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Saimir Pirgu: A Fourth Tenor Kind of Dream

September 18, 2012

Saimir PirguSaimir Pirgu clearly remembers the day he decided to become an opera singer. It was 1994, and he was watching television when a Three Tenors concert came on. Hearing Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo, and José Carreras, the young Albanian tenor felt electrified — and says he suddenly saw his destiny. Since then, Pirgu has become one of the opera world’s fastest-rising tenors. In recent seasons, he’s made debuts in Salzburg, Munich, Berlin, Paris, and London; he made his first Metropolitan Opera appearance singing the role of Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi and will return to the company in 2013 to sing Alfredo in La traviata. Other roles include Nemorino, the Duke of Mantua, Ferrando, and Don Ottavio. This month, he makes his San Francisco Opera debut as Tebaldo in Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi. Pirgu spoke with SFCV about the role, and his future plans.

Opening night of I Capuleti will be your official San Francisco debut, but you already made a big impression earlier this month at Opera in the Park. Did you enjoy it?

Yes, I was so happy to do it, and with [the aria] “Una furtiva lagrima,” I saw that the public really liked it. It’s a tradition here, yes? It was fantastic; it was a good concert for me. The weather was so beautiful, the fans were wonderful, the colleagues were so bravissimi, and Maestro [Nicola] Luisotti is fantastic. Just amazing.

In I Capuleti you’ll be singing Tebaldo. Tell us a little about this role.

I never sang Bellini before. I’m more in Donizetti and Verdi. So it’s my first time. I feel Bellini can be very difficult for singers, if they don’t have the quality of the voice or a sense of the musicality. You are alone, and the orchestra is just doing the accompagnato, and you need to sing. Every single note you don’t do well, people can understand. For young people, you need to be more prepared — it has to be the right time. This is why, after Rigoletto, Traviata, Lucia [di Lammermoor] — I thought, now is the right time to sing some Bellini. It’s a beautiful role, and I like it very much. It’s not the principal, because Romeo and Giulietta are the first, but Tebaldo has a beautiful aria in the beginning of the opera, and a beautiful duet. And I will be so happy to sing it with Joyce di Donato. I know her for 10 years, since I started in the Rossini Festival. She was very famous, and we sang together in Rossini’s Adina. And now we are singing together in San Francisco.

In this opera, she is your rival, Romeo.

Yes! It’s different. But, you know, this part of Romeo can be for tenor, too. Claudio Abbado recorded it with Giacomo Aragall, and Luciano Pavarotti sang my role, Tebaldo. So if I come back to San Francisco, I would love to do Romeo. I’m sorry for Joyce, but I will ask her to be nice and let us change roles. [Laughs]

Vincent Boussard is directing, and the costumes by Christian Lacroix look amazing. What will you be wearing?

In Bellini, you need to think and do the music. It’s very intelligent.

The costumes are fantastic. I’m looking very well, I think, in this leather costume, with boots. It’s a very good production. It’s interesting, because Tebaldo loves Giulietta so much, and so does Romeo. The problem is, she loves Romeo and not him. But she likes them both! The movements are very modern, not just to sing the aria and that’s it. I hope the rivalry will show itself, especially in the second act. Every day, we’re working very hard to show this rivalry between these two guys for the wonderful Giulietta. In Bellini, you need to think and do the music. It’s very intelligent.

Bellini’s operas aren’t done often enough, in my opinion. Is this a role you will sing again?

I think yes. I hope I will sing it many, many times. It’s not like Traviata or Carmen but it is a repertoire opera. In Monaco, or Vienna, the most important theaters, every big tenor sang it once in his life. Right now I’m 31, so it’s a good time to sing it.

You started your musical life as a violinist. How did you make the transition to voice?

I sang as a child, but I didn’t realize that I could sing like a tenor. Every child sings in school, and everyone from the beginning of my life said, “You have a wonderful voice.” But this was not the time to understand what I could do with it. I had musicality, so people looked at me to learn the violin. The idea to be a musician was not from my family. In 1989 in Albania, it was the last years of Communism. They controlled the talents. They came one day to preschool and they said, “You need to go to violin school.” I didn’t like it — for me, the pianoforte looked much better. Violin was difficult, and I was suffering with it. Later, I thanked God that I did it. Without the violin, I probably would not be able to sing with Claudio Abbado. It gave me technique and musicality.

After the first song Pavarotti said to me, “You will sing tutta la vita — all your life — because you have a wonderful voice.”

And then you heard the Three Tenors. What happened?

It was 1994, and I was just 14. I saw them on television, and for me it was like a dream. I wanted to be like them. People laugh about this, but I tell them that in Albania, opera was not so famous. People didn’t know what was happening in opera, and the Three Tenors made it famous there. I am a tenor because of this Three Tenors concert. Every day when I heard this concert I wanted to sing. I didn’t understand Italian, I didn’t understand the music. I just listened and listened, and five years later I met Luciano Pavarotti. It’s unbelievable.

Pavarotti became a huge influence for you, didn’t he?

Yes. I met him when I was very, very young. It was my first year in Italy, when I was starting music school. I was in this small city of Bolzano — nobody’s there, and Luciano Pavarotti came and asked people, “Who is singing in this city that I can hear?” One day, he came to my professor, and they said, “Luciano Pavarotti wants to hear you.” I was just 19, and after the first song he said to me, “You will sing tutta la vita — all your life — because you have a wonderful voice, and now you need to learn the technique.” Every year, when he had time, I prepared with him Elisir [d’amore], Rigoletto, all those roles, in Pesaro or Modena. He was a wonderful man. It’s a lot, what he did for me.

You’ve made some important debuts recently. Which roles do you want to revisit in the future?

At this moment, I cannot really say which roles are for me. I can say which roles I sing much better. There are some, like Lucia or Bohème, that need to be sung many, many times to be done well. The voices of young people change every three to six months, and you need to be careful, to be prepared for what happens with your voice. In full bel canto, and in Verdi, you need to be very careful. Traviata, Rigoletto, Elisir are very good for young people. If you sang them well, every other role can be easier. That’s why my teacher, Vito Brunetti, in Bolzano, says, “Rigoletto!” If you sing Rigoletto well, every other opera can be fantastic. For me, the Duke of Mantua is one of the more important roles. Also Elisir, and probably some French repertoire. I did Roméo from Gounod, and it will be important for me. Roméo, Werther, Faust — I’m still preparing this repertoire.

Early next year, in March, you’ll return to the Met to sing Alfredo.

Yes, I am so excited. When I met [Metropolitan Opera General Manager] Mr. Peter Gelb, he said I would sing Traviata, and I was very happy. Diana Damrau will be the Violetta. Then they told me my Germont would be Mr. Domingo! For me that was fantastic. Six months later, I met Mr. Domingo in Salzburg when I was working with Riccardo Muti for the Berlioz Mass. It was our first meeting, and I told people, “Now, look, I’m singing with Plácido Domingo. He’s one of the most wonderful tenors in the world. And now he’s my ‘father’!”

Georgia Rowe has been a Bay Area arts writer since 1986. She is Opera News’ chief San Francisco correspondent, and a frequent contributor to San Francisco Classical Voice, Musical America, San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, and San Francisco Examiner. Her work has also appeared in Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, and Songlines.