Interview: Ermonela Jaho on Puccini

Eva Mackevic

The great soprano Ermonela Jaho chats to us about the intricacies of singing Puccini and why La Bohème is one of the greatest operas ever written. 

RD: What makes Puccini’s music special?

As humans, we’re always drawn to art that resonates with us on a personal level and I think that’s the effect Puccini’s opera has on people because it’s inspired by timeless subjects that we can relate to. La Bohème, for example, is about this young poet, Rodolfo, who falls in love with a timid girl called Mimi who lives next door. First love is a frequent subject for Puccini. It’s very affecting. That’s why Puccini’s opera is often used in films—because it’s so direct, dramatic and simple. It’s very varied and has many different colours—just like life.


Giacomo Puccini. Image via wikipedia.org

Every time I meet younger audiences, they ask me, “Why should we come to the opera when we have all this popular music and rock stars?” And I tell them that while opera is very different from modern music, it’s still about life and the emotions we experience, such as romantic love. The reality we live in is becoming more and more superficial, so sometimes we just need to go back to the simplest, most basic emotions and feel that special connection that human beings have with each other, without being afraid. Opera allows you to do that. And Puccini is the perfect composer for it.

 

RD: What was your first encounter with Puccini?

The first Puccini opera I saw was La Bohème: it’s a young opera for young people. Everything feels so romantic when you’re a teenager. You build things up in your head, you fantasise about certain scenarios, and act out certain dialogues with people you wouldn’t have the courage to talk to in real life—you build a whole world in your mind. And that’s what I found in Mimi—she’s this timid young girl who’s in love with a young poet. I related to that so much as a teenager. My first introduction to Puccini actually coincided with meeting my future husband, we started out in music together. And just like Mimi, I was too shy to tell him how much I liked him, so I really identified with her.

Till this day when I sing La Bohème I feel a little like Mimi and I always think of my husband, which is amazing. The public and critics say, “You sounded like a little girl, so shy” and that’s because every person has that quality deep inside themselves. You put a part of your soul into every role you play and somehow it’s a bit like therapy, like catharsis.

 

RD: How difficult is it to sing Puccini?

It takes a lot of stamina. It’s not easy to sing for three hours and make sure that you get through to the public. There’s a lot of preparation, practice and studying involved—it’s a bit like preparing to run a marathon. You need to be able to see the big picture—the entire opera in three hours—and not play your strongest card immediately.


Image via Russell Duncan 

As a singer, you know when the big dramatic moments are coming up, but the audience doesn’t know—so you need to save that big emotional release for later and build up to it. It’s the artist’s duty to deliver it in the end like a punch. And Puccini prepares you for that in a really good way. He knew how to manipulate the public and bring people to the edge of their seats with the drama. He was a composer of contrasts: one moment you’re smiling and the next he knocks you out. It’s hard work, both physically and mentally but it needs to look easy from the outside.

 

RD: Does it exhaust you emotionally?

Oh my God, yes! You live the life of your character to the extreme and you’re forced to believe that it’s real. It takes time to come back to your own reality. I tell myself, “Wake up now. There’s no more music, you have different clothes, you’re Ermonela. Go and have some lunch, do this and do that, pay the bills.” You know, going back to the reality—but it takes time. Sometimes I can’t even sleep at night. The reality is something else. It’s difficult to separate those three hours on stage from the rest of your life, especially when you love performing so much.


Image via Russell Duncan 

Every time I’m on stage, I imagine it’s the first and last time because it is in that moment that I live to the fullest and sometimes when I finish, I think, Oh my God, one day it’s actually going to end. It makes you more conscious of how important the little things are; the smiling, the crying, the connection we have with each other, and you realise that life is beautiful just the way it is.

 

RD: Tell us a bit more about the opera you’re currently working on, Le Villi, Puccini's very first stage work. 

This opera is different from other Puccini operas, it’s a bit of a fairy tale. Anna, the protagonist, dies of a broken heart because her beloved Roberto abandons her, and the opera turns into a story of revenge when Anna’s ghost comes back to haunt Roberto.

I’m still working on it, so hopefully, I’ll add something interesting to it emotionally but it’s going to be difficult because the subject of Le Villi is so complicated. When playing Anna, you need to present two completely different sides of her: the real person and the ghost. It’s a very strong, dark and intense opera.


The front cover of the first printed libretto of Le Villi. Image via wikipedia.org 

It’s also difficult because, when Puccini first wrote it, it was shorter, just one act, but to make it more commercial in that period, he needed something longer. That’s why the version that we know, which I’ve sung before—is in two acts. There was more material, and Anna even had an aria to sing. But together with Opera Rara and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, I'm performing the shorter version which is harder because you have less material to make the plot clear.

 

RD: Is there a big difference between singing such iconic parts as Mimi and little-known ones, like Anna?

It’s very different! With iconic operas such as Madama Butterfly, Tosca or La Bohème, they’re the ones the public love, they’re frequently in the repertoire and, therefore, the audiences have an idea or certain expectations. But with Le Villi? It’s difficult. Especially with this version, which no one knows and which hasn’t been heard publicly in 120 years.

People who like and follow opera, they’re only familiar with the version that’s available on YouTube or on a CD—the normal one, in two acts. But this version’s completely unknown so it’s going to be difficult for me. I don’t have any information to go by, there’s no precedent. I’ll have to find my own dimension, which is going to be a big challenge. But at least the audience won’t have certain expectations which helps, because they won’t go, “Oh but Callas did it better or; you’re not Tebaldi or; she’s not like the singers from the pastI won’t have to deal with any of that.

 

RD: What's a good introduction to Puccini?

La Bohème. Because it’s youthful, not too long and very relatable. There’s one particularly great memory I have about singing Mimi’s part in La Bohème. In the second act, there’s a children’s chorus and it’s very interesting to see how the music affects the kids who are both performers and the audience at once. At the end, when Mimi dies, some of the children thought that I was actually dying, and to me, that was the biggest compliment.

They later wrote to me, “Dear Mimi, it was a great pleasure to be on stage together, please don’t die so early, I want to be a doctor when I’m older to give you medicine so you will live longer and I want to sing like you”. You have to be real for the kids, you cannot be fake. Once, when I performed La Bohème in Covent Garden, my colleague and I tried to make the scene when Rodolfo and Mimi kiss as realistic as possible, and all the kids went, “Woooah!” [laughs] You see, it’s just an opera that immediately affects people on a very human level.

 

Ermonela will perform in Puccini's Le Villi on November 21, 2018 at the Royal Festival Hall

Feature image via Fadil Berisha