Italian Opera from Monteverdi to Puccini

1            Aim: What is this course about?

There are few people who don’t respond to the highlights of Italian Opera. There are very few people who cannot hum, for example, ‘La Donna รจ mobile’ but the idea of actually going to see the whole of Verdi’s Rigoletto seems off putting. When do you clap? Will I understand it? I like the aria but will I be bored by the rest? Do I have to dress up? The person next to me might ask me what I think and I wouldn’t know what to say.

This course is aimed at putting people at their ease as well as encouraging those with some knowledge of Italian opera to explore further.

2                 Level: What level is the course and do I need any particular skills, etc?
No previous knowledge of Italian Opera is necessary.
Nor is any knowledge of the Italian language. Nor is an ability to read music nor will anyone be required to sing (especially not the tutor). At the first session students will be invited to complete a simple questionnaire to describe their previous experience with Italian opera, if any.

     3     Content: What will the course cover?

The course starts by looking at Monteverdi’s first operatic masterpiece ‘Orfeo’ and then goes back 10 years to Florence for the production of the first ever opera and the reasons behind it. We ask the question, ‘Was opera inevitable?’ and, apart from looking back to Greek influences, consider what contemporary musical forms may have influenced the early operas.

We move on to Venetian opera, baroque opera (and the split into Opera seria and Opera buffa). We spend some time on the influence of non Italian composers who wrote (partly) in Italian such as Handel, Gluck and Mozart. We cover in detail the operas of Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini (often referred to as ‘bel canto’ operas — and we shall also spend time to understand the term ‘bel canto’). We shall look briefly at Mercadante as a possible ‘link’ between Rossini and Verdi before spending several sessions on Verdi himself, perhaps the greatest of all Italian composers — or should that title be given to Puccini?
We explore the works of both masters in detail, as well as the world of verismo and some of the lesser known composers of the late nineteenth century.
In addition we shall consider the influence of literature in operatic style, the importance of the librettist, just how opera houses were run, the absolute power of the singers in the eighteenth century, and the needs for Gluck’s reforms. We shall discuss the question, ‘Is there Italian operatic life after ‘Nessun Dorma?’
And if not, why not? Finally we shall put together what we have learnt and try our hands at shaping an opera.

 4      Achievement: What can I expect to achieve?

By the end of the course, you should be able to:

(1)        recognise the various styles of Italian opera
(2)        explain how the role of the opera house changed from Court theatre to commercial venture
(3)        indicate the main ways in which the structure of Italian opera changed over time
(4)        discover which styles of Italian opera you most find yourself in tune with and which you might want to see live in the opera house

5       Methods: How will I be taught?
It will be clear from the start that this is not a course where the lecturer talks and the class only listen.
Don’t panic; no-one will be forced to speak or be put in awkward situations but past experience has shown that people quickly warm to being citizens of Mantua waiting for the Prince’s invitation to the Orfeo premier, or lmpressarios running an opera house, or the prima
donna/primo oumo causing havoc to an overworked composer. Be assured that as there is such a variety of critical opinion in the field of Italian opera you needn’t be frightened of giving a ‘wrong answers —there’ll always be someone somewhere to agree with

Past students have found the use of CD and video extremely helpful (a play list with notes is always
made available.) As confidence increases students will be invited to offer their opinions on various
extracts. From time to time, short quizzes will be held but these are for the students use only and there are no post mortems. Each session includes time for questions.

6       Progression: What could I do next?
Make an effort to see performances (live or on TV) of some of the operas that you particularly liked during the course. And/or look for another opera course on e.g. French or German opera. If funds allow become a friend of Covent Garden or English National Opera
and go along to their excellent study days. Go to one of the many Italian summer opera festivals. Finally consider a Diploma course in opera at e.g. Birbeck  College, London.

7        Additions: Are there any pre-course requirements, additional costs, or sessions held outside the classroom setting?
There are no prior requirements but it is anticipated that there will be a visit to e.g. English National Opera