Voce! Voce! Voce! – Italian Opera 101

Iain Scott explains the fundamentals of Italian opera


There is no question that Opera is, first and foremost, Italian. No matter how intriguing all other forms may be, they are either secondary variants or reactions against Italian opera’s dominance. Throughout its four hundred-year history, the core of Opera has been unequivocally and essentially Italian – in spite of Wagnerians disdainfully sneering at it or the French being periodically threatened by it. Today, at least sixty percent of staged performances and probably a higher proportion of audio and video recordings are from the Italian repertoire. And it is here, most significantly, that most people experience their operatic initiation and where they first learn to fall in love with the wonderful world of Opera.

Why has the Italian form of Opera been so continuously seductive? A single word provides the answer. Rossini said it best when he noted that the three most essential ingredients of Italian opera are Voice, Voice and Voice. Italian opera is all about singing, or rather about showing off the capabilities of superbly trained singers. It celebrates the proposition that the human voice is the greatest of all musical instruments.

Most readers of this magazine will no doubt consider this assertion to be self-evident. It will, perhaps, come as a considerable surprise to find that there are many people who do not share this view. Some people inexplicably, but unapologetically prefer the violin, the piano or the clarinet to the voice as their favourite instrument. A major classical radio station in Toronto defiantly shuns any vocal music in their programming, citing audience research on preferences. But for Italians, the voice is always supreme – for them, the alpha and omega of Opera is a celebration of the art of the singer.

No nation can compete with the Italians for the passionate and exuberant exploration of the potential of the human voice. Others conceive of opera in different terms. Many Germans, for example, while acknowledging the importance of the voice, tend to put a much greater emphasis on factors such as the role of the orchestra and the inherent meaning of the work in their national variant of the art. The French tend to put a higher value on operas which contain visual spectacle and dance, in spite of their parallel penchant for restraint.

Today, lovers of Italian opera inhabit essentially a nineteenth century museum, where the parameters are not strictly those of the century as such, but rather the period between Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 and the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914.

Within this museum, most of us tend to begin our Italian operatic journey with Puccini – probably with “La Bohème”, “Madama Butterfly” or “Tosca” – and works by other composers from the “Verismo” period – the very end of the 19th century or the first two decades of the 20th century. Some are happy to explore no further. Others, however, with considerable trepidation, next tend to feel their way slowly backwards in time. This process leads them to discover earlier more structured forms of Italian opera.

It is an axiom of learning about any new discipline, whether it be about wines, astronomy, or a foreign language, that our perspective tends to change as we delve deeper into the new area of study. Accordingly, it is a commonly reported experience that the more a person knows about Italian opera, the less intoxicated they tend to become with their first love – its “Verismo” form. “Verismo” operas may be full of big tunes and opportunities for declamatory singing – often waggishly described as “can belto” rather than “bel canto” – but their stories can, on closer inspection, seem rather sordid and unedifying.

Those who have the inclination and courage to venture further backwards into the 19th century, next encounter the centrality of Verdi. In time and in metaphor, he represents the true “heart” of Italian Opera. Over his more than 50-year career, from the late 1830s to the 1890s, his output grows developmentally, as he absorbs the conventions of “bel canto” and the structural formulae of his predecessors. Verdi’s development shows a steady move towards more drama and greater use of the orchestra to drive that purpose – a process in parallel with the theories being independently generated north of the Alps by his contemporary, Wagner.

Where does this phenomenon of learning about Italian opera by slow backward exploration culminate? For most, it is in a discovery of the early decades of the 19th Century, where first Rossini (in his opera serias) and later, Bellini and Donizetti revived the “bel canto” principles of the earlier century. “Bel canto”, although inadequately translated as “beautiful singing”, is more appropriately understood to be the era of “display singing”, the era of showing off the virtuoso, the technique, the capabilities, of the trained and schooled human voice.

Some go even further back. Over the last 15 years, there has been a small explosion of interest in the music opera’s second century, (the eighteenth). This was really the core period, historically, of the “bel canto” phase of opera’s development. The most significant composers of Italian operas in this Baroque era were Vivaldi, Scarlatti, and a German who wrote primarily for London, Handel.

The furthest back we can go is to 1600, when opera was invented by a group of aristocratic intellectuals in renaissance Florence as an attempt to recreate Greek drama. Although their original intentions were to produce sung plays, by the time that opera had been developing for a hundred years, the original intentions of the founders had been modified by their disciples. A wholly new set of dogmas and principles evolved. (We can see parallels to this process in many other fields of human endeavour, including that of the major world religions.) As a result, from the 18th Century on, Italian opera had become a structure for the display of trained human voices. This exuberant joy in display singing continued into the early decades of the core 19th century, when Rossini made his remarks about “voce, voce, voce”.

To repeat and reinforce, throughout the four-hundred year development of Italian Opera, the central ingredient has always been the voice and the singer. In the era of recorded voices, our esthetic pleasure when listening to a Siminiato, a Bastianini, a Caruso, a Tebaldi, or a Bartoli is enhanced by an appreciation for the brilliance of their virtuoso technique. The characteristics of Italians most admired by those living north of the Alps are those of warmth, openness, inclusiveness, and an uninhibited joy in life are exemplified by so many singers of Italian opera. This is why lovers of the voice are so drawn to Italian opera.

Before closing, a sad postscript. It is a source of great concern to many opera lovers that for all practical purposes Italian opera been dead for almost a hundred years. (The last great work by an Italian composer was “Turandot” in 1926 and few would put the output of subsequent works, by Zandonai, Berio Menotti and others anywhere close to the first rank.) No matter. Whether the core of our appreciation is focused on the late “Verismo” composers, or composers from earlier decades and centuries, the ability of the Italians to display the potential of the human voice remains a source of tremendous joy.