In conversation with Ermonela Jaho: OPera makes your soul take flight

07. März 2024

Rubrik Interviews

©Fadil Berisha

Talking to Ermonela Jaho about her passion of being an opera singer is a real experience, a one-of-a-kind encounter one never forgets. Her ability to enthuse and fascinate her listener for why opera makes her soul take flight, is both breathtaking and enlivening.


Moreover is Ermonela Jaho the pure embodiment of Puccini´s "Suor Angelica", which she always fills with unconditioned emotional depth and true authenticity.


That is why this role has earned her not only wordwide recognition and opera houses filled with enthusiastic fans, but also brought her rewards for her deep-dive interpretation of this dramatic, most tragic character. 


Living through all of her roles, studying her characters closely, observing in detail and seeking for further potential in how to perform a role down to the core convincingly, angling it from all possible perspectives, Ermonela seems restless in a positively exciting manner.


Being vulnerable and thus connecting with the audience is her key to success and the reason why she enters the stage over and over again. 


Operaversum: Dear Ermonela, you have just recently been awarded the “Premios Ópera XXI” for the best interpretation of “Suor Angelica”. 


What does this award and recognition mean to you? 


Ermonela Jaho: I was really surprised about this award. I mean, it is now more than 30 years that I am singing professionally. As a matter of fact singing has become my therapy, it is my life.


So getting at this point of where I am enjoying my work so much and the exchange of emotions with the audience, I do not have big expectations at all.


So, yes, this award came very much as a surprise and I felt really honoured, to receive this award for "Suor Angelica" which is a role I love profoundly, particularly because I can express my emotions in a way that makes me connect with the audience, which I personally think is the duty of my artistry.


Living through the emontional journey of "Suor Angelica" is a real challenge as one has to find the right expression, give it the ideal sound and authenticity of emotions.


So having this award, reflects on my ability to emotionally reach the audience through my voice, which also highlights the fact that singing is the language of our souls, a very powerful medium to connect with audiences. And being capable of doing so, makes me feel worthy as an opera singer, knowing that I am fulfilling my duty and doing good.    


Operaversum: Digging still a bit deeper into the role of “Suor Angelica”, which as you have already mentioned is an extremely tragic character to “live through”, how do you approach your role in terms of vocal technique and emotional depth.


How challenging is it to encounter this character in any of your performances? 


Ermonela Jaho: Well, it is a really demanding role, both vocally and emotionally. And I think that every time I go on stage, it is never ever gonna be twice the same performance, due to the fact that we as singers are also in different shape, very much dependent on the day of a performance and of course on our maturing experiences and how we tend to approach life in one way or the other.


But vocally speaking the most challenging aspect for me is how to pace myself and keep my emotions at bay, which also implies that I have to try and live my role as if I would not know how it ended.


For that reason I also have to force myself every time to slowly build up the character in the first part and then start intensifying the drama and the tragedy until the punch at the end.


And this is a big challenge, as vocally I need to be in control, which is to find the perfect balance, even if it is only 30 to 40 minutes towards the dramatic end. I give you an example: When I warm up before going on stage, the technique is in perfect shape, the pianissimo is all fine.


But on stage it´s more like a fight where I have to keep my voice soft, especially in "Senza Mama" where Suor Angelica finishes with a high A in pianissimo. 


I can tell you, it is always a struggle for me not to show too much drama right at the beginning, whereas on the other hand I think that sometimes it can be better to just let it go, let the emotions out in order to show this kind of vulnerability. In the end if you are not showing that why being on stage?


©Fadil Berisha

Operaversum: Dear Ermonela, you are absolutely right. Emotions always resonate with the audience. They know when a singer is authentic. But I was wondering how you manage to find this balance between vocal technique and emotional depth?


Which of the two attributes is more important to develop? 


Ermonela Jaho: Both are essential, Nicole. We need the universal human feelings and the vocal technique whereas the latter is a medium to express emotions.


With a solid vocal technique you gain exactly that freedom to produce a certain sound of sharpness, softness and pianissimo to give your emotions shape to empasise the sound of for example crying or screaming But if you do not master a solid technique then your emotions only remain a thought, a desire.


