The Most Famous Italian Operas [Italian Listening Exercise]

By Manu Venditti | Advanced

Podcast #38 : The most famous Italian Operas

If you study Italian and you’re looking for interesting material to practice your listening and comprehension with, you’ve come to the right place!
Hi everyone and welcome to a new episode of Italy Made Easy Podcast either in the audio version or the video version, if you are watching me. Today we are going to talk about the Opera, Italian Opera, Italian musical theatre.
This is a topic that I honestly don’t know a lot about, but I know that it’s something that interests a lot of you, and even if I don’t know a lot about Italian Opera, or Operas in general, it doesn’t mean that I don’t like it. The truth is, I do! I simply don’t know many of them and so to prepare for this episode I had to do a bit of research, I asked left and right… and I took some notes to help me.
Before recording this podcast, I looked at the notes and I decided to completely change my approach to the episode and so, seeing as the Opera isn’t a topic that I’m not really an expert on, I’ve decided to improvise a bit and speak to you all about the Opera in general… So let’s get started!

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So, what is Opera, or the thing that I keep calling “Opera lirica”? Why “Opera lirica”? Because this is what we actually call the Opera… It’s “Opera lirica”. “Lirica”... do you understand the word “lirico”? I think you do! Opera is a genre of musical theatre with ancient origins.

Generally speaking, we refer to “Opera lirica” to describe the type of music produced from “il settecento” to “il novecento”. Another thing… In Italian when we say “il settecento” we generally mean the year 1700, so from 1700 to 1900. When we talk about Opera, generally, we are referring to Italian Opera, even though there are many Operas made in other languages, especially in German, but Opera is us Italians.

For Classical music, I’d probably say that Germany has more famous composers than we do, but when it comes to the Opera it’s us… we are the leaders - or we were the leaders - of this art form.
What are the most common names, the most important names of Italian Opera? Do you know any of them?
Amongst the most important names of Italian Opera we have Giuseppe Verdi - I’m sure you know of him - Gioacchino Rossini and Giacomo Puccini.

These names probably don’t mean much to you if you’re not a “connoisseur”, an expert of Italian Opera. But I’m sure that you would know and recognize many pieces that come from Operas written by these composers. For example, speaking of Giuseppe Verdi, without a doubt among his most important works there’s “Nabucco” (Nebuchadnezzar). If you don’t know “Nabucco”, what about “Requiem”? “Requiem”, by the way, is an Opera that Giuseppe Verdi wrote in honour of Alessandro Manzoni, the author of “I Promessi Sposi” (The Betrothed) who we talked about in a recent episode of this podcast. Some very recognizable songs from “Requiem” are “Dies Irae” (Day of Wrath) and “Libera me” (Deliver me). Again, if you don’t know these pieces, I guarantee you that, if you look them up on Youtube, they’re songs that you will know.
And this is the experience of all of us Italians. I’ll explain it to you!

Opera isn’t a very popular genre of music in Italy, by which I mean that either people like it or it gets completely ignored. I can say that the majority of Italians, who are not Opera experts, don’t particularly appreciate Opera. It’s often considered a very boring genre of music, even just a bit too much… But at the same time, all of us Italians know and recognize many Operas or at least many, many pieces that come from these Operas… And they are beautiful… We like them… Everyone likes them!
They’re pieces such as the “Marcia Trionfale” (Triumphal March) that comes from “Aida”, again by Giuseppe Verdi. Why do we know them? We know them because these musical pieces get used so often in movies and in advertisements.

So, going back to Verdi, I’ve talked about “Nabucco”, I’ve talked about “Requiem”, I’ve mentioned “Aida”, that in my opinion, is maybe the Opera with the most extravagant production that you can imagine and I hope that I’m able to see a serious production of “Aida” because, being set in Egypt, with pharaohs, princesses, etc… It's usually brought to life with spectacular scenography and choreography. Large casts, pyramids, elephants, horses… It’s just beautiful! I’ve never seen “Aida” in person but I would really love to see it. Lastly, another really well known piece, still by Verdi, is “La Traviata” (The Fallen Woman), that again, you will probably know because of a piece, a song, called “Amami Alfredo”.

Another author of Italian Opera is Rossini who we know especially for “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” (The Barber of Seville). If you don’t know “Il Barbiere di Siviglia”, what’s the important piece that this Opera is known for? For sure it would have to be the song “Figaro”, do you know it? “Figaro qua, figaro là…” Exactly, “Figaro” is “Il Barbiere di Siviglia”.
If you don’t know the Operas of Verdi or Rossini, you probably know the ones by Puccini.
Puccini composed Operas like “La Bohème”, “La Tosca”, “Madame Butterfly” and “Turandot”. From “Turandot” comes a really famous piece which is “Nessun Dorma”.
One day I promise I’ll make a video where we’ll analyze the lyrics of this song, of “Nessun Dorma”, it really is a beautiful piece… Whether or not you like Opera, I’m sure that you’ll like this song.

Let’s talk now… As I said I don’t know a lot about Opera, so I’m not going to start telling you all the details about these works or tell you the story… I’m not the right person to talk to you about that. But anyhow, I would like to have a word or two with you, to exchange some opinions, to know if you like Opera, if you are a person who goes often to see the Opera and what your favorite Opera is.
In my case, I’ve only been to the Opera once in my life. Alright, let’s take a step back… I love Classical music! Usually, if I want to listen to music to relax, I put on Classical music, generally it’s piano or violin concertos - I love the violin! - but I rarely put on Opera, it’s not something that I normally do. But recently I did go to see an Opera and it was “Requiem” by Giuseppe Verdi.
Now, “Requiem” is not an easy Opera, because it doesn’t have amazing scenography or choreography… And being a requiem it’s not a particularly lively Opera.

As you know, a requiem is a prayer that you say for the dead, so it’s not a lively Opera like “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” or “Aida” can be. Yet despite this, I can say with complete honesty that it was a beautiful experience. Entering an auditorium where you find an orchestra before you with I don’t know how many components, around 50 instruments or so, gigantic drums at the back and - the best part - a choir composed of three different choirs put together making a total of - I believe - two hundred people… And witnessing this live performance, with beautiful music performed by such talented musicians, and listening to one hundred, two hundred people singing together, I must confess it’s a feeling that fills you from head to toe, it moves you, it gives you shivers. So I’m sure that, even if you’re someone who doesn’t generally love Opera, or if you don’t know any of them or you don’t know enough about them like in my case, I suggest you go anyway to the the Opera at least once, because it’s an experience that will change your life.

Going back to talking about us Italians and the relationship we have with the Opera, we can say that Italian Opera is represented much more abroad than in Italy. The statistics say that out of the twenty-five thousand annual performances of Italian Opera in the world, more than seven thousand occur in Germany, and it’s the country where Opera is most appreciated in the world. Following Germany, comes the United States, Russia, France and Austria and, only at sixth place comes Italy, with little more than a thousand Opera performances a year.

I don’t know how useful this Podcast has been to you from the point of view of information about Italian Opera, as I said I don’t know a lot about it, but I’m sure that this episode has been useful to you from a linguistic point of view.
That’s all from my end, I’ll leave you for now, sending you my best wishes and I’ll see you in the next episode!

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