Roberto Alagna: 'Opera was my secret love'
His life story is as colourful and tear-jerking as any of the roles he's sung. So will the heart-throb tenor ever find serenity?
Friday 02 October 2009
Lovers," says Roberto Alagna. "We will be like lovers." Er, yes, I giggle, and even I can hear that my voice is just a little bit too high. We are in Giovanni's, his favourite restaurant in Covent Garden, and after much slapping of shoulders and kissing and cries of "Roberto!" (the name of the manager) and "Robertino!" (Alagna's nickname), we have been shown to a table in what you might call Roberto Alagna corner. On the walls are photographs and posters of Alagna: youthfully golden, on the cover of Classic CD, broodingly romantic in a poster for Tosca and, in photographs everywhere, gazing adoringly at his wife, Angela Gheorghiu. It's like a little shrine to opera's golden couple: the handsome tenor, hailed as the heir to Pavarotti, married to the Romanian femme fatale, opera's prima diva, and perhaps the most glamorous opera singer in the world.
But Gheorghiu isn't here. Instead, there's Alagna's stunningly beautiful daughter, Ornella, and his assistant, and the press officer from the Royal Opera House. There's a table laid for the five of us and it all looks fantastically convivial – we could even have the special Roberto Alagna dish on the menu! – but I'm not here for a cosy family lunch. So I march him to a quiet corner and switch on the tape recorder, and the man who has played Romeo, and Rodolfo, and Alfredo, and won a worldwide audience of adoring women, and who sells more CDs in France than anyone else, and who has been made into a wax figure at the French equivalent of Mme Tussauds, leans forward and fixes me with his sparkly blue eyes, and tells me that we will be like lovers.
The fact that Roberto Alagna speaks English with an almost parodically sexy French accent doesn't help. Italian he speaks like a native – his family is Sicilian – but France is where he was born and grew up, the son of a bricklayer and a seamstress. It's an unlikely start for a star in an art form associated with elitism, isn't it? "We think all the time opera is something for elite people," he says, waving his big, hairy arms in a mixture of Sicilian passion and French animation. "I think it's not like this. My background was not opera. It was opera because my family is from Sicily, and everybody loves opera there. But also the popular songs, the light repertoire. I don't do difference between the popular songs, and the opera. It's the same world. It's the music. After that, sure, it's like a woman, you prefer blonde, or brown."
Indeed. But moving on from blondes, brunettes etc, there's a problem with opera, isn't there? I mean, it's pretty damn expensive. "It's true," says Alagna, "but if you love opera, you have the possibility to see a show even with a very cheap ticket. If you're curious, you can. You must have the courage to try and go. But," he adds in more conciliatory mode, "I can understand because when I was a child, it was the same. In my family, I received this education. This world of opera is not for us. It's too expensive, and I never tried to go. But then to conquer a woman is sometimes expensive, but when you are in love..."
Yes, yes. Gosh, we can't get away from it. Alagna, it turns out, fell in love with opera as a small child, but the love affair was sealed when he was 10. He was watching Mario Lanza in The Great Caruso, and the film blended, in his mind, with his grandmother's tales of his great-grandfather, a shopkeeper in Manhattan's Little Italy, who met Caruso and used to sing with him, for the Mafia. "Opera for me," he says, with a dreamy, seductive smile, "was my secret love. When I saw for the first time this movie, I thought 'this guy is my great-grandfather'. In my imagination, it was him. For me, it was like a dream world. In my banlieue in Paris, everything is grey, and you turn on the television and you see everything in colour, with beautiful sound. It was magic."
The facts of Roberto Alagna's life, it's clear, are more colourful than your average Hollywood tear-jerker, more colourful even than your bog-standardly surreal-to-the-point-of-silliness opera. Great-grandson of a Sicilian immigrant who sang for the Mafia who grows up in a grim suburb of Paris, an outsider (Sicilian) at school and an outsider (French) at home, who nurtures a secret dream to sing like Caruso, sing like Lanza, and finds finally in opera a kind of redemption. Too intimidated by his family to sing at home ("it was impossible for me to produce a sound, even a small sound, in front of somebody"), and too indoctrinated with the view that opera is not "for us" to pursue any serious thoughts of a career in it, he ends up singing in a pizzeria, where he is spotted.
At 22, he makes his debut, for Glyndebourne Touring Opera, as Alfredo in La traviata. At 24, he wins the Pavarotti competition in Philadelphia. Soon, he is taking on all the major tenor roles in all the major opera houses of the world. But soon, too, life mirrors art. His young wife is struck by a brain tumour, and dies, leaving him a widower, and single parent, at 29. Love strikes again, like a thunderbolt, in La Bohème, with Angela Gheorghiu, and in life. Stranger than fiction isn't that unusual, but stranger than opera is really quite a feat.
