The Albanian soprano who’s been compared to Callas talks about Violetta, the evils of false-marketing and why Zazà made her cry.

What kind of music did you grow up listening to in Albania?

Folk music was part of the culture. Every occasion in our family – weddings or holidays – it was folk or popular music, always. That was the what I grew up with. So not classical music at all.

Ermonela Jaho, photo by Fadil Berisha

What inspired you then to sing opera?

I started to sing when I was six-years old with other children. The first time I listened to opera was when I was 13 or 14. I had to grow and I wanted to start in music school so it was important to know about classical music. In this case I had to audition singing a romanza. The first opera I saw live was Traviata – in Albanian! From the first sound, I fell in love immediately. It was like falling in love at first sight, but with listening. I thought, “This is my way that I have to follow.” Oh my God, it was like a dream! I went with my brother to see this opera and I told him: “Now I know, I will become an opera singer”. And then, a little dramatic maybe, I said: “I’m going to die if I don’t sing once in my life Traviata”. I’ve now sung Traviata over 200 times, and I swear, every time, I feel the same emotion. I live this dream always when I’m on stage. It’s the reason for my life.

The 1980s in Albania was quite a difficult time, politically. Was it hard for you to hear great singers and get a musical education?

It was hard. It was at the end of communism, you know. I’m not saying I suffered, because I was a child, but my family was a part of that story. And it was difficult then because you couldn’t sing in the original language. Everything was sung in Albanian. 

Were there still great classical singers that you heard and who inspired you?

It was Maria Callas. A friend of mine had a cassette tape of an old recording and when I went over with my homework I heard her for the first time. It was a compilation with different arias from operas and I heard Lucia di Lammermoor and Traviata. Oh my God, it was unbelievable! I was like a little child opening presents, you know. Maria Callas was my idol because she went beyond the notes. There was so much melancholy, so much emotion. Every note has a human feeling. Pure emotion.

You have been compared with Callas yourself in the way you connect the music with the drama. Is that hard for you?

When I hear this comparison, of course, I feel lucky. I didn’t want to imitate, but when you start something, yes you want to be like your idol. I know some people are comparing me, but the connection I have with her is how she sings. It’s Mediterranean, I can say that. With women from the Balkans, with our history, you can feel in their voices something very familiar in the way they express. Even now, if I have to listen to something new, the first singer I listen to is Maria Callas. But I don’t like to listen too often, because every one has to create their own personality. Even a great artist can be a bad copy.

You’ve built a reputation and a very special relationship with the role of Violetta, which you’ll sing Australia. Did you immediately connect to the character?

When I first heard it, something touched me but I couldn’t say what. Later on, I understood these kinds of sacrifices she makes. You can feel it in the music, this wonderful human with a heart and soul. After that I read the book by Dumas, and somehow I felt also the sufferings that I had witnessed in my country. When I had the offer to sing in Sydney, bringing Traviata to this beautiful country, I thought yes, I’m going to find something new to give. A new Traviata, like I’ve never sung before.

Have you ever been to Australia before? 

No, it’s the first time. I’m so excited. I’m like a little child! Everyone tells me it’s fantastic. I have many friends from Australia, working here in Madrid – that is where I am now – or at Covent Garden. Wonderful, wonderful people who are so warm. I’m lucky, because Renato Palumbo, who is conducting Traviata in Sydney, is also conducting Traviata here in Madrid. Maestro Renato told me that Sydney is a special place. I want to be there right now; I can’t wait until January!

How has the challenge of singing Violetta changed for you over 25 years?

My first Violetta was when I was 17-years old, just seeing if I could sing the whole role in Albanian. My first professional production was when I was out of Albania. Sure, it took so much technically and emotionally to sing, but I felt like every teenager. Teenagers have so much trust. You think nobody can stop you. But Traviata needs stamina, from the first to the last note. I was exhausted! I have a recording, actually, and when I listen now I feel exhausted. I remember it took two days to recover for the next performance. Now, it’s different – not because of the passion, the passion is always there – but with more experience, technically, I know where to give a little bit more. The weight of the voice is a little different now I’m 42 years old. With more power and stamina it’s more controlled. The power comes from inside now and it’s more intense. Suffering and joy comes from experience.

You recently recorded the title role in Leoncavallo’s Zazà. Was the work a discovery for you, and what was it that appealed to you about the role?

I don’t like listening to lots of opera because you copy, even mistakes. It’s better to discover everything for yourself. But when I first had this offer from Opera Rara I thought “Oh my God, I never heard about this opera!” First of all I was a little bit sceptical because I thought why didn’t they ask me about Traviata, or Bohème, or Butterfly – my repertoire, you know? But then, I thought “OK, this is an opportunity for me to record something new”.

It is a complicated role, because it’s colourful from beginning to end, and I knew I had to give a lot, because fakeness is detected by the public. My mother was abandoned by her parents, and when I was a child, this wonderful woman, always she was crying for the affection that she needed, specially from her mother. When we came to Zazà’s dialogue with the little girl, in that moment, it was like the book of my childhood opened, and I saw in this music the pain of my mother. It was so painful, even during rehearsals, every time I was crying and crying. Without thinking, I entered into the role. This was a real connection and somehow, maybe, some of it went through to the recording.

People complain that opera’s too expensive, elitist or out of touch with younger people. How do you see opera in 2016?

Actually, yes, it has become a little expensive, it’s true. But if you want a great production, you need a great director and, for me, what we need to change is who directs. We need to choose people who love music. Also, sometimes the marketing gives so much importance to certain things and onstage the result is completely different. I think the art needs to talk for itself – the result is not the same as the marketing. We need to do opera in an honest way, not a business way. You have to be honest onstage, because the people need emotion, not fakeness and selling something that is not real. We need singers who deliver, and with my tiny contribution. I hope with Traviata to deliver real emotion.

Ermonela Jaho sings Violetta in Opera Australia’s La Traviata in Sydney, Feb 3-18