As a boy in Albania, Saimir Pirgu studied the violin, the instrument allocated to him by the communist bureaucrats. After turning 18, he left his family and moved to Italy to continue his studies. His teacher soon suggested a switch from violin to voice. Singing had a definite appeal for Saimir. Through adolescence he had mimicked The Three Tenors, a staple of Albanian television. In a neat twist, at just 19, his teacher nominated him for a lesson with Pavarotti. The lesson ended up extending across many years, until Pavarotti’s death, as he coached and mentored Saimir in the development of his remarkable voice. Most years, Saimir is away from home 300 days, off performing somewhere in the world. Luckily, he can chat in six languages.
Fresh from Barrie Kosky’s production of Bohème for LA Opera, he has arrived in Melbourne to appear in Opera Australia’s Faust. He quickly sussed out the cafes of Southbank to find the best coffee. Elvira Ralston-Ellis and I joined him for some caffeine and a chat.
You’re in Melbourne making your debut in the title role of Gounod’s Faust. What are your thoughts about the role?
Firstly, it’s a beautiful role to sing. Then it’s very nice to be on stage with this character. It has a range, with a moving personality. It’s a role to show who you are, vocally and as an actor.The opera starts with him as an old man thinking about all the suffering in his life and what he could have had. He has nothing more to expect from his life and he’s trying to do that one last prayer, but to the wrong person. In one second comes the devil, the Mephisto, and tells him, “Listen, perhaps your life is not done yet. You can have whatever you want, but I want you and that’s the price”.
That’s the problem of all humanity, I think. When people are weak, when they’re scared, when they’re insecure, they do the wrong thing. Because it’s very difficult to be a nice person, it’s hard work every day and to be bad you just need one action. Of course, at the end of the opera he’s still not happy.
You’ve sung the character of Faust before in Berlioz’s setting “”La Damnation de Faust”. How does it compare with the Gounod version?
In all my interpretations before, for the Berlioz, it’s a bit darker than the Gounod. The character suffers more in the Berlioz, I think. But Gounod’s music has something special. The quality of sound that this composer made for the character is so difficult. The range of singing is from the dramatic to the lyrical tenor, and the duets with Marguerite and the competition with Mephisto – it makes the character more complex. Of course, the public is more in love with Mephisto because he can lie to everyone.
Your first time performing in Australia was in 2017 for the Sydney season of Szymanowksi’s “King Roger”. It seemed a difficult opera, how was it to sing?
Yes, it was difficult. When I arrived in Sydney, I was already prepared as I’d done King Roger at the Royal Opera House in London. It was very hard work, especially the language. I went for two weeks in Warsaw to understand it, because the melody of Szymanowski is exactly how the Polish language is. You don’t learn too much in two weeks but at least you are closer to an idea of what they mean. And I realised that for them there are not so many vowels and more consonants together so that made everything more difficult, but I did it. [Laughs] When we did the opening night in London, a lot of Polish people were there and were very happy with the result. In Sydney, we had a Polish coach who did a wonderful job.
The Royal Opera House had the courage to show this not so known work, which is more like a concert than an opera itself. So [director] Kasper Holten had wonderful ideas and Antonio Pappano conducted very beautifully. I approached it with very beautiful emotion. We were close to getting a Grammy [for Best Opera Recording]. I remember that production as one of the best of my career.
You’ve done big traditional tenor roles such as Pinkerton, Alfredo, Rodolfo. But then you obviously enjoyed singing Shepherd in “King Roger”. How interested are you in contemporary music?
It depends what kind of contemporary music. I don’t do atonal music or electronic music. It doesn’t work for opera singers. I think none of those experiments in the last 30 or 40 years has shown that they will have a public who appreciate them like Szymanowski is appreciated. This composer wrote amazing works and I’m sure we have plenty of others from his time that are stuck in some library. And at that time, perhaps the music was too much, or too soon, but today it can be very OK.
There are singers like me who are looking for something new. So you can give to the public or your fans or the critics something new. It’s like when you do the Italian repertoire or the French or other regular opera, people expect you to do well. But when you do something that’s not usual, that’s when you show more and more who you are. I’m very open about that. I think for any artist there comes a time when you need the courage to develop and open up your repertoire.
You’ve been in several streaming broadcasts, including “Traviata” from the Met. What do you think about the place of streaming in the future of opera?
