When in Rome...

Post by Jonathan Heaney, City Lyric Opera Music Director

This summer, I had the privilege to spend almost three months in Italy. I attended two music programs, Opera Lucca and Classic Lyric Arts in Novafeltria, as well as a language course at the Istituto Dante Alighieri in Milan. Italy is on the must-visit list for most people, but for someone in the opera world, there's an extra sort of magic in the air. It's not only about studying in the birthplace of opera, with teachers who have lived this music their whole lives; it's also about visiting both the childhood and adult homes of Giacomo Puccini, to see where he worked and how he lived, and about performing in the charming, elegant theaters that are seemingly in every town, no matter how small. In my case, it was also about visiting two landmarks for Puccini heroines: the Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome, off of which Tosca hurls herself to end both her life and the opera (confirmed, she would not survive the fall); and the Ponte Vecchio on the Arno River in Florence, off of which Lauretta threatens to jump in Gianni Schicchi (perhaps she knows it would only cause a scena, not her demise). Experiencing these little nuggets of Italian culture was as important to my summer as learning the language.

My overly ambitious goal before the summer was to become fluent or close to it. Unfortunately, while at this point I could probably pass for fluent in a gelateria, overall there's still a lot of work to be done. In fact, as with most skills, the more I learned, the more I realized how much more there was to know. If learning "standard" Italian as taught in textbooks wasn't difficult enough, it turns out that since Italy has only been a unified country since the late 19th century, almost every region has a unique dialect which can be nearly incomprehensible even to other Italians, much less non-native speakers. One of our coaches who grew up in Emilia-Romagna shared a story of riding a train through different regions and not being able to understand a single word from his fellow Italian passengers because their accents were so different.

One of the potentially frustrating results of this lack of standardization is the inevitability of arguments among diction teachers, each claiming that their Italian is the only "right" Italian. In Novafeltria, our program director conducted an experiment with the five diction teachers in the room, all native Italians who had been coaching between 15 and 50 years. He asked for the pronunciation of certain frequently contested words, such as “pranzo” (unvoiced vs. voiced Z) and “bene” (closed vs. open E). In nearly every case, the panel was split 3-2. The general reaction of the young singers in the room seemed to be a combination of amusement, exasperation, and hopelessness; if these Italian experts can’t even agree on how a word should be pronounced, what hope does a non-native speaker have? But this lack of definitive consensus could also be viewed as an opportunity to move beyond these nit-picky but ultimately unresolvable and unfulfilling issues into deeper and more universal concerns of emotional expression. It can be reassuring, particularly in today’s world of alternative facts, to have concepts that are simply always true, but artistic realities are rarely so straightforward. Young artists are constantly bombarded with opinion after opinion from teachers, coaches, directors, conductors, and more, which is at best overwhelming and at worst, paralyzing. The Italian language debates reminded me that while it is our responsibility to seek out as much knowledge from our mentors as we can, ultimately our decisions must depend not on the opinion of our most recent instructor, but rather on our own artistry.