Grappling in a sword fight with his clothes on fire whilst working as a stuntman is the most dangerous thing he has ever done, says Riccardo Massi. But has it prepared him for sharing the stage with a 60 metre long fire breathing dragon? Perhaps!
The softly spoken spinto tenor is in Sydney preparing for his role as Calaf in Puccini’s grand Orientalist opera Turandot, the 2016 joint production by Opera Australia and Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour. Calaf is his third professional role in Sydney. His Opera Australia debut was in July 2013 as Don Alvaro in Verdi’s La Forza del Destino at the Sydney Opera House where returned in 2015 to sing Cavaradossi in Tosca.
The surprises of the performance are still under wraps and Massi is discreet, but he says “It’s traditional in a very good way but it has a very, very strong taste of China – the choreography, the costumes, a huge tower and a dragon. It’s going to beautiful” he comments assuringly.
Massi has already performed Calaf en plein air in Bregenz, Austria in July 2015. Like Opera on Sydney Harbour, the Bregenz performance was also on a floating stage and was amplified. For a voice that fills an opera theatre with its natural power, Massi describes the finer points of singing with amplification. “The technique remains the same” he maintains. “Of course you have to pay more attention because you don’t have the feeling of the sound returning to you – there is no natural reverberation – because there is no acoustic.”
“In Bregenz”, he continues, “there was an amplifier in front of the stage and that’s where you can hear your voice returning. Here in Sydney we have our voice returning in a little earpiece. You just have to listen to what is in your ear and then you have to sing. At the beginning it is a little bit tricky but the guys who have already done this on the harbour before me tell me that you just have to get used to it and after the first two or three times you get it right.”
The lack of intimacy of the large outdoor venue doesn’t change much for Massi. “Of course it is less intimate” he says, “because it is huge. But your feelings, the way you act and everything you feel doesn’t change. If you try to do something different, you will lose your path. We never forget that even if this is a huge show, it’s always opera and our approach is the same. Your feelings inside and what you’re trying to reach in acting and singing don’t change even if the gestures are bigger.”
Massi trained in acting as well as in opera. As a student he worked as a stuntman and in night time security jobs to pay the bills. He is a specialist in the handling of ancient and medieval weapons, and financed his vocal studies working as a stuntman in several films, including Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ and Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. But high risk hobbies belonged to another time in his life. “I was in my 20s and pretty reckless” he confesses. “Today is another life; another period.”
Born in Sarnano, Italy, Massi undertook his vocal training at the Accademia della Scala in Milan. He made his operatic debut in 2009 as Radames in Aida, in Salerno under Daniel Oren, a role he reprised for his debut at the Metropolitan Opera, New York in 2012. His debut at the Royal Opera in Covent Garden came in 2014 as Cavaradossi, in Tosca, conducted by Placido Domingo and sang there again this year. Now based in Switzerland, his professional engagements have taken him to other major opera companies around the world, among them La Scala, the Berlin State Opera, Bavarian State Opera, Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris Opéra, Opera Australia, Canadian Opera Company and Royal Swedish Opera.
As with many families, Massi’s love of singing arose from his father who had a “great passion” for opera. Massi grew up with the recordings of Callas and Pavarotti swirling around his ears. He began to sing, imitating the great opera singers. His astonished father took him to audition for Lorenzo Bavaj, Jose Carreras’ pianist who lived close by. Bavaj was cautious but encouraging and Massi began singing formally in his early 20s.
Massi himself nominates tenors Franco Corelli and Mario Filippeschi as his favourites, along with the great Swedish soprano Birgitt Nilsson, Cesare Siepi, the Italian bass – “the best ever” – and Joan Sutherland. “There are many names” he says, “but those were the ones who really influenced me.”
Numerous singers I have spoken to hold Corelli as the ultimate exponent of operatic singing. What was so special about Corelli? “Well first of all,” says Massi, “I think he had one of the most perfect techniques ever, and secondly, he really had magic in his voice. When I hear him singing it takes me away – it’s like a dream because the voice is so powerful – and he makes it seem so easy. But it isn’t – trust me!”
Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©
Turandot opens on Sydney Harbour on March 24 and runs till April 24, 2016.