On the other hand you can have a beautiful technique, a beautiful pianissomo and it is this kind of aesthetic feature about your voice being flawlessly beautiful, but you will probably not get the audience moved, such that they would want to cry with you, smile with you or just suffer with you.


It is like a carthasis. And the duty of an artist to my understanding is to evoke this carthasis effect. So in the end both vocal technique  and emotional depth are equally important.


Operaversum: And would you say that “Suor Angelica” is the role you identify the most with? Or is there other roles within your repertoire which come much closer to your artistic heart?


Ermonela Jaho: Well, Traviata is a wonderful role as well, as much as Madame Butterfly. But Suor Angelica really holds a special place in my heart because it is as with every artist, composer or writer, that we put a part of our individual selves in our artistic work, which is mostly autobigraphic.


And with Suor Angelica I remember when I was offered to sing this part in Covent Garden for the first time in my life, I had just encountered two big losses, as my parents had passed away.


At that point as a young singer, I was not sure whether I would be capable of singing or being on stage. But music can be so powerful and magic, drawing you in. So I accepted the offer from the Royal Opera House in London, but kept quite about my losses. 


So when I started there preparing for a role which I had never sung before, I immediately felt being connected with the character, but did not understand why until I went out on stage performing Suor Angelica for real in front of the audience.


What happenend then once the Principesa told Suor Angelica about the death of her son. Nicole, that moment on stage was the first time when I started crying for my parents.


That very moment, I remember I suddenly was not  the young Suor Angelica crying for her late son, but the little Ermonela having lost her parents. All that grabbed at my soul and felt so heart-breaking that I broke out in tears and could not manage to control myself any longer.


Just imagine, the house was sold-out and I had the duty to bring my perfomance, the whole show to the final end, which I did, but with only my soul singing, that is to say with a crying heart! (Sighs)


I was so moved and at the same time felt this kind of emtyness we all experience with the losses of our beloved ones. So every time ever since that performance I feel that empty place whenever I sing Suor Angelica. And because of that, it is a role so dear to me.


It holds a special place in my heart, since  with that performance at Covent Garden I was building up a deep connection with the character which very much reflected on my inner emotional world at that point. I can say, I was Suor Angelica with every emotional facette of my life.


©Fadil Berisha

Operaversum: So it must have been also very intense for the audience to see you perform and listen to you then?


Ermonela Jaho: Absolutely! Even two nights ago, when I had this Puccini Gala in Nice where I sung "Senza Mama", I again had this moment, where I felt the exact same emotion as back in Covent Garden and I immediately thought to myself " Do not show that!". You know, I was not wearing the costume which would make me hide behind the role.


But in the end I felt that this might have been very beautiful not to be ashamed to show ones vulnerability.  And by the way the audience´s reaction was phenomenal. So maybe what we may consider a weakness, is most certainly the key to connect with the audience, because we connect with each other from common experiences such as pain or joy.


Operaversum: To be honest, Ermonela, I think that emotions are never a weakness, but a big strength. That is my opinion. 


Ermonela Jaho: And I have come to that point to accept that, as I am convinced that this is my key!


Operaversum: So talking about drama you are living the drama of opera as a profession. Does this somewhat impact on your personal life at all or do you always leave the drama back on stage? 


Ermonela Jaho: I love this question, Nicole. Well, in a way I always force myself to leave the drama behind once the curtain comes down and just go home and live my life.


But to be honest with you, I have not been successful at all. Part of the drama always follows me home because the experience on stage is so profound and emotionally deep that it is impossible not to carry a little echo of it with me.


Sometimes even a performance costs me the whole night without sleeping due to the strong feelings, which I cannot shut out. The only thing that helps is talking to my family over the phone, even though they are far away. You know, life as an artist can be at times really lonesome.


This profession is a blessing and a curse at the same time, especially when you take it  as seriously as I do. But everything stands and falls with acceptance. And it is not only a negative thing to carry all those emotions with me.


I even feel richer as a person because through my emotional approach on stage I also live in extremes which helps me to reach deep within my soul and see myself reflected as the human being I am.


