"Talented, glamorous and every bit the diva, Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu is a star."
Nobody had to persuade Angela Gheorghiu to sing, just as nobody doubted that it would become her life. She grew up
in a family that not only had no musical tradition, but no interest whatsoever in singing. "Not even la la la," she now laughs.
The Burlacu family - Gheorghiu is her first husband's name - lived in the small town of Adjud, 300km from Bucharest in the
northern Romanian province of Moldavia.In this unprepossessing environment Angela and her younger sister Elena were from the
beginning something of a local phenomenon. "We didn't have normal voices. Before I started school I sang with this voice.
It was always sort of operatic." Her father was a train-driver, her mother a dress-maker - which meant, as she says, "I at
least looked good, even if I go hungry. Always beautiful gowns, copied from the TV stars."
No doubt the frocks gave
her ideas because, she says, "I always knew,that I was an artist. That I had destiny. Never for a moment did I doubt this".Gheorghiu
says that from the beginning it was clear to her, to her parents and her teachers that both girls' future would be as professional
singers. "It was never like a dream for us," she says, "it was just the way it would be. It was so obvious."
When she was six she made her first singing appearance: Brahms’s lullaby, with her sister Elena
in the local Palace of Culture. “My voice was too big for the kindergarten choir, so I started singing solo. We never
stopped after that: it was always Elena and Angela Burlacu at every event” and her evident talent took her to Bucharest
- to the George Enescu Lyceum - at the age of 14. It was a demanding course of study - with acting, ballet and piano included
- and there were three lessons a week, four times a year with a remarkable woman singing teacher, Mia Barbu.
She stayed in Bucharest to go to its Academy of Music and graduated with first class honours at 23.
It was while there that she married André Gheorghiu. She kept his name after they divorced on the advice of her record company.
Contrary to the popular myth - that she dumped her plumber husband for Alagna when her career took off - André was in fact
an engineer from an important musical family in Romania.
Artists, confined behind an Iron Curtain, had limited professional opportunities, but the fall of
the Ceausescu regime opened doors of opportunity for Angela Gheorghiu."In my time in Bucharest, when Ceausescu was in power,
you had no right to speak, no right to have an idea, no right to have a mind. Just keep your mouth shut and work," she recalls,
with some vehemence. When she first came to London in 1992, she sent her parents photographs of shop windows full of fruit
and meat.Even today, her attitude to consumerism is invigoratingly robust. If she sees something she likes on a hanger, she
thinks: if it is there, then why can't I have it? After the death of Ceausescu, she vowed she would never again live under
any form of repression. "I cannot do this," she says. "If I need to say something, I say it very clear and then, basta, it's
over. I do not shout. I need to use my voice for singing, not for anything else."
Gheorghiu herself pestered the authorities constantly for permission to travel abroad to enter competitions
but without success. "While we were privileged in a way, they never even answered me even to say no. It was awful. But I finished
the academy just at the right time. The revolution was in December 1989 and I graduated in 1990."
In fact Gheorghiu was one of the first Romanians to directly benefit from Ceausescu's overthrow. While
it was still "boom booming" in Bucharest she took a phone call from a Romanian impresario working out of Frankfurt, who asked
her to a recital for Dutch television.
Luisa Petrov had seen a video of Gheorghiu performing in Bucharest and says, "From the first moment
it was obvious that she was a big talent. With other young singers you try to get them into small houses, but I sent Angela
straight to Covent Garden. I was that convinced." Following Petrov's prompting, Peter Katona, director of casting at the Royal
Opera House, invited Gheorghiu for an audition
It was Katona who effectively discovered her, although she insists it was the other way round: "I
discovered him," she says. "On street. I ask everyone where is the stage door of opera house and they say, 'Go here, go there'.
Then I ask one person who says, 'Along here, ten metres'. Then I go and sing and who am I singing to but this same man - who
remembers me, I think, because I'm dressed in red." One of mother's.
Between the frock and the voice she made an impression,"She
sang three arias and I said, 'That's it, we'll do something'," and Katona offered her the role of Mimi in a revival
of Boheme: her first professional opera booking. "But I wasn't sure I was ready for this. So I ask to start with something
smaller, and I also look for something in less important house, not London, for experience."
The result was that she
sang L'elisir d'amore in Basel; then, in 1992, Zerlina in a Covent Garden Don Giovanni, followed by Mimi in Boheme. And she
made her debut in Vienna and Hamburg in 1992 as Adina, and at New York's Metropolitan Opera in 1993 as Mimi, winning increasingly
rapturous receptions from audiences and critics who acclaimed her sensuous lyric soprano voice, her beauty, her stage presence
and her commitment to the words.But nothing in the acclaim Miss Gheorghiu had received up to that point was of the same intensity
as her first Violetta in her sensational 1994 La Traviata with Sir Georg Solti.
