Features

Quality Time

Ermonela Jaho, one of Europe’s most admired sopranos, returns to the Met this season as Cio-Cio-San.
by George Hall 

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As Cio-Cio-San in Madrid, 2017, with Jorge de León as Pinkerton
© Javier del Real/Teatro Real
“The only time that I felt free was when I was singing.”

ERMONELA JAHO'S plangent soprano is unusually expressive, charged with warmth, heart and a highly individual range of colors. Now making increasingly important appearances in North America—she returns to the Met in February and March as Cio-Cio-San—Jaho is already a star in the opera houses of Europe.  Since her 2008 debut as Violetta at London’s Royal Opera House, when she stepped in to replace Anna Netrebko opposite Jonas Kaufmann and Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Jaho has established a special relationship with the London public. Subsequent appearances at Covent Garden, especially in Puccini’s SuorAngelica and Madama Butterfly, have confirmed her extraordinary qualities. Jaho can reach a level of intensity that leaves the audience emotionally shaken; in her great roles, she gives everything. Her London fans return repeatedly to the Royal Opera House to experience every Jaho performance.

Her repertoire includes bel canto assignments (Bellini’s Giulietta and Amina, the title roles in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena and Maria Stuarda), Massenet’s Manon and Gounod’s Mireille, Micaëla and Mimì. To her three outstanding successes—Violetta, Angelica and Cio-Cio-San—one can add the title role in Leoncavallo’s Zazà, which she has yet to sing onstage but recorded memorably for Opera Rara in 2015.

When we spoke, Jaho was looking forward to a new production of Suor Angelica at the Bavarian State Opera in November, as well as her return to the Met, where she has not been heard since her debut in 2008 in a single performance as Violetta. Jaho is taking time out at her home in the New York area in between Butterfly productions. “I just finished a production of Butterfly in Washington four days ago,” she says. “Before that I was in London for another. This is a year of many, many Butterflies!” In 2017 alone, she will have sung the role twenty-six times. How does she come fresh to it every night?

“For me, every time onstage is like the first and the last time, so I’m living each moment as my last. Every day we are a day older, and every day we approach life in a different way. It’s the same thing with the music. Yes, we are doing the same thing, but the body is an emotional instrument. How we live each day will give our voices a different color.

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As Puccini’s Suor Angelica, at Covent Garden in 2016
© Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House/ArenaPAL

“When the public loves you and gives you so much energy, you feel a richer human being. I am conscious how much and in which ways I have to improve to be a complete artist, to give that kind of emotion back to the public. It’s like giving and receiving love at the same time.”

With performances this year in Sydney, London, Washington, Madrid, Peralada, Paris, Buenos Aires and Munich, her life now is very different from her beginnings. She grew up in Albania under Communism. “I wanted to sing when I was five or six. I didn’t know anything about opera, but the only time that I felt free was when I was singing.” 

Her parents supported her ambition, but she felt that she needed to go to the opera in Tirana to see what it was all about. “I was fourteen years old. It was Traviata in Albanian. From the first sound of the overture I fell in love! I said to my brother, ‘I’m going to die if I don’t sing once in my life Violetta!’” By the end of 2017, she will have sung the role nearly 250 times.

In the early 1990s, as Communism began to collapse and Eastern Europe began to open up, contact with non-Communist countries became possible. In 1993, Katia Ricciarelli went to Albania to pick some good voices to take back to Italy to study. The nineteen-year-old Jaho was chosen. She describes her student years in Italy as “an amazing dream,” but even her period at the prestigious Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome was financially difficult. 

“I tried to survive by babysitting,” she says. “I needed to pay for a flight ticket or train ticket to go to this or that competition.Two or three times I thought of giving up.” But then she began to win important competitions, and with the prize money she started to audition widely. She made her professional debut as Mimì at the Teatro Comunale di Bologna in 2000. 

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Cio-Cio-San’s death scene at Covent Garden in 2017
© Bill Cooper

In the years since, her characterizations have acquired striking depth. “I think that I am a good observer,” she says. “I observed so much in the past—and I still do now—certain situations which move me, and it’s like an archive for my dramatic roles. Our life experience is material that the artist has the duty to express in their art.”

I ask her why she thinks opera merits a place in the modern world. “Because opera is like meditation,” she says. “Right now the technology of life makes everything go so fast, but opera needs time. So to sit there and to live the story of someone else, it’s like quality time—a little time for human feelings.” spacer 

George Hall is a London-based writer on the arts  



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