Towards the end of a lively conversation about opera, sitting in the cloistered calm of a red-upholstered anteroom at Covent Garden, the Italian mezzo soprano Serena Malfi – soon to star there in Così fan tutte – quietly drops a bombshell. Two years after her acclaimed London debut she developed thyroid cancer and feared she would never sing again. “I’ve not talked about this in an interview before,” she said, but now she felt ready to reveal her story.

Serena Malfi
© Francesco Squeglia

“It was the worst thing ever to happen in my life,” she said. “I was so scared.” She began with radiotherapy treatment but when surgery proved necessary in May 2016 she became acutely aware of the risks. “There are some nerves close to the thyroid; damage to them would have ruined my singing voice forever and might even have ended my ability to my speak,” she said.

She travelled to a specialist centre in Pisa and, thankfully, the operation was a success but she had to build her voice again from nothing. “It was really hard work, but within three months I was singing Zerlina at the Met – and that was scary too. Today, my voice is going really well. I have thorough check-ups every six months and I’m fine.”

Her fight to regain her voice is typical of the determination that has taken this young singer to the top of her profession. “Nothing can stop me now. When sometimes I feel I can’t achieve something I remind myself that I have been through far worse. After that experience, anything is easier.”

And she has the support of her partner, the Argentinian lyric tenor Gustavo De Gennaro, whom she met in what she laughingly describes as “a romantic cliché” when she sang Cinderella to his Prince Charming in Rossini’s Cenerentola at Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires. She describes him as a great teacher and mentor. “He knows my voice very well. He’s usually always right but I cannot tell him that! After a tough technique session I often say to him: ‘Let’s see each other in an hour because now I hate you!’ We’ve been together six years, so it works!”

Lucas Meachem (Figaro) and Serena Malfi (Rosina) at the ROH
© ROH | Tristram Kenton (2014)

Her appearance as Dorabella in Così will be her first at the Royal Opera since her acclaimed debut there in 2014, as Rosina in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia. Then, several critics clamoured to hear more and compared her honeyed mezzo to that of her fellow Italian Cecilia Bartoli. How does she feel to be compared with one of the greats?

“Oh, I’m really OK with that! I love her. At the general rehearsal for Barbiere at Teatro dell'Opera di Roma a friend said: ‘Please sing well, Cecilia is here’ Arggh, no, I said, you should not have told me that. No pressure, then! But she is now a friend and I would love to sing with her one day.”

Her soaring career is all the more remarkable when you consider she knew nothing about opera until her late teens. “Nobody in my family is a musician or singer. I’m the first one. I studied piano from the age of nine but was not so convinced about it. I got very stressed, but I continued to study music and I sang pop in my teens. It was only when my music teacher recognised that I had a voice and suggested that I audition for the Rome Conservatoire that I discovered opera. My love for it just exploded.”

She gave up studying for a law degree and devoted herself full-time to singing, also taking masterclasses with Renata Scotto at the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome. “I was lucky; I was in the right place at the right time time,” she says modestly. “I went from 0 to 100 very quickly.”

A film producer spotted her potential and arranged singing lessons with the tenor Raúl Jiménez.The film project did not materialise but her training landed her auditions and suddenly she found herself making her operatic debut in 2009 at the Winterthur Festival in Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio. “The crazy things you do when you are young!” Jiménez worked her really hard, improving her coloratura technique. “We started after breakfast and did not finish until I started to cry. It was so intense.” Those tears paid off when she started to land roles in the major opera houses of the world including Teatro Real Madrid, Opera de Oviedo, Opéra National de Paris, Theatre des Champs Elysees, the Wiener Staatsoper, Staatsoper Berlin, La Scala, Milan and the Metropolitan Opera, New York.

Serena Malfi (Dorabella) with Amanda Majeski (Fiordiligi) at the Met
© Marty Sohl | Metropolitan Opera (2018)

The ROH Così is Malfi’s third production of Mozart’s last da Ponte opera. “I’ve always been lucky with my sisters [Salome Jicia will be singing Fiordiligi]. I was lucky enough to have Amanda Majeski opposite me when I sang Dorabella at the Met.” She says the American soprano, who stunned audiences with her first Katya Kabanova at Covent Garden recently, is like a real sister to her. “I just so admire her learning Czech. It’s such an impossible language.”

Malfi has built her reputation in Rossini and Mozart but she is keen to learn new roles. Adalgisa in Bellini’s Norma, Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther, Giovanna Seymour in Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, and, of course, Carmen are all in her sights. “I don’t want to leave Mozart or Rossini for now but I have to be ready for those big roles,” she said.

She keeps a flat in her home town south of Naples and escapes there from the rigours of an international touring career. “It’s so nice to have a home in a town I’ve known all my life and it’s good to see my family… and, of course, my beloved cat.”

Così fan tutte opens at the Royal Opera House on 25 February