January 30


Neapolitan Folk Music and Opera

By Rick

January 30, 2020

If you look at the song list on any popular opera tenor album, you’ll notice that along with the standard opera favorites (Una furtiva lagrima, Che gelida manina, E lucevan le stelle) there are often Neapolitan folk songs mixed in, that are obviously not taken from any stage production. Songs like ‘O sole mio, Torna a Surriento, for example.  So what gives? Why do these folks songs always seem to make their way onto serious opera albums of selected arias?

As it turns out, there are a few key players in the history of music who have contributed to this phenomenon. Let’s have a look…

Opera and Neapolitan Folk Music

Gaetano Donizetti was certainly one of the more well-known composers of his time, producing the beloved Bel Canto favorites such as L’elisir d’amor and Don Pasquale. In fact, for the six or seven years between Bellini’s death and the rise of Verdi’s fame, Donizetti was THE prominent figure in the Italian opera world.

His earlier accomplishments had gained the attention of the leading maestro of the day, Domenico Barbaia, who invited the young composer to Naples to study under his tutelage. Donizetti would remain principally based in Naples for the bulk of his productive years.

It was within this period, roughly the 1830s, that Donizetti entered a song-writing contest during the first edition of the Festival of Piedigrotta in Naples. This festival remained a popular annual event, all the way up until the 1950s. And during that inaugural year, Donizetti’s song, Te voglio bene assaie, won first place, suggesting a musical bridge, or at least some common ground, between opera lirica and musica napulitana.

Musica Napulitana

Then at the beginning of the 20th century, a type of stage musical formed in Naples called Sceneggiata. The literal translation is “scripted,” so in essence, these were a type of soap opera that dealt with daily life issues of people living in Naples, and later, Italian immigrants in the U.S.  

Common themes were domestic troubles, love affairs gone wrong, betrayal, revenge—in summary, many of the same human themes explored in traditional opera. Perhaps one difference is that some of the dialogue was spoken (almost always in Neapolitan dialect), and then every so often the stage action would halt for one of the characters to belt out a tune, not unlike an aria.

Perhaps the lasting popularity of Neapolitan folk songs can also be attributed to Enrico Caruso, who often sang them as encores at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in the early 1900s. Nowadays, it seems almost obligatory that operatic tenors be required to have these in their repertoire, and therefore, it’s not unusual to find a few Neapolitan folk songs on “opera” aria albums.

Even if not taken directly from a full opera production, the songs certainly sound “operatic,” as if they could have been from an opera. These crowd-pleasers seem to be as popular with the singers as they are with the listeners. Just about every famous tenor, from the great Luciano Pavarotti to “popera” crossover singer Andrea Bocelli has recorded albums full of these lively and sentimental songs.

What is the connection between #opera lirica and musica napulitana? Is there one? #music #Italy #Italian #Napoli

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Even up to the present day, there are artists in Naples who are keeping the traditions of the folk song alive. Not only by singing the old songs, but also by creating new ones in the same musical style. Pino Daniele, who died in 2015, was among the most famous of these singers, who often combined elements of Neapolitan folk music with the blues and other musical genres. 

The group Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare was founded in Naples in 1969 and is still touring and making albums today, although with various lineup changes. Their mission has always been to research and spread the traditional music from Campania (and more generally from South Italy), working with an ethnomusicologist to ensure that the music is genuine and true to its origins.

Most people know the traditional songs, or at least the melodies, even if they can’t name them (or pronounce them). To help you out, here is a short list of the most popular of these beloved tunes… which are YOUR favorites? Leave a comment below.

‘A vucchella

Core ‘ngrato

Funiculì, Funiculà


‘O sole mio

‘O surdato ‘nnammurato


Torna a Surriento

And here's a YouTube video, suggested by Rita, of Massimo Ranieri, who is a singer as well as an actor. She says that he started singing Neapolitan traditional songs when he was just a kid, and his versions of Reginella are beautifully sung and very passionate. Let's see if she's right... 

While visiting this area next fall on my tour, I look forward to hearing this music again in its original setting. Folk singers literally play music in the streets in the towns of the Amalfi Coast. Street performers will entertain by-passers with a random tarantella, and sometimes the restaurant chef will come out of the kitchen and improvise his own interpretation of 'Na sera 'e maggio at your table.

So bring some spare change with you for a little tip, and let the folks drag you into one of their street dances. It could be the highlight of your trip, and you'll be humming Torna a Surriento all the way home. 

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About the author

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

  • Ciao Rick, very nice article! You could also mention, among the famous italian singers, Massimo Ranieri who is a singer as well as an actor: he started singing Neapolitan traditional songs when he was just a kid, and his versions of Reginella (by the way, you should add this romantic song to your list!) are beatifully sung and very passionate.
    I don’t know if it is possibile on your site, but this is a link to one of his countless interpretations of this song. https://youtu.be/BNHJ9SPc-Js?list=RDBNHJ9SPc-Js
    Have a nice day,
    Rita (from Milano)

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