The pre-eminent operatic maestro Sir
Georg Solti had never conducted La Traviata and thought it was time he did. Coming to the score at such a late stage of his
career, he wanted it to be an event. And he wanted someone special for the title role. Someone out of the ordinary.He auditioned
Gheorghiu and decided she was the one - for reasons that his widow Valerie Solti remembers as "her purity of approach. She
was a sort of innocent at that time, though not in a negative sense. She had this quality of being from another world, a sort
of spirit being. And he was entranced by her. From the moment when she came out on the opening night in that Elizabeth-of-Austria
dress, it was like a fairy tale. Something you never forget." At one rehearsal Solti said: "I was in tears. I had to go out.
The girl is wonderful. She can do anything."
Gheorghiu relished the idea of the project being Solti's first Traviata, her first Traviata and Eyre's
first opera. The combination produced a superstar. "When I tell people it was entirely normal and expected they don't believe
me. But that's how it felt. I never felt for one second of my life that I would not be here now, that I would do something
else. Everybody has said all my life that I would be a singer."
Such was the response to her performance that the BBC2 schedules were cleared for an immediate transmission
of the opera, and Decca brought forward its schedule by six months to record this remarkable event. The resulting CD and video
were two of the best-selling classical recordings of 1995. Angela Gheorghiu was still only 29 years old. "Angela Gheorghiu's
Violetta ranks with the best...Gheorghiu uses her beautiful voice to convey that throbbing vulnerability and sadness." Fanfare
"Angela Gheorghiu portrays a credible and moving Violetta...This Traviata will take some beating." Classic CD
Garden certainly never forgot, building a special relationship with Gheorghiu through the years to the point where she is
now its lyric soprano of choice. Productions, like La Rondine, are built around her. Years of scheduling, in fact, are built
around her. She is box-office.
Somebody else - another rising star - obviously also thought she was wonderful. Miss
Gheorghiu met Roberto Alagna when she was singing Mimi at Covent Garden in 1994: "We were in love from the first instant -
says Alagna - I touched her hand in the 2nd Act and it was like a coup de fou. I felt electricity in all my body, something
very strong."He made a sensation all his own there in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette,but the problem was that both were married
- Gheorghiu to a plumbing engineer back in Romania, Alagna to the mother of his daughter back in France. So for a while, at
least, the electricity was put on hold and no one knew about it. Then, in 1994, Alagna's wife died from a brain tumour. It
was traumatic but it left him free for Gheorghiu, who then quietly put aside the plumbing engineer. and he and Angela Gheorghiu
were married in New York in 1996 when they were over there for performances of La Bohème at the Metropolitan Opera.
is now mother to two step-children: Alagna's daughter and the daughter of her own sister who died several years ago in a car
crash. And though they collectively make what Gheorghiu calls an "elastic" family - one child at school in Britain, the other
in France, and both parents based in Switzerland but constantly on the road - there does seem to be a real and rather touching
bond between them all: "Angela is a strong personality but I know her sweetness," says Alagna loyally. "She has a big heart,
she is a good person, and she's a fantastic mother. Believe me."
In 1996 they scored a notable success in L'elisir
d'amore at the Opéra de Lyon, subsequently recorded for release by Decca. "Gheorghiu's Adina remains unsurpassed among her
contemporaries." said The Times of her interpretation of the role on disc.
Angela Gheorghiu's marriage is rare in
any form of the arts; husbands and wives do not often see their stars rising in harmony. "I think our performances gain from
our being together because musically we are at one and we discuss everything together - each note, each stage movement, each
word", she says. "But while this is musically and, of course, personally rewarding, it is not confining."
The conductor Antonio Pappano,music director at Covent Garden, has worked with her since 1993 when
he took her sight unseen for a production of Carmen. "Then I heard her voice and that was that," he says. "The next thing
she was mega. In the recording studio I've never heard a voice so seductive to the microphone. Through very subtle inflection
and colour she can convey very complex thoughts and emotions. She is innately musical and that transmits itself in recordings."
Pappano is convinced there is more to come from Gheorghiu. "When, as in the preparation of an opera,
you have a bunch of very competent and confident people in one room, it is rare for there to be one person with the power.
She has such innate musicality, a beautiful voice and feel for opera in her bones that you must respect what she contributes.
You can't just say, 'That's a bunch of crap'. But if you are aware of what she has to offer, and balance that with your ideas,
then it works just fine. When it comes together it is worth everything. When everybody puts the best of themselves in to something
- my God, it is fantastic. And Angela is not only capable of giving the best of herself, she actually goes out there and does
All of her recordings have received widespread critical acclaim and have been awarded
many prizes, including Gramophone Awards (UK), the Diapason d’Or and the Choc du Monde de la Musique (France), Cæcilia
Prize (Belgium), Deutsche Schallplattenkritik-Preis (Germany), the Italian Musica e dischi Foreign Lyric Production Award
and the USA Critics’ Award. At the Classical Brit Awards in 2001 she won the title “Female Artist of the Year”. Ms. Gheorghiu was honoured with “La Medaille Vermeille de la Ville de Paris”, and she has been appointed
an “Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres” and a “Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres”
by the French Ministry of Culture and by her native country, Romania.
In future,she will
appear in Lucia di Lammermoor, Adriana Lecouvreur, Tosca, Lucrezia Borgia, Don Carlo and Don Giovanni.
Biography provided by Decca Classics and from interviews with Michael White and Nicholas Wroe