From Hollywood to Verdi: Tenor Riccardo Massi On His Quick Rise & Favorite Composer

By Francisco Salazar

Seven years.

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Berlin State Opera, Royal Swedish Opera and Metropolitan Opera.

Those are just some of the companies that have featured spinto tenor Riccardo Massi.

Seven years.

Now in his 30s, the tenor is slowly stealing the spotlight as one of the most exciting tenors on the rise, his vocal artistry matched by his movie star looks.

It is actually no surprise that he has managed this quick ascent, as the tenor’s background primed him for the many challenges of the opera world.

An Unconventional Path

While most opera singers study opera and simply concentrate on it throughout their college years, Massi had a unique journey while he was developing his voice. He was stuntman on many Hollywood productions including the Academy Award nominee “Gangs Of New York” by Martin Scorsese and the HBO hit series “Rome.”

“I  was involved in martial arts including Karate and Judo and free fighting. And one of my big passions has always been medieval weapons. So when I moved to Rome I found this teacher and he was also working in Cine Città which is the Italian Hollywood,” he revealed in an interview with OperaWire. “During that time period, a lot of Hollywood productions were in Rome. So they needed guys to perform stunts and I started to train with my teacher and we started to do this job.”

The work allowed him to continue his vocal work and in many ways, it prepared him for the stage. He learned to fall in what he calls “spectacular ways” and to do sword fights, which Massi wishes there was more of in opera.

But it also helped him in another respect. “It’s helpful if we’re talking about resistance and strength. But of course when you need to sing and act, what you need is elasticity. So you don’t need to be tough or rigid. You have to be relaxed.”

And while he could have continued as a stuntman, Massi always had one goal – Opera. From a young age, it was his dream to be on the great stages and sing the music of Verdi. And now he is doing just that.

But Massi is cautious about the rapid pace in which his career is going.

“Seven years of career is nothing. As the singers of the golden age said, ‘Singing is not a 100-meter run. It’s a marathon.’ It takes a lifetime because your body changes, your voice changes, your diaphragm changes and you change as a person. All your experiences make singing and acting richer.”

Verdi, The Best Teacher

With a spinto tenor voice, Massi has the fortune of singing some of the most challenging roles in the repertoire as well as some of the most sought after. And with such a powerful voice comes great responsibility. A singer performing these heavy roles has to be careful with his voice and never overwork it. The repertoire has to be chosen carefully and the evolution has to be calculated and well-timed or else a singer can burn out.

As a result, Massi is extremely careful with the way he chooses his roles and the way he schedules. For one thing, Verdi is Massi’s go-to composer and the one he thinks is best for the voice.

“It’s very hard to sing Verdi but he teaches you how to sing. The cantabile is uncomparable to others. So if you manage to sing Verdi, your voice will always be safe. Other composers can lead you out of good singing. Sometimes it can lead you to position your voice a bit high. That can be dangerous later on.”

The dangerous composers he refers to include many of the verismo masters. This repertoire is known for its extreme emotions, always moving toward major climaxes that can lead to burning out if a singer is not careful.  Puccini is one composer that Massi is currently performing and one he is particularly rigid with his approach.

“You have to be conscious of what you are going to sing. ‘Tosca’ is emotional but the music is very beautiful and tender. There is just a moment in the second act that he goes heroic. But for the rest, it’s very intimate and romantic. But Cavaradossi is more romantic than Calaf, which is tough. You always have to sing forte. He has ‘Non piangere Liu’  and tender lines after the riddles. But the rest is fire. It’s very difficult and you have to control everything you do.  But the good thing is that the role is not very long. So you can prepare every phrase before you sing it. And you can be ready for anything.”

As for Des Grieux in “Manon Lescaut,” that is a different story.

“Manon Lescaut is the hardest because you have to sing romantic, heroic, loud and it’s very long. When it comes to Des Grieux it’s like singing a Verdi role plus two. When you sing that role you have to prepare two to three weeks for just that. It’s very hard if not impossible to sing anything else in between. You should not stress the instrument.”

Scheduling is also a major theme in Massi’s preparation when it comes to Verismo.

“When you have a performance and then two days off, and the same pattern then I accept it. If you have a short time between performances then I might have to say no because the most important thing is the voice. The chords are tiny and delicate and the more you can do to rest them, the better off you are, particularly in this repertoire.”

And if he could choose what to sing more often he would definitely choose Verdi.

“Puccini and Verdi are very different. They are from two different historical periods and have two different musical styles. I love Puccini because in his music there is a lot of emotion and sometimes it’s easier to act because its verismo. A lot of the music and situations are more real when compared to Verdi or Donizetti. However, I think no one on earth wrote better for the voice than Verdi. It’s healthy for the voice. In fact, Verdi is the greatest Italian composer. I love all the other ones but Verdi is one step beyond them.”

