Saimir Pirgu © Paul Scala
Saimir Pirgu
© Paul Scala
Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu, a protégé of Luciano Pavarotti, has steadily built a strong international career, performing with the world’s leading opera companies. Most recently, Bachtrack reviewers have praised his “luminous” bel canto as Edgardo in Naples, and his Shepherd in Opera Australia’s King Roger, a production in which he had previously performed at the Royal Opera in London. Here, he describes his inspirations on the road to “tenordom”, the importance of Mozart in building his career, maintaining good health, and which baritone roles he would sing in the shower!  

What was it that got you hooked on opera? How did you discover your voice?

I've always had a passion for singing. Since I was a little child, I've always loved to perform folk songs for friends and acquaintances. It should be stressed that in Albania, when I was in first grade, the Communist government, by then on its last legs, supported the school system through musical classes and other after-school activities aimed at giving a chance to children who were thought to have talent to practise this art. Partially by choice and partially because the system imposed it on me, I started to study violin and I graduated, but I never gave up singing. Studying this instrument gave a remarkable contribution to my musical preparation. As I have often stated, I consider myself a “Three Tenors product”, because it is thanks to them that I seriously started studying voice. I was about 13 or 14 when I watched the famous Caracalla concert on TV. I was enthralled. I recorded that concert and listened to it over and over again. It was then that I decided that singing would be my life, and so that's what came about. I was barely 18 when I decided to leave Albania to go to Italy, opera's motherland, to study voice. I was accepted at the Conservatory of Bolzano, where I met Maestro Vito Brunetti who wanted me in his class and strongly believed in me. Thanks to his teaching, I was able to graduate in just a little over two years and start my career very early. At the age of 20, I had already won two important international competitions. Maestro Claudio Abbado heard about this and invited me to his production of Così fan tutte by Mozart. Shortly after I made my debut at the Salzburg Festival and at the Vienna State Opera, and my international career began.

You started your career singing a lot of Mozart. Which roles do you enjoy and what challenges does Mozart pose for young singers?

Saimir Pirgu in the title role of <i>Idomeneo</i> © Suzanne Schwiertz | Opernhaus Zürich
Saimir Pirgu in the title role of Idomeneo
© Suzanne Schwiertz | Opernhaus Zürich
My career started with Mozart, whose music I've been singing since I was very young; he is a composer very close to my heart, whom I have learned to know and love increasingly over the years, a true genius. In these past few years I have approached the 19th-century bel canto repertoire, particularly Donizetti and Verdi, but I have never stopped loving Mozart, as I consider him to be a key composer from a technical and musical point of view. Mozart does not allow the singers to take too many liberties, and constantly demands of the performer absolute precision and respect for the music. Approaching Mozart's music is only an apparently easy task for a young singer: it can be an excellent school for the development of the young student's musicianship, but one needs to have a sturdy technical foundation to tackle this repertoire. Mozart roles certainly include those I have been singing more often throughout the world, such as Don Ottavio, Ferrando and Tito, but the role which holds a special place in my heart is undoubtedly Idomeneo, which I debuted under Maestro Nikolaus Harnoncourt, a unique and unforgettable memory.

Which singers were your early inspirations?

First and foremost, Luciano Pavarotti, who was also my mentor. I've always had my own preferences according to every type of repertoire. I can say, however, that the three tenors I have admired the most are Luciano Pavarotti, Giuseppe Di Stefano and Nicolai Gedda, three tenor geniuses gifted with different characteristics and styles, to whom I have always entrusted myself and who inspired my vocal studies.

You sing plenty of bel canto and have started to take heavier roles into your repertoire – Rodolfo, Riccardo, Gabriele Adorno. You sang some of these on your recent disc, Il mio canto. How is your voice developing?

