Few singers can lay claim to breaks as lucky as Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu. Introduced to the world of opera by a Three Tenors concert as a teenager, it wasn’t long before he was enrolled at the Conservatorio Claudio Monteverdi in Bolzano and auditioning for none other than Claudio Abbado. Pirgu was only 20, but the venerable maestro invited him to sing the principal role of Ferrando in a production of Così Fan Tutte that he was conducting. It was the singer’s professional debut.

Saimir Pirgu. Photo © Fadil Berisha

“It was only later that I understood how important it was to have made my debut with such an important conductor,” Pirgu says. “We worked really hard and it was Claudio Abbado who made me start thinking seriously about my technique and about finding a coach. He made me take a greater responsibility for my voice and thanks to him I felt like I arrived in the opera world through the front door.”

Engagements in Salzburg, Vienna and London followed in quick succession.

The tenor’s second lucky break was getting to study with his idol, Luciano Pavarotti, mere months after arriving in Bolzano. Pavarotti took an immediate shine to the unassuming youngster, and the pair became fast friends. Pirgu coached all of the roles he still sings today with the legendary tenor and feels incredibly fortunate to have been one of his final pupils. They worked together for six years, a remarkable amount of time given the older singer’s whirlwind schedule and an indication of his commitment as well as generosity toward Pirgu.

“The most important thing that I learnt from him was diction and intonation,” he explains. “What made Luciano great was his diction and that sunny voice, the clarity of his voice, and the way he projected it. We never focused on volume or size, but how it is that a voice can fly and cut through the orchestra. Meeting Luciano was one of the most important things in my life.”

Now 38, Pirgu has sung at the world’s most important houses, including the Metropolitan Opera, La Scala, Covent Garden, the Vienna State Opera and the Bavarian State Opera. He’s currently performing in Opera Australia’s Faust, making his debut in the title role after an acclaimed company debut in Szymanowski’s Krol Roger in 2017. Faust is a part he’s had his eye on for a while, but previous offers have clashed with other commitments.

“It’s a role I’ve always wanted to do but it was never a possibility, so I need to thank Opera Australia for giving me the opportunity. I’ve done Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust many times, but never Gounod’s. I’m really happy to do it now in this beautiful production by David McVicar and with wonderful colleagues like Teddy [Tahu Rhodes] and Maria [Mudryak].”

Maria Mudryak and Saimir Pirgu in Opera Australia’s Faust. Photo © Jeff Busby

“Faust allows you to show everyone what kind of singer you are,” he explains. “It’s a role that requires a big range. You need to sing with a full voice but also be very sensitive and light in places and be very careful to have all those colours that are needed. It’s also a very complex one to play because you are old, then you are young, then in love and there’s a delusion there, and then you realise you have been lied to by Méphistophélès and you end up as the loser of the whole piece.”

Limelight’s Patricia Maunder described Pirgu as “all that one could wish for in the title role. By turns eager, charming and remorseful, his character’s evolving feelings are clear both dramatically and vocally. His tenor is full of romantic expression, with considerable power that melts away beautifully.”

Pirgu’s rapid ascent has made him careful about his repertoire choices, with Mozart integral to his early career. Bel canto roles and the more lyrical verismo heroes have been his focus for much of the last few years, with Pirgu insisting that he’s not about to jump into the spinto repertoire any time soon.

“I’ve been singing very carefully in the last 15, 16 years and I’ve never chosen something that didn’t fit me or that I didn’t think how it would be in performance, night after night. Usually I prepare a role one or two years before singing it. You need time, the right venue, the right conductor and colleagues to experiment.”

Des Grieux from Puccini’s Manon Lescaut is one role Pirgu is ready to admit he’s interested in, but it’s followed by a lengthy acknowledgement of its attendant difficulties.

“It’s a very, very challenging one, one of the most difficult lirico-spinto roles, and I think it might only be possible in the next 10 years but I don’t know. For the moment I am quite happy with what I am doing.”

Opera Australia’s Faust is at Arts Centre Melbourne until December 7