The Universal Language

American students come to small-town Italy to study big-time opera.

Multimedia – Video

Student Kristoffer Cleto

Student Kristoffer Cleto rehearsing a song at the Scuola Italia in Sant’Angelo in Vado

If you were to pull out a map of the Pesaro-Urbino region, you would be hard-pressed to find on it the small town of Sant’Angelo in Vado. But for one month in the summer, this scenic Italian town is found more easily not with your eyes, but with your ears.

Throughout June and into July, vocal professor Sylvia Stone and her staff host a select number of opera students in the Scuola Italia: Corso Estivo per Giovani Cantanti Lirici – Summer School for Young Opera Singers. This year marks the tenth anniversary of the school and, for the second year, Sant’Angelo’s Teatro Zuccari will be filled with the sounds of Mozart and Verdi.

This four-week music program not only provides the students, almost all of whom are American, a chance to work with acclaimed musicians from around the world, but also throws them right into the middle of true Italian culture.

“You don’t really learn a language until you can learn it in that country,” says Stone, a professor of voice and voice department chair at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. “That’s why I like to have the program [where not much English is spoken]…if you go to Rome, or Florence, or even Siena, you’re around people who speak English better than you speak Italian and so you can’t practice.”


The Voices of Opera, Deconstructed

To the untrained ear, singers fall into two types: those who can sing really high and those who can sing really low. But throughout the history of opera, composers have relied on a wide range of voices to distinguish, not only the notes, but also the personalities of the characters. The examples here, sung by the students of Scuola Italia, demonstrate the broadest categories of vocal parts. From the glass-shattering belting of the soprano to the soul-shaking power of the bass, each plays a specific and crucial role.


Ellen Bialek

Ellen Bialek sings “Una donna a quindici anni” from Così Fan Tutte by Wolfgang A. Mozart.

Almost always the leading role in opera, the soprano is the highest female voice part and typically sings the melody. Commonly written for a range of two octaves above middle C, a soprano’s most essential quality is her ability to project on the higher end of her range. While there is an endless list of leading soprano roles, classics include Laetitia from The Old Maid and the Thief by Gian Carlo Menotti and Cunégonde from Candide by Leonard Bernstein.


Rebecca Wiles

Rebecca Wiles sings “Svegliatevi nel core” from Giulio Cesare by G.F. Handel.

Also known as a mezzo-soprano, the mezzo’s vocal range typically lies around an octave below middle C to an octave above. This female voice part has more weight and a darker tone than a soprano and, therefore, is often cast as the villain or seductress. Prominent examples of mezzo roles include Despina in Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte and Zerlina in his Don Giovanni.


Aaron Godwin

Aaron Godwin sings “Una furtiva lagrima” from L’Elisir D’Amore by Gaetano Donizetti.

The tenor is almost always the highest male voice part, with the exception of a counter-tenor, whose vocal range and timbre is equivalent to that of a female singer. A tenor’s range is often written to include two octaves, from the C below middle C to the one above it. Sometimes cast in comedic roles, the tenor is often the male lead. Popular tenor roles include Alfredo from La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi and Roméo in Roméo et Juliette, Charles Gounod’s version of Shakespeare’s classic play.


Gavin Waid

Gavin Waid sings “Madamina, il catalogo è questo” from Don Giovanni by Wolfgang A. Mozart.

The most common male voice part, baritone is a fairly new classification in opera (accepted around the mid-nineteenth century) and was used most famously in Mozart works such as The Marriage of Figaro (Count Almaviva) and Don Giovanni (Don). With a typical range from the second G below middle C to the G above middle C, baritones can be cast in an endless variety of roles, including bass roles that are slightly higher in range as well as lower tenor roles.


Daniel Johanson

Daniel Johanson sings “La Commedia” from Pagliacci by Ruggiero Leoncavallo.

The lowest voice part in music, basses have a range from around two E’s below middle C to the E above middle C, though that range often is pushed lower by “basso profundos,” such as singer Martti Talvela (1935-1989), who can be called upon to sing low C’s in a performance. Like baritones, basses can be adapted to several roles, most often supportive or comedic. Their voices easily portray authority, allowing their character to play an advisor to the lead, such as the Grand Inquisitor in Verdi’s Don Carlo.


