There’s not a lot Riccardo Massi doesn’t know about Radamès in Verdi’s Aida. It is the role in which he made his professional operatic debut in 2009 at the Teatro Verdi in Salerno, and also his debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 2012. He has since sung it at various venues including a new production at the Houston Grand Opera and a return season at the Met last year among others.

As Radamés in Aida at the Metropolitan Opera in 2017. Photograph supplied

Now he is in Australia to play the part in Opera Australia’s new production, directed and choreographed by Davide Livermore, which uses a spectacular all-digital set. Opening in Sydney tonight, Massi stars opposite Amber Wagner as Aida and Elena Gabouri as Amneris.

The Italian tenor is familiar to OA audiences, having played Don Alvaro in La Forza del Destino, Rodolfo in Luisa Miller, Cavaradossi in Tosca, and Calaf in Turandot on the outdoor Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour production.

“I’m so happy about this because every time I come back to Australia, it’s like coming home for me. People here are so warm and welcoming and laid back, and it’s so easy to work. That’s one of the reasons I love Australia. If you compare [Sydney and Melbourne] to big cities around the world, you almost don’t feel stressed here. That’s priceless,” he says in cheery tones.

Riccardo Massi. Photograph © B Ealovega

At a towering 6’4”, Massi has a strong physical presence on stage to match his dark-coloured spinto tenor. Famously, when he arrived in Rome from his hometown of Sarnano in central Italy to begin studying singing, he kept body and soul together by working as a stuntman at Cinecittà, having long had a fascination with martial arts and armi bianchi, an Italian term for medieval swords, knives and spears. As a stuntman, he appeared in films such as Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ, and the HBO series Rome. “You have to pay the bills, you have to make a living while you study, so that’s what I [have] done,” he says with a laugh.

“I was young and reckless. I made some of the best laughs of my life on that job. We were hurting ourselves a lot – broken bones, broken hands and feet and wrist and ribs, it’s the job, but it was very fine at the same time. I have done my last professional job as a stuntman at the end of June 2007 and then 10 days later I made my audition for La Scala Young Actors Program and that was very funny because I went there and my face was covered with cuts and bruises. I was looking like I was in a fight – well, I was in a fight but a stage fight. So everyone was looking at me very weird, like ‘who’s that guy?’ but then life changes and here we are.”

As Calaf in Turandot, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour. Photograph © Prudence Upton

Chatting to Limelight just before the OA cast went into the theatre, Massi didn’t yet have a clear idea of how the digital material that Livermore and his artistic team have created for their new Aida will work, but he knows that it will be a different kind of staging to any previous production of the opera that he has featured in before.

“Well, it is not a traditional production. I think it’s a very interesting production because at the end of the story if you look at Aida, if you cut all the armies and the pyramids and the camels and the elephants and the desert, all this frame, if you cut it to the bone, what you have, is a love story. It’s a classic triangle, so that’s the idea of the director,” he says.

“I know there will be a lot of projections but what I saw until this moment is just pictures. But I think the concept is very interesting. This director, Davide Livermore, he is very famous for these projections. And also he is not the kind of guy that tells you, ‘sing there, go there, make this gesture’. He is very much about the intentions, and I love this, especially when it comes to Verdi because what Verdi writes in the score is so clear. Sometimes, especially in operas like Aida, as a singer you are overwhelmed by all the monumental settings – which, by the way, are beautiful. I sang Aida at the Met and when a setting is traditional and monumental, of course I love it. This is the same thing only from another point of view, and I find both ways fascinating.”

As Radamés in Aida at Houston Grand Opera. Photograph © Lynn Lane

Massi has always been keen to develop the dramatic as well as the vocal side of a role. “That’s what gives fuel to your performance,” he says. “Of course, we have to think about the [vocal] technique, especially in roles like this, so you won’t have the same freedom as other roles because it is very tough to sing. But at the same time, if you find the right mix of singing and acting, that creates a virtuous circle. The more you manage to do it, the more it gets exciting.”

This is the first time that Massi has worked with Livermore and he says that he has thoroughly enjoyed the experience. “He is very genuine. He doesn’t say ‘do that’, he comes to you and offers you his point of view. He says: ‘I am offering you a truth’, and I love this, because then when you think about it and with rehearsals, this new thing gets into your metabolism somehow and then when you walk on stage and you act, it just comes out.”

Now 40 and approaching his tenth year as a professional singer, Massi has an international reputation for his Verdi and Puccini heroes, among them Radamès, Rodolfo in Luisa Miller, Riccardo in Un Ballo in Maschera, Don Alvaro in La Forza del Destino, Cavaradossi in Tosca, Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly, Calaf in Turandot, and Des Grieux in Manon Lescaut.

As Manrico in Il Trovatore in Budapest. Photograph supplied

“What I sing the most is Verdi and Puccini, so of course I love them, how can you not love these geniuses?” he says. “But I personally find that Puccini is very immediate. Someone who has never seen a Puccini opera, they go to the opera and they cry at the end. It is very immediate, it is like a punch in the face, you get it immediately. Verdi, on the other hand, takes a little more but gets under your skin slowly. And the more you listen to it, you more you find. That’s with all due respect to Maestro Puccini, which I love, but I think that Verdi is one step up, yes.”

With his spinto tenor, he admits that roles like Alfredo in La Traviata and the Duke of Mantua “are maybe not for me” but would love to play Don Carlo. “With my agent, I am looking for a good debut for this,” he says with a big laugh. In the French canon, he would like to sing Faust and Werther. “Those are beautiful fantastic roles that I’m looking forward to doing some day,” he says. But the timing must be right.

“When one comes to a new role, you have to have the time for it. First of all, you have to check that you have enough time to study and then if it’s doable, you go ahead. But the key word here is timing. If for example my agent called for me and says we have an offer for Don Carlo next month, I will say, ‘no’. Even if I was free, I would say ‘no’ because you need time not to memorise the score. In Italian we [have a word] which means to put a role in your throat, so your vocal cords learn the role and the positions, so that’s why a new role takes time,” he explains.

“I am 40. I see some colleagues of mine who are 45, 50 and maybe they have so much experience that they can learn a role and make a debut in a month or even less, but I still don’t have that much experience so I have to be careful – especially when you are a tenor you have to be very careful with your cords. When you are a tenor there are no easy roles.”

As Des Grieux in Manon Lescaut in Berlin. Photograph supplied

Asked which of his roles he finds the most challenging, he says that “Des Grieux in Manon Lescaut is definitely the toughest. If you are talking about Verdi I will give you three: Un ballo in Maschera, Forza del Destino and Aida. Those are the toughest roles in Verdi.”

As for whether he has a ritual on the day of a performance he is amazed that I would even ask. “Of course, I do! I have many! I’m a tenor you know, we have lots of rituals!” he says breezily. “First of all, I try to have a very good long sleep, then I eat a lot of pasta – but just on the day of the performance – and then I go to the theatre about three hours before the show, even three hours and a half, and I begin my routine with stretching and one hour and 45 minutes before the performance I start vocalising and prepare my voice. Each time. I just like to take it slowly, no rushing. Of course, this is very personal. Every singer has his own routine. There are colleagues of mine, they come to the theatre like 30 minutes before the show, they dress up, they vocalise for five minutes and they go on stage and they are superb, but it’s very personal. With experience and doing this job, every singer finds his own routine.”

Aida plays at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, July 18 – 31