Modesto opera singer Roy Stevens has had many great moments in his career, but none as wonderful as last month, when he performed the role of Albanian national hero Skanderbeg in the Eastern European country's national theater.
He was proud that he was able to sing the part in the difficult Albanian language (ancient Illyrian), which is not related to any other language. His colleagues there told him he was the first foreigner to accomplish that feat.
"This was the most remarkable experience of my career in many ways," said the 1975 Modesto High graduate, who has sung at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, Teatro alla Scala in Italy and Dresden Semperoper in Germany.
Stevens said he was honored to be trusted with such an important role. The performances were held in the capital city of Tirana in honor of the 100th anniversary of Albania's independence. It was as if a Frenchman were playing George Washington at the Independence Day performance in Washington, D.C.
The opening-night show was attended by the prime minister, members of the government and ambassadors. The audience and prime minister gave the cast a standing ovation. Then hundreds of people came on stage to get their pictures taken with Stevens.
"I was the legend come to life," Stevens said. "It has power we can't understand."
The opera had been performed only once before, in 1968. The new production was viewed as an important event. Stevens was interviewed by many reporters, who were amazed he could pull off the role. He said 3,000 to 4,000 people attended the opera's four performances.
The final performance was taped for telecast by Albanian National Television and will be internationally televised in a few months by the Albanian Satellite Channel.
Born in 1405, Skanderbeg was a general whose name means "Lord Alexander," after Alexander the Great. Known as "The Dragon of Albania," Skanderbeg is known for fending off the armies of the Ottoman Empire. It was the one bright spot in Albania's history, which included domination by the communists and a dictatorship that ended in 1992.
References to Skanderbeg are on Albania's money and national flag. The hero is deeply embedded in Albanian culture. The nation's citizens learn about Skanderbeg from the time they are children.
Stevens was impressed by how the audience members responded to certain words in the opera. They were from speeches everyone knew. "It's like 'Four score' for us," Stevens said.
Albania has a population of about 3.6 million and is near Greece and countries from the former Yugoslavia. It's contending with all the opportunities and challenges of unregulated capitalism. There is new construction everywhere in Tirana, but the average person makes only about $250 a month.
Stevens arrived in Albania in late May and stayed for a month. A fun part of the experience was that he got to work with Albanian special-ops forces members who had just returned from serving six months in Afghanistan. They played extras in the opera.
"When they played dead, they simply did not move, no matter the position, because of their special-ops training," Stevens said.
He said he felt safe and welcomed. Albanians love Americans, Stevens said. "They're fascinated by America land of freedom, hope and democracy."
Stevens doesn't know why more Americans don't travel to Albania, because it has the same beautiful beaches and food as Greece and other Mediterranean areas at a fraction of the cost.
There was symbolic power in him as an American playing the Albanian hero because U.S. President Woodrow Wilson stopped Serbia and Greece from dividing Albania and helped it get its independence. Also, President Bill Clinton protected Albania during the Yugoslav conflict and President George W. Bush was the first sitting U.S. president to visit Albania and backed its drive to join NATO.
Stevens said he worked long and hard to prepare for the role in Modesto. Albanian is the 14th language he has sung. He worked with an Albanian actress living in Hollywood, Greta Zenelaj, who helped him with pronunciation during a visit in Monterey. Stevens was pleased that she and her sister Vilma Zenelaj and their parents attended "Skanderbeg."
Stevens was invited to play the part after he performed in the opera "Salome" in Tirana in 2009. He and his wife, fellow opera singer Annalisa Winberg, will return in October 2013 to perform in the Albanian national theater's première of Wagner's "Tannhäuser." Stevens also will act as artistic consultant. The couple's 16-year-old daughter, Carolyn Stevens, will attend and may be able to perform as an extra or in a small role.
But Stevens never will forget playing "Skanderbeg."
"I believe that when I am no longer performing, the great career moments that will live in my memory will be those where I was able to genuinely touch the lives of an audience," he said in an e-mail. "In this case, I was able to touch the lives of many people from an entire country. A truly remarkable and unique experience!"
Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan Renner can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2313.