Italian opera is a musical art form that had its beginnings in Florence in the late 1500s. It was based on a number of performance genres that preceded it, including Greek drama, poems sung by a solo vocalist with single instrument backing and madrigals (a capella singing by 3-6 harmonizing vocalists).
The earliest known opera composition is Dafne, written by Jacopo Peri (1561–1633) in 1597. Peri was born in Rome but relocated to Florence to study music. In the 1590s, he met Jacopo Corsi, the leading patron of music in Florence and they invited the poet, Ottavio Rinuccini, to write a text for a new composition. Dafne was the result. Peri’s later composition, Euridice, written in 1600 with Giulio Caccini, is the earliest surviving opera and was initially performed as part of a celebration for a Medici wedding, thereby propelling opera into the mainstream of court entertainment.
Claudio Monteverdi was a native of Mantua, Lombardy, who wrote his first opera, La Favola d’Orfeo (The Fable of Orpheus), in 1607 for the court. Moving to Venice in 1613, Monteverdi subsequently enriched the performance of opera by adding an orchestra, more lavish costumes and sets and a more dramatic vocal style. Several decades later, opera had spread throughout the Italian peninsula, the result of touring companies who performed in all the major cities. The first public opera house, the Teatro di San Cassiano, opened in Venice in 1637. Opera was no longer a court entertainment but a commercial enterprise open to the paying public. Additional opera houses soon opened throughout the city, performing a variety of works during Venice’s Carnivale season.
In the early 19th century composer, Gioacchino Rossini’s (1792–1868) first success was a comic opera, La Cambiale di Matrimonio (1810), followed by The Barber of Seville and La Cenerentola (Cinderella). Vincenzo Bellini (1801–35) born in Catania, Sicily, was known for his long-flowing melodies. Bellini is considered the first composer to develop bel canto (a style of singing) opera. Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848) was born in Bergamo, Lombardy, but wrote in Rome, Milan and Naples. Donizetti achieved some popular success in the 1820s but became famous throughout Europe when his Anna Bolena premiered in Milan. L’Elisir d’Amore, produced in 1832, is considered one of the masterpieces of 19th-century opera buffa (comic opera), as is his Don Pasquale (1843). Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), is his most famous opera and one that best represents the bel canto style of singing.
(1813–1901) was one of the most influential composers of the 19th century. Verdi produced many successful operas, including La Traviata, Falstaff and Aida, and became known for his skill in creating melody and his use of theatrical effect. Verdi experimented with musical and dramatic forms and transformed the whole nature of operatic writing during his career. In 1877, he created Otello which is described by critics as one of the best romantic operas.
Risotto Giuseppe Verdi
The great opera composer was humble when it came to his music, but not so when the subject was cooking. In Ira Braus’ book, Classical Cooks, he includes a letter from Verdi’s wife regarding a possible Iron Chef-style cook off between Verdi and an actress by the name of Ristori. This recipe is said to be one he created for the challenge.
- ¾ lb Carnaroli rice
- 2 oz butter
- 3 oz mushrooms
- 3 oz asparagus tips
- 3 oz Prosciutto di Parma
- 3 oz canned tomatoes
- 3 ½ tablespoons light cream
- 4 cups meat broth
- grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese to taste
- ½ onion, thinly sliced
Clean and finely mince the onion.
Clean and thinly slice the mushrooms.
Clean and blanch the asparagus in salted water: cool them in water and ice.
Finely mince the Prosciutto.
Blanch the tomatoes, peel, seed and cut them into cubes.
In a pot melt ¼ of the butter, add the onion and slowly cook it until soft and golden.
Add the rice and toast it for about 1 minutes.
Add the stock, 1 ladle at the time, waiting until it has been absorbed before adding the next one.
After 10 minutes add mushrooms, Prosciutto, asparagus and tomatoes.
Stir well, cook for another 2 minutes and add the cream.
When the rice is “al dente” (about 18 minutes) add butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, stir well and cover with a lid. Let it rest for 2 minutes before serving.
