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MUSIC-ITALY: Nurturing Opera

AMEGLIO, Italy, Mar 31 2009 (IPS) - Fabrizio tells a young woman, Eriko, that it is very cold outside, while logs crackle in the fireplace and the sun sets behind the mountains, adorned with last night’s snowfall. It is all true, but they are acting, rehearsing a famous scene from the opera La Bohème, by Giacomo Puccini.

Terranova with students after the concert. Credit: Yukari Susaki

Terranova with students after the concert. Credit: Yukari Susaki

This is not Paris, where the opera is set, nor is it the stage of any well-known opera house in Europe. There are no expert critics or a panel of judges watching. The youngsters are relaxed, enjoying the delights of their art in Ameglio, a village in southern Italy about 50 kilometres from Naples, surrounded by hills producing tomatoes, courgette or zucchini, honey, molasses and wine.

Fabrizio Bossio, tenor, and Eriko Sumiyoshi, soprano, are two singers training with Italian maestro Vittorio Terranova along with a score of young people at the international opera singing course held each February.

The venue is the Catholic community of Oasi Regina degli Angeli (Queen of Angels Oasis), a self-sustaining not-for-profit foundation created in 2005.

After a long day of vocalising and practising arias and duets, there are no exams or tests of any kind. The students go in to supper, and members of the community cordially serve up what they have grown in their fields with their own hands.

There is always pasta, and wine. Sweet peppers, aubergine or eggplant, squash, olives and a variety of cheeses, sausages and cold meats are set on the table. The celebrated southern Italian camaraderie imbues the students with the original spirit of Italian opera.

Almost every night one of the students, after dessert, will sit at the piano, and everyone ends up drinking toasts and singing Neapolitan songs.

“For the past three years, the course at the Foundation has been organised in collaboration with (renowned tenor Francesco) Zingariello. Apart from this one here in Ameglio, I usually teach several other courses, some of them on a regular basis,” Terranova told IPS.

In his younger days Terranova had a distinguished international career as a tenor, and was sometimes referred to as “the Italian Alfredo Kraus,” for his artistic similarities with the Spanish bel canto tenor who died in 1999.

Now he is famed in the opera world as a teacher. He gives frequent master classes in Austria, Bulgaria, Japan, Venezuela and different parts of Italy.

Terranova, a permanent professor at the state “Giuseppe Verdi” Conservatory of Music in Milan, taught Argentine tenors José Cura and Darío Volonté, Juan Diego Flórez of Peru, Carlos Ventre of Uruguay and Francesco Meli of Italy, who sing leading roles at the world’s foremost opera houses.

In Ameglio, most of his students are Italians, taking the course for recreation while “resting” from the strenuous activity at their own conservatories. There is also a strong contingent from Japan, and sometimes a couple of students from other European countries.

But Latin Americans also occasionally show up in Terranova’s classrooms. Interestingly, many Latin Americans have attained distinguished positions on the international opera scene.

Among currently distinguished Latin American opera singers who were not Terranova’s students are Chilean sopranos Verónica Villaroel and Cristina Gallardo-Domas, Uruguayan bass-baritone Erwin Schrott, Argentine tenors Marcelo Álvarez and Raúl Giménez, Mexican tenors Ramón Vargas and Rolando Villazón, and Venezuelan tenor Aquiles Machado.

“Why are there so many Latin American singers nowadays, especially tenors, including my former students Ventre, Cura and Flórez? I would say it is because they have followed their vocation. They have concentrated on their goals, studying tirelessly and pursuing perfection until they have become ‘virtuosi’,” Terranova said.

In Ameglio, students spend a week at the Oasis in the company of the 40 people who live and work there: three married couples with eight children between them, five members of a religious order, 10 long-term guests and 10 orphans, all of them in the charge of Father Carmine Zaccariello.

People here “share the common purpose of living according to the example of the earliest Christian communities,” the priest told IPS.

“My ministry here began just over a year ago. I am happy and at peace, also because Ameglio is such a beautiful place, made up of courageous people with great humanity,” said Zaccariello.

The Oasis offers hospitality to young people adrift or in trouble, especially those physically, psychologically or socially disadvantaged, and seeks “to be a place of culture, recreation and prayer,” as well as “a social refuge,” he said.

Meanwhile, the strains of the major composers of Italian opera, like Puccini (1858-1924), Verdi (1813-1901), Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) and Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835), float out of the classrooms. Outdoors, the members of the community tend to the gardens, livestock and honey bees.

“All our produce is for our own consumption in the community. We sell mainly honey, propoleum (an anti-bacterial substance produced by bees) and jam at markets outside,” said Zaccariello, who opened the Foundation’s premises to Terranova and Zingariello’s students with the aim of promoting culture.

During the course, students give a concert at the church in nearby Ameglio, offering local people an opportunity to listen to live performances of opera arias which are an essential part of the Italian cultural heritage, by singers who dream of joining choruses at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan or the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

But the path to the glamorous footlights is not at all easy, and one of the first difficulties encountered by qualified aspirants is to find a good teacher.

The lack of competent teachers “is typical,” said Terranova. “Even in Verdi’s time there was a shortage of good teachers, and very few enjoyed recognition.” In fact, Verdi himself wrote a letter saying that only seven of his contemporaries could be considered adequate instructors in the vocal arts, he said.

“Today the situation is practically identical. Few singing teachers are worthy of the name, but they do exist,” he said.

Subsequent difficulties include acquiring the right technique, developing artistic maturity, and making a place for oneself on the opera circuit. Out of the thousands of people worldwide who study singing in conservatories, academies, institutes and with private teachers, only a handful ever sing professionally.

“Students who want to study singing seriously have to map out a careful and precise strategy, which if they are lucky will reward them by helping them find their way. They must invest a great deal of time and effort, and possess confidence, dedication and an iron will,” said Terranova.

“Only those who are completely and unreservedly dedicated to their vocation will succeed; those who follow it gladly, vigorously, joyfully, without ever giving up,” he said.

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