After growing up in communist Albania and training in Italy, the soprano made her Covent Garden debut as a ‘jump-in’, replacing an indisposed singer at the last minute. As she prepares to sing Violetta in Verdi’s opera, she tells George Hall how her portrayal of tragic roles has particularly resonated with audiences across Europe
For years, Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho had longed to sing at the Royal Opera House. She had built a solid career across Europe but the lack of a visa meant she had been unable to audition at Covent Garden. Then, one day in 2008, her management received a call out of the blue.
Russian soprano Anna Netrebko  was due to open in La Traviata as part of an all-star cast that also featured Jonas Kaufmann and Dmitri Hvorostovsky. “Anna hadn’t cancelled, but she wasn’t feeling well. I was asked if I wanted to come to London, just in case, so we sorted out the visa and I went. I flew at night, arrived the next day, and immediately switched on my phone. There were no messages, thank God, so I thought: ‘She’s going to sing.’ I went to my hotel, and the moment I lay down to get a little rest, they called me to say: ‘You are on, come immediately.’ ”
Jaho made her way to one of the studio rehearsal rooms where they explained her basic moves in Richard Eyre’s production. They adjusted Violetta’s dress for her and she had a quick chat to conductor Maurizio Benini about tempos. Apart from being briefly introduced to her two co-stars, Jaho had not even met the rest of the cast before going on.
In the production, Violetta has to be on stage behind a gauze before the show actually starts. “You can see the public, but they don’t see you. When I eventually saw the gigantic stage, I thought: ‘No way – I’m going to leave now. Where is the conductor? Where is the orchestra? What am I doing here?’ ”
Then an opera-house official made the announcement from the stage about Netrebko’s absence. “He said: ‘But we have another soprano: her name is Ermonela Jaho’. When he left, the public booed. I thought: ‘Okay, you are here now. If you belong here, it’s going to be a success. If not, you’ll have to work harder. Let’s go.’ ”
She went on to triumph that evening. “It felt unbelievable. The audience was waiting for someone else but appreciated my effort and it was like falling in love.” She would go on to sing two more performances in the same run and has returned repeatedly not only for La Traviata  but also Puccini’s Madam Butterfly , Suor Angelica  and La Boheme , as well as Massenet’s Manon . Now considered one of the world’s leading sopranos, appearing regularly at major houses, and winner of the readers’ award at the 2016 International Opera Awards, the charismatic Jaho is once again back at Covent Garden as Violetta.
She grew up in Albania during the communist era and remembers as a child singing songs about the dictator Enver Hoxha “and how happy we were in the happiest country in the world”. Singing, in fact, became vital as a means of expression for the shy young girl, and at the age of 14 she began to train seriously. To do so, she had to learn an operatic aria.
Needing to learn something about the art form, she went with her brother to the opera in the Albanian capital Tirana to see La Traviata. “From the first three notes, it was something magical to me. I said to my brother: ‘I’m going to die if I don’t sing Traviata once in my life.’ ” Now she has sung the opera 256 times.
During Jaho’s teenage years, Albania slowly began to open up to the outside world. When she was 19, the Italian soprano Katia Ricciarelli came to Tirana to audition young singers for her masterclasses in Mantua. Jaho was selected, though when she moved to Italy “with big dreams but empty pockets”, as she puts it, her years of advanced training there – which continued at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome – were a struggle. But gradually she began to win prizes in major competitions, the money gained subsequently paying for travel and hotels to enable her to audition in other cities.
As part of one award she sang Suzel in Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz at the Teatro Piccolo in Milan; but her first major debut – another ‘jump-in’ as singers call them, when both the scheduled sopranos due to appear as Mimi in a double-cast production of La Boheme cancelled – was at the Teatro Comunale in Bologna, an important opera house.
Q&A: Ermonela Jaho
What was your first non-theatre job?
What was your first theatre job?
L’Amico Fritz in Milan.
What are your next jobs?
La Rondine (Berlin), La Traviata (Berlin), Madama Butterfly (Munich, Wiesbaden), Suor Angelica (Munich) and Anna Bolena (Sydney).
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
Don’t aim for perfection; aim to find the key to your soul. When you find that key, you will find the key to humanity.
Who or what is your biggest influence?
What is your best advice for auditions?
Be yourself. If they don’t like you, never give up. Keep working and become so good that they can’t ignore you.
If you hadn’t been an opera singer, what would you have been?
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Appearances followed outside Italy in substantial theatres such as Toulouse, Geneva and Munich, and over three consecutive seasons she also made a conspicuous mark at the Wexford Festival in Ireland, where she received the best singer award in 2000.
She first sang Violetta in a production in France. “It’s a big challenge, both technically and emotionally. My experience of life has taught me how to connect with the public emotionally and to give my voice the colours of the soul that I’m singing. If I’m true to myself, it’s going to connect to people.”
Another of her great roles and a performance that regularly moves audiences to tears is Puccini’s Suor Angelica – the story of a young woman placed in a convent by her family after she gives birth to an illegitimate baby. After seven years of silence, Angelica’s unsympathetic aunt arrives and informs her that the child is dead. Broken, Angelica commits suicide, but as she is dying she is granted a heavenly vision of her son.
How does it feel to embody this painfully tragic character? “It’s so special, beyond every other role I’ve done so far,” she says. Jaho first sang it in Richard Jones’ acclaimed Royal Opera production of Il Trittico, Puccini’s sequence of three contrasting one-act operas of which Suor Angelica forms the central piece.
“I had lost both my parents and was numb and traumatised. I couldn’t cry. At that very moment I had another call from Covent Garden – another jump-in. They didn’t know about my loss. So I thought: ‘Let it be’ and accepted. [Royal Opera House music director] Tony Pappano gave me fantastic support.”
She continues: “I had an amazing meeting with Richard Jones and the way we worked on Suor Angelica was like therapy. The pain I couldn’t feel in the cemetery I felt on stage. It was the first time I didn’t think about the notes or my technique. At the end it was not singing any more. It was so true, so honest – it was my soul screaming. I swear that there were two or three performances when I couldn’t feel the ground underneath my feet.”
The audience reaction at the close of her performances in tragic roles is regularly overwhelming. “It’s about catharsis. You realise that it is the duty of an artist to take the public to that place. We have to go there.”
In London, too, she has established an important relationship with the record company Opera Rara which – as its name suggests – explores neglected repertoire. For them she has recorded two forgotten but important works – Leoncavallo’s Zaza, about a music-hall artist, and the first version of Puccini’s first opera Le Willis, based on a Giselle-like story and not performed in this early edition since 1884.
“I’m really grateful to them,” Jaho says. “When I had this offer for Zaza, it was an opportunity as well as a challenge. My relationship with them is fantastic – the love that they have for their performers makes it like a family. It brings out the best in you, making you a better musician and a better human being.”
CV: Ermonela Jaho
Born: 1974, Rreshen, Albania
Training: Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome
• La Traviata, Royal Opera House (2008)
• Il Trittico, ROH (2011)
• Critics’ prize, Giacomo Puccini Competition, Milan (1997)
• First prize, Spontini International Singing Competition, Ancona (1998)
• First prize, Riccardo Zandonai International Competition, Rovereto (1999)
• Best singer award, Wexford Festival (2000)
• Readers’ award, International Opera Awards, London (2016)
Agents: Zemsky and Green Artists Management (world); Backstage Opera Management (France); Lerin Artists Management (Spain)
La Traviata runs at the Royal Opera House  until January 31