Not only does Sant’Angelo in Vado (population 4,000) provide a true sense of small-town Italian culture, but also its distance from large towns (30 minutes from Urbino) assures that students aren’t distracted by the lures of city life and, instead, focus on their craft.

“It’s thinking about language and opera twenty-four hours a day for four weeks,” says assistant coach Alejandro Roca Bravo, assistant musical director of Opera de Colombia in Bogotá. “It’s not easy to stay here and rehearse and have lessons. It’s a total immersion and it works better in a small town than a bigger city.”

One of the goals of the program is to connect students with people who have significant experience in the field. The faculty is made up of highly recognized and accomplished musicians from around the globe. In addition to Roca Bravo and program director Stone, who has performed more than 1,300 times in Europe and America, the staff includes stage director Marco Andre Angelini, former Intendant of Komische Kammer Oper in Munich; and assistant coach Julio Mirón, who works at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich.

There are teachers who finish university and, in the same second, start teaching. They have no experience by themselves. In music and theatre, it’s really a crime.

“There are teachers who finish university and, in the same second, start teaching,” says Angelini. “They have no experience by themselves. In music and theatre, it’s really a crime. What can they give the students? Nothing. If you just finished the studies yourself, you are no better than the student.”

Stone and her staff have seen many alumni go on to land prominent roles in the competitive opera world. “[Stone] was always there to give guidance and help in any way she could,” says John Longmuir, who attended Scuola Italia in 2010. “She also had great insight into performing and gave some wonderful advice. All of this has helped me be better prepared in my current position as a principal tenor with Opera Australia, with whom I’ve worked full time with since the beginning of 2011.”

But the faculty doesn’t let their professionalism outweigh their personability, something that their students admire and appreciate.

“They all bring something different to the table and that’s really refreshing,” says 19-year-old Heather Ferlo from the State University of New York at Potsdam. “They all have the same goal at the end, but they have their different ways of approaching it. They’re really taking the time to know us as people so that they can work with us in the most efficient way.”

Stage Director Marc Andre Angelini

Stage Director Marc Andre Angelini (left) provides feedback to some students while rehearsing a new song

Scuola Italia’s demanding curriculum includes three hours of Italian language classes every morning, followed by a break for the Italian siesta known as pausa. The rest of the day is devoted to voice lessons, opera staging rehearsals, ensemble rehearsals, solo rehearsals, and individual coaching that can go as late as 9 p.m. On top of all that, guest lecturers such as director June Card and performer William Matteuzzi offer master classes throughout the course.

“It’s a chance, not only to work ourselves to the bone and get a lot out of it,” says Aaron Godwin, who attends the University of Central Florida and is in Scuola Italia for his second year, “but to experience a lifestyle that’s completely different than anything you’ll ever see in the U.S. Everything here literally shuts down and everyone goes home to take a nap for three hours. I mean, what is that?”

The ambitious schedule is made more bearable by the camaraderie the students share. During pausa, they often make a gelato run together. After rehearsal, some head to Café Centrale in the heart of Sant’Angelo to reflect on the day and talk about getting together back home after the program ends.

This chemistry has not gone unnoticed by faculty members who have seen over the years what a sense of togetherness can do for the program. “I feel, especially this year, we have the feeling of a real group,” says Roca Bravo, who has been involved with Scuola Italia for six years. “No one is left alone.”

Even after the group stages their final performance on July 4 in Sant’Angelo, there will undoubtedly be a longing to continue the lessons—in both music and life—that they have learned. “I fell in love with this town and I fell in love with Italian culture,” says Godwin about his reasons for returning to Scuola Italia. “There is an overwhelming sense of ‘don’t take yourself too seriously’ here in this town. I think that’s something that’s really lacking in our country.”

The teachers, too, feel that a month is not enough. “Four weeks gives them only a taste of [what they need to do],” says Stone. “They need the inspiration to work even more so that they’re enthusiastic and eager to proceed. Also, to really be professional, because we do strive to teach them professionalism—and this group is really coming through with that.”


About Connor Drew

Urbino seems to have not aged a single day throughout the centuries and I can’t believe something as majestic as it still exists. You step inside the walls and you immediately wish you could stay there forever. The people, too, are welcoming and exciting; never once did I feel like an outsider. This was the perfect town to expose us to Italian culture and to bond with each other throughout our experiences. This town and these people will always be a part of who I am.