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COURSE NAME: "Italian Opera"
SEMESTER & YEAR: Spring 2019

INSTRUCTOR: David Castronuovo
EMAIL: [email protected]
HOURS: TTH 10:00-11:15 AM

Opera is perhaps one of Italy's most important cultural innovations, continuing to fascinate the world since its birth over four hundred years ago. The aim of the course is to examine the birth and development of opera in Italy from the late Renaissance to contemporary Italian opera. The inherent problems in the union of music, text, and drama in this complex music form are explored in the solutions that the most important operatic composers have provided. The aim of the course is then not only to understand and appreciate a story set to music, but the different and varied aspects of opera, its creation, and production. The course explores the history of Italian opera from its birth in the late Renaissance, its development in the 17th century, Italian opera abroad with G.F. Handel and W.A. Mozart, the Belcanto operas, G. Verdi, the Verismo movement, 20th century and contemporary opera. Form and structure in opera, relations between text and music, the world of singers and the characters they portray, historic study of the operatic orchestra, notions of opera production: staging, sets, costumes and the Italian opera house.

Please note that all students -- with or without formal musical training -- are welcome to enroll.

Course members may study all works in English translation.

The course will offer participants the opportunity to attend a performance of "La Traviata" at the Rome opera (Thursday, January 24, 2019). Sign up with Student Activities at 

Students will leave the course with the ability to assess the often fluid relationship between words and and music that informs any given piece from the Italian repertory, and to determine how successfully the composer and librettist have used music in the service of theatrical drama.  

A. Participants will study seven Italian operas in depth.  Students will familiarize themselves with both libretto and music, such that they can analyze successfully the ways in which specific sections of each work relate to the whole piece. Students will also gain expertise in understanding how an opera is fashioned from a literary source, and how it makes use of all aspects of theatrical production (sets, staging, costumes) to make its effect.  Participants will analyze the nature of the creative process that allows composer and librettist to fashion a successful opera.

1. L'Orfeo (Orpheus), libretto by Alessandro Striggio, music by Claudio Monteverdi (first performed Mantova, Italy, 1607)
2. Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte, music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (first performed Vienna, Austria, 1786)
3. La traviata (The Fallen Woman), libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, music by Giuseppe Verdi (first performed Venice, Italy, 1853)
4. Otello (Othello), libretto by Arrigo Boito, music by Giuseppe Verdi (first performed Milan, Italy, 1887)
5. Cavalleria rusticana (Rustic Chivalry), music by Pietro Mascagni (first performed Rome, Italy, 1890)
6. La bohème, libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, music by Giacomo Puccini (first performed Torino, Italy, 1896)
7. Madama Butterfly, libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, music by Giacomo Puccini (first performed Milan, Italy, 1904)

B. Participants will read the literary sources for the last four of the works listed above.  In each case, students will examine the choices that librettist and composers made as they selected, amplified, ignored, or supplemented material from the literary sources of their operas.

Othello (Shakespeare)
Cavalleria rusticana (Rustic Chivalry) (Verga) (short story)
Scenes from the Bohemian Life (Henri Murger)
Madame Butterfly (John Luther Long) (short story)

C. Participants will view the following films/filmed operas, and gain appreciation for the ways in which film can either enhance or diminish the experience of Italian opera.

Farinelli the Castrato (Gérard Corbiau, director, 1994)
Otello (Franco Zeffirelli, director, 1986)
Madama Butterfly (Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, director, 1975)

D. In addition to the complete operas above, students will study gain a more perfect knowledge of the history of Italian opera by studying excerpts from the works listed below:

Rinaldo (Handel)
Orfeo ed Euridice (Gluck)
La serva padrona (The Servant-Mistress) (Pergolesi)
L'elisir d'amore (The Elixir of Love) (Donizetti)
Un re in ascolto (A King Listens) (Berio)

E. To achieve a comparative sense of Italian, German, and French opera, students will evaluate excerpts from the following works:

Die Walküre (The Valkyrie), libretto and music by Richard Wagner (Munich, Germany, 1870)
Carmen, music by Georges Bizet (Paris, 1879)


Participants will leave the course with extensive knowledge of the forms and conventions of Italian opera; its relation to the broader cultural and artistic history of the Italian peninsula (and of Europe); basic Italian prosody; opera's literary sources; the importance of the librettist; voice types; and the fundamentals of all aspects of operatic stage production.  Participants will gain the ability to assess critically (1) the dynamic relationship between poetry and and music that gives Italian opera its own style and theatrical power, and (2) the success with which the composer and librettist have used music, in any given work, to serve the interests of dramatic art.  
Book TitleAuthorPublisherISBN numberLibrary Call NumberComments
OthelloShakespeare, William00000000000000000000  
Scenes from the Life of BohemiaMurger, Henri00000000000000000000  
The Opera CompanionMartin, GeorgeHal Leonard Corporation0000000000  
Madame ButterflyLong, John Luther00000000000000000000  
Rustic Chivarly (Cavalleria rusticana)Verga, Giovanni00000000000000000000  

