Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho grew up hoping to one day sing Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly. Not only did she get her wish, but the role has become a signature for Jaho, who brings her renowned portrayal to the Met this month. She spoke with the Met’s Jay Goodwin about embodying Puccini’s own starry-eyed dreamer.
You’ve only sung one prior performance at the Met, of Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata, in 2008. How does it feel to be back?
In 2008, I was jumping in at the last moment. They called me two or three hours before. I hadn’t had a rehearsal on stage or with the conductor or the orchestra. I had to just go and be a gladiator, you could say. But I had a wonderful experience. The orchestra was amazing, and the audience here is fantastic. The whole thing made me feel so alive. To come back now is so exciting.
Cio-Cio-San seems to be a specialty of yours. What is it that speaks to you about this role?
Yes, I love it so much. Butterfly is such a powerful opera, which bares the soul of a young woman—a tormented but hopeful soul. It was one of the roles that I dreamed of when I was a child in Albania, with my own impossible hope to sing these operas I loved. And I’m living that dream every time I’m onstage singing it.
It’s a character that travels such a long distance—starting as a naïve young girl, becoming a wife and mother, being abandoned, and then making her tragic but noble sacrifice. How do you make that transformation believable?
You have to be like an architect, building the story without giving everything away from the beginning. Even if the audience knows it’s going to end badly, Cio-Cio-San doesn’t, and she still believes and has such beautiful hopes. So I have to fight with the story like I’ve never gone through it, like I don’t know that I’m going to die. And first of all, I have to believe in it myself. Also, singers must remember all the stories we’ve read about or seen in the movies or experienced in real life. We must be like archivists. If we are open-minded and observant, we have so many details and examples to draw from.
In addition to Butterfly, you’re also known for your interpretations of Violetta and Puccini’s Suor Angelica—three of opera’s most heart breaking roles. Does all that tragedy seep into your personal life?
To be honest, it’s really difficult to come back to reality. As an artist, you’re so naked when you’re performing, and it stays with you. Sometimes, after performances, I don’t sleep all night. But it’s beautiful because your soul is traveling—you’re dying and being reborn through Cio-Cio-San or Suor Angelica or Violetta. When I’m on stage, I just let go and don’t worry if I have control or not. It’s like the last day of my life every time.