Did you say macaroni? Why everyone can enjoy Italian opera
On the third of August, 1778, one of the world’s most famous opera houses La Scala staged its inaugural performance.
Sadly, opera isn’t as popular as it might be. It seems there are still negative preconceptions associated with it that haven’t changed in hundreds of years. Unlike the theatre, opera can’t seem to shake off old stereotypes of stuffiness, class divides, and language barriers in order to cross the boundary into popular culture. Many who might love it shake their heads at the very idea – fearful of looking foolish, not being able to afford it, or being put off by the fact they can’t understand the language.
The opera is just another form of entertainment like the theatre or the cinema. Inside the opera house are like-minded people, all there to become absorbed as the drama unfolds; and in those three hours that’s the only thing that matters. Tickets are not expensive, especially in comparison to seats at a Premier League football match (almost double the cost of an opera ticket), and the average opera-goer does not wear a three-piece suit or a ball gown.
Is it the language barrier that puts people off? I suspect that this is a large part of the problem. It would be easy to think that a trip to the opera would be as difficult as seeing a foreign-language play. But the truth is that the opera is about so much more than the story, or the acting. It is a combination of elements that, when put together in the right way, cause an emotional effect that is unique.
I take my seat for Rossini’s Il barbiere di Seviglia and hear the first words:
tutti con me
And that’s enough. I slide down in my seat and let the gooey-ness of the vowels and the easy rhymes wash over me, knowing the next three hours will keep me entranced, even if I can’t understand every single word.
The point is that you don’t need to understand every word. In fact, understanding the true translation of Italian opera into English can result in a shocking revelation of triviality, which can be seen either as amusing or a little jarring, depending on your mood. I rather enjoy the phrase:
Siete ben fortunate;
il cacao v’è cascato.’
It sounds gorgeous delivered by an opera singer, but somehow loses its profundity when you find out the words actually mean: ‘You are very fortunate! The cheese fell right on the macaroni’.
Similarly when the landlord, Benoît, begins to tell a tale of his adultery in La bohème, the coarse English translation brings out his fickle side: ‘Skinny women are hard to deal with and rarely worth the trouble. They are always complaining! For example, my wife. . .’ The words in Italian are much more suited to the operatic setting, and these are what we should concentrate on, with their easy rhymes and plethora of vowels:
‘Le donne magre sono grattacapi,
e spesso sopraccapi,
e son piene di doglie,
per esempio mia moglie.’
As an Italian speaker at the opera (probably in the minority) it might cause a slight chuckle or a twang of annoyance as you are hoisted out of the operatic dream into harsh reality when you discover what these phrases mean. But for everyone else, we should feel fortunate that our lack of fluency in the language makes no difference to our enjoyment or appreciation of the opera; if anything, understanding every word and being able to translate it in our heads might actually make it less beautiful.
Italian opera is a genre that will keep you satisfied over and over again; no matter how many times I attend La bohème, ‘che gelida manina’ brings me out in goosepimples, while Rodolfo’s final exclamation signals yet another reach for the essential packet of pocket tissues. And as the curtain falls, I know that as soon as I arrive home, I’ll be looking to see when I can go again.
Surely everyone should experience the opera at least once. Don’t let the language barrier put you off; understanding the words is not necessary; and very occasionally not even desirable. There is a timeless, universal language spoken to the soul that will keep you coming back for more – whether you understand about the macaroni or not.
The opinions and other information contained in the Oxford Dictionaries Online blog posts do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of OUP.
- Competitions and quizzes (36)
- Dictionaries and lexicography (161)
- English in use (378)
- Grammar and writing help (66)
- Interactive features (48)
- OED Appeals (4)
- Other languages (66)
- Varieties of English (40)
- Word origins (203)
- Word trends and new words (123)