Opera: the essential Italian art form

Opera: the essential Italian art form

A presentation by Chris Latham

On Thursday 17 October the Director of the Canberra International Music Festival and of ‘Voices in the Forest’, Chris Latham, enthralled us with his entertaining and non-technical presentation on opera.

Chris, himself a musician and boy soprano in his early life, sang the praises of singing in many different ways – “beautiful singers are also beautiful people”; “singing is the elegant manifestation of perfection”; and “why do we like beautiful singing? We are hard-wired to it from childhood. It connects us”.

After enthusing on the joys of singing, Chris went on to talk about opera reminding us immediately that it was 200 years ago – in October 1813 – that Giuseppe Verdi was born; that Verdi is the most performed opera composer in the world; and that he composed 31 operas, including three of his best-known ones in the short period of three years – Rigoletto (1851), Il Trovatore (1853) and La Traviata (1853).

We learnt that as an art form opera started in the courts of Northern Italy in the 17th century, emerging from madrigals. The first opera performed was Monteverdi’s Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda on the theme of the Christian invasion of the Islamic world. Monteverdi composed other operas like L’Orfeo.

Then came the Baroque composers – Vivaldi and Scarlatti Snr. At this point Chris stressed that the Italian language is most suited to opera singing because of the open vowels in contrast with German which is very difficult to render in singing. “Nasal vowels resonate more” he stated.

The era of bel canto (a style that features agile/light voices as distinct from loud/ powerful ones) was brought in by Bellini, Donizzetti and Rossini. A lot of the parts in their operas were sung by ‘castrati’ who, despite being grown men, could only develop a small vocal chord. Chris played two arias as examples of the opera of this period: Rossini’s Una voce poco fa performed by Korean soprano Sumi Jo and Donizzetti’s Una furtiva lacrima sung by Luciano Pavarotti.

Chris then moved on to the ‘verismo’ style that has Verdi and Puccini as its major composers. These operas dealt with real-life tragedies, real people, affairs of the heart. We listened to Verdi’s Sempre libera from La Traviata,  to Questa o quella from Rigoletto, and to O mio babbino caro from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi. This was the era of powerful, loud voices and thicker orchestration. The voices needed to be powerful and loud in order to be heard over the orchestra! It was also the era of exoticism (Eg the Japanese setting of Mme Butterfly) as well as beautiful melodies (“it is thrilling to sing top C”).

Chris paused on Verdi, recounting the tragedies in his personal life (marked by the death of his wife and two children in the short period of three years) and also his role in Italy’s unification. During this period, Verdi had become a national icon symbolising Italian nationalism. Verdi was by far the most prolific of opera composers, but Puccini was pretty productive too: twelve operas of which three are still very popular and regularly performed – Turandot (which includes the famous aria Nessun dorma made famous by Pavarotti), La Bohème and Mme Butterfly.

On the state of opera these days, Chris explained that people like big powerful voices and that outdoor performances in scenic settings are gaining in popularity – for instance one at the base of Uluru and the increasingly popular stage on Sydney Harbour where opera is performed annually.

Chris used the opportunity to play the voices of the three major opera singers who will feature at the forthcoming ‘Voices in the Forest’ concert at the National Arboretum on 23 November – Yvonne Kenny, Emma Matthews and Rosario La Spina – and encouraged us to attend. (I have already booked the ticket and can honestly say that it is a performance not to be missed with the quality of the singing and the acoustics in a perfect outdoor setting. I’ve attended both previous editions of this concert that Chris very ably directs).

Yvette Devlin