HOW WE MET

ANGELA GHEORGHIU AND ROBERTO ALAGNA
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The Independent Culture
Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna have been hailed as the world's most exciting young opera stars. Their CD, Duets and Arias, has just entered the classical music chart at number two. Gheorghiu, 30, studied at Bucharest Music Academy and made her Covent Garden debut in 1992. Alagna, 32, was born in France of Sicilian parents. His debut in La Traviata, with Glyndebourne Touring Opera, won huge acclaim. His first wife died of a brain tumour two years ago; their daughter, Ornella, is now four. Gheorghiu and Alagna married in New York last month and live in Paris

ANGELA GHEORGHIU: Before I met Roberto, I had seen him on television in France. Suddenly, he burst into the rehearsal room at Covent Garden and the atmosphere changed. It was so exciting - like electricity. Although something happened between us at that first rehearsal for La Boheme, and later, during the production, neither of us spoke about how we were feeling. We were simply happy to work and be together. He was the perfect Rodolfo. Now, of course, it makes a huge difference if we are together on stage. It is a reflection of our life and an extension of it which we live out on stage. Between the acts, during the intermission, we always talk a lot.

Although we didn't meet again for another two years, I knew all about his career and each of the roles he was singing. Then in 1994, we were both in productions at Covent Garden and it was like destiny. We looked at each other and it was almost like looking in the mirror. What Roberto was feeling for me was exactly how I felt about him.

Singing with Roberto is not like singing with any other partner. It's a perfect musical agreement. Sometimes you just don't have the courage to tell another singing partner that a certain phrase is not quite right, or perhaps it would be better to do something another way. Everything is so much easier between us. Now that we know each other so well, singing with Roberto is even more exciting, but always, we are working to improve.

Many people have written about Roberto, saying that he had no formal training, but he did an enormous amount of work himself. We always discuss the things I learnt at the Bucharest Academy, and I am surprised at how much he knows. Because Roberto comes from a very good culture and absorbs everything, he's read a great deal and listened to many recordings. I know just how hard he works and how sensitive he is to what the critics write.

In the beginning, knowing Roberto had suffered so much unhappiness, all I could do was to give him my friendship, to be there for him and, later, for Ornella. When we decided to get married, I took Roberto and Ornella to meet my parents in Romania. It was wonderful for all of us. As a family, we have a Latin temperament just like the Italians and French, so there was no culture difference, just the language. Since we've been together, Roberto has been learning Romanian, and now even Ornella can understand a few words. To celebrate our marriage, Roberto bought me a beautiful ring and matching earrings, but he didn't just give them to me. No, he had a different plan. We were at home and Roberto asked me if I would close the door. As I walked over, I saw that there was a little packet dang-ling from the door handle. I opened the packet and discovered my beautiful ring. After I had put it on, he said, "Angela, please will you close the window." So I went over to the window and there was another little packet. That one had the earrings inside. It was very romantic.

Because London is a special city for us, we would like to make our home there - possibly in Hampstead - as well as in Paris. Just now, our lives are so hectic that we have very little time for anything other than work. But all that will change because, apart from the singing which, of course we both love, we need to make real time for ourselves.

There is an old French saying that a rainy wedding means a happy marriage. The weather in New York had been beautiful for days, but a few minutes before we left our hotel to go to City Hall to be married, it began to pour with rain and we laughed.

When we sing La Traviata together at Covent Garden in July, it will be the first time Roberto has sung Alfredo for a long time. It's not true that he didn't want to do the part because it reminded him too much of his own tragedy. Not at all. It was just that he had sung Alfredo so often during four years that he felt stale. Having had a long break, La Traviata is now another challenge and that's what makes it exciting for us both."

Everyone talks about the terrible sadness in Roberto's life. I know that he has been through the most dreadful experience anyone could imagine, but I have honestly never seen any of that sadness. From the moment we first met I saw only a man with happiness and love in his eyes. It is absolutely true. When Roberto burst into that rehearsal room, our lives changed for ever.

ROBERTO ALAGNA: Four years ago, about to sing Rodolfo in La Boheme, I arrived at a rehearsal room in Covent Garden. From behind the door, I could hear the most fantastic voice singing one of Mimi's arias. I didn't know Angela at all and had never seen her, so I tried to imagine the physical look of the woman with such an extraordinary voice. In my mind - because of the sound I was hearing - she had to be fat. I certainly didn't expect her to be beautiful. Eventually, I had to open the door and was absolutely shocked to see Angela. She was cute, young and lovely. We just looked at each other and, somehow, I knew the feeling was reciprocal. It was love at first sight.

We were rehearsing the second act of La Boheme. As I took Angela's hand in mine I felt an actual shock. On stage, there was real emotion between the two of us. Off-stage, too, it seemed the most natural thing in the world for us to be together - talking, laughing, eating. We loved to be in each other's company. Although nothing happened between us because, at that time, our relationship was platonic, both of us knew that this was more than just two singers who were completely at one with each other. But we didn't dare talk about it.

After La Boheme, we had other commitments in different parts of the world and I didn't see Angela for two years. When we did meet again, it was also at Covent Garden, where I was singing Romeo and Angela was singing Violetta in La Traviata. This time, the feeling between us was even more intense. From the moment we were together again, we decided that we would remain together always. For two years, I'd been following Angela's career, but it was only then that I realised exactly why I'd felt so jealous each time I'd read that she was singing with someone else.

To sing love duets with the person you love is magnifique. We are natural together. Angela instinctively knows how I am going to move and I am the same with her. I am so very sure of Angela that when I have finished singing and it is her turn, I am totally relaxed.

Because we had met in La Boheme, we decided that we would marry in New York while we were singing La Boheme at the Met. But it wasn't easy to find a space in the schedule. At the same time as the performances, we were rehearsing for a huge, six-hour Gala concert. We literally had to snatch 10 minutes between rehearsals to go down to City Hall, the day before the Gala.

At home in Paris we are always singing, but I sing much more than Angela does, so, from time to time, I have to tell myself to shut up. Our ways of working and learning roles are quite different. I'm much more instinctive and like a wild animal, but Angela is totally organised, planning everything she does. Between the two of us, something happens. I give Angela my instinctive feelings and she gives me back her organisation. The results are usually not too bad.

Because both of us have such strong feelings, we argue, but they are always very good quality arguments and neither bears the other any grudges. To be honest, I try to argue as much as possible because it is always so wonderful between the two of us afterwards.

Of course, people are very happy for us, but sometimes they ask if this is all too much of a fairy-tale and, with all the pressures and the media attention, will we really live happily ever after? All I can say is that critics are much harder on me now that I am so happy. I think they were kinder when I was this sad, poor guy going through such a difficult time. I am a new man. My old story, it's not me. This is a new life. It's true I have known great sorrow, but now I am blessed with so much joy.

When my daughter first met Angela, she was very young. And so, for now, Angela is Mummy to her when she needs her. When Ornella is older, we will tell her about what happened to her real mother. Angela sings to her and plays with her. They get on very well.

Although Angela and I have two different agents, many music directors want us to work together, which is wonderful for us. Because we hate to be apart, if we're not in the same production, we try, whenever possible, to record in the place where the other one is singing. I need to be close to Angela, so I always watch her from the wings.

For the rest of this year, we have to work intensely, but we are trying to organise our lives better. In the future, our plan is to sing opera for one year and then recitals for one year. It's a question of getting the balance right - singing as much as possible but still leaving time to live as much as possible. I know very well just how precious life is. Since I met Angela, every morning I open my eyes, look to heaven, give my thanks to "upstairs" and wake up happy. !

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