(1858–1924) wrote some of the greatest Italian operas of the 20th century, including Manon Lescaut, La Bohème, Tosca and Madame Butterfly. Born in Lucca, Tuscany, he enrolled in the Milan Conservatory in 1880. Manon Lescaut (1893), his third opera, was his first great success. La Bohème (1896) is considered one of his best works, as well as, one of the most romantic operas ever.
Italian opera remains a popular form of entertainment throughout the world. In the 1960s and ’70s, opera’s popularity in the United States grew. As a result, opera companies were established in cities of all sizes and fans no longer needed to travel to a major metropolis to see a performance. With the increased number of opera houses and with growing audiences, companies began commissioning new works, a trend that continues to this day.
There is a legend that Puccini was a ladies man and when his wife suspected that he was about to stray, she would prepare his favorite dishes and use plenty of garlic. Here is a dish that Mrs. Puccini may have prepared.
Fettuccine in Garlic Cream Sauce
- 1 lb pasta
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 8 cloves of fresh garlic, finely minced
- 1 ½ cups of cream
- 1 cup grated Parmesan type cheese
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped chives
- 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
- Salt and fresh, coarse ground black pepper to taste
Cook pasta according to package directions.
Melt the butter over moderate heat and cook the garlic until it is golden.
Add the cream and simmer over a low heat for 5 minutes.
Place the cooked pasta in a serving bowl and pour the hot cream over it.
Sprinkle on the grated cheese, chives and parsley and gently toss.
Season to taste with salt and pepper.
(1843 –1919) was a highly acclaimed 19th century opera singer, earning huge fees at the height of her career in the music capitals of Europe and America. She first sang in public as a child in 1851 and gave her last performance before an audience in 1914. Along with her near contemporaries Jenny Lind and Thérèse Tietjens, Patti remains one of the most famous sopranos in history, owing to the purity and beauty of her lyrical voice and the unmatched quality of her bel canto technique. The composer, Giuseppe Verdi, writing in 1877, described her as being the finest singer who had ever lived and a “stupendous artist”. Verdi’s admiration for Patti’s talent was shared by numerous music critics and social commentators of her era.
She was born Adela Juana Maria Patti in Madrid, the last child of Sicilian born tenor, Salvatore Patti and soprano, Caterina Barilli. She made her operatic debut at the age of 16 on 24 November 1859 in the title role of Donizetti’s, Lucia di Lammermoor, at the Academy of Music in New York. In 1862, during an American tour, she sang John Howard Payne’s “Home, Sweet Home” at the White House for the President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln and his wife, Mary. The Lincolns were mourning their son Willie, who had died of typhoid. Moved to tears, the Lincolns requested she sing the song again. After that, it became associated with Adelina Patti and she performed it many times as an encore at the end of recitals and concerts. Patti’s career was one of success after success. She sang not only in England and the United States, but also in Europe, Russia and South America, inspiring audience frenzy and critical superlatives, wherever she went. Her beauty gave her an appealing stage presence, which added to her celebrity status.
A dish that includes her name is “Poularde Adelina Patti”, a recipe created by the famous chef, Auguste Escoffier, who created many other dishes named after opera singers. This recipe is particularly difficult to find and one must buy his cookbook to gain access to it. Briefly described, however, “Poularde Adelina Patti” is a chicken dish covered with a cream sauce, flavored with paprika, surrounded by artichokes, garnished with truffles and coated with a meat glaze. If any readers desire to find the full recipe, I would recommend searching for The Escoffier Cookbook and Guide to the Fine Art of Cookery.
(1873 –1921), born in Naples, was an Italian tenor, who sang to great acclaim at the major opera houses of Europe and the Americas, appearing in a wide variety of roles on stage. Caruso also made approximately 290 commercially released recordings from 1902 to 1920. All of these recordings, which span most of his stage career, are available today on CDs and as digital downloads. Caruso’s 1904 recording of “Vesti la giubba” from Leoncavallo’s opera, Pagliacci, was the first sound recording to sell a million copies. Caruso’s 25-year career included 863 appearances at the New York Metropolitan Opera before he died at the age of 48. He was married to socialite, Dorothy Park Benjamin, the daughter of a wealthy New York patent lawyer. Dorothy lived until 1955 and wrote a biography about Caruso (Enrico Caruso: His Life and Death).
