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Neapolitan Song, a Crown Jewel in the Cultural Heritage of Naples

Chances are you have heard many of them without realising what they were. Luciano Pavarotti’s outstanding rendition of ‘O sole mio’ or Andrea Bocelli’s intense ‘Funiculì funiculà’ have entered the mainstream, but did you know they both belong to the distinct genre of the Neapolitan song? Behind the catchy melodies and the high emotional charge lies a long tradition grounded in local folklore that is inextricably connected to the rich cultural heritage of Naples, one of Italy’s fairest, most charming cities.

The Neapolitan song has been around for about two centuries and still goes strong. Regular events like Napulitanata keep the tradition alive and showcase the rich catalogue of the genre with ever-changing programmes and a large roster of classics and deep cuts. Let us revisit the history of ‘canzone napoletana’ together and get to know some of its most famous representatives a little more closely!

The History of Neapolitan Song

In line with Naples’ temper and spirit, the Neapolitan song was established with a competition. The Festival of Piedigrotta, held in the district of Mergellina, pushed countless songwriters to produce songs in the distinct Neapolitan dialect and embed them within the area’s rich folklore tradition. From the 1830s all the way to the festival’s last edition in 1950, all of the genre’s greatest hits were presented there. Some of the winners would fade away quickly while some runners-up would prove more popular over time, but one thing is certain: Every classic Neapolitan song was christened in Piedigrotta.

So what is the connection to opera and classical music, you ask? Many of opera’s greatest voices celebrated Neapolitan songs as a unique element of Naples’ cultural heritage and performed them around the world. Enrico Caruso, himself a proud ‘Napoletano’, was happy to carry his hometown’s musical tradition across many international stages, most famously at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera. Many others star singers followed his example over the years. The Three Tenors made Neapolitan songs a staple of their wildly successful concerts. Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti each recorded complete albums of canzoni napoletani, and so did Andrea Bocelli.

Some of the Most Famous Neapolitan Songs

Funiculì, Funiculà’ was the first canzone napoletana to reach global fame. The year was 1880, Luigi Denza wrote the music, and Peppino Turco provided the lyrics about the first cable car (funicular) to Mount Vesuvius. Legend has it the song was meant to be a promotional gimmick to push sceptical tourists to use the funicular, which was not making enough money. Regardless of the motivations behind, ‘Funiculì, Funiculà’ became an instant hit, and its sheet music sold over a million copies within its first year. The chorus’ incendiary crescendo and the song’s dramatic flair are evergreen.

There is probably no Neapolitan song more famous than ‘O sole mio’, indelibly etched into our modern collective mind by the unforgettable Luciano Pavarotti. Funnily enough, its composer Eduardo Di Capua penned it while he was touring the Ukraine in 1899, making it the most famous Neapolitan song, written the farthest away from Naples. The story goes, Di Capua fished out of his pocket a piece of paper with his poet friend Giovanni Capurro’s verses scribbled on it and quickly composed a song around them. The song only got second place in the Piedigrotta festival, but it’s been number one in audiences’ hearts for many decades.

One of the oldest known Neapolitan songs is ‘Santa Lucia’, a love letter to Naples’ waterfront neighbourhood of Borgo Santa Lucia. Its slowly unfolding melody lines seem to invite you to take life easy, sit back, and enjoy the view. It was first published by the Cottrau family firm in 1849; the family’s father Guillaume Louis Cottrau transcribed and likely composed it, while the son Teodoro Cottrau provided the Italian translation. Music and lyrics together invite the listener on a serene evening boat ride where the summer breeze and the view of Naples from the water combine into a sweet lullaby.

Neapolitan songs form a major part of the cultural heritage and local pride of Naples – and rightfully so! What other musical tradition can sing about the sun, the sea, or an erupting volcano with so much character and emotion? The canzone napoletana has been around for nearly two centuries, and its unique blend of folklore and pop sensibilities continues to inspire today as it will tomorrow and the day after.

Learn the Different Types of Operas

‘Opera’ is one of these big words that seem to encompass a whole universe. Otello by Giuseppe Verdi and Carmen by Georges Bizet are operas, and so are The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Cardillac by Paul Hindemith. Though they are described as ‘operas’, they could not be more different from one another. This is because each of them belongs to a distinct genre. Indeed, there are many different types of operas based on their subject matter, length, compositional and vocal style, or the national tradition, in which they were created.

