Q & A: Tenor Stefano Secco on Studying with Franco Corelli & Renata Scotto, Verdi vs. Puccini

By Mike Hardy

Milanese Stefano Secco studied piano and singing with Alberto Soresina, and also graduated in percussion under  the renowned Tullio De Piscopo. He has also trained with Franco Corelli, Franca Mattiucci, Leyla Gencer and Renata Scotto. He has performed in opera houses around the world with an expansive repertoire, has made extensive audio and video recordings, and has won a number of coveted awards. He is married to Mezzo-Soprano Sarah M’Punga.

OperaWire caught up with him, after a hectic schedule, at his home in Ticino.

OperaWire: When we first spoke you said you had been super busy. I know you just finished a successful run of “I Vespri” but can you tell us what else you have been up to?

Stefano Secco: So, yes, “I Vespri Siciliani,” “Tosca” in Messina and also a concert with chamber music of  Puccini’s music, something new with new arrangements for orchestra not piano. We did this in Padova which was recorded for the radio.

OW: I watched you make your debut at the Royal Opera House in 2007, a tough ask, considering you were replacing an indisposed Rolando Villazón, singing the role of Nemorino with Aleksandra Kurzak in “L’elisir d’amore.” What are your memories of that performance?

SS: So, this was very emotional for me because the performance was dedicated to Luciano Pavarotti, who had just died. My debut on that stage, a fantastic stage, all new to me, the conductor was Mikko Franck, I think, from Finland. This was also a very busy time for me because I was in the Palais Garnier performing the role of Alfredo in “Traviata.” I had to take the high speed train to London and then return to Paris.

OW: Born in Milan, the “culture capital of the world” and  “the city of glamour”… what was it like growing up there?

SS: Well, if I have to think now, if you’re born in Milan you have many possibilities…….to study the most important….culture; and also maestri cantori. I was in the home of the great Franco Corelli and I studied with him for maybe one year.

My father tried to sing like a tenor, he was in a choir in Coro, so when I was little, I listened to his records, especially from Caruso, my number one passion when I was a child was listening to Caruso. Caruso and then Pavarotti.

If you listen to the recordings of Caruso, no-one has a voice like him. Especially the vibration. The other tenors, of the 78 record era were, (makes fast vibrato sound), like this. But Caruso was like the modern singing tenors of today, like this, (demonstrates with straight tone).

OW: You mentioned the great Franco Corelli. How did you come to train with him, and what are your thoughts and memories of him?

SS: So, I was singing close to Palma, at a big hotel, and I sang just one aria. And on that night, present was Pedro Lavirgen, do you know Pedro Lavirgen? He was a great Spanish tenor. So he says to me: “Do you know Franco Corelli?”

I say, “Oh yes of course!”

Pedro tells me, “I know him, I have his number and address and I can speak with him.”

Okay. Then after one week, I was in the home of Franco Corelli. It was a great shock for me to see this tall, tall tenor, and I start to vocalize. I vocalized with him, and he told me the stories of the stage, of Tebaldi and Callas, and many others. We did many, many phrases of opera. Every kind of opera from “Don Giovani,” to “Pagliacci.”

We concentrated on the study of breath control. Not to do big voice or small voice, or Messa di voce, no; just to change the breath because it was a little bit high and at the time I can’t do a phrase, a long phrase, so when I start to study with him, it was piano, piano step by step, step by step and I gained a very long breath control. So, for me this is the most important thing that Corelli tells me to make. And what a great voice he had. Center of the voice, high voice….

OW: Where was your debut on the professional stage?

SS: So, I won the AsLiCo Concorso in 1995, then in 1996 I sang for the Concorso a Bizet opera, “Don Procopio,” but my real debut was in 1998 in Sardinia with “Falstaff,” Verdi. My first and only Fenton, I don’t know why.

OW: You graduated in voice, piano and percussion? How does an opera singer become attracted to playing the drums?

SS: Yeah, so, this was another passion. My brother is a guitarist, and when I was young, although it was Caruso, Caruso… but then heavy metal! Rock, Jazz and so I was fascinated to learn the percussion. So then I graduated in percussion with a famous Italian drummer, Tullio De Piscopo. And then I started to play, maybe six years around Italy. Rock, blues and sometimes Jazz.

OW: I also understand you studied with Renata Scotto. What did you learn from the soprano?

SS: Renato Scotto was running a masterclass at the Concorso when I won, along with Leyla Gencer. Two very different things. With Renato Scotto, every phrase was like smiling. Like, the clarity of voice. Leyla Gencer, I studied with one week before and she was the exact contrary. Exacto contrario. She was like
“Do like this,” (effects serious manner). But you know, great sopranos.

OW: Last year you sung a fairly contemporary work, Luigi Dallapicolla’s fifty-minute opera “Il Prigioniero.” How did that compare to working in traditional operas?

SS: Woo, this was very, very different. This was in London, the Barbican Hall, with Maestro Pappano. “The Prisoner” by Dallapicolla. Very different because every time, even if you have studied the piece, you make the rehearsal with the Maestro and with the orchestra, you have to search the tune! Every time. Every time you have to concentrate to the tune. You have to search the right note every time. So, it’s very interesting to sing the contemporary music. It’s interesting but it’s not like an aria, romanza, it’s not very cantabile. It’s very interval, every time, interval, upper, lower, upper lower. But it is very interesting, and the most beautiful thing is Antonio Pappano. In November, I will make a recording of this piece, “The Prisoner,” by Dallapicolla with Maestro Pappano in Prague. We will do a concert and then the recording during the rehearsal.

OW: What else is left for Stefano? What do you aspire to sing in the future?

SS: So, I am trying to organize, for this summer, a “Carmen;” Bizet’s “Carmen,” here in Ticino, Switzerland, where I live. We have a big arena here, for one thousand people. So I will try to organize this beautiful piece, “Carmen,” with my wife, mezzo-soprano Sarah M’Punga.

OW: You have sung many of the roles by your fellow Milanese, Giuseppe Verdi, several hundred performances now. How would you describe the differences between Verdi and Puccini, another whose many roles you have performed?

SS: So, Verdi has two periods, the first period and the last period. The first period, I think shows Donizetti influence and so the cantabile is higher. Very serious. So, if I speak to “I Vespri Sicilliani;” “Vespri” is something like Donizetti/Verdi serio. There’s a heroic tenor, light tenor, heroic tenor, light tenor!

Puccini is a little bit different. It is not with this high tessitura every time. But you have to do very long phrases, important phrases in the centro. AND, you have to do LONG, B flat, very long.

So maybe I have sung more than 200 times, “La Boheme.” With “Che Gelida Manina,” every time I finish on tone, not half tone, with a high ‘C’, every time. So I did many times in Opera Bastille, in France, in Vienna, in Italy, at the Puccini festival in Torre del Lago, oh, many, many times. Such emotion. The emotion… “La Boheme” is very good to sing.

“Madama Butterfly,” “Tosca,” “Mamma mia!” Very good roles for the tenor. And the Verdi roles also, but if I had to sing a role every day? Maybe “Bohème.” “La Bohème.” Love Puccini. But you know, when I was in America, in Seattle, in Chicago or Los Angeles to sing “Butterfly,” every time at the end of the opera, the people booed Pinkerton. When I was in Los Angeles and Plácido Domingo was there, he went in my dressing room and said: “Oh, Stefano, very good Pinkerton. You know, this role, if you sing it very good the people have to boo it!”


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