Angela Gheorghiu: The Diva Who Wants It All

Angela Gheorghiu, as befits the woman described as “the last of the divas”, doesn’t so much enter the hotel suite in Paris where we meet, as sweep in. She could have stepped out of an earlier age of glamour – she has the looks and the style. But, above all, she has that gorgeous voice. Many believe her to be the greatest soprano of our times.

Angela Gheorghiu, as befits the woman described as “the last of the divas”, doesn’t so much enter the hotel suite in Paris where we meet, as sweep in. She could have stepped out of an earlier age of glamour – she has the looks and the style. But, above all, she has that gorgeous voice. Many believe her to be the greatest soprano of our times. 

Born in Moldavia, she graduated from the Bucharest Music Academy in Romania in 1990 and made her debut at Covent Garden only two years later. But what rocketed her to stardom was her performance in La Traviata in 1994. Conductor Sir Georg Solti was moved to tears and insisted on casting her as Violetta. The BBC cleared a whole evening to broadcast her performance live from Covent Garden, while The Sunday Times described her voice as “a liquid instrument of great lyrical beauty with gleaming spun-gold notes” and proclaimed her a worthy successor to Maria Callas. Recording and live contracts and awards were showered on her. 

In a ceremony conducted by Mayor Giuliani in New York in 1996 Gheorghiu married Sicilian-born tenor Roberto Alagna, and they became opera’s most glamorous couple – a seemingly unstoppable force.

Talking to Gheorghiu, you do get a sense of her steely determination to succeed. After all, she’s a train driver’s daughter from a small town in Eastern Europe who has become one of the most successful opera singers in the world. 

“I knew from almost as far back as I can remember I would be an opera singer,” she explains. 

Whatever the problems in Romania under Ceacescu’s communist dictatorship, Gheorghiu has no criticism of the music education: “There was classical music on the TV nearly every day. I remember watching things like Leonard Bernstein’s programmes about classical music with my father.”

She still has a house in Romania and remains loyal to her homeland, pointing out that “there have been many great Romanian singers, like Nelly Miricioiu. I think it’s a little unfair that in the East we learn all about the history and geography of the West, but people in the West know so little of Romania.” 

I ask whether she had to perform in the mass communist rallies: “You had no choice. But I never sang in a choir, only by myself.” 

She laughs, recognising this as a rather diva-like thing to say. I begin to see why some people in the opera world find her difficult to work with. When she was told she was expected to die in a hospital ward for Jonathan Miller’s production of La Traviata at the Bastille Opera, she declared: “Impossible! I die alone.” She tells me, with a wicked smile, that she thinks opera director and physician Miller should stick to being a doctor.

While there may be no love lost between Miller and Gheorghiu, other directors are more than happy to work with her. Sir Richard Eyre proclaimed her to be a “delight”, and she repays the compliment. 

“He sat us down and read through the opera as though it was a play – then he gets to the music. He realises that when the rehearsals are over I’m alone on stage.” 

But her favourite director is Franco Zeffirelli. “He adores opera and has such a feel for theatre. I wish all young directors could spend some time with him to understand the real atmosphere of theatre.”

Gheorghiu is certainly a woman of strong opinions. But she is also charming, and fun. I tell her I was a little nervous of meeting her, because to read some of the stories in the press you’d think she was a bit of a monster. 

She gives me her biggest smile yet, with just a hint of menace: “There is such a thing as a nice monster, you know.” 

Her view is that “people like to create a scandal out of nothing. But none of that is remembered, what is remembered is beautiful work.”

She is very interested in posterity – a current obsession is with opera films, which can be seen by generations to come. She is planning a film of Carmen with director Carlos Saura. 

Her latest CD is a collection of her best-known arias including Casta Diva from Norma, L’amour est enfant de bohème from Bizet’s Carmen among others.

“It’s a kind of greatest hits I suppose. There are some arias I adore and that audiences love as well.”

I ask her whether she would like to sing more contemporary music and she says, “I would love to. The problem with most of the modern music I hear is that it would ruin my voice.” 

One idea she has had is to appear in a new opera as a figure such as Jackie Onassis. It’s easy enough to picture her as Jackie O, I say.

I add that she is very different from some other singers I’ve met, like Angelika Kirschlager, who turned up dressed fairly scruffily in jeans and a t-shirt. Gheorghiu disapproves of what she calls “anti-divas”.  

“I know that I’m not like everyone else. The artist is someone who makes people dream, or makes them cry, who moves thousands of people. There is too much reality – I don’t want to see a star brushing their teeth in a movie.”

She thinks it absurd when wealthy people dress as though they were poor: “I saw some jeans on sale for £500 that had rips in them. How crazy is that?” (Gheorghiu would never be seen in public in any type of jeans. One story had her demanding a make-up artist and limo for an interview on Radio 3.) 

While I like Kirschlager’s relaxed attitude, I do understand Gheorghiu’s point – I would be disappointed if I saw the Queen on the bus dressed in jeans. 

“She is such a sweet person,” says Gheorghiu. It takes Classic FM a second to realise she means the Queen. “She is a friend of mine. I know all the Royals. Especially Prince Charles. Some people go to concerts to be seen, but he goes because he loves the music.”

When I ask her which other singers she admires, she names Aretha Franklin and Norah Jones, not mentioning any other opera singers except her husband. 

“He is the best. There is no one like him,” she says loyally. Rumours of marital difficulties have surfaced recently, but she paints a picture of domestic bliss. 

“We know how to switch off, to take time away from music, to watch movies and to be with our family.” 

They look after Alagna’s child from his previous marriage and Gheorghiu’s sister’s child – her sister tragically died in a car accident. The family has a house in Switzerland and one in Romania, but she thinks of London as her other home. With EMI in London producing new records and further appearances booked at the Opera House, it looks like we will be seeing a lot more of this larger-than-life diva with one of the most stunning voices in the world.