"This is the house of God. You can't turn me away."
Admittedly, the language is reconstructed and from a foreign tongue, but the facts are the facts. In September 2000, in Bolzano, at the southern foot of the Dolomites in the Italian Tirol, Saimir Pirgu, an 18-year-old music student fresh from Albania, knocked on the door of the Convitto Rainerum, a home for students in their late teens run by the Society of St. Francis de Sales. Seeking work and shelter, he was informed that he was too old and too Albanian.
Leaving home, the young Mr. Pirgu had told his parents, both employed in metal production, that he had been admitted to the Conservatorio Claudio Monteverdi in Bolzano to continue with violin, and this was true. He had also told them that he had won a scholarship, and this was not. As expected, his slender savings ran out within a day or two. So he stood his ground, and the Salesians took him in.
Mr. Pirgu, who is now 31 and a tenor with an international career, made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 2009 as the peripheral boyfriend Rinuccio in Puccini's "Gianni Schicchi." (His microaria can stop the show.) On Thursday he returns as Alfredo Germont in Verdi's "Traviata," a straight arrow from the country bedazzled by the consumptive Parisian courtesan Violetta Valéry.
As a boy in the Balkans, Mr. Pirgu wanted to play piano, but he had a good ear, so the Communist commissars assigned him to the violin. He discovered what was to become his true calling in his midteens.
"Whenever anyone important died, our national TV station reran 'The Three Tenors' all day," he said last fall in San Francisco, where he was making his debut as the hothead Tebaldo in Bellini's "Capuleti e i Montecchi." "Who knows why? When I was 14 or 15, I recorded them on tape off our TV set. The sound was terrible, but it was good enough for me. I tried to imitate them, but it was impossible. My voice was changing. I had no high notes."
Once in Bolzano, Mr. Pirgu made good at his new home — helping in the kitchen as other lodgers did — and at school, where he was soon advised to switch majors. "Sing," the voice teacher Vito Maria Brunetti told him. "In a year you'll be a singer."
"And I was," Mr. Pirgu said. In 2002, the year he graduated, he also aced competitions honoring the memory of Enrico Caruso and Tito Schipa, tenor paragons of yesteryear.
As exotic monikers go, Mr. Pirgu's — pronounced SIGH-mere PEER-goo — poses no great challenge. For now, though, a lot of opera fans just settle for "the Albanian tenor." As the crow flies his homeland lies a mere 45 miles across the Strait of Otranto from the heel of the boot of Italy, but for many in the West it might as well be the dark side of the moon.
"People ask me if we're Slavs," Mr. Pirgu said. "We're not. We Albanians are a race as old as the Greeks and Romans. People ask if I'm Muslim. I'm not. St. Peter passed through Albania on his way to Rome. We're completely Catholic. We're a small people, just three and a half million, and we were folded into the Ottoman Empire for five centuries, but we never lost our language and traditions."
"La Traviata" is Violetta's opera, and some tenors sniff at Alfredo as a second banana. Mr. Pirgu has a real affinity for the character and loves his music. (Besides, Violetta echoes three of his big tunes.) "Alfredo is young, appassionato, a little provincial," he said. "And compared to the Western world Albania is kind of a provincial place. I'm not so naïve as him, but when I love, I love with passion. I wish the end were different for Alfredo and Violetta. I love happy endings. But Verdi, the genius, knew better than me."
Conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Met "Traviata" revival stars Diana Damrau, following her triumph in the company's "Rigoletto." The tenor Plácido Domingo, who began a decade-long Met run as Alfredo in 1970, appears as Alfredo's sanctimonious baritone father.
By now Mr. Domingo has had several occasions to assess his younger colleague. As general director of the Los Angeles Opera, Mr. Domingo has presented Mr. Pirgu in "Gianni Schicchi" (directed by Woody Allen) and Mozart's "Così Fan Tutte," with Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor" coming next season. In Paris the two teamed up as rivals — one a pretty face, one a poet, both heart-on-sleeve tenors — in Franco Alfano's "Cyrano de Bergerac."
"We had a wonderful time," Mr. Domingo said recently between performances in Valencia, Spain. "I'm really looking forward to working with Saimir again. His technique is superb, and the lyric quality of his voice is so beautiful."