Just like ‘film’ is a general category to describe a wide artistic spectrum of creations, so is opera an all-encompassing term that can have various specifications. In this piece, we will cover the most common different opera types and provide characteristic examples of each of them. Apart from a crash course in opera nomenclature, this guide will help you pick the right opera for any occasion and recognise the different styles and elements of a subgenre on your next visit to the performance hall.

Before we dive in, keep in mind that all operas trace their origins back to Ancient Greece where theatre plays, both comedies and dramas, were always accompanied by music. The Italian Renaissance’s natural interest in ancient art and philosophy led 16th-century composers and dramaturgists to revive that performance tradition, and this is how what we today call ‘opera’ came to be. The list of different opera types below is certainly not exhaustive, but it provides you with a great start in your operatic education!

Different types of opera by their content

The stories operas tell are one way to differentiate their genres. One of the most popular types of opera is opera buffa, or comic opera. It is characterised by playful and engaging melodies paired with funny storylines that often include physical comedy or magical elements. It developed in Naples during the 18th century and quickly spread throughout the rest of Italy and then Europe. Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville is a classic example of opera buffa. Similar types of operas evolved in different geographical locations, such as the Singspiel in Austria-Hungary or the opera-comique in France – and who could ever compete with the singspiel king himself, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart?

The natural counterpart to the light-hearted gait and pace of the comic opera was the opera seria, also a product of the early 18th century. It was the dominant opera genre at the time, and its popularity extended far beyond Italy. Composers from all over Europe tried their hand at the dramatic libretti by Metastasio, Benedetto Pamphili, Antonio Salvi, and the other leading dramatists of the era. Opera seria elevated castrati and prima donnas to international stardom, starting the long tradition of adoration for technically skilled singers with big personalities.

Another distinct genre that evolved in the latter part of the 19th century is verismo, or realistic opera. The master of this opera type was the incomparable Giacomo Puccini. With its fast-paced, nearly real-time action and intense melodramatic twists, his masterpiece Tosca is verismo in the flesh. Other signature verismo works include Cavalleria rusticana by Pietro Mascagni and Pagliacci by Ruggero Leoncavallo.

Different types of operas by their musical quality

Another token, by which we can differentiate opera genres, focuses on their musical qualities. The type that immediately springs to mind is the belcanto. The term literally means “beautiful singing” in Italian and describes the full, highly controlled, dynamic way of singing that many people associate with opera as a whole. Gaetano Donizetti’s comedic and dramatic works such as L’elisir d’amore or Lucia di Lammermoor, respectively, rely on bel canto for their distinct sound and flowing musical phrases. Bel canto gradually fell out of fashion in the 19th century when opera’s dramaturgical needs required more forceful vocal delivery.

The 20th century brought further innovation and flexibility into music in general and opera in particular. Experimental approaches, such as dodecaphony (or ’12-tone technique’), made their way onto the stage and impressed with their equal emphasis on all twelve notes of the chromatic scale. Votre Faust by Henri Pousseur is a shining example of this outlandish yet strangely appealing movement in music – don’t dismiss it before you have sat through it!

However we define opera – buffa, seria, vera, grand, or dodecaphonic – one thing never changes: its ability to transport us into different worlds and touch our hearts with the emotional charge of its music and its text. Knowing the different types of opera will help you choose the performances you like best, but remember to keep an open mind and to explore different types as you go along. After all, the magic of opera transcends any classifications!

 

 

Big Blunders at the Opera – Mistakes or Living Art?

The handsome tenor pours his heart out in an emotional aria that lays bare the very essence of his soul and calls for his beloved to respond. The tension rises, the orchestra swells in a crescendo, the young man gazes expectantly stage left… and nothing happens. The object of his desire does not appear, and an awkward silence ensues. Even if you do not speak the language of the libretto, you know something is amiss. You have just witnessed one of the big blunders of opera.

Singers miss their entrances or hit a wrong note, costumes rip apart mid-duet, and stage sets crumble. These are all little reminders that opera is a live performance with all the excitement and all the risks that brings. Blunders in the opera are a daily occurrence, and not even the greatest soloists are immune against them. If you are in the live performance business, you will make mistakes regularly and very publicly. The mark of real artists is how they recover from these little and big blunders and how they often manage to turn a little mishap into art.

The missed cue

An opera performance takes complex coordination and meticulous timing. Singers and actors must enter and exit the stage on cue while the orchestra plays live, guided only by the conductor who has only an obstructed view of the action or – in modern days – a small monitor with a live stage feed. Despite the technical crew’s best efforts, it regularly happens that main characters do not appear on time, as in the example we considered above.