"You know," says Alagna, with a conspiratorial smile, "I was a very strange boy. Mum made some movies, in Super 8, and everybody is laughing and dancing and moving, but I am just looking at the camera, and what is happening. It's like," he says, in tones that imply that the full horror of it is only now registering, "I am invisible for the others." But the boy who was too shy to sing in front of his father and uncle ("a torture", he says, "because I had this thing like a volcano inside me") was belting out songs in his bedroom. When his sister heard him one day, she was shocked. "'Your voice!' she said. 'It's so powerful! Amazing!' And I'd say; it's a secret between us."
In the pizzeria, his colleagues were also shocked by his voice. Rafael Ruiz, who taught him, thought he could be the greatest tenor in the world. But life was an exhausting mix of the beautiful and the banal. To please his mother and then girlfriend, he was working as an accountant, while also studying opera and singing among the quattro stagioni and the margheritas. "I finish the work," he says, "and I take a shower, and I go to the office. One year like this, but after that it was impossible for me." He left the job, and the girlfriend, and met his first wife, Florence. "We married," he says, "and we had this beautiful little girl, and we stay together 10 years, and after that she had this brain tumour. And the doctor said she will die in three months." Alagna gasps. "It was so rude to say that."
Alagna's grief was terrible, of course, but he was no stranger to grief. Not least, because he was some kind of stranger to everyone. "I had a crise of identity for a while, because I was the first stranger in my family. It's terrible to be the first stranger, everybody Sicilian, but not you. It's very heavy to have on your shoulders. My heart was broken all the time." Two years ago, however, salvation came, or perhaps a kind of catharsis, in the unlikely form of Cyrano de Bergerac. "This character," he says simply, "was me. He has this nose. Everybody in the world has their own complex. Cyrano tries to reach the impossible dream. He says OK, I have this defect, and I will be admirable in everything. And I think it was my therapy, because I say the same."
But he always did work fantastically hard, didn't he? "Yes," says Alagna, "but it was not the same. Because for me all the time I was not good. My first reflex was to destroy. I am very, very self-critical. When I receive much critics, it makes me laugh." Why? Because it's not critical enough? "All the time," says Alagna, "I am laughing, because I am worse. But today, I am more serene. I accept the limitations. Maybe also because my daughter is now a young girl, she starts to have her own independence. In the past, my head was all the time full of her, because she was alone, and her mum died. It was impossible for me to be pleased."
But what about Angela? Wasn't he happy with Angela? Isn't he happy with Angela? "I was beautiful with Angela. She was my angel, because she saved me. Because of Angela, I continued to sing." And now? "Well," says Alagna, "we are a bit in trouble". La Gheorghiu, it turns out, is in New York and out of contact. She was due to join him, for some performances of Carmen at the Met, but she has pulled out. "I respect her wish," he says, but the smile can't hide the sadness. "She is saying like this, in this moment, I accept that. But," he adds simply, "I will love her for ever."
Now, he's beginning to sound like Don José in Carmen, the man who, according to Alagna, "says 'even if I die, I will be your man to the end'", the man who, in his words, is "dangerous", and has "another complex, maybe of identity". "I never compose a character," he says, "because all the time it is a part of me. It's me in that situation. Is all the time a new facet of my character."
So how does all this new found serenity square with these brooding, dark, romantic heroes? How does it square with the man who walked off the stage of La Scala because he was booed, the man widely regarded as the male equivalent of a prima donna? Alagna shrugs, a mix of French "bof" and Italian "mamma mia!". "I don't like violence," he says. "I don't like to fight. It's because I was born in an inner city, with a lot of violence around and a lot of my friends are in jail, or dead. I am romantic. I like love. I like to give happiness, and to receive also."
I believe him, and not just because of those sparkling blue eyes. That Roberto Alagna gives, through the miracle of his voice, a great deal of happiness is not in doubt. Nor, I think, is the price of it. This is a man who prizes family above all else, but whose profession ensures that he rarely sees them. This is a man for whom no critic, in his appraisal, can be too harsh, a man who loves, passionately, and for life, but who cannot be with the woman he loves.
Roberto (the other one) comes bustling over. "How was your food?" he asks, of the spaghetti al pomodoro that we've just bolted down. "Semplice, ma buonissimo," I reply. Simple and delicious. "Like me!" says Alagna. No, Roberto. Buonissimo yes, semplice, no.
'Carmen' opens at the Royal Opera House on 6 October (tel no 020 7240 1200; www.roh.org.uk
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