Angela Gheorghiu (Mimì) and Saimir Pirgu (Rodolfo) in <i>La bohème</i> at the Liceu © Irina Stanescu
Angela Gheorghiu (Mimì) and Saimir Pirgu (Rodolfo) in La bohème at the Liceu
© Irina Stanescu
A singer's vocal development is continuously and constantly changing. This development is faster in one's youth, when vocal changes are noticeable every two or three months, only to slow down and gradually stabilize at a more advanced age. With all due precautions I have always experimented with new roles to widen my repertoire. Rodolfo has been one of my biggest successes of these past few years, but I've received very positive feedback also as Faust in La Damnation de Faust, Roméo in Roméo et Juliette, the title role in Werther and Riccardo in Un ballo in maschera. Slowly I'll add new roles, including Gabriele Adorno in Simon Boccanegra. It is very important for a young singer to experiment: if done wisely, it is very useful to delineate the limits of one's repertoire and at the same time to discover new roles where you can express your own vocal skills to the utmost degree. Adding a new role to my repertoire has always followed a well defined pattern: after debuting it, I put it aside and keep studying it and making it my own, only to reprise it a few years later. This allows me to keep the role under control, let it slowly mature and then offer it again in an increasingly better fashion. It is a technique that has always helped me enormously during my career.

Is there a dream role you’d love to take on once your voice grows in a certain direction?

I love Puccini's Manon Lescaut and the exceptional and extremely difficult role of Des Grieux which requires an important tenor voice. I think I'll have to wait for a very long time before approaching this role and that most likely I'll never sing it. I'll be very happy however, when the right moment comes, to settle for the Des Grieux in Massenet's Manon.

You’ve just been in Australia, reprising the role of the shepherd in Kasper Holten’s production of King Roger. What was it like revisiting this role and how was the production received in Sydney?

Saimir Pirgu (Shepherd) in <i>King Roger</i> in Sydney © Keith Saunders
Saimir Pirgu (Shepherd) in King Roger in Sydney
© Keith Saunders
King Roger has been a very felicitous production, which has received rave reviews and which I debuted at the Royal Opera House in London, the first ever production of this work in the history of that opera company, in a staging by Kasper Holten and conducted by Maestro Antonio Pappano. It also received a nomination at the 2017 Grammy Awards. I immediately and fully identified myself as the “Shepherd”, a role I was able to make completely my own. When in January I reprised the opera in Australia I had to face a completely different audience and despite this these eight performances were enormously successful. When a production manages to receive such acclaim from totally different audiences I believe it can be considered a “winning” production, and this is what happened with King Roger, with the complicity of an excellent cast and orchestra both in London and Sydney, the interaction between the characters, the staging, the fantastic music and the story itself which captures the audience's attention from the beginning and makes them reflect.
Saimir Pirgu © Paul Scala
Saimir Pirgu
© Paul Scala

How do you stay healthy with such a demanding schedule? Is there a regular routine for performance days?

It's not easy at all, especially for a young singer, to deal with so many performances every season. The first secret to share, if possible, is to carefully choose one's repertoire and analyse how the roles are performed in chronological sequence in one's calendar. Passion and eagerness to sing are another important variable when facing every single obstacle in a singer's career. New productions, with their lengthy rehearsals, are a huge help to slowly recover your strength, in addition to allowing you to prepare yourself for the role at your very best. Another crucial factor is letting your voice rest and being able to deal with a cold and all the other respiratory system ailments. I do not follow a precise daily routine during the days when I perform: what matters the most is to warm up your voice slowly and well.

And finally… if you woke up and discovered you were a bass or baritone for the day which role would you want to sing? Why?

The two bass roles I've always loved for their beauty are Boito's Mefistofele and Filippo II in Don Carlo. There are so many baritone roles I wish I could sing: I believe composers gave vent to their creativity while composing fantastic and highly theatrical parts such as Rigoletto and Scarpia, two roles that I, despite being very happy to be a tenor, have long added to my operatic repertoire to sing… in the shower!

Click here to see Saimir Pirgu's upcoming engagements.


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