic. I was very lucky because people always say it is very rare to have a tenor voice but in my family we had maybe 20," he says.

"When I was 10 years old I saw the film The Great Caruso starring Mario Lanza, and in my imagination it was the story of my family. Some of the stories in the movie my grandmother told to me." The story of his own career and indeed his personal life has a fairy tale aspect to it and he believes fate has played a part. He was advised by almost everybody, including his mother, that it was too tough to become an opera star.

"I never decided to be a singer. It was always destiny. I was very shy when I was younger. It was like an illness. I had another big defect: I was not ambitious. Everything came to me like destiny. When I tried to escape or to find another way, something would happen to change everything," he says sounding both matter-of-fact and dramatic. "My mother was afraid for me. She knew you have to study and to work very hard to arrive in opera. She said, 'Maybe it's better to sing in a choir.' You need many ingredients. Also you have to have good health and good luck. And you have to have courage and take the opportunities."

For a time, it seemed to Alagna that nobody wanted to encourage him. He was even rejected when he applied to an opera school in Paris. His luck began to change when he met the legendary tenor Luciano Pavarotti at a CD signing. Pavarotti told the young hopeful to write to him, and later invited him to sing at his home in Pesaro on the Adriatic coast. When he arrived, it turned out to be a qualifying round for the Pavarotti International Voice Competition. The girl in front of Alagna in the queue was Cecilia Bartoli.

"I was completely unprepared and didn't have any music with me. Everyone was singing two arias, but he just said I should sing what I liked. So I sang La Danza de Rossini. After about 30 seconds he stopped me. He just held up his hand and said 'ciao' and that was it. I was very sad and then this woman came up to me and said, 'Bravo young guy'. "I said, 'What do you mean? I only sang for 30 seconds and he stopped me', and she said, 'No you are qualified. Luciano knows very well the tenor voice'. It was Adua Pavarotti, his wife."

At the time, Alagna was making a living singing cabaret in a pizzeria. He was befriended by a Cuban singer who said he should give up the night work in smokey clubs. When he got through to the finals of the Pavarotti competition, he had no money to buy the required tuxedo. Then fate took another quirky turn. "I saw a tuxedo in a window and the whole thing - suit, shirt, shoes, everything - was 10,000 francs. I was very depressed and went away wondering how I would find the money. I was sitting reading the newspaper and an advertisement caught my eye for a singing competition in Beziers. The prize was exactly 10,000 francs. I said, 'Oh my God, this is a sign.' So I entered it a few weeks later and I won, so I was able to buy the tuxedo for the final and I won that, too.

His career began to gain momentum. He was happily married to his first wife, Florence Lancien, and they had a baby daughter, Ornella, in 1992, the same year that the hurricane Angela Gheorghiu swept into his life. He says quite simply that it was a coup de foudre, but something that he fought until fate once again took a tragic role. "We met in Covent Garden in 1992. We were to perform La Boheme and I arrived at the first rehearsal a little bit late. I had never met Angela before, as she had only just arrived from Romania and nobody knew her name.

"The rehearsal was in a small room and the door was closed. Suddenly I heard this beautiful voice and I fell in love with the voice. Behind the door, I started to imagine the worst, a very ugly, fat girl. You know what they say about the fat lady singing. But when I opened the door we saw each other and in that moment we forgot everything. "After two hours of rehearsal we started on the second act and the director said, 'OK Angela and Roberto take each other's hands'. And when our hands touched there was electricity."

While both acknowledged the attraction they decided to back away from it. "I was married. She was married. I became friends with her husband and she became friends with my wife, and it was very difficult because we felt this fatal attraction. But we decided not to sing together. I even instructed my manager that I would not sing with this girl." Within a year, Florence was diagnosed with a brain tumour. She was 28 years old.

"Everything was well. The career was going well and it was like heaven, and then this happened and you understand that nothing is important but health and family." Even now, despite his happiness with Angela, tears well up in Alagna's eyes as he remembers a particularly poignant conversation with his first wife during her final days. "It is very difficult for me to speak of this. I remember I was crying and I said 'Oh my God, it's a pity I am not ill instead of you because of our daughter' and she said 'No, it's better that I am ill'. She was very courageous throughout her illness."

I wonder if Florence knew how he felt about Angela. "She was a wonderful woman and I think she knew because she was intelligent and clever. She understood how I felt about Angela but she trusted me a lot and she was right to trust me. Angela and I did everything to avoid each other." After Florence's death Gheorghiu divorced her husband, and she and Alagna were married in New York by Mayor Rudy Giuliani, an avid opera fan. They now have homes in Paris, Romania and Switzerland but Alagna says they are seldom at home as their careers take them all over the world. Their marriage is happy, and they have brought up Gheorghiu's niece along with Alagna's daughter, who is now 17.

He believes the pattern of his life and the emotions he has experienced give his performances particular depth of feeling. "My temperament is very strange. Because of the Sicilian blood I am very romantic. I can be very happy and exuberant and at the same time I can be very nostalgic and sad on stage. But when I am on stage it is real therapy for me. Only on stage can I understand myself and know myself better because of the different characters I play. Every time I sing I find a new piece of the puzzle."

Tonight, Alagna will perform with the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Giorgio Croci. The varied programme includes works by Christoph Gluck, Etienne Mehul and Jules Massenet along with better known arias from Bizet's Carmen and Gounod's Romeo and Juliet. Alagna will duet with the soprano Nathalie Manfrino. "I like to take a risk and have challenges all the time. When I arrive to a country for the first time I don't like just to put on hits like a lot of singers do. I prefer to conquer the audience with my singing, not because they recognise the aria. I like to give something from my soul."

pkennedy@thenational.ae