The soprano recalls the hardships of growing up in Tirana under Enver Hoxha’s rule and how she began a new life in the US

The soprano recalls the hardships of growing up in Tirana under Enver Hoxha’s rule and how she began a new life in the US

Jaho still visits her family in Albania, giving fundraising concerts for children with disabilities “because I felt guilty I couldn’t help my sister when we were growing up”. Her greatest regret is that her mother never heard her sing live. “I would come to Albania, but her seat was always empty.” Jaho thinks her mother might have found it too painful to watch her on stage because of her own unrealised ambitions, but she missed the opportunity to inquire. “I tried to write and ask her why, tell her how much I loved and missed her, but she died before I could send the letter.”

Her voice precedes her, notes plangent and impassioned soaring from the rehearsal room. Ermonela Jaho is in London, preparing for Leoncavallo’s opera Zazà, whose title role she is recording for a new CD. “It is very sad,” the soprano says later. “When Zazà sings of her childhood without mother or father, it reminds me of my own mother’s experience.”
Jaho was born in 1974 in Enver Hoxha’s Albania, and moved with her family to the capital Tirana when she was two. Her mother — who was abandoned by her parents and raised by her grandmother — had wanted to be a singer and secretly auditioned for the Tirana Conservatoire, where she was offered a place. “But her family was furious, and wouldn’t let her go,” says Jaho. “As a child, I would see that pain of unfulfilment in her eyes, but did not understand the cause of her sorrow.”

Jaho inherited not only her mother’s love of music, but her sense of melancholy. Albanians, she says, are generally loud and passionate but she was a timid child. “I kept everything inside”. Her older sister, who has a disability, was her best friend, and children made fun of her at school. “The only time I felt free was when I was singing. It was my therapy,” she says.

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