The Queensland tenor talks all things Cavarodossi in the lead up to State Opera South Australia’s latest staging.

Was there a lot of music in your house growing up?

I wouldn’t say an overabundance. My parents weren’t into any specific type of music, they had pretty wide tastes. There was a fair bit of Italian music of that era – 70s and 80s – in my household. There was a little bit of opera, they like Mario Lanza movies – so do I – but I wouldn’t say there was an overabundance.

When were you introduced to singing?

I had some singing lessons when I was quite young. I started having lessons around seven years old, just singing little pop songs and I did talent quests around the place.

Rosario La Spina will sing Tosca in South Australia

Were you attracted to classical music or opera at that time?

When I would see people like Mario Lanza singing, I would think, “Wow, that looks very difficult.” I was impressed – I didn’t know why – by what they did. Him and Pavarotti. I was very interested. I thought it was very difficult and I tried to mimic him and I couldn’t do it, of course. But then I would leave it at that.

There was always that curiosity, though, to want to try it. Later on in life – I was working and stopped due to an accident – I went back to having lessons. My sister was pushing me to do it, because she’s quite musical.

When you got back to into it, was there a moment when you thought this is what I want to do for a living?

I think it’s tough to say. I think everyone going to the Conservatorium or having private lessons would like to make a career of it, but the truth is it’s extremely difficult. When I went to the conservatorium that was pointed out – that basically one in a hundred will make an actual living from singing opera. So that didn’t fill you with a lot of confidence. Before that, I had a private teacher and he was always telling me how difficult it was, but he believed in what I had. It needed to be worked on, so I just took it as it came, because I came from a working background, a tradesman’s background, everything was about working everyday and seeing how it goes. One thing led to the next and I just kept going. And I’m glad I did. 

What were some of the challenges coming to singing a little bit later?

A lot of kids that go to the conservatorium, they’re going to be 18 years old. And they might have been the best singers at their school, so they’ve got confidence. I never had that. When I went in I was very wide-eyed. I just thought, “Wow, this person seems really good, I hope I am as good as them.” I used to question myself a lot, in the beginning, because I didn’t know where I was in the pecking order.

Was there anyone who gave you some particularly good advice during that time?

My teacher, Joseph Ward. I’d like to mention him because he’s still my teacher today and in his early 80s. Joseph would always tell me that you have to love what you’re doing, but it’s still a job, and that means you’ve got to work at it the whole time. You can’t get slack about it, you can’t think that you’ve made it. It’s about working every day – because if you don’t, you’re going to have some trouble. And that sticks with you all the time – even when you’re having a holiday, you think, “Oh, I better be doing something.” Because if you don’t use it, you lose it. 

How smooth a progression was it from the conservatorium to getting work and building a career?

From the Con, I got a scholarship to go to Manchester, and do a postgraduate degree over there. And then I did some auditions and got a job singing in Bern, in Switzerland. That was in 1999. I thought, “This is okay.” I got the job quite easily out of college, but within me I knew that it wasn’t good enough. I just thought, “this still isn’t good enough to be a first tenor.” I got the second role in Lucia, which is a nice role but not the first tenor role. I didn’t think I was good enough to do that, so I needed to go away and work more to get better, to be taken as a first tenor. So that’s when I went to Italy and did a few competitions and got into the academy at La Scala – which is like the young singer’s program. That’s when I felt I was learning enough to have a chance at being a Primo Tenore

Was there a moment when you felt like you’d finally made it?

That’s been gradual. I did a concert on the stage at La Scala and sang with the orchestra and I thought, “this is definitely a highlight.” But I never thought, “that’s it, now the contracts are going to come flooding.” Never once. I think that’s because of my family background, being blue-collar, keep your head on your shoulders. I thought, “this is a start, if I want to get any better I’ve got to keep improving. I know that sounds corny.”

What have been some of the other highlights for you?

My debut at the Sydney Opera House. I was pretty chuffed when that happened. Growing up in Australia, the house is such an iconic building and Opera Australia is such a great company. I sang a couple of the performances of Tosca from the end run in 2005. That was the first thing I did at the Opera House. It’s interesting, going to Adelaide to do Tosca again – I’ve done it in between – but that was the first thing I did in Australia.

Do you have any other roles on your operatic role wish-list?

I had the pleasure of doing Pollione in Norma – and Samson – in concert, so I’d love to do them as a staged production. And in the not too distant future I’d love to do Otello, because I’ve covered it, I’ve understudied it, and now it would probably suit me a little bit better than it would have a couple of years ago.

Has your approach to the role of Cavaradossi changed much since those first performances in Sydney?

Vocally, I think we mature as we get older – and I’m hoping it’s getting better. Back then I just wanted to do a good job, this time, I want to do a better job. You just do want to do your best. There are different things I’ve found within the character and vocally I will try different things, different colours in certain areas, to try and convey a better picture. I think I’ve got a better understanding now than back then of Cavaradossi’s character.

What are some of the big challenges of this role?

You’ve got a couple of the most famous arias ever written, which always draw comparisons with other people – which is good in some ways and bad in others – because a lot of people will listen to recordings and live performance is always different. But, I feel blessed that I get the opportunity to sing some of the greatest tunes ever written. I feel quite honoured having been given the opportunity to do that. It’s the same thing you try to do when you sing Nessun Dorma, you can’t do it as “here comes the show piece!” It has to be part of the drama. I try and make it as seamless as possible because we are telling a story. 

What do you think is unique about your approach to Cavaradossi?

I think if you lined up ten tenors who sang Cavaradossi we’d all have similar thoughts about what the character is like. I will do it differently to others, but in the back of my mind, it’s always that he’s a romantic hero. You’ve always got to come at it from that angle. In my opinion, you come at it from the eyes of a hero at that time.

Do you have any favourite Cavaradossis? 

The older brigade. I’m a great Pavarotti fan – I think he sings it absolutely beautifully. When you watch any of the live performances that he did, which are sometimes disappointing, for me, because they say “Yeah, yeah, great voice, but he never acted.” I don’t buy into that all because he does act. He never had the physique to be Domingo, for example, and that’s fine, but if you look at his facial expressions, there’s more to it. In my opinion, he was a great actor, and I liked the way he did it, especially early on. For sheer excitement, you can’t beat Franco Corelli and of the modern guys, you can’t go past someone like Jonas Kaufmann, who sings it really, really well, or Marcelo Alvarez, who is another great tenor who probably doesn’t get the accolades he deserves.

Do you have any favourite moments in the opera?

It’s funny because a lot of the bits I like I’m not even involved in. I love the second act, with Scarpia and Tosca, because I almost think that is the opera. That second act, where those two have their moment, is just operatic genius. I would say that’s my favourite part of the opera. But there’s not a note I would change in the whole piece. It’s really up there – it’s an absolute masterpiece.

Rosario La Spina sings Cavaradossi in SOSA’s Tosca at the Adelaide Festival Theatre November 12-19