It wasn't courage, says Marcello Giordani, but desperation that led him in 1994 to pull the plug on his promising career as an opera singer. The young Italian tenor had already debuted in demanding roles at the top opera houses, including Italy's famed La Scala. But instead of soaring, both his voice and his confidence had begun to crack.
"When you're on stage, it must be a joy when you're singing," he says. "And that was not for me. I was suffering a lot. It was like a panic attack every single moment. I thought, 'That's not the right way to do this job.' "
It wasn't a good time to take a break. For one thing, he and his wife, Wilma, were planning on starting a family. But he gave his American manager two choices: Giordani could abandon his eight-year-old career (a time, he says, that was filled with "bad singing"), or he could stop and learn how to sing all over again. The sympathetic manager asked him to come to New York to study with an American coach, William Schuman.
After only two weeks "the voice went right back into shape," Mr. Giordani said in a recent phone interview from New York, where he'll sing the title role in the Metropolitan Opera production of "Benvenuto Cellini," beginning Dec. 4. His new teacher explained what was going on in his body as he sang. His Italian teachers, he says, taught only "by imitation - 'Hear my voice and do the same thing.' I don't think that's the right way to study," he says.
Most important to getting his confidence back, Giordani began to trust himself. Before, "I was singing always with my eyes down," instead of to the audience, he says, "because I was really afraid." Now he sings freely and openly.
Since 1994, Giordani has quietly rebuilt his career. Contemporaries such as Roberto Alagna and Ramon Vargas have become more famous on stage, and fellow Italian Andrea Bocelli is more famous as a recording star.
But Giordani has been accumulating a record of strong performances in both Europe and the United States. His lead roles in the Met's "Il Pirata" last year and his coming "Cellini," as well as his successful pairings with America's reigning soprano, Renée Fleming, have brought him back into the top rank of tenors. In addition to his role at the Met, Giordani has just released his first CD of arias.
Starring in "Cellini" "could be a very, very big step for Marcello," says Brian Kellow, an editor and writer at Opera News magazine in New York. "It's a great showcase for a personality."
Among opera buffs, Mr. Kellow says, Giordani's vocal problems are a distant memory. "I think he's singing better than he ever has," he says. "He sings with great passion, great commitment, and great energy. I always feel with him that he's taking himself right up to the limit of what he can do, which I think is very rare these days.... There's always a kind of almost nervous electricity you have in his performances."
"As far as Italian tenors [go], Marcello has no peer," says Eve Queler, founder and conductor of the Opera Orchestra of New York (OONY).
Giordani has sung three times with OONY, including a highly praised performance in "Les Huguenots." "He was spectacular in it," says Ms. Queler in a phone interview, adding that she had delayed producing the opera for years to find a tenor who could handle the role.
If Giordani is less well known than some of his peers, she suggests, it may be that his amiable but serious approach onstage and his quiet life offstage - his wife and sons, ages 6 and 5, travel with him - doesn't lend itself to publicity.
But he has the attention of opera fans. "When we announce his name," she says, "there's not going to be an empty seat."
Born in the small city of Augusta in Sicily, Giordani grew up singing in church "as everyone begins," he says, and showed an early flair for acting. When he was 12 or 13 his father, who owned a gas station, started taking him to opera, and young Marcello got hooked.
"Then I found out that I had a voice," he says.
His father encouraged him to develop his talent, and at 19 he quit his job at a bank to study voice privately for three years. In 1986 he won a major vocal competition and moved to Milan to start working in opera.
Looking back now, he realizes that wasn't a wise thing to do.
"Young singers want to rush, to make careers right away," he says. He hopes his experience will persuade them to take their time. He was especially disappointed with his debut in the demanding role of the Duke in "Rigoletto." It was a bad idea, he says. "I wasn't happy. I thought it wasn't done right. At 23, I should have done some other bel canto or baroque or chamber music. Not right away Verdi."
After "Cellini," he'll head back to Italy in early 2004 for roles in "Turandot" (at La Scala) and "Carmen," before returning to New York for a concert performance of "La Gioconda" with OONY.
He also hopes to continue as a regular at the Met, where he's sung since 1993. He's especially effusive in his praise for Met maestro James Levine, who'll conduct "Cellini" and with whom Giordani has worked twice before.
With Mr. Levine, "You know that in the pit you have a friend, not an enemy," Giordani says. "I find him ... a very warm, human person. And particularly when I was singing with him for the first time in Munich, he really helped me to calm down. He said, 'Just sing, don't worry about it. The orchestra will follow you. I will breathe with you.' "
On his new CD Giordani sticks to Italian masters such as Rossini, Verdi, and Puccini. But he says he's not a critic of opera tenors who cross over into pop music. After all, he points out, the legendary Caruso did it. More recently, Jose Carreras, Plácido Domingo, and Luciano Pavarotti have included popular songs in their recordings and joint appearances.
"We can say everything negative," he says of the Three Tenors, but they have greatly expanded the audience for classical music. "They were right."