Massimo Cavalletti is regarded as one of the most exciting young baritones from Italy. The owner of a large, muscular and vibrant voice, he trained in his home town of Lucca and at the Accademia della Scala. Now in his mid-thirties, he has already performed on such prestigious stages as the Salzburg Festival, Glyndebourne, Vienna, Berlin, the Met, Brussels and Zurich. His repertoire includes roles in operas by Donizetti, Verdi, Rossini, Massenet, Bizet, Britten and Puccini. Future plans include Ford at the Saito Kinen Festival and at la Scala, Escamillo at the Met and at the Liceu, and Marcello in Amsterdam and at la Scala. I caught up with Mr Cavalletti between his performances of Marcello at the Royal Opera House.
Mr Cavalletti, you have already appeared on many of the most important stages in the world. What inspired you to become an opera singer?
When I was 6 years old, I started singing in church and I fell in love with music, studying piano and organ. I never thought of being an opera singer initially. My dream was to be an electrical and telecommunications engineer and I also started my studies in this field. Then, when I was around 18 or 19 years old, one of the priests, who was a big opera lover, told me ‘you have an amazing voice, you should try to study’ and he brought me to a pianist in Lucca where I experimented with singing. At that point, it didn’t quite feel right and so I went back to my engineering studies. Afterwards, I met another opera singer, the bass Graziano Polidori, my first teacher in Lucca, and he told me that I ‘had’ to study to be a singer as he had spotted some potential in me. At that time I wasn’t sure because I had other plans for my life. I spent 9 months thinking about whether I really wanted to go ahead with studying singing, and then I started my vocal studies fully in June 1999. Since that point I haven’t stopped working on my voice. I fell completely in love with singing and for the first time in my life I discovered something that felt so natural for me to do. Then, everything started to fall into place. I finished my studies in Lucca and moved on to La Scala where I studied with Luciana Serra and Leyla Gencer. I made my debut there. Since then, I have based my career at all times with respect for the music, respect for the stage, respect for my colleagues, and thanks to God for this gift that I have received.
You grew up in Lucca, which was Puccini’s home town. How has that influenced your repertoire?
I am very happy to be from Lucca. It feels amazing to be singing Puccini everywhere. At the beginning I was more of a fan of Verdi and also right now Verdi is a bigger part of my repertoire. I really love Puccini though. When I go to Lucca, I enjoy visiting his home in Torre del Lago – it’s an amazing place to think and reflect on life and on music. I also meet his great-grand-daughter while I’m there and visit the house with her, she’ll show me places visitors don’t always get to visit. Even now, Puccini is very present, his grave is there – he’s there. For sure in twenty years’ time I’d love to be able to sing the big Puccini baritone roles – Scarpia for example, but especially Michele from Il tabarro. These two characters are amazing. They are full of everything life has to offer. I really hope to be able to do them later on in my career.
Right now, I’m singing Marcello and it’s a great role for me. He’s a young guy and if I think of who Marcello might be today I imagine him as an Erasmus student away from home. He’s a dreamer, he dreams of life and art. It was his own decision to become poor to try and understand something different in his life. During the opera you really see Marcello growing up and his life changing. He realizes that it’s not just a game. For Puccini, Mimì’s death represents the end of the friends’ teenage years – they grow up immediately and understand how difficult life is.
Marcello is interesting too because we often forget about him when we sometimes concentrate too much on Mimì and Rodolfo. For Puccini, it was very important to have four friends and two love stories because he wants to show people how different love is, between Musetta and Marcello and between Rodolfo and Mimì. The piece also shows the love that you find in friendship. Here where we have an amazing cast, we can really find the balance that the work needs. Every character in this piece is important, even Benoît and Alcindoro because they set up some of the important parts of the story. I’ve done over 100 performances of Bohème in my life, almost 80 Marcellos and between 20 and 30 Schaunards.
The performance of La bohème last night (July 15th) was broadcast live to outdoor screens all over the UK. You have also already made a number of DVDs – 2 Bohèmes, a Boccanegra, a Falstaff. When you’re performing for something that is being filmed, does that change the way that you approach the evening?
Yes, something definitely changes. We spend some time with the camera director before the show because he will give us notes on what we need to do. Also the lighting is much brighter. To get the best sound with the microphones we have to sing in a different way, positioning the voice much higher. That’s why I prefer to record a broadcast the way we did yesterday with the microphones on the stage picking up the sound; these microphones catch the same sound the audience hears. That’s the way we did it with the Bohème from València and the sound is amazing on that set. The Boccanegra DVD from La Scala was recorded by RAI engineers who mixed the sound from the radio broadcast and the TV broadcast and it also sounds amazing. When we sing, the sound comes straight out of our mouths, so with a microphone on our head or close to our face, we catch the sound from each other more and that sound tends to be a bit darker. The other thing is that having a performance filmed changes the way you behave on stage because we want to produce something that looks more like a film. Usually, I never lose contact with an audience but when I am on stage for a broadcast or a DVD, I will sometimes sing to the back of the stage to make it more cinematic and to also play for the audience at home or in the cinema. I think yesterday worked well because the broadcasting director came to all the rehearsals and we decided many things together. This season I did live broadcasts from La Scala, the Met, Salzburg, and now from Covent Garden. Even when I recently sang Ford in Amsterdam we did an open-air broadcast. Now it seems that almost every show I do is broadcast and I enjoy it.
