December 11, 2013

Getting used to the wild and unruly Albanian capital

Editor’s note: Carolyn Stevens spent a month in Albania to sing in the premiere of the opera “Tannhhäuser” by Richard Wagner.

Editor’s note: Carolyn Stevens spent a month in Albania to sing in the premiere of the opera “Tannhhäuser” by Richard Wagner.

It took me a while to get used to the sounds of the city. The tall apartment buildings echoing every noise, children screaming in the school, the calls to prayer at the mosque, the bells of the Orthodox cathedral, car alarms, street hawkers and a rooster’s incessant crowing. Albania’s capital Tirana is colorful, bustling and full of personality.

Albania, to me, seems a little unruly, as if it is still trying to figure itself out. But it is full of enthusiasm and potential. It has a fascinating history, having spent thousands of years conquered and occupied by every major empire, including the Greeks, Romans and Ottoman-Turks. The country’s national hero, George Kastrioti (more commonly known as Skanderbeg), defended his country against the Ottoman-Turks for 25 years almost single-handedly until he died of malaria. Albania gained its independence 101 years ago this Thanksgiving, thanks to the intervention of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. The independent Albania has been led by a series of kings and governments until it came under the rule of dictator Enver Hoxha, whose regime kept it isolated from the world until 1992.

Since then, the country has had unrestrained capitalism, which is evident everywhere. In the midst of old, tile-roofed homes spring up hulking apartment buildings, some left unfinished because money ran out.

Also apparent is how far Albania has come as a democracy. Albania made international news for its refusal to host the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons. Protests raged in and around Tirana for weeks prior to the refusal. I watched the entire country come together to make its voice heard.

The language barrier was a bit of a problem for me. Most Albanians speak their native language and either Italian or English, and I was singing in a German opera with people of many nationalities. Fortunately, I was usually able to get by OK with my one chapter of Rosetta Stone Italian, six or so words of Albanian and good, though rusty, German. It is amazing how quickly it becomes completely normal to speak three to four languages in day.

Our entire trip was one wild ride after another, especially as we got close to the premiere of “Tannhäuser.” Two days before opening, we did not know if we had costumes. A few days before that, we were not sure if we would have projections and a painted set. No one was able to try out makeup or wigs until opening night. No publicity was done until five days before the performances.

But somehow, with the help of a news conference and a few all-nighters, we found ourselves on stage, singing our hearts out in front of a sold-out audience (including the German ambassador and 10 people from the U.S. Embassy) and national television cameras from the Republic of Kosovo.

We had a very successful run, punctuated by television interviews, minor emergencies and most of the cast getting sick (I spent most of the last performance huddled in my dressing room with the flu).

So, did our efforts really contribute to the cultural reintegration of Albania? I don’t know, but I am lucky to have had such a fascinating, wonderful experience. When the curtain went down on opening night, the people in the crowd were cheering but the ones on stage were crying and cheering even louder.

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