La lirica (from l’opera lirica, or work in lyrics) is the most Italian of inventions, a splendid confection of music, words, drama, costumes, sets, special effects, and complete suspension of belief that could not have emerged in any other country. Nothing looks like Italian opera. Nothing sounds like Italian opera. And no one speaks or has ever spoken the elevated idiom found in the libretto (little book) of virtually every classic Italian opera.
As soon as she steps on stage, a donna (woman) becomes a beltà (beauty) -- no matter how plain, old, or large the singer. Rather than a chiesa (church), she goes to a tempio (temple), where sacri bronzi (sacred bronzes) ring instead of campane (bells). Stage directions for battle scenes invariably call for the firing, not of a cannone, but of a bronzo ignivomo (fire-vomiting bronze).
Absurd though it may be, opera’s stile gonfiato, or inflated style, can enchant -- no less than the golden wings of music that carry the poetic words aloft. I fell under its spell long before I knew a single sentence in Italian. As a graduate student at Columbia, I would buy a standing-room ticket to the Metropolitan Opera and sidle into an empty seat, working my way ever closer to the stage. At certain magical performances, the melding of words and music bypassed my ears and shot straight to my heart. I could actually feel it fluttering in my chest, directly beneath my seno.
When I moved to San Francisco to marry a man who had never even been to an opera, I won him over slowly. On Saturday evenings we would anchor our little sail boat off Belvedere island, watch the stars, and listen to the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on a portable radio. Without the benefit of a libretto, we had to listen with our hearts, intuiting what the singers were saying. Within a year, Bob was hooked, and we had student tickets (he was a psychiatry resident at the time) to the Friday evening series at the San Francisco Opera.
Back then I thought that learning Italian would help me understand opera better. Instead, the more I learned about la lirica, the better I understood Italian -- and Italians. Phrases from its overwrought libretti percolate through the language.
Every Alfredo sooner or later is implored, “Amami (“Love me!”), Alfredo!” from La Traviata, and every Aida becomes “celeste Aida,” another of Verdi’s heroines. Men who shake my hand on a chilly day break into, “Che gelida manina!” (“What a cold little hand!”) from La Boheme. Thanks to la lirica, vendetta (vengeance) is always tremenda (terrible), as in Rigoletto, while lacrime (tears) are furtive (hidden), as in L’Elisir d’Amore, and spiriti (spirits) bollenti (boiling-hot), as in La Traviata.
Click below to hear for yourself.
Words and Expressions (from some of my favorite arias)
"E lucevan le stelle" -- The stars are fading, from Puccini’s Tosca.
"Un bel di vedremo ' -- A beautiful day we will see, from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly
"O mio babbino caro" -- Oh my dear daddy, from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi
"La donna è mobile" -- A woman is fickle, from Verdi’s Rigoletto
Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA, My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.
Photo above courtesty of San Francisco Opera by Ken Howard.