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Angela Gheorghiu: A Life for Art

BY ANGELA GHEORGHIU AND JON TOLANSKY
University Press of New England; 248 pp. $35 

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WHEN AN ARTIST attempts a memoir, there is an inherent risk. Reveal too little, and the life underwhelms the fans. Reveal too much, and the life overwhelms the art; too much information destroys the mystique. In her new memoir, soprano Angela Gheorghiu remarkably does both, simultaneously boring the reader with trivia and tarnishing her brilliance with arrogance. 

Raised in Romania in Communist middle-class comfort—her father had a steady railway job, her mother was a homemaker—Gheorghiu flourished even in a repressive totalitarian state. Her natural gift was recognized early, and, she writes, “Everyone around me had treated my talent with great care and attention.” Even with revolution in the streets, she had comparatively easy access to an excellent high school and conservatory musical education, and she blossomed professionally just as the overthrow of Ceaușescu cleared obstacles to make way for an international career. 

So great was her talent that she bypassed paying dues on the regional opera circuit and became an instant international star, making her debuts in Covent Garden, Vienna and at the Met in a flash and touring the world with Plácido Domingo. Yes, there was a fairy godmother (teacher Mia Barbu), and yes, there was the occasional witch (conservatory head Arta Florescu, whose guidance Gheorghiu refused), but she was easily vanquished. For the most part, this is a fairy tale without a curse or reverse. Even her princes arrive de-frogged—a wealthy aristocrat, a stunning tenor, a loving dentist. 

But if the narrative itself reveals too little, the telling of the tale reveals too much. After reading A Life for Art, it will become painfully difficult to hear Gheorghiu’s rapturous voice without hearing the human being behind it. Vain, trite, repetitive, opportunistic, lacking insight and empathy, A Life for Art is, paragraph by paragraph, page by page, a self-indulgent tour de force that shatters any illusion of frailty, bravery or sensuality this gifted artist might hope to convey onstage. The gorgeous nightingale Gheorghiu sees in her imaginary mirror is revealed to the reader as a deeply selfish human being. Sir Georg Solti weeps upon hearing her voice! Meryl Streep drops to her knees! She basks in the glory of fans, insults patrons, meddles in the design of productions, lends her voice to no major new works, hates participating in master classes, loves seeing herself on film and shows gratitude to no one. 

There are the occasional glimpses of humanity—her sorrow when her beloved sister dies in an unspecified accident, and the subsequent adoption of her niece when the late sister’s husband dies shortly thereafter. At the other end of the spectrum, when tenor Roberto Alagna courts her barely a month after his young wife has died, Gheorghiu seems surprised that his family is suspicious and resentful. 

The structure of the memoir adds a shoddy frame to a distorted looking-glass. Written with documentarian Jon Tolansky, the mangled prose is derived from interviews translated from Romanian. The narrative is formatted in an unrelenting question-and-answer stream-of-consciousness style that leaves the reader almost grateful for the fawning appreciations by family, friends and fellow artists that appear in large boxes every few pages. 

So comically over-the-top is this memoir that it verges on masterpiece. If thoughtful memoirs by Birgit Nilsson, Beverly Sills, Jessye Norman and Deborah Voigt illustrate the cultivation of true character through hard work, heartbreak, poverty and humility, Angela Gheorghiu’s Life in Art could well be the standard by which narcissistic diva memoirs will be judged. Sadly, its author might consider that a compliment.  —Matthew Sigman 



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