Celebrating 25 years on stage, Angela Gheorghiu comes to Australia trailing a reputation as long as a Diva’s train.

It’s midnight in Australia: the bewitching hour, which somehow feels fitting for a chat with Angela Gheorghiu, the Romanian-born superstar soprano, whose nicknames include ‘Draculette’. Then the moment turns pumpkin-shaped. It’s the wrong phone number!

Frantically trying various combinations of the international code and the digits I’ve been given, I finally get through 10 minutes late: hardly ideal for any interview, but somewhat terrifying when it’s an opera diva with a reputation for being ‘difficult’ when she wants to be, and particularly since it’s been stressed that I must stick to my allocated time.

But I needn’t have worried. Answering the phone a world away in Bucharest, to talk about performing in Australia for the first time, Gheorghiu sounds reassuringly serene. “It’s OK. I’m at a house with a swimming pool and nice garden. I’m really in heaven, so it’s OK,” she says, her voice mellifluous and expressive, her heavy accent seductively attractive.

Long fêted as one of the most gifted, glamorous and outspoken sopranos of her generation – the last of the great divas, as some see her – Angela Gheorghiu grew up under Nicolae Ceausescu’s totalitarian dictatorship. However, the Communist regime was toppled during her final year at Bucharest’s Academy of Music so
when she arrived in London at the age of 26 from the newly liberated Romania, she had a freedom denied to many compatriots before her.

In next to no time, she was making her auspicious international debut as Mimì in La Bohème at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Two years later, in 1994, she shot to international fame when she played Violetta in La Traviata in the same house under conductor Sir Georg Solti, who declared during rehearsals: “I was in tears. I had to go out. The girl is wonderful. She can do everything.” Solti was so impressed, he persuaded BBC2 to broadcast her performance live, and a star was born. 

When Gheorghiu married French-Sicilian tenor Roberto Alagna in 1996, they became opera’s starriest couple, recording together and performing opposite each other in operas such as La Bohème, La Traviata and Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette. Along the way, the volatile pair – whose relationship finally ended in 2013 – ruffled various feathers. Jonathan Miller nicknamed them “Bonnie and Clyde” after artistic differences in Paris, and Gheorghiu gained a reputation for last-minute cancellations if she had qualms about a production.

Gheroghiu and Alagna in La bohème

Nonetheless, her creamy, lyrical voice allied with natural acting skills, voluptuous looks and diva-like charisma have kept her at the top throughout her career. She sings regularly in the world’s leading houses and gives many concert performances. She’s also recorded exclusively for EMI (now Warner Classics). Coming to Australia for the first time this month, she will perform an opera gala in Melbourne and Sydney with the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra under the baton of Tiberiu Soare.

Chatting to Limelight, Gheorghiu is forthright in her opinions but altogether charming: warm, passionate and funny with a ready laugh. It’s taken a long time to get her here. She says that her friend, Australian conductor Simone Young, with whom she first worked on productions of La Bohème at Covent Garden in 1995 and the Met in 1996 – “so we know each other from a lifetime” – discussed bringing her here years ago.”

“I cannot sing something somebody else told me to. It’s me who is going to be on stage, it’s me who is responsible”

“But it was impossible for me to say ‘yes’. So finally, here we are. It doesn’t matter, the history. I will be very, very happy to be in Australia because I wish all the time, ‘my God, when will I go there?’” says Gheorghiu. She will sing arias by Puccini, Massenet and Bizet as well as I Could Have Danced All Night from My Fair Lady and her own orchestration of Granada. “I think it’s good to have arias that everybody wait for me to sing,” she says. “As I always said, the programme is my fault. I cannot sing something that somebody else told me to. It’s me who is going to be on stage, it’s me who is responsible for the programme.”

