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Brief Encounter with... Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho

We caught up with Ermonela Jaho before she sings the title role in Massenet's ''Manon'' for the first time at Covent Garden

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Who or what was the biggest musical influence in your life?

© Fadil Berisha

There have been many musical influences in my life. As far as composers go I would say Puccini and Verdi, on the singer side I would single out Maria Callas and in terms of people I would say my long-time friend whom I share my life with.

What made you want to pursue a career in opera?

Hearing La traviata. When I was 14 years old, I went to see it with my brother, and from the first moment I heard the music, it resonated with me and I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up. I was a very sensitive, shy child, but through music I was set free. Once you have experienced spiritual freedom you cannot go back.

If you had to single out three career-defining moments what would they be and why?

This is very hard to answer without hurting someone's feelings. A career is something you work on all your life and with a lot of people. A smart, truly professional person knows how to learn from everyone. However, if I had to pick I would say the three defining moments were: winning my first competition, which gave me the opportunity to go and study in Italy, meeting my wonderful managers and their team, and having the opportunity to work with the extraordinary staff at the Royal Opera House in La traviata and then for Suor Angelica and La rondine, and now Manon.

You're about to sing Massenet's Manon at the Royal Opera House for the first time. How do you go about engaging the audience's sympathy for such a complicated character as Manon?

I think the best way to engage the audience with any character is to be sincere. Once you find yourself in the character the audience will also understand the person you are portraying. Even though we might not admit it and may feel a little judgemental about what Manon does and how she reacts to different situations in her life, deep inside we know we will have behaved in a similar way at some point in our lives or at least thought about doing what Manon does. After all, we ‘live to try'. It is impossible not to sympathize with Manon at the end of the opera when she realizes that the most beautiful thing in her life was with her all along. I think the subtitle of the opera should be ‘Manon, the woman that loved superficial beauty but was never more gorgeous than when she truly opened her soul'.

Manon, Violetta and Suor Angelica – women who all meet a tragic end! How do you manage to keep a distance from all the tragic characters you portray?

It is very hard. During productions I feel as though the music is haunting me. Especially when I performed Angelica – I remember going out for the applause and not hearing anything at all. Very often the effect of a performance takes days to wear off. There is not much you can do I guess: it's an occupational hazard!

Would it be nice not to die at the end of an opera?

I have tried that as well (although not very often!) but I have discovered that performances, just like life, gain meaning when death reminds us that we are all on borrowed time.

What new roles are there on the horizon?

Without revealing any secrets, I can say Anna in Le villi, Mathilde in Guillaume Tell, Amelia Grimaldi in Simon Boccanegra, Adriana Lecouvreur and Anna Bolena. I'll also be revisiting favourites roles of mine such as Cio-Cio-San and Violetta.

What advice would you give to any budding singers who want to follow an operatic path?

If you need to express something within yourself that only music and singing can, keep on persisting until you have mastered the technical skills and given yourself a voice that depicts what's in your soul. The journey is going to be almost impossible to bear, but the satisfaction at the end makes it very worthwhile.

You're stranded on a desert island but are allowed one musical score - which would you take with you and why?

I would bring Madama Butterfly because I feel very close to this opera and find it easy to relate to, both in terms of singing and in terms of personal memories (it was my mother's favourite opera). However, I am sure though that in a very short time I would be thinking with regret of all the other operas I did not bring with me!

Manon opens at The Royal Opera House on 14 January 2014.