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Wagner in Piedmont and Albania

February 12, 2013

Jonathan KhunerAn intriguing message from Terri Stuart, president of the Wagner Society of Northern California: "2013 is the 200th anniversary of Wagner's birth and the 60th anniversary of the National Theater of Albania."

Coincidence? I think not. Indeed, there is a method to her madness, drawing me into a complex and exotic story. The main characters are tenor Roy Stevens (of Modesto and the world) and everybody's favorite musical dynamo Jonathan Khuner, known from S.F. Opera, the Met, and Berkeley (pre-Edge) Opera.

Their fascinating effort to bring Wagner to Albania is described below, but you don't need to fly to Tirana to hear them; there are local concerts, free but with suggested donations for the WSNC Tirana Tannhäuser Fund:

On Feb. 27, 7 p.m., at Mendocino Presbyterian Church; and Feb. 28, 7 p.m., at Piedmont Piano in Oakland.

The programs, says Khuner, "will be mostly Wagner, centered on our Tannhäuser, but also a little Verdi (for birthday's sake), and Albanian opera excerpts."

OK, what is this project all about? Stevens, says Khuner, is spearheading the first Wagner production in Albania:

The country is still climbing out of Enver Hoxha's reign of terror and total isolation (Stalin and Mao were too liberal for him) ... Zhani Ciko, a violinist/conductor who was persona non grata during the communist days, but now heads their national theater, Teatri Kombetar i Operas dhe i Baletit (TKOB).

Stevens, who has had great success with such roles as Herod and Albanian national hero Skanderbeg, has been encouraging Ciko to introduce performers and audiences to Wagner with a production of Tannhäuser, led by a team of Americans, namely Daniel Helfgot as stage director, me as music director, Greg Mitchell as designer, and (husband-and-wife) Roy Stevens and Annalisa Winberg, who will sing the leading roles (Annalisa taking both Venus and Elisabeth).

Since the Albanian economy, though growing, is still weak, and their currency not among the leading (to put it mildly), TKOB can hardly afford to import talent. But adventurous spirits such as this American team, finding it exciting to stimulate the regrowth of Albanian internationally-oriented culture, are putting our talent, time and efforts on the line, and hoping that some sponsorship from outside the Albanian borders will make the whole enterprise possible. We have been awarded $24,000 from the International Music and Art Foundation and $3,000 from the Wagner Society of Northern California, and we are looking for more financial support.

Roy Stevens as Skanderbeg in Tirana last year Stevens has had a dramatic-baritone career, singing major roles in Milan, Barcelona, Dresden, Frankfurt, Turin, Bologna, and elsewhere. During his debut season at the Met, in 2001, his voice "went up" and became a tenor, canceling his Met contract. Since then he has been performing mostly heldentenor roles, and began his association with TKOB singing Herod at the Albanian premiere of Salome. He was deeply impressed by the plight of arts in that country during the communist regime:

The National Theater of Ballet and Opera was founded in 1953, during the years of what was one of the world’s most restrictive and heavy handed dictatorships, the regime of Enver Hoxha (a former university professor of French!). His nationalist regime tried to keep all foreign influence and culture at bay through vicious restrictions. For example, listening to a non-Albanian radio station, or playing the music of a non-Albanian (or select Italian) composer or being homosexual were offenses that would put perpetrators in prison for decades. In addition, all religion was forbidden.

As a result, the only music (symphony, opera, ballet) that could be played was composed by Albanians, or, with heavy-handed restrictions, by some Italians. For example, when Tosca was played at TKOB, the first act had to be omitted, because it is set in a church.

When La traviata was produced, Germont’s change of heart had to be excised from the end of the opera, because a foreigner of his class could not be seen to have any redeeming characteristics.

Zhani Ciko, the former and current General Director of TKOB, was denounced by colleagues and sent to years of internal exile for the crime of playing Mozart.

Now that he is leading the company again, he has set about trying to introduce international culture to the Albanian people. Of course, few can actually attend the performances at the National Theater, but the national TV Channel, Albania 1, transmits all major performances from the National Theater nationally and internationally so that all Albanian peoples can have the benefit of these performances and take pride in what their National Theater is accomplishing.

The premiere of Salome was a revelation for me because it was a scandal — it was national news in every way on every station in every print publication. It must have been something like when the opera was originally premiered. Fabulous experience.

After that, Stevens became the first non-Albanian to perform the title role of Jakova's Skanderbeg, singing in Albanian as the country's mythical hero. And now, he is working on Wagner's debut.

[I am somewhat familiar with Albanian myths, having listened as a young man in Budapest to Radio Tirana, whose every "newscast" long after World War II opened with a detailed account of how Albania single-handedly won the war.]