Acclaimed by audiences and critics around the world, Saimir Pirgu has risen rapidly on both the opera and concert stages. Born in 1981, in Elbasan, Albania, he began studying music at a very young age. The recipient of several honors and awards, he has performed around the globe, becoming one of the best-known singers in the international lyric world.
This July he debuted the role of Riccardo in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Learn more about his career, friendship with Luciano Pavarotti and his first trip to Israel which he called “simply amazing.”
You began studying the violin and later moved to voice. What made you start the path towards becoming a classical musician and why did you switch to opera?
I have to start by saying that the passion for singing has always been inside me. Since I was a kid, I always loved to sing, I performed popular songs in front of small groups of friends and acquaintances. It has to be said also, that in Albanian elementary schools, the communist system worked with the education system, and in doing so provided extra music courses to encourage children with special talents in the arts. And so, a bit from choice and a bit from imposition from the system, I found myself studying the violin. I graduated, but I never stopped singing and the study of the instrument helped significantly to increase my musical training.
The big breakthrough came when in junior high school. As I have often said, I consider myself a “product” of the three tenors. In fact, it is thanks to them that I have taken the path of singing. When I was about 13 or 14 years old and living in Elbasan, a small industrial city of Albania, I saw on TV the famous Three Tenors Concert from Caracalla. I was fascinated. I recorded that concert and listened to it countless times. From that moment, I decided that singing and the opera world would become my life, and so it was.
You worked with Luciano Pavarotti; can you describe the impact that had on you?
I will never forget the day that I met him: I was 19, Pavarotti was in Merano (northern Italy) and asked if there were talented singers who wanted to perform for him. At that time, I was finishing my studies at the Conservatory Monteverdi of Bolzano, not far from Merano, and my teacher, Vito Maria Brunetti, mentioned my name so I was asked to sing for him. I sang “Una Furtiva Lagrima” from Donizetti’s Elixir of Love. After the aria, Pavarotti said to me, “Ciccio who taught you to sing like that? Do you know that you sing very well?” So he asked me to sing for him again. At that moment a strong bond was born between Pavarotti and I that lasted until the last days of his life.
Having received the teachings of Luciano Pavarotti has been for me a huge fortune. With him I prepared most of the roles I sing now. I went to him regularly, we studied together and he was always very helpful in giving me tips that proved valuable and fundamental for my career and that I find useful even today. I remember many hours of lessons devoted to the correct pronunciation and diction, to tying the notes in the passaggio zone, to tendering the voice in the best way…those lessons were so precious to me. Though I was very young, they are not just fond memories, but a source from which I still draw today.
What was it like performing with IPO throughout Israel? Is there something unique for you about this Orchestra?
It was really an amazing emotional experience for me to debut the role of Riccardo with one of the best orchestras in the world and especially directed by Maestro Zubin Mehta. I really could not ask for more, I’m truly honored. One thing that I find really unique in this orchestra and choir, in addition to the high quality, is the enormous positive energy that the musicians are able to convey – their joy in making their work is so obvious and contagious, that it allows you to work in this ideal climate. Even in rehearsal, when I finished singing my arias, I always heard their enthusiastic applause, and this is something that really gave me so much pleasure.
Is there a memory from these weeks in Israel that stands out for you?
The rehearsals were very intense and the performances very close to each other, so this caused some inevitable stress among us musicians. But, at the same time, it also allowed us to be more united, developing a positive energy and the desire to give our best. Our efforts really paid off, as the concerts were a great success.
Thanks to my work, I have visited a large part of the world, but this was my first time in Israel. Between the performances, the orchestra organized a trip to the holy city of Jerusalem, an initiative which I accepted with great pleasure since it gave me the chance to visit one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen in my life. I loved all the places I visited in Israel. Tel Aviv is also a beautiful city, with beautiful beaches, beautiful places and especially beautiful people who are always friendly and ready to make you feel at home. It was a really great experience, and if I were to be invited back to sing here again, I would accept with great pleasure.
You are an ambassador for Down Syndrome Albania (DSA), a foundation for helping children afflicted with Down syndrome. How did you get involved with this group?
It was a new thing for me; in the past I never had an occasion to approach the issue of Down syndrome. It all started in 2013 when I received a letter asking for support from an Albanian mother. Thanks to her letter I learned more and got involved. I went to Tirana to meet her and her family and I became attached to the idea of helping them.
In October 2013 we organized a charity concert in Tirana that had a great media success in Albania. For the first time in my country it was possible to speak openly about Down syndrome. A few months later, with the help of several sponsors, donations and government assistance, we were able to open the DSA center which offers support to anyone who asks for help with or information about Down syndrome.
Cultivation of a younger audience for classical music and especially opera is a huge topic right now. As a young singer yourself, what are your thoughts on bringing this new generation into the opera world?
Classical music, and in particular lyric opera, has the stigma of being elitist music which makes it difficult to attract young people. Additionally, suffice it to say, that the ticket price of an opera performance is not exactly cheap and a young person can often not afford it. Despite this, I must admit that in recent years, thanks to the initiatives of theaters, opera streaming and the spread of opera culture through social media, I’ve noticed that the audiences of my performances around the world are increasingly made up of young people. This makes me very pleased.
Just look at the fact that 80% of my fans on Facebook are young. Maybe because I am young too makes them feel closer to me which then brings them closer to my work. So I think we are on the right track and that we must continue to rediscover the opera culture and make it as accessible as possible to everyone, spreading it throughout society. All this will help more young people approach the magic and incredible word of opera and to appreciate its great beauty.
You have accomplished so much at such a young age; where you see yourself in ten years?
Despite my young age, I already have a 14-year career behind me. But it is also true that I am not able now to predict where I will be in ten years. Every moment of my career, in fact, was built with much effort day by day and I will continue to do the same. Ten years ago I did not expect to get where I am today and in ten years I hope to say the same! One of my big dreams is to be able to offer everything I have for as long as possible. I dream, then, of a long career, that is well-made, healthy and without follies!
Do you have any pre-performance rituals?
I’m not a superstitious person. Before every performance I try to achieve peace of mind, removing as much as possible the tensions and personal problems that should never be taken on the stage. Great tranquility and self-control allow you to give your best during the performance.
Who are your favorite composers and why?
Mozart and Verdi. They are, to me, the greatest opera composers ever.
Mozart, anything that he touched just became like a miracle in his hands. And Verdi is the combination of artistry, writing and heart. He was a man with so many qualities. He had an outstanding sense of the theatre, of drama and of music. If you think that when he listened to Wagner, he stopped for ten years to just think about the music and then, at the age of 80, he composed Boccanegra, Falstaff and Otello, it’s simply incredible. Then, you realize that this isn’t just a normal man, he’s something special… perhaps superhuman!
And with Mozart it is exactly the same. When you study Mozart’s music, you find that he could control every single note and change it without changing the format of the music. If you look at Mozart’s and Verdi’s careers, the change of format is minimal – though Verdi changed a bit at the end due to the new music – but they knew the human voice and stayed with what is best for it. In Mozart’s and in Verdi’s music you feel the music from the earth, there’s passion, there’s humanity: you see the real power of music.
What do you like to listen to when not performing or rehearsing?
I love all music and I used to listen to all kinds of music during my free time. However, my instrumental training brings me to often prefer classical instrumental compositions. I love especially those of Mozart and Beethoven which I usually listen to during jogging, another great passion of mine. I love racing and music together, it helps me to release stress from a performance, clear the mind, discover new places and make me feel better.
View photos taken during rehearsals for Un Ballo in Maschera
Professional photographs of Saimir Pirgu by Fadil Berisha