Tenor Saimir Pirgu [Photo by Fadil Berisha; used with permission]
Albania in the 1980s was a nation stirring with desire to emerge from the shadows of the Iron Curtain. A turning point came in 1985 with the death of Enver Hoxha, the Stalinist leader of Albania since the nation’s liberation from Fascist control in 1944. Hoxha’s hand-picked successor, Ramiz Alia, held the reins of power for only six years before the Democratic Party of Albania prevailed in general elections, ending Communist rule in Albania and beginning a period of transition that would produce today’s Republic of Albania, a dynamic, fast-changing nation that joined NATO in 2009. Albania’s five decades of Communist rule brought untold atrocities to the people of the nation, however, forming a legacy that haunts the collective conscience of the nation and its Diaspora. Hoxha declared Albania an atheist state in 1967, the culmination of an assault on organized religion that disbanded religious communities, closed mosques and other houses of worship, and saw many clerics imprisoned, tortured, and executed. Albanians were subject to the terror of the Sigurimi, the State’s secret police force that enacted tactics similar to those employed in Stalin’s USSR and Tito’s Yugoslavia. This was an environment in which the endeavors of artists were dangerous, but perhaps the most astonishing wonder of Art is its ability to endure hardships and, to give a new context to the famous sentiment of William Faulkner, not merely to survive but to prevail. From this nation of contrasts, of timeless cultures and new horizons darkened by clouds of past tribulations, emerged a young artist who is poised to become one of the most important singers of the Twenty-First Century: tenor Saimir Pirgu.
Born in the last decade of Communist rule in Albania, Mr. Pirgu fell victim to the efforts of the Communist regime to dictate career paths to the nation’s young people. ‘It was my fortune and misfortune,’ he recollects, ‘that in the years 1989 and 1990, the last years of Communism, a representative of the Communist government came to my school, looking for young talents. It was in this way that I was ‘discovered’ and forced—and here I truly mean that it was misfortune—to study the violin.’ Mr. Pirgu displayed distinct musical sensibilities at a very young age, as he recalls. ‘I began to love music as a young child,’ he says. ‘At the age of three, I was already imitating and singing all the songs that I liked.’ Though learning to play the violin was not his choice, he recognizes that the experience had advantages that have become more apparent as his career as a singer has developed. ‘Over time, the violin proved to be a real stroke of good fortune,’ he intimates. ‘Studying the violin sharpened my musical ear and made possible the rapid growth of musical talent that has been very useful to me in singing.’
Saimir Pirgu (left) as Alfredo in Verdi’s La traviata at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, with Dmitri Hvorostovsky (right) as Giorgio Germont, 2010 [Photo by Johan Persson; used with permission]
It was a television broadcast that altered Mr. Pirgu’s musical perceptions and set him on a new course. ‘When I was fourteen or fifteen years old, Albanian TV was broadcasting a Three Tenors concert. From the moment when I saw that concert, I decided that singing would become my path. Gradually, I abandoned the violin and dedicated myself entirely to singing.’ This rededication of his musical pursuits led him across the Adriatic to Italy, the birthplace of opera. ‘I arrived in Italy in 2000,’ he says, ‘and I began to study singing at the Conservatorio Claudio Monteverdi di Bolzano. There, I entered another world that was completely different from Albania.’ In Bolzano, Mr. Pirgu met Maestro Vito Brunetti, with whom he began his formal vocal studies and with whom he continues to study today. ‘Under Maestro Brunetti’s tutelage, I read books, listened to CDs, and I began to become acquainted with the names and artistries of the great artists of the past and the present—and especially the great tenors.’ Among those great tenors of the past, Mr. Pirgu mentions Enrico Caruso, Giuseppe di Stefano, Gianni Raimondi, and Nicolai Gedda as singers he ‘loved and still loves.’ This immersion in the traditions of opera was a means of ‘slowly developing [his] arts and music education,’ he suggests. ‘I have always believed that it is essential to know the art of the past in order to better understand the art of the present.’ The progress of Mr. Pirgu’s education was rapid. ‘After less than two years, I advanced to participating in singing competitions, and I won my first Tito Schipa and Enrico Caruso competitions. I started to enter the wonderful world of opera so young!’
Mr. Pirgu remains a very young artist, but his cognizance of the development of his voice is reflected in the trajectory of his career. In a rôle like Don Ottavio in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, which he has sung in several productions, the sweetness of Mr. Pirgu’s timbre is immediately evident, as is the maturity of his technique. ‘Maybe you are right to say that Don Giovanni is right for my voice,’ Mr. Pirgu responds to this statement. The intelligence of his approach to singing becomes even more evident as he continues. ‘My concern is always to be ready for the new frontiers of my career. You cannot always specialize in a single repertoire, especially as the voice develops and changes constantly. The skill of a singer, in my opinion, lies in understanding the development of the voice and constantly adapting the repertoire to suit it.’ Though his voice remains in the early blossoming of a full lyric tenor, Mr. Pirgu is keenly aware of the ways in which many of the finest tenor voices of the past century have grown and darkened as the singers’ careers progressed. He has clear goals for his own growth as an artist, but he is cautious about the pressures of expectations and expanding his repertory too quickly. ‘As a young singer, it is perhaps too early to begin drawing conclusions [about the course of the career],’ Mr. Pirgu says. ‘My belief is this: the responsibility for an artist’s career lies with the artist and only the artist. We live in a very fast-paced world in which image has almost become the most important thing, often at the expense of quality. I have realized that this is a job for only a few people: you not only need to understand the singularity of your own voice, but you must have the ability to control and plan your own career and refuse rôles that do not fit the voice, though this can be very difficult.’ Mr. Pirgu also exhibits rare insight into the ways in which seemingly different repertories intersect. ‘For me,’ he states, ‘I am now singing Rigoletto and Traviata in addition to the Mozart rôles and the bel canto. What is critical is ensuring that every rôle is suitable both for my voice and for my current state of artistic development. Mozart, Donizetti, and Verdi can all be sung with the same vocal style, with the colors, musicality, and rules of bel canto. This was the way of the great artists of the past.’