In a situation like this, the pressure is on the actors already on stage to cover for their missing colleague and to fill the gap as best they can. If the scene is about to develop into a big romantic duet, the prolonged pause and the drawn-out expectation can serve a dramatic purpose that a skilled performer can use to their advantage. Taking a few small steps towards the entrance point will surely amplify the sense of urgency and yearning. If the scene is more light-hearted and dynamic, chances are that the audience would not even notice the missing cue in all the excitement. Blunder averted!

The wrong note

Opera singers rehearse relentlessly until they have each vocal phrase down. Nevertheless, we are all but human, and mistakes will happen. Missing the high note in an aria or starting a melody line on the wrong note may seem like big blunders in opera, but they are surprisingly common. As with any other on-stage mistake, it is all in the recovery. Professional singers are often mortified at the very thought of their voice failing or sliding off key during a live performance, but the truth is, it is hardly ever as bad as it seems. More importantly, it can make the performance special and stand out in the listeners’ minds. Since most opera-goers are not musicians by craft or training, it is not likely they will identify the mistake, but they will surely remember that special aria that subverted their expectations.

Opera singers can train to avoid musical blunders by sufficient practice and by developing their own voice that feels comfortable. A lot of big blunders on the opera stage come to pass because singers overreached or tried to sound like the new Pavarotti or Kabaivanska instead of cultivating their own vocal style. Instead of that, it pays off to stay true to their unique vocal qualities and get comfortable in their own range and timbre. This approach minimises the chance of singing slip-ups and big blunders considerably.

The mangled line

Operas are often presented in a foreign language – for audiences and singers alike. Singers from all over the world have to tackle centuries-old librettos in archaic Italian, German or French. It sounds like a recipe for disaster but, in reality, audiences hardly follow the text word for word. The best way out of a word-salad situation is for singers to think on their feet, focus on the melody line, and mouth sounds and words that resemble the language of the opera. Chances are you have been in the audience on multiple occasions and listened to melodious gibberish without losing any joy or fascination.

All in all, blunders in opera happen on a daily basis, but most of them do not affect the quality of a performance in any negative way. As in any other live performance art, the connection to the audience and the artists’ knack for improvisation and adaptation are as important as the pre-written and rehearsed parts. Mistakes should not be feared or mocked; they are opportunities to turn the source text into living and unique art that is worthy of sharing and praise. So, next time you’re at the opera, open your eyes and perk up your ears: A blunder or two can make your night even more memorable and fun!

Musica a Palazzo: Follow the Action

Going to the opera means sitting still in your seat for a couple of hours, right? Not necessarily! Musica a Palazzo in Venice has developed a fascinating new concept for making opera performance more dynamic and exciting. The artists are moving through different halls of the opulent Palazzo Barbarigo Minotto, and the audience follows them. Each act takes place in a different setting, and you get to know the historical site as the drama unfolds.

The programme of Musica a Palazzo relies on three classic operas that find themselves right at home at the opulent Italian palace: the melodrama La Traviata and the tragic Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi as well as Gioachino Rossini’s light-hearted The Barber of Seville. Accompanied by a piano and a string quartet, these classics acquire a whole new quality and a life of their own as they move across the palazzo’s beautiful halls.

Laugh and cry, the aristocratic way with Musica a Palazzo

The selection of operas is no accident, of course. All three masterpieces feature protagonists who interact with royalty and aristocracy but are themselves of modest origins. In Verdi’s La Traviata, the courtesan Violetta Valéry charms the young nobleman Alfredo Germont and enters his world, only to have to leave it once again. The Barber of Seville by Gioachino Rossini focuses on the escapades of Figaro as he uses all his cunning and wits to solve Count Almaviva’s romantic predicament, to great comedic effects. Verdi’s Rigoletto, in turn, describes the debauchery of the Duke of Mantua’s court through the cynical eye of his hunchback jester – until the joker’s own daughter is entrapped in the aristocrat’s salacious schemes.

Much like the operas’ main characters, the audiences of Musica a Palazzo find themselves in the somewhat foreign luxury of an Italian royal residence. Thanks to the unique concept of changing locations as the storyline develops, you will easily feel like a participant and not a mere witness to the funny and tragic plot twists. The natural grace and beauty of the setting make the performance immersive and impressive, and the close distance to the onstage action allow spectators to connect to the story and acting on a much deeper level.

