Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho is renowned for heartfelt performances as some of opera's most tortured soprano roles. She's had audiences in floods of tears as Violetta, Madama Butterfly and Suor Angelica. We caught up just after she landed in Sydney for her Opera Australia debut in La traviata – the opera in which she sprang to fame in London when she jumped in for an indisposed Anna Netrebko.

Ermonela Jaho © Fadil Berisha
Ermonela Jaho
© Fadil Berisha

I was there that evening in 2008.

You were there?! I remember that day very well. Maybe I can’t remember what happened yesterday, but certain moments in your life – when you have that kind of stress – you remember them almost perfectly! I was in New York when the call came, but they told me it was just in case Anna cancelled. They just wanted someone there because the whole run had sold out and it was an amazing cast – Anna Netrebko, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Jonas Kaufmann. When you accept something like that, you have to be ready.

Ermonela Jaho (Violetta) and Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Germont) © ROH | Johan Persson (2010)
Ermonela Jaho (Violetta) and Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Germont)
© ROH | Johan Persson (2010)

La traviata was the first opera I ever saw in Albania when I was 14 years old. From that moment, I decided to be an opera singer, so it’s a significant piece to me. Maybe all the journey that I’d been on was leading up to that challenge. I told myself that if it didn’t go well, perhaps a big door was going to close to me forever, so it was a risk. Opera is like that – when you’re on top, you’re on top; when you don’t deliver, everything is over. Something in my mind told me to go for it – I had to show that I had the nerve. I flew overnight and arrived the next morning in London. I saw that there were no missed calls on my phone, so I thought “Thank God, Anna hasn’t cancelled yet, so maybe she’s going to sing.” I got to the hotel and within five minutes of trying to get a little sleep, they called me and said, “Ermonela, please come to the opera house immediately, we have an emergency.” It was so fast. I was little numb, to be honest. Sometimes it’s better like that so you don’t have time to worry too much.

We did some rehearsals in one of the studios and then costume fittings. I think Peter Katona announced to the audience that Anna Netrebko was sick and I expect you remember the groans from the audience. I thought, “Oh no, they’re already booing me, they don’t love me!” It was so scary because – you know the staging well – when the orchestra starts the Act I Prelude, Violetta is on stage behind the gauze scrim. The audience doesn’t see her immediately, but you can see out. I had never seen the auditorium before and it looked gigantic.

Ermonela Jaho (Violetta) © ROH | Johan Persson (2010)
Ermonela Jaho (Violetta)
© ROH | Johan Persson (2010)

They hadn’t introduced me to all of my colleagues. Yes, I knew Jonas and I’d sung once with Dmitri in Naples, but in Act 1 I had to interact with the Barone, the Marquis, Dr Grenvil, Flora… and I didn’t know who anyone was! Step by step, it worked out. Sometimes you have to accept that not everything’s going to be perfect. Yes, everybody has to improve, but vulnerability on stage goes beyond the technical. I wanted to play my strongest card and sing from my heart, from my soul. It’s not just singing the words, you have to show it and to feel it. On stage your soul is naked. Art needs that kind of vulnerability, the audience needs that kind of sincerity.

Violetta has been such an important role for you. What does she mean to you? 

You need the whole vocal range – the coloratura, the bel canto, the drama. Technically, I know that I can deliver this opera. Emotionally – which is the most important thing for me  – Violetta is the most beautiful soul of a human being. We see emphasised in Violetta those human feelings of sacrifice, of unconditional love. Everybody makes sacrifices in their lives and to find a way to channel all those feelings through Verdi’s music is like a therapy for me.

I see a different Ermonela singing Violetta every step of my career. I understand more about her as I get older. Every day, we change and it’s the same thing with Traviata. Singing the role last year, I swear I still found new things to say, new emotions, new ways to express her character, even though I’ve sung the role over 200 times. I still get goosebumps singing the same phrases that I’ve sung many, many times.

Ermonela Jaho (Violetta) at Opera Australia © Keith Saunders
Ermonela Jaho (Violetta) at Opera Australia
© Keith Saunders

What do different productions and different colleagues bring to your interpretation?

I’m open-minded and I enjoy working with new colleagues where sometimes you find the kind of chemistry where you discover news things in your own interpretation. It makes you feel richer and it improves you as a singer. Here in Sydney I’m singing with Maestro Palumbo who is of that generation of the Italian school, like Maestro Pappano, where you focus on getting different colours from the words every single time.

Sometimes you face certain productions which are too modern and take away certain emotions. You can be singing a duet about sacrifice where Violetta is in the final moments of her life. They want to be together, they breathe with each other and yet you have certain stagings where Alfredo and Violetta are on opposite sides of the stage… come on!  But what can you do? This is a reality of opera direction. We have to respect what is written. At least nobody can touch Verdi’s score. Listen, at times I close my eyes if something isn’t the right mise-en-scène and I go into another dimension and just focus on the music.

Ermonela Jaho (Violetta) © Javier del Real | Teatro Real (2015)
Ermonela Jaho (Violetta)
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real (2015)

Are there any productions where you fundamentally disagree with what the director is doing?

