Q&A: Saimir Pirgu On Italian & French Repertoire And His Upcoming Roles

By Francisco Salazar

Saimir Pirgu is one of today’s top tenors, singing at every major international theater, including the Metropolitan Opera, the Teatro alla Scala, the Vienna State Opera, the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, the Paris Opéra, the Berlin Staatsoper and Deutsche Oper, the Zurich Opera, Barcelona’s Liceu, the San Francisco Opera, and the Salzburg Festival.

This season he heads to the Teatro Colón for “La Traviata,” an opera he is returning to after some years. He will also make a role debut as Gabriele Adorno in “Simon Boccanegra” and Pinkerton in “Madama Butterfly” before returning to the French repertoire for “Roméo et Juliette.”

Pirgu had a chance to speak with OperaWire about his 2017-18 season and what he is looking forward to doing.

OperaWire: You are returning to Teatro Colón. What is special about Argentina?

Saimir Pirgu: I did “I Due Figaro” with Riccardo Muti and I don’t really remember it because I learned the score while I was there. I was singing in Salzburg that year. I was singing with Maestro Muti in Salzburg and some other colleague canceled. He asked me to learn the score. It was quite massive. So when I arrived in Buenos Aires, after the first impression of the beautiful theater, I didn’t really get much time to explore. I was always working on the score. So I am very excited to be there this time with “Traviata,” a score that I know. The Colón of Buenos Aires is one of the most beautiful theaters in the world and for me, it is nice to be there.

OW: You have sung “La Traviata” for many years. How has the role developed over the years?

SP: I stopped singing it for a few years. After the Met, I felt that I needed to stop because I had done around 25 new productions around the world. I have done it with the greatest sopranos and baritones. So I felt that it would be nice to leave it for a while. Sometimes when you sing a role too much it becomes a routine. You get tired of it. You miss the quality of the music. You become tired of doing the same thing. So I am very happy to be back with new colleagues. Ermonela Jaho and Evelino Pido will make it special. I have done it with Ermonela many times and Maestro Pido is a great conductor. There is no reason why it can’t be a great “Traviata.”

OW: What do you love most about “La Traviata?”

SP: I think that for tenors it becomes more difficult. Alfredo doesn’t really exist without a wonderful Violetta. It is about her. The other protagonists are two arms. When you find the right colleague onstage, you bring more energy to the role. You don’t get moments like “Nessun Dorma” or “Di Quella Pira.” You are always there with her or his father. [You’re] never really alone onstage. The aria is short and the cabaletta has often been canceled. So the role isn’t really great for the ego of a tenor. And that makes it more and more difficult. You need a lot of acting and good voice and even when you sing well, it is difficult for people to fall in love with the singing. No one remembers Alfredo’s aria. Alfredo without Violetta doesn’t exist and this makes the role very, very difficult.

OW: Is that the same with Gabriel Adorno in “Simon Boccanegra?”

SP: This is completely different. This is serious and full-sized Verdi. For a young singer like me, this is exciting. To be with Ambrogio Maestri and other Verdi singers is great for learning. And doing it in Italy is tough because they know it so well. They know about singing. So it is a nice place to make a debut.

OW: You’re also doing the Requiem this season. What are the challenges of singing his music?

SP: His operas are masterpieces that will be around for the rest of human history. For me Verdi and Mozart are the ones that give me the most when I perform them. They have created my career. I have only done the most famous Verdi operas like “Rigoletto” and “La Traviata.” He has the dramaturgic genius that other composers don’t have. You always find new colors with the words and music and the Requiem, especially, is the highest level you can find from Verdi. After many years, he thought that he could give a lesson in how to make ever-lasting beauty. I did it with Riccardo Muti, Antonio Pappano and Gianandrea Noseda, and I have learned so much from them. So everytime I do it, I try not to lose what I have learned from them but also create something new that resembles my way of doing Verdi. The music is so beautiful.

OW: Does singing Bel Canto help singing Verdi?