A ‘chamber opera’, full of style and interaction

Musica a Palazzo in Venice is an initiative by the cultural association Dimensione Lirica. Its experimental format aims to carve out a new genre – ‘chamber opera’ – that creates new opportunities to enjoy and appreciate this unique artform. Palazzo Barbarigo Minotto, with its baroque interiors, opulent furnishings, and exquisite artworks, offers the ideal setting for this type of up close and personal operatic experience.

The feeling of participation and immersion is enhanced by the all-round stage design that Musica a Palazzo productions employ. Thanks to it, every section of the audience gets a direct line of sight to the action, and each audience member can feel as part of the interaction with the singers and instrumentalists. The interactivity of these performances has won them international accolades and appreciation from viewers and critics alike.

A venue fit for kings

Palazzo Barbarigo Minotto stands proudly on the Grand Canal of Venice. Its 15th-century, Venetian Gothic style makes it immediately memorable and thoroughly impressive. Its halls are decorated by the frescoes of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Francesco Fontebasso, and Carpoforo Tencalla, and many of their paintings grace the state rooms’ walls. True to form, the palazzo also features some over-the-top Louis XIV decorative elements, such as the ornate vine leaf door handles or the high-quality elm flooring.

Musica a Palazzo thus feels right at home at this stately manor on the Grand Canal, and you can look forward to a special occasion for both your eyes and your ears. Experiencing the luxuriant style of Italian nobility as the dramatic flair of Verdi and Rossini moves you from hall to hall is a quintessentially Venetian pleasure.

A Closer Look: Opera at St Mark’s Anglican Church in Florence

When you hear the word ‘opera’, you immediately think of opulent performance halls, elaborate stages, and audiences dressed in their Sunday best, following the onstage action through their ornate binoculars. But what if there were a way to enjoy the genre’s beloved classics at an arm’s length, in majestic yet intimate atmosphere? This is what Opera at St Mark’s Anglican Church in Florence is all about!

The programme usually includes classic operas like La Bohème, Tosca and Madame Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini, La Traviata and Rigoletto by Giuseppe Verdi, The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi fan tutte by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Carmen by Georges Bizet, among others. Concerts with arias, love duets and Neapolitan songs provide another great opportunity to get to know the rich Italian musical heritage, all in the superb setting of St Mark’s in Florence.

A beautiful venue for heart-warming performances

How much of a role does the venue play in a performance’s success, and how much does it affect its quality and perception? Quite a bit, if you ask any die-hard opera fan. This is one reason Milan’s Teatro alla Scala or Florence’s Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino enjoy a steady stream of spectators and sold-out nights. The history and reputation of Italy’s storied classical music venues naturally soaks into every performance and elevates it. On the flipside, however, grand historic stages can be intimidating to the viewer, not to mention expensive and difficult to attend.

St Mark’s Anglican Church in Florence offers you the best of both worlds. It carries the grace and pride of several centuries, but it does not flaunt it. As you enter the majestic building, you will feel humbled but also welcome and at ease. The comfortable seating arrangement and the proximity to the actors immediately create a sense of enjoyment and indirect participation. You can comfortably leave your opera binoculars at home and get right in the middle of the action of your opera or concert of choice.

Programme notes in multiple languages as well as a succinct introduction to each opera’s plot in English before the musical part begins ensure that you are not an arm’s length away from the performance, but you also understand what is going on. A well-stocked bar with various beverages makes your intermission even more pleasant.

Opera at St Mark’s Anglican Church as a great start into the classics

The inviting atmosphere of St Mark’s is especially great for people who have not fully discovered opera as an artform yet. Nothing helps you appreciate the melodic genius of Mozart or the dramatic flair of Bizet than witnessing their masterpieces from up close. In the comfortable settings of the Florentine church, music flows freely and touches your ears and your heart in a different way than in a massive opera house. Despite the more intimate space, the singers don full costumes and deliver their performances with as much passion and skill as in any big stage.

Apart from opera classics, St Mark’s also offers a great concert series featuring opera highlights, arias and duets. It is a testament to the venue’s dedication to top-quality classical music performances that the soprano, tenor and baritone do not offer ‘dry’ recitals of the famous tunes but get into role and act each part with genuine passion and skill. The programme features piano concerts as well, comprised of standout works by great composers who pushed the instrument’s boundaries, such as Frederic Chopin, Franz Schubert or Claude Debussy.

Getting up close and personal with opera

Bigger is not always better – St Mark’s Anglican Church proves that with its great opera and classical concert programme that invites you to experience famous works up close. It is a great opportunity to get intimate with opera as a genre, or to revisit some favourite melodies and view them from a different angle. Whatever your motives may be, a night of classical music at St Mark’s is a night in Florence well spent!

