Italian opera singing is granted UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity

With roots going back more than 400 years, the practice of opera singing is deeply embedded in Italy’s cultural traditions…

Kiki Deere
17 December 2023

Opera – from the Latin ‘opus’, literally ‘work’ – traces its origins back to the Medici Court in Florence, although its history arguably goes back much further. The cultural resurgence that swept over Italy during the Renaissance saw a rebirth of the ideas of ancient Greece, with opera also rooted in the revival of classical concepts.

It all started in Florence in 1570, when literary critic and intellectual Giovanni Bardi founded the Camerata dei Bardi, an association that brought together musicians, composers, playwrights and intellectuals (a plaque along Florence’s Via dei Benci commemorates its historic location). Bardi and his intellectual contemporaries were inspired by classical culture and wished to recreate ancient Greek theatre, giving life to a new type of entertainment that combined acting, singing and music – a most innovative and radical idea that was to revolutionise the arts.

Keen to embrace the latest trends, the Medici family, one of the most powerful families in Europe at the time, commissioned the Camerata to create elaborate musical spectacles known as ‘intermezzi’ for the wedding of their son Ferdinando I de’ Medici to Christina of Lorraine in 1589. Music was written and composed by members of the Camerata, most notably Giulio Caccini, Jacopo Peri and Vincenzo Galilei (father of the astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei). The Intermezzi della Pellegrina are regarded as the forerunners of musical opera, with texts written by poet Ottavio Rinuccini, considered one of the very first librettists.

Claudio Monteverdi was a key figure in the development of Italian opera (Alamy)

La Scala is arguably Italy’s premier opera house (Shutterstock)

The Medici commissioned architect and theatrical designer Bernardo Buontalenti to build a court stage, creating elaborate costumes and set designs that completely wowed the audience. His costumes of allegorical characters and stage machinery were mind-blowing, making him one of Italy’s foremost innovators of Baroque Theatre and the decorative arts.

The wedding guests, comprising some of Europe’s most influential families, were stunned with this new genre of work on stage, and were quick to emulate the Medici, staging similar performances in their hometowns. It was Jacopo Peri’s Dafne (1597), with a libretto written by Ottavio Rinuccini, that is widely considered to be the first opera ever staged, while Peri’s Euridice (1600) is one of the first operas to survive in near complete form. This new genre spread like wildfire in Italy and Europe, becoming the chosen entertainment of the aristocracy.

A key figure in the development of opera was composer Claudio Monteverdi, who wrote several operas for audiences at the Duke of Mantua’s court, most notably Orfeo in 1607 and, thirty years later, L’incoronazione di Poppea, which was staged during the Venice Carnival in 1643. Monteverdi used castrati – male singers castrated before puberty – to play principal roles, their high notes and vocal range floating across theatres with incredible power.

Until the end of the 17th century, all operas were sung in Italian, although this was to change when Mozart began to write the first operas in German. Italian, however, remains the language of music, with Italian musical terms universally used.

The mid 19th century is considered its Golden Era, with opera becoming increasingly popular and undergoing significant development, with the creation of enduring works such as Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata and Richard Wagner’s The Ring cycle. It was the mid 20th century, though, that was a notable era for singers, with tenors such as Luciano Pavarotti, Franco Corelli, Giuseppe Di Stefano and Carlo Bergonzi contributing to opera’s global dissemination.

Verona’s world-famous Opera Festival turned 100 this year (Shutterstock)

The interior of Teatro San Carlo, Italy’s oldest opera house (Shutterstock)

The inclusion of opera singing as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity was announced on the eve of the inauguration of La Scala’s 2023-24 season, a highly anticipated event that is a major social and cultural highlight of the year, marked annually on 7 December. “The recognition will generate increased interest and attention to the world of opera. It will contribute to the preservation of the Italian singing tradition, which is rooted in articulation, breath support, and sound coverage,” comments distinguished mezzo-soprano Luciana D’Intino, Lead Instructor at the Accademia della Scala.

Milan’s La Scala is arguably Italy’s premier opera house, its Accademia one of the most prestigious music and theatre schools in the world, training professionals across the live performing arts sector, encompassing artistic, technical and managerial roles. Several of the world’s most famous operas were premiered in the Lombard capital, including Bellini’s Norma in 1831, Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore in 1832 and Verdi’s Otello in 1887, not to mention Puccini’s Madama Butterfly in 1904. Yet it is Naples that is home to Italy’s – and indeed the world’s – oldest opera house. Commissioned by Charles III of Bourbon in 1737, the city’s Teatro San Carlo is where Mozart premiered Idomeneo in 1781. Palermo’s Teatro Massimo, meanwhile, is the country’s largest, while it was at Venice’s La Fenice that Verdi premiered Rigoletto and La Traviata.

It would be impossible to list all of Italy’s opera houses, with theatres and operatic venues present in virtually all major cities, from Rome’s Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, one of the oldest musical institutions in the world, and Pesaro’s Teatro Rossini, which hosts the Rossini Festival in summer, to Verona’s world-famous Opera Festival, which marked its 100th anniversary earlier this year. The new UNESCO recognition truly goes to show how deeply intertwined opera is in the nation’s culture, its enduring influence destined to resonate for years to come.

The opera Aida was first directed by Italian composer Giovanni Bottesin (Alamy)

Need to know

Location: Milan is the capital of the Lombardy region in northern Italy.

Getting there: British Airways flies direct from London Heathrow to both Milan Malpensa and Milan Linate. Several other airlines serve the city from the UK, including easyJet and Ryanair.

Getting around: Milan has an efficient transport network, which includes a comprehensive metro, tram and bus network.

When to go: The opening night of La Scala’s opera season is on 7 December, which coincides with the feast day of St Ambrose, the patron saint of Milan. It’s one of the most prestigious events in the Milanese calendar, attracting celebrities, dignitaries and opera enthusiasts from the world over.

Accommodation: The city offers no shortage of hotels, from international luxury names such as Park Hyatt Milano and Mandarin Oriental Milan, both within striking distance from La Scala, to the fun and vibrant Room Mate Giulia, a skip and a hop away from the opera house.

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