Today I’ve got something a little different for you… all about how to learn Italian through opera!
Here's some background for you – including something you might know, and something you definitely don't!
One of my personal goals for this year is to get my Italian to a good level! (Not surprising, I know!) But something you probably didn’t know about me is that I’m a big opera fan!
But can I combine the two?
Well, if you've been following the blog and podcast recently, you'll know that I'm becoming more and more interested in input-based learning methods. Simply put, lots and lots of input (i.e. reading and listening) in combination with material you really like!
So I've been wondering whether I can use the Italian Opera that I love as a meaningful source of input to learn Italian myself. Would that work?
Gabriel Wyner is an author, polyglot and opera singer with a pretty interesting story to tell. (Hear my previous conversation with Gabe on the IWTYAL podcast here.) With Gabe’s background in opera, I thought he’d be the ideal person to chat to about my evil plans. We recorded the conversation, and present it to you today!
In this conversation, we discuss the value and practicalities of learning Italian through opera. If you're learning Italian and you love opera, it's your lucky day!
Here are links to the key resources mentioned:
- Gabriel is an author, opera singer and polyglot based in Chicago
- Gabe started singing at 15, mostly musical theatre at first, and then got into opera in college
- He later studied Vocal Performance at the University of Southern California
- He has a high baritone voice when singing
- He began learning languages as a way to better interpret the operas he was singing
- In his own words: “Translation allows people to understand opera for what it is but much is lost in every translation”
- He has sung opera in five languages – English, Russian, Italian, French and German
- His first role was in the Magic Flute, performed in an English translation
(Note: Not Gabe in the videos below!)
His first major role in a French language opera was as Pandolf in Massenet's Cendrillon, although he didn't speak French at the time!
- As Gabe explains in our interview, normally, you start out singing without fully focusing on the meaning of the words
- Instead of learning to understand the language right away, the early focus is on pronunciation using books like 28 Italian Songs & Arias of the 17th & 18th Centuries
- There are different levels of language understanding in singing:
- 1. You can not understand anything you sing
- 2. You can understand all of the individual words but you don't speak or understand the language
- 3. You are able to think and speak in the language
- Each level up allows you to better convey your performance to the audience
- Stylistically the Italian language is ideally suited to opera as it allows for clear flowing lines which make it very suitable for singing
- There is also a certain musicality to Italian – in terms of the rhythm of the language – that is well suited for song
- In terms of language style, ‘Opera Italian' is a little different from spoken Italian
- It's much older and uses some structures such as the passato remoto tense that have disappeared from modern every day speech
- It also has a lot of vocabulary that is reused from show to show. There is not a huge amount of variation in the vocabulary – operas tend to cover the same range of topics such as love, death, betrayal, happiness and sadness.
- So, as I ask Gabe in the interview, if I learn Italian from opera, am I going to be learning old Italian that no one uses anymore?
- His answer: “Yes and No. You’ll be learning literary Italian”.
- Ok, so it's clear that the language of Italian opera is a little different from every day spoken Italian. But does it still contain many of the same structures that would allow you to get a handle on the language as a whole?
- Gabe's response: “Absolutely!” Content is content”.
- When you go from learning the language to actually speaking it, there will always be a learning curve regardless of whether you’ve been learning from a textbook or from an opera
- If opera is what motivates you, then it can still provide useful learning content even though the style of the language is different. As you've probably realised, it's not like textbook dialogues are actually all that similar to your real-life conversations either.
What About The Quantity Of Content In Opera? Is There Enough To Learn With?
- Gabe explains that the number of words an any single opera is relatively low – they’re short texts sung slowly
- Operas by later composers such as Puccini generally have a lot more text than earlier opera. This is because the stories often involve more layers and less repetition
Operas Also Tend To Focus Heavily On A Key Set Of Vocabulary
- In most languages (and situations) with the top 1000 words you would have a 75-80% comprehension rate.
- However, with the top 1000 words in opera, you’ll probably have more like a 90% comprehension rate for operas because of the amount of vocabulary that commonly appears in most operas
- Yes! There are differences in the language of opera and the modern spoken language but much of what you learn from opera will still be applicable in spoken Italian
- Whether you learn from a textbook or from an opera, there will always be a learning curve when you start to speak
- If you're passionate about Italian opera, it's worth learning to understand it. As Gabe says: “Being able to understand what you’re hearing adds to it [the experience]. Maybe it takes away from the glamour of it but it adds to the humour”
What things do you really enjoy that you might be able to use in your language learning? Is opera one of them? Let us know in the comments below!