Roma Opera Aperta Festival – Classic Performances in a Timeless Setting

The Baths of Caracalla form the majestic backdrop for the beloved Roma Opera Aperta Festival. For years, the ancient ruins of Terme di Caracalla have served as stage for innumerable breath-taking performances of opera, ballet and concert masterpieces. The festival has been a highlight of the Roman classical season for good reason. Year after year, this venue is home to opera classics such as the grand historical dramas Aida and Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi, verismo masterpieces like Tosca by Giacomo Puccini, and belly-laugh comedies like The Barber of Seville by Gioachino Rossini.

To the roster of all-time-favourite operas, the Roma Opera Aperta Festival at the Baths of Caracalla regularly adds standout ballet performances as well as classical and crossover concerts. The event thus grows into a celebration of music beyond genre and era. In its epic home and with a setlist to match, it habitually delivers magical moments to thousands of guests of the Eternal City. Read on to learn more about all the elements of the Festival that make it such a unique offering on the cultural calendar, from the history of the venue to the artists and performances that ensure every edition is remarkable and memorable.

The Baths of Caracalla – A Monument for the Ages

Rome Opera Aperta Festival finds its natural home at the Baths of Caracalla, an ancient Roman structure that first opened its doors to the public in 216 A.D., during the reign of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Antonius, whose popular name was ‘Caracalla’. However, it is now widely believed that construction on the monumental project began during the tenure of his father, Septimius Severus. The credit for imagining and designing a gathering point for thousands of people also goes to him, and yet his son’s name remains imprinted both on the venue and in public memory. With their impressive size and majestic beauty, the Baths are among Rome’s most venerated sites.

The Baths of Caracalla were first used as backdrop for classical performances in 1937 when Teatro dell’Opera di Roma announced its first-ever open-air summer season. On 1 August 1937, Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti began a tradition that would become the highlight of the classical calendar. The following year, the Baths of Caracalla hosted no less than 40 unforgettable opera performances, and none was more memorable than the massive production of Verdi’s Aida. 20,000 spectators applauded nearly 500 lead and chorus singers, dancers and extras who all could fit on the vast stage.

Throughout the years, the Baths continued hosting performances of beloved opera and ballet classics as well as works by contemporary composers and choreographers, and concerts of classical and modern nature. Since 2001, a newly fashioned, movable stage ensures that the Roman ruins remain preserved while audiences can still enjoy first-class entertainment in the unique historical location.

Roma Opera Aperta – the Festival for Music Lovers

The programme of the Rome Opera Aperta Festival is as vast as the commanding stage of the Baths of Caracalla. Next to the classic operas by Verdi, Puccini, Donizetti, Rossini and many other masters of the genre, the festival has featured performances by contemporary and crossover artists, such as the ballet extravaganza Roberto Bolle and Friends or the dazzling violin acrobatics of David Garrett. Special concerts with famous classical and modern stars are also regularly on the bill, including the larger-than-life tenor Plácido Domingo, the accomplished contemporary composer Ennio Morricone whose scores have accompanied numerous movie classics, as well as modern pop and rock artists such as Paolo Conte, Björk and Mark Knopfler. Outstanding ballet performances, as varied as Romeo and Juliet, Serata Nureyev and Strictly Gershwin, round off the festival’s programme.

The Roma Opera Aperta Festival at the Baths of Caracalla is a labour of love and a quintessentially Roman affair. It is grandiose, colourful and refined, and it brings different periods, genres and artists together in one irresistible mix that is the highlight of the summer season by default. As far as outdoor music festivals go, this one is definitely for the books.

Attending Opera for the First Time: Do These Things and You Will Love It!

If you have never been to the opera, it is natural to feel awkward about your first time. A colourful cast of characters periodically break into song, most probably in a language you do not speak. The stage sets are elaborate and lavish, and there is a whole orchestra backing up the whole operation. All around you are well-dressed people who seem to understand all this folly much better than you. More importantly: they are enjoying it. They laugh at the right moments, gasp at the plot twists, and subtly sway with every turn of musical phrase. You are all but convinced you don’t fit in there. Right? Wrong!

Throughout its rich history, opera has been predominantly an artform for wide consumption. It is an inclusive and welcoming genre, full of genuine human emotion, relatable characters, and familiar stories that bring people together. So, the first step before seeing your first opera is to drop the false prejudices and misconceptions! There is no reason you should deprive yourself of this pleasure. Here are a few tips to help you make attending opera for the first time a success that will set you up for many happy returns.

