Q & A: Francesco Meli on COVID-19, the Arts & His New Academy of Advanced Professional Training

By Francisco Salazar
(Photo Credit: Victor Santiago)

Francesco Meli is one of the world’s leading tenors and has performed some of the most demanding Italian repertoire at every major international opera house.

During the pandemic Meli has remained visible thanks to many online concerts performed both from his home and from the concert hall. He has also been busy in the recording studio preparing Mercadante’s rarely performed “Messa Solenne.” Outside of his performing life, Meli is opening the Academy of Advanced Professional Training in Genoa, Italy, to help young artists train and get professional experience in preparation for the difficult world of opera. He will lead the program as the Artistic Director while continuing his busy performing career.

In a recent interview, the Italian tenor spoke to OperaWire about the pandemic, the need for a new young artist program in Genoa, and his hopes for the next generation of opera singers.

OperaWire: First, how have you been during this pandemic?

Francesco Meli: For me, the pandemic began at La Scala on February 23, 2019. I was with the makeup artist, getting ready to go on stage for “Il Trovatore,” when the artistic director announced that we had to leave the theater because the authorities considered it unsafe. Initially, I was expecting a closure of just a few weeks but, as time went by and projects started to be canceled, a kind of speechlessness began to permeate my life. This prolonged silence due to a lack of stimulus affected my psyche and my voice. Like an athlete forced to stop during the Olympics, it’s always more difficult to get started again after months of inactivity. On the other hand, it was a great gift to be able to spend so much time with my family.

OW: You’ve been performing for a number of online streams. Tell me about the experience and what have you felt while performing for no audience?

FM: The first online concert took place exactly one year ago for Easter in my city’s cathedral, where other Genoese singers and I tried to bring a little of our art into people’s homes, like a kind of light during the harsh lockdown we were enduring in Italy at that time. It was followed by many more similar performances, for example at the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino, but also included several small homemade recordings. With a virtual audience, the silence that followed each aria was more deafening than I expected. The feeling that something was missing got stronger and stronger and at times our work seemed pointless without an audience, despite all the fond, appreciative messages which came to fill that silence in the auditorium.

OW: How has it felt to perform again even under the current guidelines? What have you learned about yourself and how will you look at live performances again once they return?

FM: It’s certainly difficult and alienating to work with these restrictions because the theater is life and we work as an ensemble, not individually with other people around us. Even a simple gesture like joining hands at the end of a performance has been affected by restrictions when it should be a final, uplifting moment for the whole team. Safety should be a priority for all of us now, but it must be a priority without losing sight of the fact that an entire world revolves around lyric opera which cannot be allowed to die. We hope to be back soon, working safely at the theater with jointly-agreed protocols that allow us to work all the time, not just on and off.

OW: Tell me about Mercandante’s “Messa Solenne” and how were you approached for the project. Why do you think it has never been performed in modern times?

FM: Mercadante’s compositions are typical of the 19th century but the modernity of his choices for harmony and rhythm are striking. The “Messa Solenne” is for soloists and a male voice choir. It was composed in 1868 and performed in Genoa’s Chiesa del Gesù, and had to adhere to the ecclesiastical impositions of the time which prevented women from singing in the churches of Genoa. I’d never sung in one of Mercadante’s works before and I found it extremely interesting and inspiring. There had never been any modern-day performances of this Mass for the simple reason that it was composed for a special celebration, commissioned by a noble Genoese family who put it away in their archive.

OW: Tell me how you got involved with the newly-created Academy of Advanced Professional Training for opera singers at the Teatro Carlo Felice in Genoa. Why did you think it was important to have this program at the Teatro Carlo Felice?

FM: I’ve always had a strong wish to start my own Academy, ever since I started my career. I’ve always loved sharing with others my ideas about music and my experiences. I believe good tutors, rather than simply teaching, should pass on what they have learned during their careers. This is an important opportunity for Teatro Carlo Felice to invest in training and in the future, at a time when theaters and our world of culture has been stopped and forgotten.

OW: What will your responsibilities as artistic director be and will that affect your busy performance schedule?

FM: It’s definitely a great responsibility to be the artistic director of a school that shapes an artist’s future. A voice is part of a singer’s life: together they form a tight bond. My aim as director of the academy, together with the other tutors, is to help students understand the many different dynamics that a professional singer has to deal with. I’m still an opera singer working on stage and my artistic career won’t be ‘disrupted’ by teaching. I’ve already scheduled when and how to devote my time wholly to the Academy.

OW: Tell me about tutoring and how you approach working with a young artist.

FM: A young artist, in our case a singer, is someone to be shaped and given a clear profile. The student needs to study several areas in great depth and in some cases will have to start again from the beginning. They must learn technique, repertoire, interpretation, and how to move on stage. These are fundamental areas for a professional singer. I personally focus a lot on music and interpretation, because I believe they are indispensable in order for one to be a complete musician.

OW: When you were a young artist what was some advice you received from your mentors?

FM: At the start of my studies I was extremely lucky to meet people who would go on to help and inspire me a lot. My tutor, Vittorio Terranova, led me towards a technical understanding of singing, sharing with me his experience and wisdom about singing and about life. I think it’s essential that the relationship between mentor and mentee goes beyond just teaching to become a deeper, more intimate relationship.

OW: Will the program present an opera for young artists every year and will the program allow singers to sing smaller roles throughout the Teatro Carlo Felice season?

FM: Our Academy will be independent of Teatro Carlo Felice in terms of artistic programs, with various types of concerts and events of its own. There will be one opera production a year devoted entirely to the school’s students, which will also be included in the theater’s opera season. When I was offered the position of artistic director, one of the first “conditions” I set for the teaching agenda was that the students should not be included in the “normal” Carlo Felice calendar. I don’t think it would be beneficial for them to neglect their studies and lessons for small roles which would add nothing to their career.

OW: Finally, what is one hope you have for the program as a mentor and as an artist?

FM: What any teacher hopes when watching and listening to students. I want to see their eyes full of joy and enthusiasm as they improve, experiment, and learn as much as possible. I want to see the spark of the artist lighting up within a person. Once that happens, the rest will come on its own.


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