I’m not very enthusiastic about technology, because they are too different: theatre and technology. But I’m not against the new technology that has been a huge success for the last 20 years to give people in Europe or Africa or Albania, for example, the opportunity to see opera from around the world. It’s an amazing idea.
But today Vienna State Opera does streaming, Royal Opera House does streaming, The Met does streaming, La Scala does streaming and they do any production. They used to do opening night, one or two operas. Now they all do streaming over and over. It’s like a shop we have everywhere and we don’t need so many clothes. We don’t have time every day to see streaming. And when it’s too much, then maybe the quality can get lower.
But the other problem we already have is that this kind of technology is taking away the difficulty of being on stage. Perhaps some singers look good for the camera but they are not good enough for the big theatre. To be an opera singer takes years of practice in projecting the voice well. If we use a microphone, we become a musical, and we already have that.
I think in the next 10 years we need to plan how we [use technology] without destroying what we have and still reaching the same level of quality that we had before.
It’s been reported that you were offered the role of Siegfried in “The Ring” but declined. Do you think you may do it one day?
I think there are a lot of people who try to direct you into German repertoire. But I think probably the only role for me at the moment would be Lohengrin. We don’t know what’s going on in 10, 20 years. If my voice would develop in that way, why not? The German repertoire is wonderful. Very difficult and completely different to what I’ve done.
You were only 22 when you debuted as the youngest ever principal singer at the Salzburg Festival. Did you appreciate that at the time?
When I was there, I had done only one or two productions at that time. I had done some Rossini festival, Ferrando in Cosi Fan Tutte and some concerts and the next was Salzburg where I sang Ferrando again. So I was new to this and I didn’t realise how important it was. It’s like you go into a hotel and you see that it’s beautiful but you don’t know how expensive it is. I realised later how important Salzburg was because then every theatre in the world was asking me to sing just that role, Ferrando. I was a little bit disappointed because I can do some other role. It was dangerous to my career. So I decided to tell my agent I don’t want to sing it anymore because people think you are only a Mozart singer. Then they saw that I could sing other roles, Donizetti or Verdi, Puccini.
I got a contract at Vienna State Opera and did Nemorino in L’Elisir d’Amore, with that wonderful orchestra. I was still 22. Basically I was like a prodigious kid, everyone wanted to see what he can do. And I’m sure that the technique was not 100 per cent OK and the voice was not big enough but what they wanted to hear was the musical quality. Especially for the Vienna audience, they are very open and they love music and perhaps to them I was very exotic that young.
But still now I need to be firm about what I can do. If you don’t have control over it, people will say you’re only this or not that. You’ve got to be focussed and show to everyone who you are. It’s very hard for the younger generation to have the courage. First you need to sing and be good and then they can judge you. And your agent needs to convince the theatres. Theatres don’t have the courage to get someone with the future in mind. They don’t want the risk to help make their career bigger. They take the young just for one role, just to try. It’s a business now.
Do you think also that some young singers don’t want to risk doing a role they don’t think they’re ready for?
What I can say personally is you don’t learn things in the studio, you learn things on the stage singing. I’ve heard people saying, “Duke of Mantua was so difficult”. No, it was not that difficult. Traviata was more difficult for me than Duke of Mantua. It depends how it fits for you. And they were saying Un ballo in maschera is the role of this other singer. No, I sang it in Palma and it went very well. Nothing happened. When you know what you’re doing and you see after one performance or after 10, that your voice is still in good shape, that means it’s the right thing to do. What do you think, can I sing Otello? Don’t ask; you’ve got to try it. When you’re young, you may crack a high C, but that’s how you learn.
And we return to the question about technology. Singing is long years of practice and practice. I think I’m still learning that I didn’t learn anything in the 20 years I’ve been singing. [Laughs]
Is your twin brother musical too?
No one in my family is musical. I’m lucky that I can be the only one who is eccentric. [Laughs] To be honest, I’m so proud of my background with my family. It’s a really happy family and I think it’s the power of my career. When you’re away so much, keeping your life real is so important. My brother, my mum, my nephew and now my niece. My father passed away years ago, but my mum – it’s too far to Australia – but usually when I’m in Vienna, Paris or especially Italy, she comes every time. I’m performing in Vienna even on Christmas Day. So I’m flying to Albania after that to be with my family and enjoy the New Year.
Photo credit: Fadil Berisha
Gounod’s “Faust” is being presented by Opera Australia at Arts Centre Melbourne, State Theatre on November 27 and 29 and December 3, 5 and 7, 2019.