Tenor Saimir Pirgu continues his rise in opera
This Sept. 2012 image released by the San Francisco Opera shows Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu, right, during a performance of "I Capuleti e i Montecchi," in San Francisco. (AP Photo/San Francisco Opera, Cory Weaver)
NEW YORK (AP) — The unlikely encounter between first-time opera director Woody Allen and a budding Albanian tenor began with about 20 minutes of near-silence at rehearsal.
"I barely spoke English, and he barely spoke — at first," jokes Saimir Pirgu.
Then, in 2008, he was an emerging tenor who had one of the biggest breaks of his young career as a principal in an Allen-directed comedic opera.
Four years later, 31-year-old Pirgu is an even hotter hire in the music business. He's appearing with the San Francisco Opera in Bellini's "I Capuleti e i Montecchi," a reworking of "Romeo and Juliet" that runs through Oct. 19. Later this season, he'll sing at New York's Metropolitan Opera alongside Placido Domingo in Verdi's "La Traviata," and with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under celebrity conductor Riccardo Muti.
His performance with Domingo will serve as a reunion: Both Domingo and the late Luciano Pavarotti, two of The Three Tenors, not only inspired Pirgu's career but also helped nurture it.
"I'll be at the Metropolitan singing with Domingo, and I was friends with Pavarotti. It's unimaginable!" says Pirgu, speaking from San Francisco via Skype — in Italian, since he's still learning English.
At the Met, he'll play a young man arriving in the big city and falling into a doomed love — a character a bit like himself, says Pirgu.
He left Albania a dozen years ago for Italy. Pirgu was the son of parents working in the metals industry in Elbasan, a small city in what was a struggling communist country when he was born. He started singing at about 2, and was plucked from kindergarten by the government for a special gifted-child education.
When communism fell in the early 1990s, his parents — one Muslim, the other Christian — lost everything, including their jobs. But Pirgu held on to his dream of studying voice in Italy.
"I told my mother, I'll never come back, whether or not I'm accepted at the conservatory," he recalls.
He was 18, with the equivalent of about $500 to his name, when he entered the conservatory in Bolzano, a northern Italian city where he could only afford a bed in a dorm run by priests, washing dishes for some money.
This Aug. 21, 2008 photo released by the LA Opera shows director Woody Allen, left, speaking with a young cast member as Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu, center, looks on during a rehearsal of "Gianni Schicchi" in Los Angeles. At 31, Pirgu is an even hotter hire in the music business, having worked closely with two of The Three Tenors who were stadium megastars _ Placido Domingo and the late Luciano Pavarotti. He's appearing with the San Francisco Opera in Bellini's “I Capuleti e i Montecchi,” a reworking of the Romeo and Juliet story that runs through Oct. 19. (AP Photo LA Opera, Robert Millard)
Months later, Pavarotti was vacationing at a nearby spa. He'd heard about the Albanian teen and was curious.