Pick an Opera You Know You Will Like

What we generically call ‘opera’ is in fact a whole family of different works of art. Think of ‘film’ as a category: there are dramas, comedies, romance and action movies, thrillers, as well as crossovers between two or more genres. Opera is no different, and you are truly spoilt for choice. Do a little research and use your taste in other art forms to pick a great first opera to attend.

For example, if you enjoy comedies, why not start with The Barber of Seville by Gioachino Rossini? If you long for a good romantic comedy, then surely L’elisir d’amore by Gaetano Donizetti will satisfy. If you like adventure and fairy tales, The Magic Flute by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or Turandot by Giacomo Puccini are both great picks. Should you be in the mood for something more serious, Giuseppe Verdi’s epic dramas Rigoletto, Otello or Nabucco will take you right in. If crime, action, and quick plot development are your thing, then look into Puccini’s Tosca, Cavalleria rusticana by Pietro Mascagni, or Pagliacci by Ruggiero Leoncavallo, all of which are renowned for their fast-paced, nearly real-time flow.

Do a Little Homework

Once you have picked the genre and specific opera you will see, do a bit of research. Nowadays, information is at your fingertips after all. Read up on the plot, learn the major characters’ names, maybe even listen to the stand-out arias. Many operas are performed in their original languages, so if you are not proficient in Italian, French, or German, you might not be able to follow the dialogue closely. Many modern productions include subtitles displayed above the stage to help guide you through the performance, but doing a little homework will definitely improve your understanding and maximise your enjoyment.

Make Yourself Comfortable and Enjoy

Before attending your first opera, you are surely thinking about what to wear. Perhaps you are even feeling a little self-conscious about not having anything ‘proper’ to wear. The good news is that modern opera performances do not come with a strict dress code anymore, so no need to don a smocking, a pressed shirt, and a bowtie – unless you want to, of course! As a rule, dress in a way that feels presentable and that would let you feel comfortable in the company of other typical operagoers. They, too, will likely be dressed along the spectrum from ‘fancy’ to ‘smart elegant’.

When you are in your seat and the performance begins, let the music and the onstage action take you in. If you feel like applauding or even shouting out your appreciation after a particularly moving aria, duet or orchestral passage, there is no need to hold back. The artists will appreciate your positive feedback, too! Especially when attending opera for the first time, it is important that you connect with this wonderful artform in the way that is best for you. Only then can you develop a long-lasting, sincere appreciation that will keep you coming back for more.

The Past, Present, and Future of Opera

Opera – the undisputable queen of the classical music genres! We associate it with rich, opulent stage sets, intensely emotional arias and duets, over-the-top acting, and orchestral interludes that take us on the most marvellous musical journeys. Fantastic ensemble events like the ‘Puccini Festival at Torre del Lago’ or ‘Puccini e la sua Lucca’ showcase collections of masterpieces back-to-back and amplify the genre’s grandeur. But was opera always so extensively produced, so colourful and overwhelming for all the senses? And what does the opera of tomorrow look like?

You might have a similar view of opera, and you probably believe it has its origins in post-Renaissance Italy. If so, you are only partially correct. Even though that time and place played a pivotal role in the genre’s rise to international fame, opera itself is considerably older, and its rich and varied history may hold the key to how it will develop in the coming decades. Let us take a trip through the centuries in our quest towards the future of opera!

From Ancient Greece through the Middle Ages to the Renaissance

Music historians trace the origins of opera as far back as Ancient Greece. The famous tragedies of Euripides, Aeschylus, Ovid and Sophocles were combinations of poetry, music, and drama fused together in one transporting stage performance. Even in those old times, the production was quite advanced: elaborate costumes, realistic stage sets, and inventive mechanical devices to represent ‘deus ex machina’, the divine intervention that resolves the central problem in one fell swoop. Dragon-drawn chariots, fiery towers and actors flying on strings, therefore, set the opera production values high already in ancient times.

Later on, the spread of Christianity also nurtured a tradition of musical dramas, in which sacred texts were performed as part of liturgy. Then came the Renaissance. Its renewed interest in the art and times of Ancient Greece and Rome revived the musical theatre of the old dramatists. Before long, contemporary composers began emulating the ancient genre, reinventing and modernising it along the way. With the generous support of the Florentine Medici aristocratic family, Jacopo Peri’s Dafne was staged in Florence in 1598. Though the score did not survive to present day, its impact certainly did.

