The world's greatest living soprano. Well, her official website describes her like that, and I agree. She is everything a great singer should be: passionate, powerful, beautiful, a consummate actor. Probably no-one since Maria Callas has fitted the great star roles of opera as well as the Romanian singer Angela Gheorghiu. She also has a very happy, romantic marriage to the star tenor Roberto Alagna, and to top it off there is the exciting story of her almost overnight leap to stardom.

Born Angela Burlacu in the town of Adjud in the Moldavia region of Romania, she studied at the Bucharest Musical Academy, and got the best of both regimes: the excellence of training under communist rule, then the liberation of being able to travel overseas just when she was ready for it.

In 1991, speaking hardly a word of English, she auditioned for Peter Katona, artistic administrator of the Royal Opera. He described this stunning experience of her voice as "like a violin, totally even and seamless throughout its range"; and "every note, nuance, accent and colour absolutely perfect".

Her first significant role was Mimì in La Bohème, one especially associated with her ever since. She sang this at Covent Garden in 1992. Here she met Roberto Alagna, who was also appearing in it, in his London début. They became instant friends, but at this time both were married. In 1993 she premiered in Vienna and New York as Mimì.

Other early roles she sang at Covent Garden were Zerlina, Liù, and Micaëla, but it was Violetta in La Traviata that made her reputation what it is now. The theatre director Richard Eyre flew out to Vienna to see her Mimì: it was to be his first time at directing Traviata, as it was for the conductor Sir Georg Solti, who was in tears watching her rehearse. In November 1994 she sang Violetta at Covent Garden. The controller of BBC2 television was in the audience; he was so stunned that he cleared the schedule for several nights later and ordered the opera should be broadcast live.

I was watching, not inside the hall (an impossible wish), but crammed with thousands of others in the piazzas outside watching it on giant video screens. I have never, ever seen opera to compare with it. Her performance will stay in my memory forever, when every other opera I've seen fades away. She is the Violetta of her generation, unequalled.

By 1996 she had divorced Mr Gheorghiu, and Mrs Alagna was dead of cancer, so she and Roberto were married. It took place backstage at the Met, where they were performing in Bohème. Predictions of acrimonious break-up have proved unfounded. In this tough world they very happily work together, and many of their best roles these days are collaborations.

Helena Matheopoulous, Diva: The New Generation, Little Brown and Co., 1998

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