Before Mr. Domingo, the most durable of the Three Tenors, Luciano Pavarotti, arguably the most beloved, had already adopted Mr. Pirgu as a sort of godson. Wanting to pass the time during a stay at a fat farm near Bolzano coaching young talent, Pavarotti contacted Mr. Brunetti, who put forward his student Mr. Pirgu.
"Big Luciano — pardon the liberty — had a great liking and esteem for Saimir," Mr. Brunetti said recently. "They became great friends."
What did Pavarotti teach him? "Luciano gave me brilliance," Mr. Pirgu answered. "He showed me another world. Just to see him, how he prepared, how he spoke, how he walked into a room."
But what, Mr. Pirgu once asked, is the secret to vocal health?
This, as reported by Mr. Pirgu, was Pavarotti's reply: "Intonation. Sing at the correct pitch, and automatically your voice settles into perfect position. And when people understand the words, that's best of all."
Words gave Mr. Pirgu some trouble early on at the Teatro Comunale in Bolzano, where he had been hired while still in school. His grasp of the text of the First Man in Armor in Mozart's "Magic Flute" was shaky, and the stage director wanted him fired. But Manfred Schweigkofler, then the general director, demurred. Next Mr. Schweigkofler set up an audition with Ioan Holender, the despotic director of the Vienna State Opera.
Impressed, Mr. Holender handed Mr. Pirgu a rookie contract and threw him in at the deep end in 2004 as Donizetti's shy bumpkin Nemorino in "L'Elisir d'Amore," a signature role for both Caruso and Schipa. That debut opened many doors.
With his shock of jet-black hair, lively eyes and winning smile, Mr. Pirgu slips into Nemorino's skin with ease; but tragedy — tempestuous or somber — suits him too. His singing sounds spontaneous and unforced, graced by an intuitive play of light and shade and a silken touch in hushed passages. For now his instrument is lyrical rather than heroic, yet reckless impresarios have already been dangling offers even for Siegfried, Wagner's marathon man. Maybe someday. Maybe never.
Early on, with Mr. Schweigkofler's help, Mr. Pirgu drew up a list of houses he should play. "La Scala, Covent Garden, the Bavarian State Opera, Zurich, the Metropolitan Opera," Mr. Schweigkofler said. "The paper still exists. And Saimir has done all of them, ahead of schedule."
Between bullet points Mr. Pirgu has embarked on other adventures. Nikolaus Harnoncourt, the radical antiquarian maestro, tapped him for the taxing and emotionally draining title role of Mozart's "Idomeneo," a sequel to the history of the Trojan War. Last summer Franco Zeffirelli, the Cecil B. De Mille of opera, corralled Mr. Pirgu for "Don Giovanni" at the 15,000-seat Roman arena in Verona, the first Mozart ever mounted in that anti-Mozartean space. On Swiss television Mr. Pirgu portrayed Puccini's poet Rodolfo in a "Rent"-style "Bohème," transmitted live from locations in Bern, where passers-by could intrude even at moments of greatest intimacy.
In short, Mr. Pirgu has done well. From his first earnings he bought his parents a house, raising his father's suspicions, he said, of dark dealings in sex or drugs. "He asked my mother, 'How is it possible, in so short a time, coming from nothing?' He couldn't believe that singing could give me such a wonderful life."
After the Met "Traviata" Mr. Pirgu joins Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for Bach's B minor Mass, a cathedral in sound that Mr. Muti refuses to treat (or shun) as an exercise in Baroque performance practice. Flouting contemporary orthodoxies, Mr. Muti has assigned the solo parts to a quartet of Italianate operatic voices.
"The intensity of Bach's Mass springs from the intensity of the liturgical text," Mr. Muti said recently from Ravenna, Italy. "The singing must never be frigid or pedantic. A glamorous sound, charisma and a histrionic personality are advantages for any singer, of course, and in opera they can cover a multitude of sins. Bach's vocal writing also requires the musicianship of a top string or wind virtuoso, along with great verbal expressivity."
Having collaborated with Mr. Muti across a repertory from Mozart and Mercadante to Berlioz and Verdi, Mr. Pirgu anticipates this latest challenge with his characteristic good cheer.
"I'm against the idea that you should be a specialist," he said. "You have to sing with your voice and do it well, whatever it is. Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Bach: it doesn't matter. That's what the great singers always used to do. You specialize if you can't do anything else."