Opera Takes Europe by Storm

Following in the footsteps of Peri, composers across Western Europe quickly picked up the new genre of musical drama. Claudio Monteverdi, Heinrich Schütz, Jean-Baptiste Lully and Henry Purcell all made a mark in their national contexts and helped popularise the new stage form. The Italian dominance continued in the coming centuries, and even non-Italians like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or Christoph Gluck made immense contributions to the genre.

Alongside Italian Maestros like Gaetano Donizetti, Gioachino Rossini, Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini, we count Carl Maria von Weber, Richard Wagner, Georges Bizet and Richard Strauss who helped develop new movements within the rich operatic tradition. Through wars and attempts at nation-building, the whole of Europe was equally abuzz with singing and dancing.

The 20th Century and the Great Beyond

With the dawn of the 20th century, music as a whole became increasingly experimental. The first atonal operas by Arnold Schönberg and Paul Hindemith raised eyebrows. The minimalist, repetitive scores of Philip Glass and John Adams demonstrated that opera does not always need to be florid and colourful. This musical austerity soon spread to the stage production, too. Complex masterpieces like Verdi’s La Traviata or Puccini’s Tosca could now be performed against a monochrome background, with a single spotlight and a bottle as the only prop. Opera’s ‘holy grounds’, such as Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, are no longer reserved for classical music alone. On La Scala’s lavish opening night concert, the splendid outfits by Giorgio Armani garnered as much attention as the performers who wore them.

All this history begs the question: What will the future of opera be? We know for sure that, throughout the centuries, opera has been intimately connected to real life. Many of humanity’s greatest minds have worked in the genre in an attempt to reflect on society and on the human condition. As such, opera is one of the most inclusive art forms. Its heroes are aristocrats and royals but also paupers, prostitutes and criminals.

Because of this, opera will retain its place in our lives, and it will embrace the trends and technologies of the day as it always has. Perhaps in the near future we will enjoy it on our virtual reality headsets; perhaps we will even take part in the onstage action. Maybe holograms of great artists like Luciano Pavarotti, Maria Callas and Boris Christoff will share the stage with live actors and thus reprise their landmark roles. However opera performance develops in the future, one thing is certain: It will continue telling the stories that make us laugh and cry, and we will keep listening keenly.

 

The Puccini Festival at Torre del Lago: Follow in the Maestro’s Footsteps

Pretty rustic houses find their reflection in the marble-like waters of Lake Massaciuccoli, caressed by gentle rolling hills. Giacomo Puccini’s encounter with Torre del Lago was love at first sight. The great composer was looking for a serene, secluded place to let his creativity flow, and he had found just that. Masterpieces like Tosca, Madama Butterfly and Il Trittico trace their origins to this almost magical location.

Puccini thus made Torre del Lago his home for the last three decades of his life. During this time, he penned some of his most memorable operas and enjoyed the locals’ admiration and support. In honour of the composer’s legacy, the Puccini Festival at Torre del Lago takes place here regularly since 1930. In addition to live performances of the Maestro’s beloved operas, a visit to Torre del Lago can also include historical tours across important stations of Puccini’s life, a little museum dedicated to the composer, and pleasant escapades to the neighbouring towns. To borrow a famous line from Turandot, nobody will sleep during this most special event!

A Festival for the Ages

Much like its namesake, the Puccini Festival at Torre del Lago has become a timeless classic. Each year, the programme revolves around the composer’s greatest masterpieces, like La Bohème, Tosca, Manon Lescaut, Madama Butterfly, and the sadly unfinished Turandot. Some more of Puccini’s great titles make it into the setlist on a rolling basis, too. Even though the festival’s backbone is more or less stable, each edition manages to feel unique.

Perhaps it is the magic of the Italian summer in the countryside or the long, warm July and August evenings that make the Puccini Festival a unique experience every time. The multiple notable sites across Torre del Lago and the open-air theatre where the performances take place certainly make the event that much more impressive. Against the backdrop of the lake and the majestic hills around it, Cio-Cio San’s wistful ‘Un bel di vedremo’, Cavaradossi’s romantic ‘E lucevan le stelle’, or Prince Calaf’s triumphant ‘Nessun dorma’ reach a whole new level of beauty and emotional impact.

