Albanian Adventure: Central Valley teen on trip to sing, experience the culture

11/20/2013 12:00 AM

11/15/2013 1:16 PM

My first impression was of the traffic. Everyone was honking at one another, cars were changing lanes seemingly randomly, turn signals were the exception rather than the rule, and everyone seemed to have the right of way, all at the same time. I have seen bicycles pedaling down the freeway while livestock is herded along the side, buses doing U-turns in entirely arbitrary places, and Gypsies begging in the middle of the road with one hand outstretched and the other holding a baby, their eyes silently challenging the passing cars. Oh, so you want to cross the street but don’t see a crosswalk? No problem, jaywalking is the national sport. I sincerely believe you have not had the full Albanian experience until you have almost been hit by a speeding car.

But at the same time, drivers in Albania are much more aware of what is going on around them than most American drivers. They approach driving almost like a game where the only rule is not to get hit. They may not always stop when they see a pedestrian, but they know exactly how much space they have to spare. Even when there are no lane lines, everyone somehow agrees on how many rows to make.

Why am I in Tirana, Albania? To sing in the opera “Tannhäuser“ by Richard Wagner with the Teatri Kombetar i Operas dhe i Baletit (The National Theatre of Opera and Ballet of Albania). This will be the first time any of Wagner’s iconic pieces is performed in Albania, due to hundreds of years of conquests (Greeks, Romans, Ottoman-Turks, etc.) ending in the brutal communist dictatorship of Enver Hoxha, who kept the country completely isolated from the rest of the world until 1992. My father, Roy Stevens, was asked to act as artistic consultant for the project, as well as sing the title role, and he has gathered a team of professionals from around the world to help make this truly unique project possible.

Which is where I come in. I will be singing the Shepherd, a small but difficult role originally intended for a boy soprano but often sung by a young female soprano. My mother, Annalisa Winberg, will perform the lead soprano role.

So two weeks ago, we all hopped on a plane and arrived in Albania, only to find that the entire show was on the verge of being canceled. You see, the opera house gets most of its funding from the government, which recently had a different party come into power. Consequently, all the important people in the governmental bureaucracy have changed and the entire system is frozen as the new leaders, including the artistic director of the theater, try to figure out what is going on. On top of that, a bunch of legal issues have resulted in the theater being unable to sign any artists’ contracts for the foreseeable future.

My dad has had to take on the duties of producer, as well as artistic consultant and lead tenor and, with the help of the U.S. Embassy in Albania, is working frantically to raise money and ensure that this symbol of Albanian cultural reintegration hits the stage in a week and a half. In the meantime, the music, staging, Wagnerian style and German pronunciation are under way and progressing well.

Probably the most significant thing I have learned so far about this country is that all the rules are different, and trying to apply American logic to them will get you nowhere. Nothing happens for a long time and it all seems impossible, then suddenly everything is happening all at once in a mad burst of productivity. Case in point: For weeks, our costume designer was unable even to buy fabric, but now, two days after the seamstresses received the material, there already are several costumes ready to be tried on.

It is just like trying to cross an Albanian street. Sometimes, you just have to dive in and hope for the best.

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