And that also makes me feel lucky going into that multidimensional personality I am, getting to understand myself and thus others better and appreciating the value of myself as an artist.


Of course it is difficult. But then everything in life comes with a price tag. I have accepted that because if you are honest with your emotions, it is impossible to just close the door behind. It definitely takes a little while for me to come back to reality.


©Fadil Berisha

Operaversum: You are extremely self-reflected and your words spread a truth about mankind, since if there is no emotion what are we there for on this planet and why as an artist go on stage as you put it so correctly.


But change of topic: Knowing that you have been singing Verdi´s Violetta already 300 times, how do you manage to bring this fascinating character to life so expressively and give it new facettes with every new performance without getting into a sort of routine or boredom? 


Ermonela Jaho: Well, everything started off with La Traviata, a dream come true when I was 14 years old, which was when I saw that opera for the first time in Tirana in Albania. From that very moment I decided to become an opera singer, I promised myself to make it in that profession as I was so moved, that I would definitely call it "Love at first sight".


So from that moment until now, I have been singing the role of Violetta already 310 times. I am pointing that out so clearly because when I try to work with young singers I get to tell them that in that profession everything is possible as long as you love what you are doing and as long as it comes from deep within your guts.


Of course, when I had sung Violetta for the first time, I was using my full voice, as if I wanted to demonstrate to everyone that I am capable of singing this opera without filters and without a microphone, believing that only the sky could be my limit.


After that performance I was of course exhausted. Comparing now my current performances to earlier ones, I understand every word, every comma, every breath so much better, since life experiences have been teaching me so. Growing older, getting more experienced certainly makes it easier to understand Violetta as a woman, as a human being in her entirety.


And it is a beautiful role, a demanding role, an important role, which also needs vulnerability. Violetta offers this full range of emotions, which is fantastic. So every time I sing this role, it differs from when I was back in my 20ies developing into my 30ies and so forth. I can tell it from my stamina, coloratura and discipline as the age for sure is embracing me as well.


Operaversum: But do you not think that beauty can be found in age as well, because in the end if there is breaks in the voice which would reflect upon a life thoroughly lived, is that not a more contoured and mature beauty in itself?


Ermonela Jaho: Absolutely. I remember having performed in Japan last year. There we came across different colours we applied to highlight Violetta´s character. And also during pandemic, which suprised me a lot, I added yet other new colours and dynamics to the role. That was in Munich in 2020, when we did not know yet about Covid.


Unfortunately I was suffering from it, without knowing I had caught it. So when I performed the final act, I recall that I was breathing heavily, having kind of real difficulties to sing.


But as I am a real observer, something clicked and I realised that Violetta in her sick state, must exactly feel like that.


Moreover if you look at the score and how Verdi wanted the role to be interpreted, by simply looking at how he put the signs and the rhythmical irregularities as a means to demonstrate her uncontrolled breath or coughing. Having been sort of in her shoes due to Covid, I then started adding all those different kind of new facettes to the role.


I am an open-minded person, who loves figuring out any new perspective on a character, learning from new experiences and what the age brings forth, which is beautiful. So I am eager to sing Violetta again next year.


©Fadil Berisha

Operaversum: In times of social media, do you think the future of classical music may decide upon how visible opera singers are on Instagram, Facebook and the like? Is self-marketing getting more important nowadays and would it help to attract a broader audience? 


Ermonela Jaho: In my opinion we need a good balance, which for me means that social media can definitely make opera singers more visible and show that classical music is not only meant to be enjoyed by a privileged class.


In the end we are always talking about human feelings, which everybody feels. And thus social media has positive aspects to it, but it needs a professional approach, not giving anything private away to the public. I mean, I would not do the latter anyway.


But of course that is just my personal opinion. I find it utmost important though to show how much hard work goes into a singing career, also reflecting on what it means once you age, how much more you have to work, the endless struggles you fight yourself through to achieve what you achieve, from practise room to when you finally enter the stage, always going the extra mile, making commitments, sacrifices, training your muscles day after day incessantly.


All those efforts and milestones of a singing career should definitely be made visible on Instragram, but not necessarily how beautifully one is dressed up, definitely not the superficial part of it. At the end everything that counts is what kind of quality you deliver on stage by singing and transporting emotions.