You already have a very wide repertoire, how do you learn a role?
For sure, I start with the libretto and I also try to translate it into modern Italian. If the libretto is based on a play by Shakespeare and Schiller for example, I also like to read the original. I believe that it is crucial to have a really deep understanding of the text and why the composer and librettista chose this particular work. Then, I take the score and I start to learn the music and also the words. Of course, the first few times I cannot remember everything, I need the score. Afterwards, almost like a magician, during the night I start to think about it. Right now, I’m studying Puritani and when I’m under the shower in the morning, I immediately start to think of the text of Puritani. When I start learning a role, I prefer to go to a coach who plays my lines and records the score for me. Once I have learned my lines, I then go to another coach where we start to work really in-depth on the part. I prefer to work by myself until I have learned the role fully and then I start listening to recordings. I think it’s important to internalize the roles first because otherwise it’s very easy to assimilate the mistakes from the recordings. Mistakes are easy to memorize but the score itself is a lot harder to remember. I like to listen to others to see what kind of tricks they use to overcome the difficult parts of the scores.
Some scores are very easy – I can learn them in one week – others take much longer to learn. Ford in Falstaff and Rodrigo in Don Carlo for example, both of those took me a long time to learn. I started Renato in Ballo almost one year ago. It’s not that I need one year to learn it – I need maybe three weeks to study it – but then I need a year to feel it in my throat and in my body. To feel happy with a role, I would say that an opera singer needs twenty performances. That’s the reason I think that we should debut in smaller houses to build up the role and then move on to the bigger houses. Whenever I have a new engagement at a big, important house I have a lesson with my pianist even if it’s a piece that I have sung many times. It’s important to arrive determined and fully prepared. In our contract it is written that the singer has to arrive at the first day of rehearsals with the part completely memorized and off-book. We should always respect this part of the contract. Rehearsals are important to focus our minds on the context in which we are singing this opera. Not every production is the same. It all depends which time period the staging is set in, which character we are playing, which conductor we have.
You have a very big sound, it’s a rich muscular sound, it seems to me that when I listen to you, the voice is still growing and that it’s going to grow even bigger
Yes, because you know Marcello needs a really big voice. Not just in terms of size but also the ability to cut like a knife through the orchestra. In Verdi or Donizetti, where I sing arias and cabalettas, the voice finds the right position where the sound and the harmonics grow bigger and bigger. Marcello on the other hand is quite conversational. I studied a lot to bring my technique to this point especially because orchestras are often very loud. I also think it’s really important to have a good technique to bring the words to the audience. Without the text we have no communication. Opera is all about communication and we portray emotions through the text. Today, people like to multitask – for example they watch TV while playing with their phones and listening to music. Opera is modern in that way because we give the audience music, text and drama and also sometimes you can even smell what’s happening on stage. I always dream that for the three hours of a show our audience is completely transported away from their daily life to a completely different place and feel real emotions. That’s why I do this job.
Technically, the most important thing is to have good breathing and a profound understanding of how our body produces the sound. The whole body, especially the stomach, the throat and the neck have to be absolutely relaxed, very easy. We can also use the muscles in our legs to take energy from the floor. Nowadays, we are expected to act a lot more than years ago – we have to play and jump, dance and do many things on stage. For some reason, it’s actually easier than before because when you have to do something else on stage, the singing and the text help you to do it. Sometimes, when you’re standing still, you don’t quite find the right position for the sound.
An opera singer never stops studying. My teacher, Leo Nucci, is still studying now at the age of 74. He still sounds fantastic because every day he gives time to his voice and he takes care of his instrument. As singers, we are in love with the voice. The voice is like a very jealous wife, she cares.
You have a number of debuts coming up – your debut at the Liceu as Escamillo, you’re doing Riccardo in Puritani for the first time. What are your immediate future plans and what exciting things can we expect from you in the longer term?
I decided to debut Puritani for two reasons, firstly because I really enjoy and love this kind of music, I think it’s the best bel canto opera. I chose it also to find new ways to work my voice. Secondly, I also decided to do it because I have never sung in an opera house in my native Tuscany. They have built a new theatre in Florence, the Opera di Firenze, and I was excited to be asked to open the new season there.
For the next few years I hope to continue singing the repertoire I am doing right now and perhaps introduce a few other operas. When I do a new opera, I like to debut it and then leave it for maybe a year or more and then try it again. I think it’s important for the body to grow into the part. Next year, I will be debuting Renato in Ballo in concert with Zubin Mehta conducting in Tel Aviv. This one is different. Maestro Mehta asked me to do it and for sure, I didn’t want to say no to him. I’ll try it out in concert as it’s easier than trying it out in a staged production. For sure, if I like this role, I won’t want to do it in a full staging for another two or three years afterwards, perhaps after 2017. I was also supposed to stop singing Escamillo but the Met and the Liceu invited me and I couldn’t say no and so I started to study this opera again as a reason to improve my French. I believe I’ll be singing Lescaut in Manon Lescaut very soon, I can’t say where exactly yet, but I will. I sang it once in 2008 in Berlin and I think this time will be almost like a second debut because a lot of time has passed since the previous one. I have many other Bohèmes, Falstaffs and then Barbiere again. I’d like to stay in this lyric repertoire for the next few years. I can wait for Traviata, Trovatore, Forza – I’ll try them for sure but after I turn 40. For the next few years, I’d definitely like to keep this repertoire.