Saimir Pirgu discusses the challenges and excitement of taking on the Shepherd in Szymanowski’s operatic masterpiece.

Szymanowski was quite a new world for me as normally I am considered an Italian repertoire singer – I’ve sung a lot of bel canto, Mozart and Verdi. But if the Royal Opera asks you to make a new production with Kasper Holten and Antonio Pappano, why not? 

I took a lot of time to prepare, working with a Polish coach. Even for the Poles in the company – who were proud to have Szymanowski at the Royal Opera House – it was the first time they were doing a new production in London. And of course, the principal singer, Mariusz Kwiecień, was Polish, so I had to be very well prepared.

Saimir Pirgu as Shepherd and Mariusz Kwiecień as King Roger in the Royal Opera House performance, photo © Bill Cooper

I’ve sung in many languages and I speak five quite well, but Polish was the most difficult language I’ve ever had to learn. Normally in singing technique you need to pronounce the consonants plus “ah” and “ee” very well, but in Polish it’s like “zh, zh, zh” – it’s like you have a bad connection! It was really quite difficult. However, on opening night at the Royal Opera House there were a lot of Polish people in the audience and they were quite happy, so I’m glad they understood – at least half of them, I hope.

The opera centres on King Roger and the Shepherd. Of course, Roxana has a beautiful aria, but she doesn’t play a big part in the story. The most important element concerns a Shepherd who takes all that the King has in his mind. It’s quite difficult, quite philosophical. For the London production we took away some of the suggested homosexuality and Kasper Holten made the story a more philosophical one about powerful men. The Shepherd is an important businessman, a man of today. I’ve seen other productions where the Shepherd becomes a seducer who’s taken everything from the King. 

In this production we focus on the mystique inside the head of the king, so it becomes more spiritual. In the end, the Shepherd is the King and the King is the Shepherd – this was Kasper Holten’s idea. So the production really focuses on how the King and the Shepherd are all one figure. They start out separate, but by the end of the opera you don’t understand who is what.

Kasper Holten is a very intelligent man with a huge amount of stage experience. We worked for six weeks to create something new, and in the end I think we’d done exactly what he wanted. This doesn’t happen every time. Kasper paid attention to exactly where it was going from the first day, he knew it from the beginning. I respect this mentality. It was really quite a wonderful experience and so
I’m very glad to be doing it again in Sydney.

Symanowski’s music is really amazing – not just for people who don’t know opera, but for everyone. In the first 20 minutes the audience is shocked by the beauty and importance of this music. It’s like hearing Turandot and Tristan at the same time – it has a lot of big sounds. The Royal Opera exploded with the volume of the orchestra and the chorus was just full on. It’s so intelligent. The composer spent half his life travelling around the world to find new colours and exotic sounds. You can hear influences from the German, British and contemporary schools. I think he was a genius. 

My favourite moment is in the second act when the Shepherd is trying to take control in his mind. The music is like Scarpia or Mephistopheles, really intense. Then we have Roxana’s beautiful aria, and together with the dancing it all becomes quite sensual. As you listen to it more and more, Szymanowski’s music becomes a really wonderful duet. If you have a chance to hear the opera more than once you will understand it more deeply.

It’s not an easy opera and you have to be careful singing the role of Shepherd because the orchestration is so full. As most of the piece is played out between the King and I, it can feel like 90 minutes of music with just two people and that’s quite difficult. Fortunately it’s really well written and fits me quite well, although it requires a full voice and a big tenor sound. After one of the performances, Anna Netrebko came into my dressing room and said, “After this you can sing Otello!”

Saimir Pirgu will sing the Shepherd in Opera Australia’s King Roger at the Sydney Opera House as part of the Sydney Festival, from January 20 to February 15