And emotions cannot be transported via social media, I am sorry. You need a live performance to feel the resonance between artist and audience, being aware of the energy flow in the auditorium. That is truly magic, the energy and the vibration.


As I said, the perfect balance would do. And then social media should not be so much about likes and followers either, that should definitely not be the main indicator for success. With likes and followers you cannot succeed or make a proper career, as you have to study everyday to reach high potential. It all is a struggle, Nicole. I swear, it is a struggle, the work is endless.


And since it is like that, matter of fact, we should exactly highlight that to the younger generations of opera singers, such that they concentrate on reality and not on beauty and filters. Finding the beauty of singing is more a journey than a destination. 


©Fadil Berisha

Operaversum: So having heard you mentioning that the energy flow and the vibration in the concert hall are pure magic what else defines the magic of opera for you? 


Ermonela Jaho: The magic of opera cannot be experienced until you as a singer open your mouth to show your soul. So in a few words: the magic of opera is the soul, the emotion, which for every singer is unique. And why is that? Everyone has a story to tell and every singer´s mind is a planet in itself. And that is why it is so beautiful to bring that unicity to the opera.


More than ever we need opera in our society as it fosters your fantasy and  channels your feelings. Opera makes your soul truly take flight. Opera unites people, connects human souls. So it is our duty as opera singers to highlight those aspects and not just consider the perfection in a performance, the filters in a photo or a staged life on social media.


In showing the real pure unpluggled life, especially in times when a lot of sad things happen around us, it is even more important to connect with each other through music. To make music, we have to listen to each other. We cannot make music in an artifical way. Listening to each other is the rule of music. That is what it is all about: The connection, the energy exchange, the vibration which only music can provide.


Operaversum: And the vulnarability!


Ermonela Jaho: Absolutely. As it was created in the ancient Greek theaters. They were created in that period to make people connect with each other. Connecting with people means humanity, means suffering together, laughing together, smiling together and struggling together. Opera has the power to ignite all that. 


Operaversum: What beautiful final words, Ermonela! Thank you so much for having taken your time and sharing all these fascinating and inspiring insights into your world of singing and living the opera life. Wishing you a lot of success for any of your future projects.

©Fadil Berisha

Ermonela Jaho was born in Albania and studied singing at the Conservatory of Tirana and Santa Cecilia in Rome. After finishing her studies, she won multiple competitions which opened the doors to her professional international career.


Her repertoire ranges from baroque, bel canto to verismo. Her vivid interpretations and her exceptional identification with the roles she performs, are highlighted in all her reviews.


The Economist described her as “Fiery angel… the world’s most acclaimed soprano”, Financial Times “she throws heart and soul into her singing.


Don’t even try to resist!”, The Independent as “the best Madama Butterfly London has seen in years” and Australia’s Daily Telegraph describing her as “an unstoppable phenomenon”. Ermonela Jaho is a member of the Academy of Sciences of Albania and she supports many causes. She is the ambassador of the YWCA of Albania.


She was awarded “The best female singer 2024” by Oper! Awards in Germany, she joined the “Opera for Peace” as an ambassador in 2024, “The best foreign artist 2023” in Spain, "Artist of the Year" at the International Classical Music Awards (ICMA) 2023.


She was nominated by Gramophone Awards Magazine 2023 for the “Turandot” recording of Warner Classics & Erato. She also won the Vocal Music Prize at the ICMA 2021 with her album Anima Rara. As an Opera Rara Ambassador, she is also committed to the rediscovery of 19th and 20th century operas that have fallen into oblivion.


In the 2023-24 season, Jaho will sing Magda in Puccini’s La Rondine in Opernhaus Zurich, Liu in Opera National de Paris, La voix humaine and Adriana Lecouvreur at Teatro Real in Madrid, Suor Angelica at Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich, Madama Butterfly at Festival Aix en Provence and will have concerts in Barcelona, London, Nice, Athens, Oviedo, and Valencia.


She will record an album for Opera Rara with French and Italian songs from Donizetti and will perform them at Wigmore Hall in London together with the artistic director Carlo Rizzi.   

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