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Soprano Elbenita Kajtazi: 'I don't think pop stars deserve what they have'

Soprano Elbenita Kajtazi tells Chris Harvey how she sang her way from war-torn Kosovo to Glyndebourne

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Opera Singer Elbenita Kajtazi
Opera Singer Elbenita Kajtazi Credit: Daniel Sonnentag

Opera singer Elbenita Kajtazi can never forget the day, over 20 years ago, that she and her family had to leave their home in Kosovo. Only eight years old, she could no longer recall the last time she had last felt safe. Children like her knew better than to be seen in the open; they had learnt to hide or to run away. It was 1999, and war had come to the city of Mitrovica. She had seen the bodies in the streets, watched through the keyhole as Serbian tanks rolled by her front door.

Long-simmering tensions between Serbs and the Albanian community to which the Kajtazis belonged had mutated into massacres; Slobodan Milosevic’s forces began clearing Kosovo along ethnic lines. One day a crowd flooded past the house, among them a young woman dressed only in a towel, asking, please, that someone give her something to wear. She had been in the shower when the soldiers came.

2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围appElbenita’s father decided it was time to leave, so the Kajtazis joined the departing masses. They were barely 200 yards up the road when a tank smashed through their old front door and soldiers took flame throwers to the house. Soldiers surrounded the refugees as they plodded 60 miles to the Albanian border. Many were robbed, Kajtazi says, others killed. “They took money, jewellery, everything. They had knives, guns. A lot of people did not survive.” A soldier leapt on to their tractor with an automatic rifle and put it to her head – she tilts her neck back, jamming her fingers under her jaw – demanding that her father give him money. She remembers the moment clearly, she says, because “I knew that death is death. I wanted to see my mum, I was just looking for her face. And when I saw her, she was smiling at me, so I felt peaceful. But thank God, my dad had money with him.”

Fast-forward two decades to a winter’s night in Hamburg, where on the stage of the State Opera House, Kajtazi is performing Nanetta’s aria from Verdi’s Falstaff. As she sings of the bluish-grey glow of the rising moon, she is thinking of the night she lay down beneath the stars in a refugee camp in Albania, safe at last.

The next morning, we meet in a café on the quay of Binnenalster lake. All in black, with tumbling dark curls, Kajtazi is exuberant, forceful, vivid in a way that makes her younger self spring to life in her stories. Though now 28, she is still unmistakably the girl who insisted on carrying a flag in each hand all the way home after the war was brought to an end, with the intervention of Nato.

Elbenita (right in black jacket) with her father and three sisters

In June, Kajtazi will travel to Glyndebourne to play Adina in Donizetti’s spritzy 19th-century rom-com L’elisir d’amore. It’s her second visit to Sussex, where she won the Audience Award in the inaugural Glyndebourne Opera Cup in 2018. Her rendition of Konstanze’s aria from Mozart’s Il Seraglio reduced many to tears that day. “The aria is about sadness,” she says, “and I know what that is.”

When Kajtazi sings, audiences respond; in Hamburg, her Nanetta received some of the loudest, warmest cheers of the night. It was the first time she had worked with the provocative Spanish director Calixto Bieito2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围app who, Kajtazi says, asked her to go nude from the waist down for a sex scene. She refused. “I don’t support nudity,” she says. “I wouldn’t do it.”

In one scene, Bieito has Nanetta cup the testicles of her sweetheart, Fenton (Oleksiy Palchykov). “I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘Because I want you to let him know that you can play with him.’ I liked that. It puts Nanetta in a strong position. It was weird with Oleksiy the first time, though, but he’s such a good colleague. Every time I do that, he goes, ‘Don’t squeeze, don’t squeeze!’”

Elbenita with Dame Janet Baker, Honorary President of the Glyndebourne Opera Cup

Some might argue that the attention-grabbing tactics of Bieito are exactly what opera needs to attract a younger, more diverse crowd. The audience in Hamburg are welcoming, but still overwhelmingly white, well-off people over the age of 60. Can opera ever compete with the instant hit of pop? 

“Oh God,” says Kajtazi, “I listen to pop myself, I love Adele, and Dua Lipa, because she’s also from Kosovo. Some singers’ lyrics really mean something, but you cannot compare it to opera. I watched the Taylor Swift documentary two days ago, and I said to my husband, ‘This is not fair. I spend two months learning a role. She gets millions and I don’t even get €2,000 [£1,670].’ I don’t think they deserve what they have. I just don’t. But at least Taylor Swift plays piano and guitar and writes her own songs. I appreciate that.

“Opera cannot compete with that because people want fast things, one after the other. Opera needs time. It needs patience. Young people have no patience at all. They want Instagram followers, ‘likes’, comments. I don’t think that it’s easy to get them to sit in an opera for three hours, even though I am sure if they came they would be impressed. You can never compare a Mozart opera with a pop song – if you’re smart enough to understand it, it’s heaven.” She denies that opera is elitist, though, and considers herself the proof. Singing gave her a route out of poverty, one she can trace back to the moment she started performing traditional songs for the other children at the refugee camp. Back in Mitrovica, she remembers the first time her music teacher asked her to do vocal exercises, and she found herself saying: “Oh wait, I can go higher, let me go higher.”

Elbenita as Violetta in La traviata at Aalto-Musiktheater Essen in 2018 Credit: Hamza Saad

Hooked, she watched clips of Maria Callas2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围app on YouTube, and from then on, taught herself a new aria every day. She found a site to download scores and began turning up at school with armfuls of them, to the amusement of the other students, including her future husband Ardian, an aspiring composer. After university, she got a job as a soloist with the Kosovo Philharmonic but craved the life of the opera: “I wanted to learn a role.”

After being picked for a masterclass in Pennsylvania, she met stage director Vera Calabria, who got her an audition at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. Kajtazi turned up for it in ripped jeans. “I didn’t know that you have to wear a dress,” she says. 

2020欧洲杯体育足彩外围appCasting director Ronnie Adler took her for coffee and said: “I think you’re going to be very good, but you need to start a little lower.” He suggested she audition for the young artists’ program in Berlin, and told her that he would leave something for her at the stage door. In an envelope was €500, and a note that read “Good luck”.

In Berlin, the Deutsche Opera offered to take her immediately. Since then, she has worked tirelessly – “I’m a little bit German that way,” she says. Despite her ascent to opera’s top tier, she dislikes ostentation. “Instead of buying a Gucci or Chanel bag, I send money back home to help my family.” 

But where would the world be without the opera diva? Callas, for instance. “That was another time,” she says. “You didn’t have 100 sopranos waiting in line to sing in your place.” Anyway, male opera singers are much more diva-ish, she confides. She hopes one day to sing at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. “It’s a dream,” she says, but Kajtazi has a way of making her dreams come true.

Although public booking for the 2020 Glyndebourne Festival does not open until next Sunday, Telegraph subscribers can book from today 

Soprano Elbenita Kajtazi: 'I don't think pop stars deserve what they have'