Puccini’s Traces in Torre del Lago

In addition to hearing the composer’s masterworks in the unique setting of his chosen hometown, Torre del Lago offers you the special opportunity to walk into Puccini’s footsteps. The house he bought after the success of Manon Lescaut and La Bohème now holds the Puccini Museum. You can gaze upon the pianos, on which the Maestro composed his melodies for the ages. You can also immerse yourself in the artistic atmosphere of his home, with paintings by Ferruccio Pagni, a close personal friend.

A walking tour of Torre del Lago reveals further little Puccini landmarks and highlights how well the composer fit into the local landscape. An avid hunter, he regularly took a boat from the small pier in front of his house to scout out his favourite game, the bald coot and the snipe. You can take a boat tour of Lake Massaciuccoli and admire the meandering shore yourself. Perhaps your gaze will dance among the gentle ways the same way Puccini’s once did.

A Place in and Out of Time

In a certain pleasant way, during the Puccini Festival at Torre del Lago time flows differently. It does not stop and does not go backwards. Rather, it dissolves and gives you the chance to immerse yourself into the past without ever fully leaving the present. The town’s unpretentious nature and its famous resident’s timeless art combine into a singular event that beckons you to dive in. Year after year, the Puccini Festival creates unforgettable moments.

On the Traces of Belcanto

‘Belcanto’ – also often ‘bel canto’ – is one of these words that merge form and meaning perfectly. It derives its name from the Italian phrase for ‘beautiful singing’, and it is just that: a vocal style that emphasises control, articulation, and agility. Originating in the royal courts of 16th-century Italy, belcanto made its way into opera and became the gold standard for generations of composers and singers. In the second half of the 19th century and beyond, the dramatic operas of Giuseppe Verdi and the verismo works of Giacomo Puccini required a more forceful vocal style and pushed belcanto out of the spotlight. However, recent revivals of Romantic operas have reminded the keen opera fan of the inimitable qualities of belcanto. Let us trace the origins and development of this landmark singing style together!

Belcanto: from the royal court to the opera stage

The symbolic birthplace of belcanto were the Italian courts of the Renaissance where kings and aristocrats demanded a special kind of musical entertainment. Practitioners of this form of ‘beautiful singing’ stood out with their vocal brilliance and ability to effortlessly change from legato to staccato, to achieve dramatic effect through skilful tempo variations and body language, and to articulate the text clearly with proper emphases and accents. The beauty in belcanto thus came from the full artistic control a performer exercised over the vocal delivery, tonally and linguistically.

Given these special characteristics, it was no wonder that belcanto quickly made its way into the major vocal genres of the 17th and 18th centuries. George Frideric Handel incorporated belcanto elements into his famous oratorios. Without this special style of singing, the operas of Gioachino Rossini and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart would not sound like themselves. Could the Queen of the Night’s coloratura acrobatics ever be as impressive had they been forcefully belted out? Could the playful Barber of Seville make you laugh as hard without his clear enunciation and carefully metred lines? Innumerable opera characters you know and love made their way into your heart thanks to belcanto.

The rise and fall of belcanto

The 19th century marks at once the height and the gradual decline of belcanto in opera and beyond. Thanks to the works of Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti, the vocal style reached an unprecedented level of popularity. These two composers in particular struck a unique balance between belcanto’s smooth and pleasant qualities on the one hand and the emotional charge of the musical and narrative text on the other. Masterpieces like Norma, L’elisir d’amore, or Donizetti’s ‘three queens’ cycle are full of passion and carry their dramatic and comedic weight, and yet the vocal delivery they necessitate is belcanto, pure and unadulterated.

In the latter half of the 19th century, however, opera took a hard dramatic turn. Giuseppe Verdi, Richard Wagner and Giacomo Puccini still wrote beautiful and emotional melodies, but the stories they told required a different singing approach. Beautiful and rounded phrasing had to make way for raw emotion and sheer vocal power. Thus, belcanto gradually went out of fashion, and by the turn of the 20th century, it had become a thing of the past. Today, the revival of the beloved Romantic operas by Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini, among others, let us enjoy ‘beautiful singing’ again.

Belcanto’s heroes

We cannot follow the traces of belcanto without acknowledging some of its star performers. Many of the style’s great names, such as the male soprano Farinelli, were undoubted virtuosi. Manuel del Popolo García was the Spanish tenor who inspired Rossini to write The Barber of Seville, while his daughter María Malibrán was the muse behind Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi and Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda. Surviving recordings by late-19th-century singers like Jenny Lind, Fernando de Lucia and Pasquale Amato serve as examples of belcanto and inspire modern vocalists to revisit and recreate this truly special style for our enjoyment today.