Even in this age in which, as he suggested, image is in many instances winning precedence over musicality, Mr. Pirgu maintains his dedication to refining his technique. ‘I consider myself fortunate,’ he confides, ‘for being able to read and understand music. A career as a singer is full of sacrifices, but the sacrifices are worth it when there is passion.’ The strongest passion for singing does not mitigate the challenges that an artist faces. ‘My biggest challenge lies in trying to bring my art to the audience as much as possible through interpretation of the music,’ Mr. Pirgu says. A focus on interpretation of the rôles that he sings is central to Mr. Pirgu’s performance philosophy, and considerations of interpretive depth join those of vocal suitability as he looks to the future. ‘Everything that I have sung thus far will also be ideal for me over the next decade of my career,’ he says. As he expands his repertory, he plans to continue his explorations of French repertory, selecting those rôles that both fit his voice and allow him to add new nuances to his skills as an actor. ‘For my future, I will add some rôles from the French repertory like des Grieux in Massenet’s Manon and Roméo in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. These rôles will likely pave the way for Faust later.’
Saimir Pirgu in the title rôle of Mozart’s Idomeneo at Opernhaus Zürich, 2010 [Photo by Susanne Schwierz; used with permission]
The debate rages about the need to make or keep opera ‘relevant’ to modern audiences in order to ensure the survival of the genre in the Twenty-First Century. Mr. Pirgu views the efforts of directors to make an opera ‘relevant’ to a particular audience as beside the point, musically and artistically. ‘In my opinion, there are no true modern or classic,’ he explains. ‘There are winning or not winning, good or bad, success or failure, intelligent or stupid, and all of these qualities exist regardless of whether a production is modern or traditional.’ Having worked with some of the most renowned directors in opera, Mr. Pirgu has participated in several notably controversial productions. ‘For me, a director must work first and foremost with the artists, to ensure that they understand his ideas. When they understand the director’s ideas, the artists can make the staging work.’ Mr. Pirgu cites Willy Decker, in whose production of La traviata he sang at the Metropolitan Opera earlier this year, as an example of a director who successfully communicates his interpretive points to the artists with whom he works. ‘In most cases, contemporary, non-traditional productions require more heightened acting skills and greater concentration on the part of the singers,’ Mr. Pirgu says. ‘Often, however, the result of attempting to be extravagant or innovative is to end up with an abstraction that is incomprehensible even to the singers, who know the music. The singer’s responsibility is sometimes to save a show, even if he is not always successful.’
His Albanian origins notwithstanding, to hear Mr. Pirgu sing bel canto repertory is to be transported back to the era of Tito Schipa, when breath control and placement of tone were paramount and artists relied upon proper projection rather than volume to fill theatres with golden, Italianate sounds. Mr. Pirgu shares that ‘the correct position of the sound of the voice and musicianship’ are the most critical elements of his method of singing, regardless of which rôle he is performing. As Alfredo in La traviata, Mr. Pirgu upholds the tradition of an artist like Cesare Valletti, an uncompromising lyric tenor who excelled in the part by avoiding forcing the voice beyond its natural dimensions. Mr. Pirgu improves upon the singing of both of these illustrious forbears by possessing a broader, more reliable range than Schipa and a richer palette of vocal colors than Valletti. Like these artists, however, Mr. Pirgu displays a refreshing understanding of the fact that, if one’s voice is to support a long career in the most important opera houses, it is the dimensions of the interpretation and the comfort of the tessitura rather than the size of the voice that determine the singer’s suitability for a rôle.
Just as his personality and artistic credo were influenced but not defined by the hardships that he experienced as a boy in his native Albania, Saimir Pirgu is dedicated to the art of song but not lost in an abyss of notes and ledger lines. He treasures the days when, rather than being one of the new millennium’s most exceptional young tenors, he is a thoughtful, dashingly handsome, but uncomplicated young man. ‘Once the curtain closes, I become a person like everyone else,’ he says. ‘I try to live my life away from the theatre with great simplicity.’ There is an element of that simplicity in his artistry, too: hearing his voice in the pensive music of Don Ottavio, in Alfredo’s ardent outpourings of love and bitterness, in the lovesick cantilena of Nemorino, or in the charmingly duplicitous phrases of the Duca di Mantova is one of the simple pleasures in an opera lover’s life.
Saimir Pirgu (right) in rehearsal for his performances as Rinuccio in Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi at Los Angeles Opera, with director Woody Allen (left) and conductor James Conlon (center); 21 August 2008 [Photo by Robert Millard for Los Angeles Opera; used with permission]
The author’s sincerest thanks are extended to Mr. Pirgu and to his Personal Press Representative, Karen Kriendler Nelson, for their kindness in facilitating the writing of this profile. To learn more about Saimir Pirgu’s artistry and upcoming performances, please visit his Official Website, follow his official Fan Page on Facebook, and subscribe to his feed on Twitter.