Yes, with certain stage directors, especially in Germany. There I’ve had to explain, “Sorry in Italian this means something else” and they reply, “Ah but we need a scandal, we need to shock the audience, and if the audience doesn’t understand, who cares?” I’m sorry, we sing for the audience, we don’t exist without the audience. We have to allow them to dream for two or three hours to escape from reality. Call me old-fashioned, but when I face that sort of reaction from a director, at that moment it’s just a job. I have to be professional and I have to make it work in the conditions I’ve been given.

You’ve sung in David McVicar’s production in Madrid.

It’s beautiful. I read La Dame aux camélias so many times and it was just like living in the book! The details were amazing, which made for a richer experience, added to Verdi’s wonderful music. When I finished that production, Mark, I had problems coming back to reality because I was living the story. It was unbelievable how McVicar created that – genius!

Ermonela Jaho (Violetta) © Javier del Real | Teatro Real (2015)
Ermonela Jaho (Violetta)
© Javier del Real | Teatro Real (2015)

Sopranos in opera suffer. How do you summon up the necessary emotion night after night and what does it take out of you?

It affects me so much. When I go back to my apartment afterwards, it is still so painful. I come from Albania and I saw so many really difficult situations there. I saw young mothers suffering, but I was so shy as a child that I never showed any reaction. Children are like sponges though. I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but I accumulated this archive of emotions. Somehow, when I sing these roles which are so dramatic, it’s like that in another life I was Violetta, Suor Angelica, Butterfly, because every time – even rehearsing – I carry so many of those emotions drawn from my past.

Suor Angelica is so special to me. The first time was another jump-in (for Anja Harteros this time). I’d never sung the role before, but it was a wonderful opportunity to work with Maestro Pappano. I had a difficult moment during that period because my mother had died. When I sang in the revival of Richard Jones’ production last year, I was better prepared. I’d studied the role better and in certain situations I chanelled those emotions, drawing again on that archive in my soul, in my mind, in my heart. When I came to sing Suor Angelica at Covent Garden again last season, I was completely out of it by the end. I felt like I was flying. I couldn’t feel my body any more. By the end I had difficulty coming back to reality, which is why, when I took my curtain call they woke me with their reaction, like breaking a spell. You can feel when the audience loves you.

Ermonela Jaho (Cio-Cio San) © ROH | Bill Cooper
Ermonela Jaho (Cio-Cio San)
© ROH | Bill Cooper

Puccini is not kind to his women, but at least Butterfly starts out happily.

My voice is a lyric one and sometimes the voice has to be the bridge to express the sentiments. It’s not just about making a beautiful sound, it has to be the sound of the character and what they are feeling. Butterfly’s entrance is so beautiful. She’s just 15 years old and teenagers at that age think they know everything. In her case, this is the most beautiful day of her life even though everybody else knows it’s not true. Butterfly starts so softly with those high notes and her entrance is magical – like a real butterfly, light, pppp to give it that sensibility. I try, emotionally and vocally, to sound like 15 years old. We’ve all been that age, we know everything, nobody’s going to stop us. In the second act, of course, she still believes. Despite Suzuki and Sharpless and everybody else who knows the truth. It’s even written in the music that we know it’s going to finish badly…. but she doesn’t realise.

Cio-Cio-San believes until nearly the very end, when she realises Pinkerton is not coming back. She feels rejected. Pinkerton was the only man she had ever loved. Every mother, when you touch the child, she becomes a tiger. We see in this one woman all human emotion – unconditional love.

Ermonela Jaho (Suor Angelica) © ROH | Bill Cooper (2016)
Ermonela Jaho (Suor Angelica)
© ROH | Bill Cooper (2016)

Do you listen to recordings?

When I was 16/17 years old, I listened to lots of recordings, especially to Maria Callas. I felt emotionally close to Maria Callas. I loved her very much because of the emotion. But after a certain point in my career – although I still go to Callas if I’m looking at a new role – I don’t listen much to CDs of other singers any more because it’s very important to give something of yourself, to build the role on your own vocal capabilities. If you copy this or that major singer, however amazing, you’ll end up being a bad copy and not an original.

You won the Readers’ Choice at the International Opera Awards last year. What did that mean to you?

When they told me that I’d won this award, it meant so much to me because I understood that my kind of emotional honesty reached the public around the world who had listened to me.

It is my goal to touch even just one heart among the public and to have people voting for me form every part of the world meant so much. The duty of an artist is to deliver emotion – it confirmed to me that music is about feelings and honesty. We can’t lie in our lives when we are on stage – the audience can detect the fakeness. It was one of the most beautiful days of my life.

Finally, if you woke up and discovered that your voice was a mezzo – just for the day – which one role would you want to perform?

Saint-Saëns’ Dalila – but just for the aria! I don’t know the mezzo repertoire very well, but “Mon cœur s'ouvre à ta voix” is so touching. You need a really large, low voice which I will never have. But maybe one day, you never know. So much passion!