November 15


The Daily Opera in Italy

By Rick

November 15, 2012

It is a common notion among Americans that Italians enjoy life more than the rest of us.  But that isn’t exactly accurate, nor is the point.  I think it would be closer to the truth to say that Italians appreciate life more than the rest us.  The good, the bad, and everything in between; they really immerse themselves in it fully, they don’t mind when things get messy.  In fact, sometimes it seems the messier, the better.  Which reminds me of a night last summer when I finally saw my first opera here in Rome.  It was worth the wait, because the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma put on a fantastic performance of Bellini’s “Norma,” among the extraterrestrial dreamscape of the Terme di Caracalla in the historical heart of ancient Rome

Norma at Caracalla

Anyway, that particular night happened to be the premier and the seats were mostly full.  By my rough estimate I’d say that nearly half of the spectators were tourists.  One might think that your average tourist wouldn’t “get” the opera, as obviously it is sung entirely in Italian without subtitles or translations.  But under the stars on a perfect night in Rome, surrounded by the crumbling remains of that ancient civilization, there isn’t much that one needs to “get.”  The music was gorgeous, the setting surreal, and the weather couldn’t have been more ideal for an outdoor event.  Just buy a glass a Prosecco at the bar, then shut off your brain and turn on your senses.  A vacation within a vacation for any weary traveler.

I suppose that I was sort of the exception in the crowd that night; not a tourist, but not an Italian either.  However, I couldn’t help wondering how the average Italian spectator might have viewed this opera (or indeed opera in general).  Do these plots seem plausible to them?  Norma contains the requisite love triangle, murderous schemes, revenge, regret, star-crossed lovers walking in hand in hand into the pyre.  Whose life is really this dramatic?  But perhaps to an Italian these scenes ring true—if not in fact, at least in the range of emotion.

Because you see, life here in Rome is an opera—or at least many people seem to believe that their lives are.  It’s one of the things that I’m still getting used to.  As an American, to me it seems like there’s a constant exaggeration of displayed emotion that never quite squares with the situation.  Listen to someone talking about their head cold and you’d swear that they’ve been diagnosed with terminal cancer.  The ostensibly smallest insult can result in a promise of vendetta that’s carried on for decades.  And don’t even joke to a man about being cornuto (cuckold) because then he’s obliged to kill you–and the law may even be on his side in that case.

il libretto

I’m having a bit of fun at the expense of my Italian friends, of course.  But I’m serious when I say that your scale needs to be adjusted when you’re an American living in Rome.  We Americans tend to save our big emotions for truly big events, whereas the average Italian likes to try them all out on a daily basis; he likes to see what the “audience” responds to, always expecting (or at least hoping for) a standing ovation.

So if you don’t make to the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma for a performance this season, don’t worry.  Just hang around any given piazza around town and watch all the little operas play out in daily life.  They’re just as well-acted, only without the benefit of a proper orchestra.

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About the author

Living in the Caput Mundi and trying to decipher Italian culture for the English speaking world.

  • I live in North Italy.

    It’s the exact opposite up here. Most seem very reserved, understated and unemotional. They’re tough and complain very little.

    If you travel through and live in other parts of Italy, you’ll see that it’s very regional.

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