BWW Interview: As BOHEME's Marcello at the Met, Baritone Massimo Cavalletti Is the Real Deal

BWW Interview: As BOHEME's Marcello at the Met, Baritone Massimo Cavalletti Is the Real Deal
As Marcello at the Met, with Piotr Beczala (Rodolfo).
Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

When Massimo Cavelletti stepped on stage at the Met on November 16, it was a milestone: His 100th performance as Marcello, the baritone lead in LA BOHEME and part of the quartet at the opera's heart: There's Mimi, the seamstress, the sad soul who dies at the opera's end; Rodolfo, the heartthrob tenor, a poet, in love with her; Musetta, the spitfire who eats men for breakfast; and then there's Marcello, a painter, her lover--and, aah, the linchpin that holds it all together.

Why? He's Rodolfo's best friend, Mimi's strong shoulder to lean on (see Act III for proof), and Musetta's lover and sparring partner. And Cavalletti is a marvelous Marcello--which is not surprising, as he explains.

"Marcello is a very nice guy, the best friend ever. And, like the rest of his friends, he's trying to do his thing but also trying to make a bit of money. He has this great group of friends he goes out with, for lunch and dinner. He loves girls. He loves to have fun," the singer says. "But he also has a soul; he's intelligent--not just intelligent but insightful. He understands a situation at heart, and he can drive what's happening, the action, better than Rodolfo. (He's very American, no?) Rodolfo may be the poet, but he is also more childish."

"Definitely me"

I ask him, "You're Italian; do you know guys like him--handsome and easygoing, with an edge just beneath the surface?" He laughs: "Yes, he's me--maybe more a few years ago than now--but definitely me."

BWW Interview: As BOHEME's Marcello at the Met, Baritone Massimo Cavalletti Is the Real Deal
As Marcello with Joyce El-Khoury in
Amsterdam. Photo: Monika Rittershaus

"That's why Marcello is such a good fit--he's a natural extension of myself, where I can be at home. Especially in the second act, for example, in the big jealousy scene with Musetta at Caffé Momus. I think Musetta can be the perfect girl for me, too." (On stage or in real life, I ask. "Both," he answers.) "Maybe life with her is not so easy, but I don't like easy relationships; I prefer when we fight because the fighting helps to move up the relationship to the next level." (Is he married: "No.") "It's interesting. Musetta and Marcello, they toy with each other, but they are deeply in love."

But Marcello also has a key relationship with Mimi, though it's of a different kind. "When she arrives in the third act"--having made a break with Rodolfo--"she comes looking for Marcello, not somebody else. She understands that he's a good friend; at the same time, he knows that she understands his complicated relationship with Musetta."

Singing was not for him

For someone who's such a natural on stage and with a thriving career as a singer, it's hard to believe that singing wasn't his life's ambition. In fact, he had his heart set on becoming an engineer--following in his father's footsteps--and even when he began being encouraged to take up singing professionally, the decision to make opera his life wasn't a slam-dunk.

BWW Interview: As BOHEME's Marcello at the Met, Baritone Massimo Cavalletti Is the Real Deal
As Marcello at La Scala. Photo:
Brescia e Amisano/Teatro alla Scala

Like many Italian boys, he started singing in church as a youngster, in his hometown of Sant'Anna outside of Lucca (near Pisa). But people really began to sit up and take notice of him in his late teens, even traveling to hear him when he started taking on gigs at weddings and funerals. On one of these occasions, a famous Italian baritone, Silvano Carroli told him his voice was "very interesting" and that he should think about studying opera. But Cavalletti had never even been to an opera--his family wasn't interested in it--and was more keen on finding a profession where he could earn a living. Opera didn't seem to be that.

Things turned the corner in 1999, when he began studying voice but "kept his day job," continuing with his engineering studies. Four years later, a talent scout, Daniele Rubboli, took him to Milan, where he started singing in a small theatre; a year later, he was accepted into the La Scala Academy. Studying at the school of Milan's world-class opera house, he learned that, despite his "golden tonsils," there was plenty of competition and he still had work to do.

Expressing emotion through the voice

There, two world-class sopranos took a fancy to him and became his inspirations. The school was run by the renowned Turkish soprano Leyla Gencer--among the last of the larger-than-life divas of the mid-20th century--and his teacher was another famed soprano, Luciana Serra (a great Queen of the Night and Olympia), with whom he works to this day. "With them, I really began to understand what it means to be an opera singer, an artist, and to express emotion through the voice. I learned that I lose energy if I get too outwardly emotional when I'm singing--and can lose control of my technique."

His first big stage role was in Donizetti's PARISINA D'ESTE (a favorite of Gencer's), at the opera in Bergamo, a charming town northeast of Milan, but he made his debut at La Scala in 2005 as another of Puccini's Bohemians, Schaunard--which was also his first role at the Met, five years later, and he's never looked back. To-date, he's worked at almost every major opera house (Paris is coming up), in works by Verdi, Donizetti and Rossini. And, of course, Puccini--including last year's new (and hectic) MANON LESCAUT at the Met, where he brought his smooth baritone and stage presence as Lescaut with Kristine Opolais and the last-minute replacement, Roberto Alagna. (Upcoming: a new Puccini role, the title character in GIANNI SCHICCHI.)

BWW Interview: As BOHEME's Marcello at the Met, Baritone Massimo Cavalletti Is the Real Deal
As Escamillo in CARMEN at La Scala.
Photo: Brescia e Amisano/Teatro alla Scala

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Richard Sasanow Richard Sasanow is a long-time writer on art, music, food, travel and international business for publications including The New York Times, The Guardian (UK), Town & Country and Travel & Leisure, among many others. He also interviewed some of the great singers of the 20th century for the programs at the San Francisco Opera and San Diego Opera and worked on US tours of the Orchestre National de France and Vienna State Opera, conducted by Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta and Leonard Bernstein.


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