A New Role 

Speaking of Verdi, in November, the tenor takes on a new role by the great composer – Foresto in “Attila.” It is one of Verdi’s early masterworks and very much in the Bel Canto style with long lyric lines and virtuosic cabalettas. While it is definitely not the longest in the Verdi canon, it is tricky and that means Massi needs time to thoroughly prepare it.

So what does he do when preparing a role? The answer is not simple and for him, there is definitely no formula.

“If I have nothing to do but study, I can learn it in two weeks. But if I’m working I have to find a few days in the week. I can study it musically all I want and I also study it with my teacher. Then I record it, listen and look at the score again and again. Once this is done, I have to start singing it and it can take two months or three weeks to put it into to my voice. It depends. For Foresto, it’s like Manrico. So it’s not easy. There is an aria and cabaletta that begins and it is very demanding but it’s beautiful.”

One thing Massi does avoid while he is studying is listening to old recordings. “The singers of the past were great but took too many freedoms vocally, something you cannot do anymore. Maybe sometimes, but you cannot go out too much.”

For the tenor, it is crucial to look at the music and follow what was written to create his own ideas about the character, the role and the rest of the opera. Only after he has defined his interpretation does he look to recordings and those occasions are rare.

“Maybe just then I listen to the great singers to see if I can steal something. Sometimes I find places where to breathe or places where I can create more elegant sounds or phrases,” he noted.

Verdi’s Path 

Studying Foresto isn’t just a new role for Massi, it’s a discovery of his favorite composer. Attila was Verdi’s 10th opera and it saw the composer still in his early period.

Being able to sing Verdi’s early repertoire has allowed Massi to trace Verdi’s roots and understand where the composer’s mature period came from. One opera he notes that is a great example is “La Battaglia di Legnano,” which is rarely performed and yet Massi holds it in great esteem.

“I don’t know why they don’t perform it more often.  You can hear some music that would become another masterpiece. For example, the finale reminds me of the finale of ‘Ballo in Maschera.’ And you can also hear a little ‘Traviata’ and ‘Otello.’ It’s beautiful and very interesting. Singing these roles allows you to understand the path the composer took to get from there to the late masterpieces.”

And vocally it’s also very helpful for him as he gets to understand how the composer evolved his writing for the voice. “You can recognize similarities. And the good thing about Verdi is that he always had this idea for the voices. If you sing ‘Battaglia di Legnano’ or if you sing ‘Don Carlo,’ it’s always healthy for your voice. Of course, you can recognize that his genius got better and better with age. That’s skill.”

Performance Rituals 

In the same way that Massi is particular with the roles he chooses, Massi is extremely methodical with his activities. After many years of experimenting, he has come up with a few routines that work well for him and his instrument.

For example, the day before a performance he does not speak so he can relax the vocal chords and rest up for his performance.

“If I shut up the day before a performance then I arrive at the stage with a very relaxed and fresh voice. I tried to have a normal life but you can feel it the day after. Of course, what you do technically, you do with your diaphragm and you can hear the difference. So the day before the performance I don’t talk at all. It’s a good habit. It teaches you to listen which is not bad.”

And the other habits he has also acquired is eating a lot of pasta the day of the performance and sleeping in.

“Pasta gives you energy for the whole night. And if I have to sing at 8 p.m., the night before I try to go to sleep at 2 a.m. and sleep until 11:30 a.m. Because if you wake up at 8 a.m. or 7:30 a.m. like everyone else, you are tired by the night, which is when we perform. So we have to be in full force. That is why I sleep until late. Then I eat a lot of pasta and go to the theater like two hours before. I then get dressed and stretch and chill out and relax. An hour before, I warm up and then I go on stage.”

The Future 

In looking to the future it is no surprise that Massi goes straight to Verdi. He wants to sing “Don Carlo,” which is one of his favorites. And the one role he wants to sing more than any other is one he has to wait for.

“Maybe one day I want to do Otello. But only if my voice tells me I can do it. Because that is a dream for any spinto tenor.”

But he is very cautious about taking on the titanic role.

“It’s dangerous because it’s a baritone role with top notes. The reason Corelli never sang it was because he realized that if you move the center of your voice to the lower register, then you can lose the squillo in the top notes and you can lose something up there. This is not something you can study. You have to take the role when you’re ready. It has to be a slow and careful process.”

But it’s not all Italian repertoire that he is looking forward to. The tenor, still in the seventh year of his career, is looking at the French repertoire and eyeing such roles as “Faust” and “Werther.” He will also return to the role of Don José for his debut at the LA Opera in Bizet’s “Carmen.” It is a part he sang at a very young age when he jumped in for Jonas Kaufmann in the “preview performance” at the Teatro alla Scala in 2009, and which he also performed at the Deutsche Oper Berlin.

But he has no rush to jump in.

As he puts it “We just began and there is so much Italian repertoire to sing. If something pops up then I will do it.”




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