A fastidious dresser, Caruso took two baths a day and liked good Italian food and convivial company. Caruso was superstitious and habitually carried good-luck charms with him when he sang. He played cards for relaxation and sketched friends, other singers and musicians. His favorite hobby was compiling scrapbooks. He also amassed a valuable collection of rare postage stamps, coins, watches and antique snuff boxes. Caruso was a heavy smoker of strong Egyptian cigarettes. This habit, combined with a lack of exercise and the punishing schedule of performances that Caruso willingly undertook season after season at the Met, may have contributed to the persistent ill-health which afflicted the last 12 months of his life
The recipe was created by the tenor, who loved pasta and loved to cook. This dish is typical of his native Naples. A story that circulates is that he was given a cold reception in his early singing days by his fellow-citizens and Caruso swore he would never sing in Naples again, but he would return there only to enjoy his favorite macaroni dishes.
- 3/4 lb bucatini pasta
- 3 or 4 San Marzano tomatoes, chopped
- 1 bell pepper
- 1 zucchini
- 2 cloves of garlic
- 1 chili pepper
- extra virgin olive oil
Stir-fry the garlic cloves, cut in quarters in oil. When they start to turn golden, remove them and add the chopped tomatoes and the pepper, cut in chunks. Turn up the heat and add the oregano, crushed chili and a generous amount of basil to the sauce.
Meanwhile, cut the zucchini into rounds, coat them with flour and deep-fry in a skillet.
Cook the pasta al dente in salted boiling water, drain and dress with the tomato sauce, the deep-fried zucchini and a sprinkling of chopped parsley.
(1921-1959) born Alfredo Arnold Cocozza in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was exposed to classical singing at an early age by his Abruzzese-Molisan Italian parents, Maria and Antonio Cocozza. By the age of 16, his vocal talent had become apparent. Starting out in local operatic productions in Philadelphia for the YMCA Opera Company while still in his teens, he later came to the attention of Boston Symphony conductor, Serge Koussevitzky, who in 1942 provided young Cocozza with a full student scholarship to the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, Massachusetts. Reportedly, Koussevitzky told him, “Yours is a voice such as is heard once in a hundred years”. His performances at Tanglewood won him critical acclaim, with Noel Strauss of “The New York Times” hailing the 21-year-old tenor as having “few equals among tenors of the day in terms of quality, warmth and power”.
His budding operatic career was interrupted by World War II, when he was assigned to Special Services in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He resumed his singing career with a concert in Atlantic City with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in September 1945 under Peter Herman Adler, subsequently his mentor. The following month, he replaced tenor Jan Peerce on the live CBS radio program “Great Moments in Music” on which he made six appearances in four months, singing extracts from various operas and other works. In April 1948, Lanza sang two performances as Pinkerton in Puccini’s, Madama Butterfly, for the New Orleans Opera Association.
A concert at the Hollywood Bowl in August 1947 brought Lanza to the attention of Louis B. Mayer, who signed Lanza to a seven-year film contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. This proved to be a turning point in the young singer’s career. The contract required him to commit to the studio for six months and, at first, Lanza believed he would be able to combine his film career with his operatic and concert career, but this proved to be a difficult goal. In May 1949, he made his first commercial recordings with RCA Victor. His rendition of the aria “Che gelida manina” (from La Bohème) from that session was subsequently awarded the prize of Operatic Recording of the Year by the (United States) National Record Critics Association.
In 1951, Lanza portrayed Enrico Caruso in “The Great Caruso”, which proved an astonishing success. Some of his other famous films were:
- Because You’re Mine, MGM 1952
- The Student Prince, MGM 1954
- Serenade, Warner Bros. 1956
- Seven Hills of Rome, MGM 1958
- For the First Time, MGM 1959
Lanza was reportedly partial to Italian waffle cookies called pizzelle (which literally means small pizzas), that are quite popular in the Abruzzo region of Italy.
