17 maggio 2024
by Lidia Lombardi

Our betrayed homeland

calls us, in tears.

Brothers! Let us run

to rescue the oppressed!

Guido Aretino
Guido Aretino

In her capacity as president of the National Union of Art, Music and Performing Arts, she recently dedicated a lecture-concert at the prestigious headquarters of the Dante Alighieri Society to il Canto Lirico Italiano [Italian Opera Singing], last December added to the list of UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. After all, Dora Liguori is a "vestal" of music: she chaired the Higher Council for Higher Education in Art and Music, she was professor of singing at the Santa Cecilia Conservatory, shes is the author of essays and novels, musician, director, and author of opera librettos. And thus, from her observatory, she welcomes and scrutinizes events in the opera scene.


Professor Liguori, Italian opera singing is on the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This recognition will be celebrated on June 7 at the Arena di Verona with the presence of one hundred and fifty professional orchestral musicians and three hundred chorus singers. This recognition is, after all, longa overdue, given that opera originated in Italy. What were the stages of the origins of opera?

Speaking of stages, first of all, it would be historically accurate to say that music, as we understand it today, originated in Italy in the Middle Ages, thanks to the Benedictine monk Guido d'Arezzo, who lived between 992 and 1050, and later to various forms of musical activities. If we want to refer specifically to opera, we need to go back in the sixteenth century to the arcane Camerata de' Bardi. It was made up of a number of intellectuals, who would meet in the house of Count Giovanni Bardi in Florence to discuss the sciences, music, literature and possible new theatrical formulas. At some point, they had the idea—though we don't know which of them (perhaps all of them)—to re-enact a show that still emulated the glorious Greek theater but with some variations. That is to say: while Greek shows contemplated the performance of pieces of music, of which we didn’t have the full versions, a narrating chorus and the intervention of actors aimed at bringing to life the characters and stories to be told, the new type of show—still with music and chorus—would have to involve actors who, instead of acting in a loud voice, would have to sing... Hence the term: recitar cantando [singing acting]. This was the very start of what would become within a few years the glorious Italian Opera Lirica.

Opera singing is also called belcanto.  Why is that?

The term originated, also at the end of the 16th century, in the school of the Roman composer Giulio Caccini and was aimed at enabling singers to obtain, through study, increasingly perfect vocals, with smooth transitions from the lowest to the highest notes. Today we would say achieving ‘euphony.’ But the ever-increasing popularity, as well as the heated competition established among the prevailing ‘castrato’ singers ended up making their performances abstruse and increasingly hyperbolic, gradually transforming them into abstract exercises, poorly related to the beauty of a melody.



How did we get past this?

In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the great Neapolitan school stepped in to fill this void, rejecting the redundant tragic operas—reserved exclusively for the castrati—, and inventing the Comedeja pe' museca, a kind of musical comedy (Broadway was nothing new) including spoken interludes. In this context, there was the increasingly prominent figure of the amorosa, a soprano who used poignant melodies—often inspired by folk songs—to narrate the passion and turmoil of love. Important composers of this genre include Pergolesi, Paisiello, Cimarosa...


Were they successful?

Absolutely! They enjoyed immediate popularity among the audiences of the crowded theaters in Naples; faced with the palatial performances of castrati almost always playing unlikely Greek heroes, they began to prefer the sweet or beautiful singing of—how should I put it?—normal singers (especially sopranos). They sang simple yet beautiful melodies with great skill and poignant sweetness, bringing to the stage popular characters, which always featured in the funny Comedeje. Finally, it is likely that a term created for the use and consumption of the castrati ended up instead identifying the sweetness of song, which without unnecessary frills expressed the magical feelings of love. In the wake of this transition, ignoring to some extent some rather poorer musical efforts, we then moved on to the major composers of the nineteenth century, especially the greatest of them all: Vincenzo Bellini. Not to mention the wit of Gioacchino Rossini, who loved to have women play male parts, such as in Tancredi.


Opera is Italian and the world envies us. But how can we maintain its integrity, namely that of the many melodramas produced by celebrated composers?

By integrity I guess you mean maintaining the idea of the artist, which unfortunately has become a rarity today. In fact, ninety percent of today's directors, with iconoclastic fury, dare I say it, destroy precisely the setting, the libretto and, simply put, the original idea of the composer. The poor audience tries to boo but most of the superintendents—I don't know whether out of genuine masochism or problems unknown to us—continue, it is the case to say, to disregard the opinion of paying theatergoers. It is strange this disregard, since the public, or rather the citizens, are the ones who ultimately pay the taxes that are used to fund these shows. O tempora, o mores! Cicero would say.



Pavarotti, Tebaldi, Freni, Tito Gobbi, Luca Salsi, even Callas who, though Greek, blossomed at La Scala: deity protectors of melodrama. Who do you put on your personal podium?

Legendary, from the point of view of vocal extension, Lucrezia Agujari. In her golden years, between 1766 and 1775, she possessed a range of three and a half octaves, apparently up to C6, as witnessed by a 14-year-old Mozart. But I also have to mention Maria Malibran, one of the most famous opera singers of the 19th century, Bellini's great unrequited love, celebrated by the Teatro Malibran in Venice. More recently, the unrivaled Maria Callas and, among the male voices, Enrico Caruso and Luciano Pavarotti.


How popular are Italian opera singers today?

In Italy, not much! Without resorting to rhetoric, given the very few appearances on the Foundation billboards, you could say that Italy is the sworn enemy of its young opera singers. Where this comes from is not for me to say, and even the judiciary has intervened several times to try to resolve this absurd situation. Unfortunately, many superintendents justify it with explanations that border on the offensive; that is, they say it is their job to hire the best artists on the market ... as if to add insult to injury. In fact, more often than not, apart from the few compulsory excellent singers that you can hear also in Italy, the vast majority of these foreign artists are not just mediocre but even, due to their lack of ability, unlistenable. As usual, the audience reacts by booing but the superintendents, as is the case with directors, turn a deaf ear. The only person to take action could be Minister of Culture Sangiuliano—but will he?


Singing is a natural expression of the individual. Children start singing at a very young age. However, singing is no longer taught and practiced in school, starting in elementary school, as it was until a few decades ago. It was replaced, but only in middle school, by teaching a musical instrument, mostly the recorder...

I brought the situation to the attention of Minister Valditara, who was very sensitive to the issue. In fact, in the country that invented music, it is truly outrageous that the subject is not taught in schools, either in terms of culture or profession, or even singing, which is the most immediate artistic expression in the formation of a child; nor can the recorder make up for such shortcomings. I remain hopeful of Minister Valditara's good intentions.


The disappearance of music education in schools is countered by the passion of many amateurs for singing: countless choirs made up of men and women of different ages. Singing thus returns to its most natural function: to free the soul from anguish, to allow everyone to express themselves by modulating their voice instinctively. Singing as a therapy against stress?

Choirs—especially in central and northern Italy—have always existed, and besides being a great means for socializing, they also have the ability to build harmony, a word that from the Greeks onward lies at the foundation of the entire world. So, we welcome the choirs, but at the same time let us remember to bring ourselves up to the standards of other countries in the world that have long since not only included music history and art history on school curricula (music as culture), but have also built a professional training ‘music supply chain’ that enables artists to excel in all world competitions. What about the Italians? They are the best, however, the state not only fails to consider them but, if they want to earn a living from music, they are forced to travel all over the world. How very unfair and how terribly disappointing!



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