Sound Bites spotlights up-and-coming singers and conductors in the world of opera.

Sound Bites: Saimir Pirgu

by LOUISE T. GUINTHER

Sound Bites Pirgu hdl 912
Photographed in Paris by Pierre Mandereau
Grooming by Faustine Hornok
© Pierre Mandereau 2012
Sound Bites Pirgu sm 912
© Pierre Mandereau 2012

Saimir Pirgu was only six when Albania’s Communist regime forced him to take up the violin. “Violin for me was a sufferance, because you need to learn every day five or six hours, and I was just a child,” says the lyric tenor in his lilting Albanian accent. But he acknowledges that the results may not have been all bad. “Everything was very crazy in this dictator system. They controlled everything — I mean, you couldn’t say nothing. I would have liked to play piano, but they say, ‘No, you need to start with violin.’ But I am happy for this decision, because probably if they don’t send me to music school, I will not be connected with the music.”

It was the 1994 “Three Tenors” concert — a rare encounter, via television, with the outside world — that led him to his true calling. “I am a product of ‘Three Tenors,’” he says emphatically. “It’s the starting of my life. Five years after I watched for the first time this concert, I left Albania and was going to Italy, to be singer in the Conservatory Monteverdi. It was the opening of the world for me, because I was free to make my own decisions.” After a year of strictly technical training under Vito Brunetti, Pirgu promptly won both the Caruso and Tito Schipa contests and found himself engaged for Così Fan Tutte under Claudio Abbado.

“Was very, very fast, everything, for me. If you are so young, it’s much easier, because you don’t think a lot. I was without fear. Probably, at twenty-one or twenty-two, you are too young with the technique, but my feeling was in the music, and probably Maestro Abbado sensed this musicalità in me.”

Paradoxically, his whirlwind success seems to have left Pirgu with a greater than usual awareness of the need to pace himself. “Today, the world is very small. And the careers of singers are shorter, because people don’t think so much. But for me, if I am singing my roles — nothing too big — probably my career will be much easier and longer.”

“His” roles include Nemorino, the Duke in Rigoletto, Werther. He makes his San Francisco Opera debut this month as Tebaldo in I Capuleti e i Montecchi. Then there is Alfredo in Traviata, the role that brings him back, in March 2013, to the Met, where he made his debut as a mellifluous and strikingly natural Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi. Alfredo isn’t at the top of most tenors’ lists of favorite roles, but Pirgu finds the music “really beautiful. Probably most tenors love to have a big success in their aria, but Alfredo’s aria — I’m sorry, nobody expects a big effect after this. And the cabaletta, you need to go offstage, and this is the only reason the tenors don’t like it,” he says with a laugh — “because they cannot stay there and make a big applause.” spacer

LOUISE T. GUINTHER

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Current Issue: December 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 6