12 Mar 2014
Interview: Tenor Saimir Pirgu — From Albania to Italy to LA
Maria Nockin interviews tenor Saimir Pirgu.
Maria Nockin interviews tenor Saimir Pirgu.
When legendary tenor Luciano Pavarotti was at a spa, he asked for a singer to come and perform for him. My teacher suggested that I sing for him. Pavarotti liked me so much that he became my mentor. That was the luckiest moment of my life! I was nineteen when I started working with him.
Albanian lyric tenor Saimir Pirgu has sung in the world’s most important opera houses. He began his career as a protégé of Luciano Pavarotti and Claudio Abbado. Pirgu has studied with Vito Brunetti for his entire career.
MN: Saimir, you come from Albania. Can you tell us a little bit about the country?
SP: Albania is very close to Greece and Italy. It has a beautiful coastline and wonderful mountains. It is my country and I love it, but we have had a sad history because we were subjected to forty-five years of Communism. Now that is all gone and it’s a good time for tourists to enjoy its beauty. Albania’s problem is that it is small and can’t afford to do as much publicity to bring in tourists as Croatia, Greece, and Italy do. However, I’m very optimistic and think, with a new government in power, tourists will begin to flock to Albania’s uncrowded beaches.
I was born and grew up in the hard working, industrial city of Elbasan, close to Tirana. I began violin lessons at the School for Music and Art there. I wanted to study piano, but the school insisted that I begin with violin. Now I realize that the ear training one gets from the violin is very valuable to a singer. Actually, playing any instrument makes a singer a better musician. If I did not have that violin background, I doubt that the great conductor, Claudio Abbado, would have worked with me personally. You have to have much more than just a beautiful voice to be a successful opera singer. Young singers have to be able to understand what each conductor is asking of them. That takes good preparation and a good musical intellect. It’s why students should start learning an instrument in elementary school. I attended what Americans would call junior and senior high school in Tirana and after that, at the age of nineteen, I left Albania to study at the Monteverdi Conservatory in Bolzano, Italy.
MN: How did you find life in Italy?
SP: Bolzano has two fine orchestras and it is the home of the Ferruccio Busoni Competition. It was at the conservatory in Bolzano that I met my coach, Vito Brunetti. That school is my alma mater. When you live somewhere as a young man you leave something of yourself there! My time in Bolzano was really good because that city and that school had everything a student could want. You had both Austrian and Italian culture there because that part of Italy has a continuing relationship with Austria and Germany. Living there, you learn both languages. Understanding both cultures is important for a music student. Upon finishing my studies I was prepared to work in both Milan and Vienna. When I eventually came to New York City I realized you could find every language and every culture, even Albanian, there. It has quite a big Albanian community and some of the restaurants in Little Italy are more Albanian then Italian.
MN: How did you meet Luciano Pavarotti?
SP: When legendary tenor Luciano Pavarotti was at a spa, he asked for a singer to come and perform for him. My teacher suggested that I sing for him. Pavarotti liked me so much that he became my mentor. That was the luckiest moment of my life! I was nineteen when I started working with him. Whenever he would return home, I spoke with him. In 2001, I won the Umberto Sacchetti Competition in Bologna and the next year the Enrico Caruso competition in Milan, followed by the Tito Schipa Competition in Lecce. As a result, almost every time I spoke with Pavarotti, I had some good news to tell him.
In 2004, I got a call from Claudio Abbado’s office asking me to audition. I called Pavarotti and asked him about it. He said, “Of course you have to go and sing for him. If he doesn’t like you there’s nothing lost. If he likes you, it’s wonderful for your career.” After the audition, Abbado chose me to sing Ferrando in Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte with him in Ferrara, Emilia Romagna and Modena. Thus, I made my debut in this role where the tenor disguises himself as an Albanian! I worked on Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor, Alfredo in La traviata, and most of the roles I now sing, with Pavarotti. Every time he had a little time I went to Modena and he listened to me. He was a lot more than just a mentor to me.
