x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The rhinestone diva

Profile Opera singer Angela Gheorghiu is beautiful, demanding, glamorous, disconcertingly confident, emotional and single-minded.

Illustration by Kagan McLeod for The National
Illustration by Kagan McLeod for The National

Her father was a train driver in the depressed communist state of Romania, under Nicolae Ceausescu's iron rule. Her mother was a dressmaker. She was married to a plumbing engineer. Think of these things as Angela Gheorghiu stands before the assembled throng next Saturday night in the opening concert of the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Festival. Perhaps she'll be wearing shoes with rhinestones encrusted in their high heels - she has a pair, I've seen them. She will certainly be wearing a dress to die for, abundant lip-gloss, maybe crucifix jewellery, and luxurious raven black hair, her best accessory of all.

She will look every inch what she actually is: an opera star in her prime, a fully fledged diva, a soprano who according to the modest words of her own official website is "the most glamorous and gifted opera singer of our time". How can we bridge the yawning gap between Gheorghiu's bleak origins and the splendour now before us? One way is to listen to her voice, currently winging its way round the world on CD in a new recording of Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly. She doesn't remotely sound like the 15-year-old geisha girl the composer was supposedly depicting: what Butterfly ever does? But it's impossible not to be swept away by Gheorghiu's full-frontal emotional throb, her dazzling rainbow of vocal colours, her acting talent, her sensitivity to the words, and her ability to float a long melodic line beyond the known confines of human breath.

"The girl is wonderful. She can do anything," said that hard nut of a conductor Sir Georg Solti, after verging on tears during rehearsals in London for Covent Garden's La Traviata in 1994. She can still do anything, if she wants, especially in Italian opera - the repertoire for which her distinctively dark and liquid soprano is best suited. Sometimes, however, she doesn't want. With that full-frontal voice comes full-frontal and tempestuous behaviour, usually unleashed upon opera directors and managers, especially if she believes that their productions traduce the material's traditional strengths with contemporary gimmicks.

At the Bastille Opera in Paris in 1997 she had sharp words with the director Jonathan Miller, who wanted her Violetta in Traviata to meet death in a public hospital ward. "Impossible!" Gheorghiu shouted. "I die alone." She also tends to see red if asked to wear what she believes are unbecoming wigs. Joseph Volpe found this out in 1996, as the Metropolitan Opera's general manager in New York, when he wanted her to go blonde as the village maiden Micaëla in Bizet's Carmen. She refused. Volpe stood his ground. "The wig is going on," he famously said, "with or without you." Still she refused. Eventually Gheorghiu compromised by wearing the wig, but covering up most of it with a hood.

Along with the tantrums there have been well-reported opera rows, withdrawals, and cancellations. The juiciest headlines arrived in Sept 2007, when she was actually dismissed from Lyric Opera of Chicago's La Bohème for missing rehearsals and fittings, and treating her colleagues to what was termed "unprofessional" behaviour. She had been absent in New York, she explained, listening to her second husband, the French-Sicilian tenor Roberto Alagna, perform at the Metropolitan. A diva couldn't be in two places at once. Besides, there would be other rehearsals. Ten months before, Alagna had enjoyed a tantrum of his own in Milan, walking off the La Scala stage after boos greeted his first aria in Aida.

The Alagna factor brings another colourful dimension to the Gheorghiu saga. They married in 1996, following her divorce from the plumbing engineer - long an invisible presence, except for his lingering surname (she was born Angela Burlacu). Even the pair's marriage ceremony was theatrical, squeezed in backstage at the Met between acts of La Bohème; the proud officiator was New York's opera-loving mayor Rudy Giuliani.

The knot tied, the two became known as the "Golden Couple", united in love in operas and recitals for fees even larger than either had claimed as separate performers. Fair enough, to a degree: they could pull in a crowd as no other pair could, and when they sang you could see love sparks flying. To their adoring fans Gheorghiu and Alagna had stardust sprinkled all over them. Backstage observers, meanwhile, noted the couple's power and allure, but maintained their own perspectives. Jonathan Miller once labelled them "Bonnie and Clyde", gangsters with shotguns. Gheorghiu has also sometimes been called "Draculette", a reference in part to her place of birth, Adjud, close to Transylvania and the Carpathian Mountains. She shares another connection with the bloodsucking Count Dracula: an aversion to letting direct sunlight hit her skin.

All this melodrama and brouhaha surrounding Gheorghiu can be traced back to her supreme, even frightening, self-confidence: she told the journalist Stephen Moss in 2005, "I have never made a bad decision". As a singer Gheorghiu knows she is good, and she knows she is a star. She also knows what she thinks, and she says it out loud with exactly the panache we love in her singing. Two years ago in The Times of London, she interpreted her plain speaking as a reaction against her childhood in Romania, in a country "where there was no possibility of having an opinion".

Yet somehow one imagines she was always headstrong, even during her debut in 1971, aged six, when she joined her sister Elena in a concert, singing Brahms's Lullaby. Already at that age her voice was too vibrant to suit the usual children's choir; already she needed the soloist's spotlight. In Romania young Angela performed her communist duty, becoming head of the local Young Pioneers, wearing in public the obligatory red scarf, gleaming little medals, and brain-dead smile. In that area of her life at least she did what she was told. But her individuality and her singing gift never became stifled. From the age of 14, her education focused on music, first at the George Enescu Lyceum in Bucharest, then at the Bucharest Academy of Music. She graduated with first-class honours in 1989, some months before the hated Ceausescu regime collapsed.

The timing couldn't have been better. She could now travel abroad without state security personnel breathing down her neck, shadowing her, bugging her phone. She and her megawatt voice could travel to European auditions and make themselves known. A televised concert in Amsterdam led to an offer from Covent Garden; the result, in 1992, was her international debut as the peasant girl Zerlina in Mozart's Don Giovanni. A smallish role, sitting low in the voice, it was best suited neither to her talents nor her ambitions; but it started the ball rolling.

Operas in Vienna and Hamburg followed, with the Metropolitan in New York the next year. But it was her Covent Garden La Traviata in 1994 that really made the world take notice. Since then her career has zoomed ahead with the usual handsome ancillaries: CDs, DVDs, a film of Verdi's Tosca. The usual gossip has accumulated too. The hearts of the lovebirds, the rumour goes, don't flutter as much these days, nor do the pair perform together as much.

The latter certainly is true: Gheorghiu will be joined next Saturday by the charismatic German tenor Jonas Kaufmann, who sings Pinkerton, the American naval lieutenant who loves and leaves, in the Madama Butterfly recording. But Alagna's voice, in truth, isn't so comfortable in the Italian field; French repertoire suits his timbre more. And she is still decidedly her husband's champion. When Alagna gave a recital in London last year, there she was in the audience to cheer him on in a fulsome dress and those rhinestone shoes. As an encore, he bequeathed her an unaccompanied love song.

Whatever will happen when she sings on Saturday? No one can tell for sure. But one thing is certain: Gheorghiu is a diva, and divas always give a good show. * The National