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

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

Bringing ideas with him

I ask him whether, having sung Marcello so often, he gets tired of the role? "I have to say, well, a little bit--not because there's anything wrong with it, but there's a big world of operatic characters out there that I want to try." (This includes contemporary work, including one he commissioned from Aurelio Scotto and would like to see staged.) "I love Marcello and it's certainly not easy--anyone who thinks that is wrong, because there are so many aspects to it. Musically, he always has heavy orchestration and he also starts singing immediately with a high F. You have to be warmed up--you can't just walk on stage and expect that to come out."

But success in BOHEME is more than just the music--and Cavalletti's well aware of it.

"I think I've sung BOHEME in 23 or 24 different productions, including this classic one at the Met, which is pretty choreographic and we must listen to the assistant director and respect the geography of the stage," he says. "But, for sure, I bring ideas from having done so many versions of it." He has had the opportunity of working with a couple of the most creative--some say infamous--directors working in opera today, who brought new twists to the role for him to think about.

"At the Salzburg Festival, I worked with Damiano Michieletto"--well-known these days for the recent scandal in London when he inserted a rape scene in GUILLAUME TELL--"and we had an intense time of it. The staging was amazing--we really cried at the end--with Benoit (the landlord) and his guards coming in and picking up all our possessions and locking us out of the apartment. Mimi dies in the street, with all our furniture.

"I also did the new production in Turin with Alex Olle of La Fura dels Baus from Barcelona" (known for its unusual approaches to theatre and opera). That was another extreme production: Mimi is dying of cancer--and when she comes in the fourth act, she is almost bald, doing chemo. The third act was very touching, but very passionate," he recalls. "We worked very hard on the relationships, looking for something different. Most of the time, you bring the Marcello that you've already worked out for a specific production--one that's already in my mind and in my body--and move forward with it. This one was very challenging."

BWW Interview: As BOHEME's Marcello at the Met, Baritone Massimo Cavalletti Is the Real Deal
As Lescaut in MANON LESCAUT. Photo:
Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Making every performance "new"

"Let's face it, wherever I'm singing the role, I always try to bring my Marcello--Massimo Cavalletti's take on it--because it is important. At the Met, Piotr (Beczala) will bring his Rodolfo, Kristine (Opolais) will bring her Mimi and this makes every performance 'new.'

"Maybe 50 years ago, it was okay to just stand there and sing but now, I think, we have to do something more." He explains further, "For example, in the 2nd act, during 'Musetta's Waltz' ('Quando me'n vo'), Marcello usually sits still and thinks about what she's singing. I don't like that.

"I like to stand up slowly, during the beginning of the aria when she's on the top of the bar, to react--she's getting to me--and do a slow burn. It also gives her something to play off. Then, in the second part of the aria, when Marcello sings "Gioventu mia" during the chaos of the Caffé Momus scene where Musetta is in mock agony to distract her 'sugar daddy' Alcindoro, maybe I will keep some focus on her legs, not just singing my lines."

"I guarantee that this run of BOHEME won't be like the one in September (with a different cast), not the same as the one in January (with yet another cast), because we are different and there is chemistry among us--I've worked with Piotr and Kristine before. That's important," he adds.

Beyond Marcello

At the same time, he is ready to take a break from Marcello--he doesn't have another on his schedule for a while--and has a brace of other roles on his agenda ("though if Vienna or the Met or the Paris Opera call and ask for Marcello, I'm there").

Why? Because his voice has some opinions on the matter.

"Yes, my voice is changing and I have to listen to it. I feel that it wants to step into another repertoire, even though it is very hard, career-wise, to do that, because opera companies want to count on you to fill a specific need they have. They say, 'Massimo is a baritone for Puccini, DON PASQUALE, BARBIERE,' but I'm ready for more. I have the technique, the voice and the stage presence for a wide range of roles and I want to do them--right now, it's not so important where."

He continues, "I'd like to start to sing more Verdi-- not everything, not NABUCCO, for example--but more Posa in DON CARLO (which he's singing in Florence with Zubin Mehta), Renato in UN BALLO IN MASCHERA, Ford in FALSTAFF (also with Mehta, at La Scala) and I'm especially looking forward to IL TROVATORE," he says, making it clear that it's a role that has him salivating. "I'm testing that out because the Conte di Luna is a young guy and maybe the best lyric voice in the Verdi repertoire."

"My voice is like a wife"

With his voice telling him to broaden his repertoire in the future, what does he do to take care of it--to make sure his career lasts as long as he wants?

"My voice is like a wife--she takes better care of me than I take care of her. She tells me at every moment what she needs; we are symbiotic and understand each other. I only use homeopathic medicines. I watch what I eat, vegetarian frequently. No wine when I'm performing. Stay away from crowds--and the subway," he explains.

Most important of all? "Go to sleep early and get up early-early in the morning, because it's good for the voice," he says. "If you wake up at 8, it's perfect--in Italy we have a saying, 'the morning has the golden mouth.' And, of course, I vocalize every day, never sing without warming up and try to talk in the same range that I sing"--he speaks a bit in falsetto to make his point--"because it's more natural.

"That's why I love being a baritone, because it's closest to the real human voice. I'm a baritone with high notes, with the technique that can save any situation--and just a bit of the crazy mind of a tenor."

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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.