SP: Everything helps, especially Mozart roles. All singers have done Mozart, from [Mirella] Freni to [Joan] Sutherland to [Plácido] Domingo. Bel Canto and Mozart are the key. Before Verdi and Puccini and Wagner, it has to be done. The new generations need to start with those composers. I started very young and I think that Mozart and Bel Canto saved my voice. Maybe for others, it is different, like a dramatic voice. But it helped most singers.

OW: How did it save your voice?

SP: When you sing Mozart or Bellini or Donizetti, the composers knew the voices so well. They didn’t stretch them more than they should. They knew how to control the voice. So when you sing Mozart, you can’t sing loud in some places because the music doesn’t allow it. Mozart puts you in the passaggio a lot where it is hard to sing loud all the time. You can do it in Puccini, but not in Mozart. It’s all about delicacy, the squillo of the voice, the point of the voice. But when you lose this lightness in Bel Canto it doesn’t sound well. You can have a huge voice for Bel Canto but it sounds ugly. Those composers were all about quality, not quantity. You also need a beautiful voice. You can’t sing whatever you want. There is so much legato. That is why something like “Casta Diva” is so exciting. Because you hear the voice going and going and going without losing its quality under pressure.

OW: After you do Adorno, you are doing Pinkerton and Gounod. Tell me about singing Puccini vs. French?

SP: I am not an expert in Puccini. The ones I have done are “La Bohème” and “Gianni Schicchi.” I have had success with Boheme, but honestly, I am not that much of an expert in Puccini and that makes it so I can’t tell you much about “Butterfly.” I don’t like the character of Pinkerton and that can make it quite difficult. I am hoping for a great stage director to help me with the character because he isn’t the nicest guy honestly. Also, with Verdi, Donizetti, and all the other composers, you think about your voice. With Verismo and Wagner, the orchestra is so huge, it is all about size. People love to play louder in Puccini and Wagner. It is completely different.

OW: Have you performed a role you disliked before? How do you do that?

SP: I don’t like all the roles I sing. Like Alfredo, I think you can ask thousands of tenors and they won’t tell you they really love it. They will be politically correct. But none will tell you that it was amazing. And still, with Pinkerton, it will be the same, I think. And there are roles that you really love, like “Elisir [d’Amore] or Rodolfo [in “La Bohème”]. It is beautiful. You can just go onstage and do it. And there are others that you have to wait and wait. And then there are surprises. For example, I did “La Damnation de Faust” by Berlioz. It opened up a lot of new possibilities for me that I never thought would be possible.There are situations where you don’t expect things to go the way they did, like “Damnation de Faust.” And then there are situations where you realize that a role just isn’t right. Like Don Ottavio isn’t the role that might be as much fun. You don’t exist as a character, but only for those two beautiful arias. For the rest of the show, people don’t really care about you. And especially with new modern productions where they try to weaken him. Sometimes I want to push back and make the directors realize that he is still a nobleman. But that is the beauty, that I can try to give every character something new with the director. For example, with Damiano Micheletto, we tried to do something different with the Duka di Mantua. It opened up new ideas for me and this excites me.

OW:  Roméo is such an iconic role. How do you make him fresh?

SP: That is a huge and beautiful role where you can show the public you have a beautiful voice and be a good actor. You need finesse. You need melancholy. You need power. You have an entire opera to express yourself. That makes the role amazing for me. I am very excited to do it in Barcelona.

OW: What are your favorite moments in “Roméo et Juliette?”

SP: Everything. The aria. The end of the second act. You are with a fil di voce that you need to show the audience that you are in love with Juliette. It is fun to look for the right color of love.

OW: What is the difference between singing French and Italian?

SP: I am starting to do Russian, Polish and German as well and I can tell you that French is not the easiest to sing, especially those operas in France. French people are very demanding with their language. But for Italians and Spanish people, it is hard to lose that Latin accent we all have. For me, it is still hard work because I don’t like singers at high levels with accents. That isn’t right. It is so difficult. In Italian all the vocals are open, but there are nasals in French and mixed vocals as well that make it so difficult. I think that one of the best singers is Roberto Alagna because he can do both Italian and French so well, whereas other singers can’t really do that.


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