I’ve also learned important things from other singers who are having long and meaningful careers. Some years ago the Met called and asked me to do La traviata mentioning that Diana Damrau and Placido Domingo would be singing in it. I said I don’t sing Gastone any more. Then they told me that Placido would be singing Germont! It was a great pleasure to sing with him. I’m a very lucky man. From singers like him I’ve learned that a tenor has to develop a solid technique that will carry him through several decades. Some singers only perform for a couple of years and they are done. If you are young you can have everything, a good legato and beautiful high notes for a year or two. After that comes the hard work. You will be lost if you have not developed a useable technique. You have to prepare well to have a long career and you have to take care of your voice. That comes first.
MN: Which composers’ music do you find is best for your voice?
SP: For me singing bel canto is best. Not Rossini, however, to sing his music you need a special technique. The music of the other bel canto composers, Donizetti, Bellini, etc., is best for me. The more Donizetti and Bellini I sing, the better it is for my voice. L’elisir d’amore and Lucia di Lammermoor are difficult operas but you can control your legato while singing them. If you sing Puccini you have less control. On a bad day when you are not feeling well, Puccini can be very difficult. When you are singing Donizetti, the music does not allow you to push too much, so the career of a lyric tenor who sings a great deal of Donizetti will last considerably longer.
James Conlon, who will conduct the Lucia in Los Angeles was one of the first conductors with whom I sang, so I have known him for a long time. He is one of the most important conductors that I work with. Every year or two we do something together. The first opera I did with him was Falstaff in Bologna. Then Placido Domingo asked me to come to Los Angeles to do Gianni Schicchi with Conlon. That production, directed by Woody Allen, was my United States debut. That was one of the most wonderful productions I have ever done in all my years of singing. Conlon has done a great deal for my career and I am very happy to again be with him in Los Angeles this year. In September, I will be doing Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni with him in Ravinia. Between those engagements, I go to Barcelona for concerts with Angela Gheorghiu, to Vienna for Hector Berlioz’s Messe Solennelle with Riccardo Muti, and San Francisco for Alfredo in Traviata with Nicola Luisotti.
MN: I understand that you have not done much modern opera. What would attract you to a contemporary opera?
SP: I would like modern composers to do more music and less mathematics. I would hope that new operas would follow some of the established traditions and appeal to a major part of the present opera audience. Two years from now I will do Karol Szymanowski’s King Roger with Antonio Pappano in Covent Garden. That has beautiful, interesting music. Modern composers can have bigger orchestral sounds and we have much bigger halls than in former times, but the human voice doesn’t change. The composer and the conductor still have to accommodate the size of the unamplified human voice. We need to be careful about asking people to sing over a hundred instruments playing in the pit.
MN: Can you compare the early nineteenth century orchestra with that of today?
SP: The orchestras were not nearly as big in Donizetti’s time as they are now. The tuning was much lower, then, too. Now orchestras tune higher and higher. Tenors still have the same voices they had in Donizetti’s time and I imagine we will have the same voices for the next five or six hundred years. I don’t want to be an opera singer with a microphone. Stage directors and conductors who love voices need to take care of this problem. Right now we have a lot of excellent lyric singers with beautiful voices and we need to protect them so that they are not gone in five or six years. Travel is also much different from what it was for previous generations and it, too, has an effect on the voice.
I once spoke with Nicholas Harnoncourt about these problems. He noted that it is difficult for an orchestra to play piano. It’s much easier for everyone to play forte and fortissimo. As a result, we singers are not sure we should sing pianissimo. Conductors need to remember that there are only one or two voices singing on stage while they have as many as a hundred people playing at the same time in the pit. The singers of Toscanini’s time were very careful with repertoire and conductors took care not to ask singers to push their voices beyond what was good for them.
I hope that the new emerging generation of conductors will care for the human voice. Otherwise we might end up having opera amplified like popular music. People love to attend the Met in HD and it’s wonderful that these beautiful productions can be seen around the world, but the sound of the voices in the cinema is not the same as in the house. Digital sound is always different. Sometimes the quality of the voice is better, it’s just not the same. I’m a technology man and I’m very happy with all the electronic advances. I’m just saying that we shouldn’t lose the good things we already have. We need to protect the best of existing technology while we add to it.