Mid-term Exam, Tuesday 19 MarchWritten analysis20%
Final project (10+ pages) (due at last class of the semester)Students will select a work of literature as the source material for a newly imagined opera of their own invention. Students will not compose music for this project, but will invent a libretto that lays a plan for all the non-musical aspects of the imagined theatrical work (characters, voice types, settings, stage sets, costumes, formal divisions into musical numbers, costumes, stage directions, etc.).40%
Participation Blogs, oral reports, class discussion, QUIZZES20%
Final ExamListening / Identification20%

AWork of this quality directly addresses the question or problem raised and provides a coherent argument displaying an extensive knowledge of relevant information or content. This type of work demonstrates the ability to critically evaluate concepts and theory and has an element of novelty and originality. There is clear evidence of a significant amount of reading beyond that required for the course.
BThis is highly competent level of performance and directly addresses the question or problem raised.There is a demonstration of some ability to critically evaluatetheory and concepts and relate them to practice. Discussions reflect the student’s own arguments and are not simply a repetition of standard lecture andreference material. The work does not suffer from any major errors or omissions and provides evidence of reading beyond the required assignments.
CThis is an acceptable level of performance and provides answers that are clear but limited, reflecting the information offered in the lectures and reference readings.
DThis level of performances demonstrates that the student lacks a coherent grasp of the material.Important information is omitted and irrelevant points included.In effect, the student has barely done enough to persuade the instructor that s/he should not fail.
FThis work fails to show any knowledge or understanding of the issues raised in the question. Most of the material in the answer is irrelevant.



The course has a strict attendance policy. Absences lead to a lowering of the final course grade, as follows: 1st absence, 1%; 2nd absence, an additional 2%; 3rd absence, an additional 3%; for every subsequent absence, an additional 5% is taken off the final course grade.

You cannot make-up a major exam (midterm or final) without the permission of the Dean’s Office. The Dean’s Office will grant such permission only when the absence was caused by a serious impediment, such as a documented illness, hospitalization or death in the immediate family (in which you must attend the funeral) or other situations of similar gravity. Absences due to other meaningful conflicts, such as job interviews, family celebrations, travel difficulties, student misunderstandings or personal convenience, will not be excused. Students who will be absent from a major exam must notify the Dean’s Office prior to that exam. Absences from class due to the observance of a religious holiday will normally be excused. Individual students who will have to miss class to observe a religious holiday should notify the instructor by the end of the Add/Drop period to make prior arrangements for making up any work that will be missed. The final exam period runs until ____________
As stated in the university catalog, any student who commits an act of academic dishonesty will receive a failing grade on the work in which the dishonesty occurred. In addition, acts of academic dishonesty, irrespective of the weight of the assignment, may result in the student receiving a failing grade in the course. Instances of academic dishonesty will be reported to the Dean of Academic Affairs. A student who is reported twice for academic dishonesty is subject to summary dismissal from the University. In such a case, the Academic Council will then make a recommendation to the President, who will make the final decision.
John Cabot University does not discriminate on the basis of disability or handicap. Students with approved accommodations must inform their professors at the beginning of the term. Please see the website for the complete policy.


Weeks 1-3

Poetic and musical forms
Renaissance to Baroque: the Birth of Opera
The Florentine Camerata

Weeks 4-5

Orpheus (complete opera)
Film: Farinelli the Castrato

Rinaldo (excerpts) (Handel)

Opera seria
The geography of Italian opera

La serva padrona (The Servant-Mistress) (excerpts) (Pergolesi)

Comic forms

Weeks 6-7

The Marriage of Figaro (complete opera)

L'elisir d'amore (The Elixir of Love) (excerprts) (Donizetti)

Bel canto

Weeks 8-9

The Risorgimento

La traviata (complete opera)

Comparative influences: Wagner and Bizet

Weeks 10-12

Reading: Shakespeare's Othello
Othello (complete opera)
Film: Otello (Zeffirelli)


Reading: Cavalleria rusticana (Rustic Chivalry) (short story)
Cavalleria rusticana (Rustic Chivalry) (complete opera)

Weeks 13-14

Reading: Murger's Scenes from the Bohemian Life
La bohème (complete opera)

Reading: John Luther Long's Madame Buttefly (short story)
Madama Butterfly (excerpts) (Puccini)
Film: Madama Butterfly (Ponnelle)

The Twentieth Century

Un re in ascolto (A King Listens) (excerpts)