Italian tenor Francesco Meli has a lot to celebrate. Last weekend he sang his last performance as Riccardo in Un ballo in maschera at La Scala – it is his 20th role at La Scala and this year also marks twenty years since he made his stage debut.
There is a lot to celebrate but, above all – Meli tells me – there are so many memories. My first experience at La Scala was on stage at the Teatro degli Arcimboldi [the theatre built to host La Scala's performances during the years that the opera house underwent a major renovation from 2002 to 2004], with Riccardo Muti on the podium. I was covering for the Chevalier de la Force [in Dialogues des Carmélites], I sang for just one performance, and it was a wonderful thrill at the age of just 23.
When did you step on the stage of the opera house?
The very first time I set foot on stage at La Scala itself was in 2005, on the evening of 7 December. That time, I sang as Arbace in Mozart's Idomeneo for the opening night of the 2005-2006 season. It was another extraordinary experience. I will never forget the sight, as the final applause was dying down, of the brightly lit Piermarini auditorium adorned with an infinite number of flowers. I feel moved once again just thinking about it…
Twenty years for some singers can be the length of a career, or even longer. What to you do to keep your voice in shape?
It's true that nowadays a twenty-year career is much longer than is normally expected of an opera singer, and we see a stream of short-lived wonders. My answer is very simple: I study, study, study in depth, experimenting, and trying not to take anything for granted. The same thing, more or less, applies to taking care of my voice: I study and train like an athlete.
Your wife, Serena Gamberoni, is a soprano. Is that useful for understanding each other's worries and pressures?
Having a wife who sings has been central to my life. Being on stage with her is a gift and a great emotion and having her by my side in my daily life is a gift which any man would desire. Of course, we always compare ideas on technique and interpretation. It's very important to be able to talk to someone who knows you well and cares only about your wellbeing.
Are there roles that you would like to sing but are not right for you vocally?
I'm very lucky from this point of view, because the repertoire that I love and want to sing is the one that suits my voice best: Giuseppe Verdi! Verdi's compositions are my chosen field. Not everyone agrees with me but that doesn't matter…!
You've sung little Rossini and Donizetti recently – is it a question of taste or suitability?
I adore Rossini and Donizetti, particularly the former, and I've sung in many of their operas: seven by Donizetti and eight by Rossini. Then my voice changed, developing naturally, and forcing me to move on from that repertoire.
Who are the tenors who have inspired you?
I've been inspired by so many tenors and still am – Bergonzi, Pavarotti, Gedda, Pertile, each of them has something precious to draw on, either glorious vocalism, perfect technique, or skilful, modern phrasing and the ability to delve deep inside the words they sing.
Have you taught and inspired young singers, and if so, what has teaching taught you?
I've always loved teaching or, as I prefer to put it, studying alongside other singers, passing on and sharing what I've learnt. A lot can be learnt by teaching, observing technique and interpretation from a different perspective. From the outside, when listening, you notice and discover a lot of things that you tend not to notice when you are performing.
I was in the wings for the 7 December 2015 season opening with Giovanna d'Arco, where there were dancers, actors, the chorus and stagehands, TV cameras and so on; how difficult is it to remain focused?
Concentration is essential for a singer. Outside distractions – somebody talking, or a noise – can be fatal during a performance.
Do you have any routines before a performance to get to ‘the right place' before curtain up?
I don't follow a particular routine before a performance. A few minutes before going on stage I'm a normal person; there are no magic rites – [he laughs].
You are a very calm person, but are there times when you lose patience?
It's true that I'm very calm, especially when I'm singing, but I easily lose my patience at the theatre if there's a lack of professionalism; if people don't work seriously. It infuriates me if that happens.
You've worked with many conductors, some with decades of experience and others at the beginning of their careers. Is there a difference in approach?
I've been lucky and privileged enough to work with great conductors, both young and old and, one way or another, I've learnt a lot. I don't think it's age that counts, but the charisma that a conductor can demonstrate and pass on to you. I owe a lot to conductors like Muti and Chailly, who have taught me a great deal and given me great opportunities for my professional and musical development.
Of course, you've worked with many stage directors too. What makes a good director?
Like a singer, a stage director is, and has to be, at the service of the score that is being staged, respecting what the composer wanted to express through the music combined with the libretto.
I love intelligent productions, although I know that sounds banal – productions that don't distort the relationship between characters or the plot itself. It doesn't matter if they're set in a different period in history, but I don't like it when a stage director is determined to change things, so stage gestures that come naturally with the music are replaced by some strange attempt at trying something different at all costs. It makes no sense.
What are you most looking forward to in the next 20 years or your career?
In the coming years I plan and hope to be able to carry on working at the theatre with joy and enthusiasm. I hope to slow down a bit and spend more time teaching and with my family, but music will always remain at the heart of what I do and will be with me for the whole of my life.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.