Makes about 36 pizzelle
- 1¾ cup all purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- ¾ cup white granulated sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- ½ cup unsalted butter
- 3 large eggs
- 2 tablespoons anise (or other extract)
Pre-heat a pizzelle maker. In a bowl, combine the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside. In another bowl, combine the butter and sugar and mix until smooth. Add anise and then the eggs, one at a time, until well blended. Pour in the dry ingredients and mix well. Lightly spray the pizzelle maker with vegetable oil (unless you have a non-stick version).
Drop the batter by the tablespoon onto the pizzelle iron, and cook, gauging the timing (usually less than a minute) according to the manufacturer’s instructions or until golden. Serve with your favorite toppings.
(1932 – 2006) was an Italian-American opera singer, television personality and award-winning dramatic actress. One of the leading lyric-coloratura sopranos of her generation, she possessed an accomplished voice of considerable range and agility. In the early 1960s, she hosted her own show on Italian television, was acclaimed for her beauty and appeared in several operatic films and in other dramatic non-singing roles. In the early 1970s she extended her international popularity to Germany through operatic performances, TV appearances and several films, all while continuing her American operatic performances. Due to an extremely heavy workload, Moffo suffered a serious vocal-breakdown in 1974, from which she never fully recovered. In later years, she gave several master classes through the Met. Her death at age 73 was preceded by a decade-long battle with cancer.
Anna Moffo was born in Wayne, Pennsylvania to Italian parents, Nicola Moffo (a shoemaker) and his wife Regina Cinti. After graduating from Radnor High School, she turned down an offer to go to Hollywood and went instead to the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. In 1954, on a Fulbright Program scholarship, she left for Italy to complete her studies at the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome. She became very popular there after performing leading operatic roles on three RAI television productions in 1956. Moffo made her official operatic debut in 1955 in Spoleto as Norina in Don Pasquale. Shortly after, still virtually unknown and with little experience, she was offered the challenging role of Cio-Cio-San in an Italian television (RAI) production of Madama Butterfly. The telecast aired on January 24, 1956, and made Moffo an overnight sensation throughout Italy. Offers quickly followed and she appeared in two other television productions that same year.
Moffo returned to America for her debut as Mimì in La Bohème next to Jussi Björling’s, Rodolfo, at the Lyric Opera of Chicago on October 16, 1957. Her Metropolitan Opera of New York debut took place on November 14, 1959 as Violetta in La Traviata, a part that would quickly become her signature role. She performed numerous soprano roles at The Metropolitan Opera for seventeen seasons before her retirement.
Anna was quoted in the press saying, she enjoyed cooking and especially liked to prepare Italian style chicken livers for herself and her husband. Here is a similar recipe to the one she liked to prepare.
Sicilian Sautéed Chicken Livers
- 1/3 cup pine nuts
- 1/3 cup raisins
- 3/4 cups canned low-sodium chicken broth
- 3/4 cups dry vermouth or dry white wine
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 1/4 pounds chicken livers, each cut in half
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 teaspoon fresh-ground black pepper
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 1/2 teaspoons flour
- 3 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley
Heat oven to 350 degrees F. Toast pine nuts in the oven until golden brown, about 8 minutes.
In a small stainless-steel saucepan, combine raisins, broth and vermouth. Bring to boil and simmer until reduced to about 3/4 cup, about 8 minutes. Set aside.
In a large frying pan, melt 1 tablespoon butter with 1 tablespoon oil over moderately high heat. Season livers with 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon pepper and cook, in two batches if necessary, until almost done, about 3 minutes. The livers should still be quite pink inside. Remove from pan.
Add remaining 1 tablespoon oil and 1 tablespoon butter to the pan and reduce heat to moderately low. Add garlic and cook, stirring, 30 seconds. Add flour and cook, stirring, 15 seconds longer. Stir in raisin-and-vermouth mixture and remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/8 teaspoon pepper. Bring to a simmer, scraping bottom of pan to dislodge any brown bits. Add livers and any accumulated juices, pine nuts and parsley and simmer until livers are just done, about 1 minute longer. Serve mixture over polenta.
- Best Places to Take in an Italian Opera (italy.answers.com)