She will also include some favourite Romanian songs.  “I always do that because the music is more unusual and also very beautiful. We have a lot of history of music in our country and also – like you – we have sopranos who are very famous in the history of opera. For example, you have Nellie Melba, we have Hariclea Darclée. “Puccini wrote Tosca for Hariclea Darclée so we have Vissi d’Arte because of a Romanian singer. So I am proud, as you are, of this matter. It’s important, because if you have an artist who is famous and also has a good personality – it doesn’t matter if it’s an instrumentalist or singer – it’s very good for the country forever. I really believe in that because the education and culture is the most important thing for a country.”

Gheorghiu was born Angela Burlacu in the small Romanian town of Adjud, taking the surname of her first husband, an electrician, who she left for Alagna. There were no musical genes in her family – though her sister Elena, who sadly died in a car crash in 1996, was also a successful singer. “I was born from nowhere with this talent,” says Gheorghiu. “My father was a train driver and my mother was a tailor – so normal, normal, normal people. From kindergarten I start to sing. I don’t remember exactly, maybe at five or six I start to sing different to the other children, with an operatic voice. So I just follow my destiny.”

Gheorghiu turned 50 last month but she clearly has no problem with that – in fact, she is the one who mentions it. “I’m not that kind of person who is trying to look younger or whatever. I am a really natural type of woman and everything that comes, it comes,” she says. “I’m not blind because I have a mother, I have friends. For example, one of the most important Romanian singers, this year she will be 90! Of course, she is very old, but she has such an intelligence, such a fresh mind and spirit – so I have nice examples. I think if you have good health and also not a crazy head it is good to become older and not be angry with life and the younger generation. So I’m fine with that. That is my conclusion.”

Gheorghiu in San Francisco Opera’s Tosca

Though it has never been an issue for her personally, she is not in favour of the pressure on opera singers these days to keep slim and look the part. “My opinion is that today it is wrong. If you have a person like I was who looks fine and sings fine at the same time, it’s OK. But you must not to make it like this all over the world and keep the good voices apart because they are big bodies. You end up with people who look good and the voice is mediocre. I don’t want to offend, but imagine four big names of sopranos and tenors today and four names of sopranos and tenors from the past?” 

“If Montserrat Caballé and Luciano [Pavarotti] auditioned today, it’s impossible to engage them because they are big. But with this kind of voice it’s something very rare. You must respect the body where you find that voice. I think the world now, they listen with the eyes. It’s à la mode but it’s wrong. In my opinion they put in danger the level [standards].”

Gheorghiu continues to add new roles to her repertoire and says that there are more on the way over the next few years. In March this year, she made an acclaimed debut as Charlotte in Werther at the Vienna State Opera, performing the role again at the Salzburg Festival in August. Asked which other roles she has her eye on right now, she cites several operas: Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, Verdi’s Don Carlos, Otello and –  “maybe” – Un Ballo in Maschera. “Of course, everybody ask me to do Norma but I will think about that,” she says. “The list of roles is rather heavy still and I am happy about that.”

Charlotte in Werther is a mezzo role. “I am a soprano but I like this kind of challenge. But I tell you the truth, I said, ‘thank God I am a soprano!’” she says with a hearty laugh. “With no offense but, my God, the music is much more challenging [for sopranos]. I mean, to have a role like Tosca or Adriana Lecouvreur or Magda in La Rondine or Traviata, they are big roles. Romeo et Juliette or Faust, come on! Of course, mezzo-sopranos have good roles, but to make comparison – it’s a big difference. Thank God I am a soprano! I like Charlotte but it’s like I sing lieder. It’s like a song for my voice.”

After her Australian concerts, Gheorghiu goes to New York to sing her first Tosca for the Metropolitan Opera, having debuted in the role at Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House back in 2006. Floria Tosca, the beautiful, dark-haired, celebrated singer who is passionately, jealously in love with the painter Cavaradossi, is one of her favourite roles: “Because it’s almost me. Of course, I have no courage and no power to kill somebody. God help me not to have such a situation, but it’s a story and the music is so perfect, so powerful and so wonderful.”

Last December, she played Mimì at the Met opposite rising star tenor Michael Fabiano (who Australia got to see in Faust earlier this year). It was her first performance there for several years following a number of run-ins with the management. There is a famous story about her clashing with former Met General Manager Joe Volpe in 1996 over a blonde wig she was called on to wear as Micaëla in Carmen. When she refused, Volpe snapped: “The wig is going on, with or without you.” She wore it – but with a hood. More recently, in 2009 she cancelled performances of Carmen for “personal reasons” and in 2011 withdrew from Romeo et Juliette citing illness. She also pulled out of a new Faust in the 2011/12 season because “she felt uncomfortable in the new concept”, said her manager.

There have been clashes at other companies too, among them a La Traviata in Madrid, which she quit in 2003, allegedly because she found it “vulgar”. In 2007, the Lyric Opera of Chicago dismissed her from La Bohème when she skipped some rehearsals and costume fittings to spend time with Alagna who was singing at the Met, and later that year she pulled out of a new Don Carlo announced for Covent Garden when she discovered it was the longer, five-act version.

She is unrepentant about her cancellations, telling Britain’s Independent newspaper in 2009: “OK, what do you prefer? If I am not good, it’s bad for me and it’s bad for the public. So, to go on stage and not be good? Or to cancel? From these two, I have to be clever enough to choose the least worst.”

Asked how she feels about performing at the Met again after several years away, there is a hint of steel in her voice. “That’s a question you can make to somebody who is 30 or 20, when I was at the beginning [of my career]. Now, for me, if I am at the Met – or whatever stage – it is absolutely the same. It doesn’t matter where I am, I must give the best of me. It’s not the building that’s important for me. OK, I need to have a nice orchestra, nice colleagues, nice atmosphere, nice public and acoustics. But if you are good, the public is wonderful all over the world,” she says, adding that if she had to choose a favourite opera house it would be Covent Garden.

She will give two performances in New York of Tosca on October 29 and November 2. The austere staging, directed by Luc Bondy, was lustily booed when the Met premiered it in 2009, replacing Franco Zeffirelli’s beloved opulent production. Reviews weren’t great either, but it has remained in the repertoire and been better received since. “From the beginning I think it is very ugly, but I want to sing Tosca at the Met and I said ‘OK’. Maybe in the future they will do a nicer one,” says Gheorghiu.

Plácido Domingo will be conducting. Though they have sung together many times, Gheorghiu thinks it will be only the second time he will have conducted her. “I know him only as a singer, thank God! I prefer, anyway. I think everybody prefers him as a singer on stage. But if people engage him, it’s OK. I will tell you after the performance!” she says playfully.

Gheorghiu in The Met’s La Bohème

In the past, Angela Gheorghiu has attributed her outspokenness and her determination to stand her ground to growing up under Ceausescu’s regime at a time when many were unable to express their opinions. It gave her the strength to do so, now that she can. “It was an explanation. Of course, there are other Romanians who don’t think like me,” she says. “I am like this because of my character. From the very beginning I had courage. And everything I asked for worked, all the time – for the recordings, for productions, for the conductors. The result was so good and I said, ‘why to change?’ In my career, nobody tell me you were wrong with any of this.”

“But anyhow, I think that everybody must be responsible for their work – and also be careful and to think for the future. Everything in your career, it must be good, not just OK. No, you must be responsible for each detail in the performance. It’s very important, because not only the director is responsible. I am alone on stage when the performance starts and to be there with everybody you must be in harmony. Everything I do, on stage and in the recording world, this is my only testimony. There you have my answer, my final answer. In this matter I was cautious all the time. Voila!”

A Special Evening with Angela Gheorghiu is at the Sydney Opera House on October 8 and at Arts Centre Melbourne on October 13

Sydney Tickets

Melbourne Tickets