My Inner Italian

Fluency is a survival skill.

If you have a vague desire to become fluent in a language, you will probably fail. But if you need to be fluent, your brain will do whatever it takes to make that happen. Nothing can stop you.

I know this to be true.  This is the story of how I (briefly) became Italian.

When I moved to Italy in the spring of 2005, I stuck out like a sore thumb. You could tell I was a foreigner from a mile away. It wasn’t just my blonde hair and my H&M wardrobe; it was my whole way of being!  My gait, my mannerisms, my accent. Of course, it wasn’t obvious to everyone that I was American. Many people guessed that I was Swedish or German. But I was definitely not Italian.

Strangely, this came as a complete shock to me. Having lived in Austria for seven years, I already felt very much at home in Europe. I thought that I was good at adapting to new cultures. But I did not realize how much my comfort was tied to my northern European look. When I moved from Vienna to Florence, I suddenly stopped “blending in.”

Fortunately, I did speak some Italian. After all, I had been singing Italian opera for years! My education at the Mozarteum had included three years of Italian classes, and I had continued to study the language in Vienna.  But when I won a scholarship to study with Mirella Freni at her academy in Vignola, I discovered just how much Italian I didn’t know.

I remember my first night at school in Italy.  I was sitting at a long table in a local restaurant in Vignola with all of my classmates from the academy. I was at the middle of the table, so I could hear about four different Italian conversations going on around me. But I didn’t know what anyone was saying. I had made an effort to speak Italian all day long, but now it was after 10 PM, and I couldn’t even speak German and English anymore, let alone Italian. “I have to learn fast,” I thought to myself.  “I’m the only American at this school. I have to get comfortable in Italian as soon as possible.”

And amazingly, I did.  But I would never have succeeded without the help of my roommates. I was rooming with two extraordinarily talented young singers: Beatriz Diaz from Spain and Chiara Amarù from Palermo.  The three of us became the best of friends! Chiara was so kind and patient with us as she taught us to navigate her native language.  Together, we laughed and cried through the intricacies of Italian verbs.

But we only roomed together while we were at school in Vignola, and that was only one week out of each month.  The rest of the time, I lived in Florence, where I was working for Opera St Mark’s. I loved living in a city of history and art and culture, but I couldn’t get used to the fact that strangers were constantly approaching me! With my bright hair and touristy image, I attracted a lot of attention.

At first, I enjoyed chatting with people. But I got so tired of the question, “where are you from,” that I started to make up outlandish answers.  “I’m from Brazil,” I would say firmly. Or I might claim to be from Greece or Korea or Egypt.  This made the Italians laugh until they cried.  “Please, miss, where are you from?” they would ask as I passed them on the street. And I would reply, “Dalla Antartide. Non si vede?” (From Antarctica. Can’t you tell?)  It was my little joke.

Out of sheer necessity, I enrolled in Italian classes at the Istituto Italiano in Florence.  They have great intensive courses, with fun field trips! After a few months, I had earned certificates in advanced grammar and conversation and diction. I passed all my exams.

But the real test of my language skills came when I was asked to be the official interpreter at an opera master class taught by Sergio Bertocchi! Three students from Australia and Singapore had come to Italy to study with Maestro Bertocchi, and since I was the only native English speaker in residence at the academy, I would be their interpreter. I didn’t have too much trouble translating their voice lessons, or helping them order at the restaurant.  But I gulped when Maestro Bertocchi asked me to spontaneously translate his lecture on vocal anatomy and the philosophy of singing! Somehow, I managed to translate an hour-long graduate level lecture, but when it was over, I couldn’t remember a thing that Maestro Bertocchi had said.

Meanwhile, I worked very hard to create a life for myself in Florence.  I made friends in the local ex-pat community.  I bought a membership card for the Uffizi Museum so that I could look at great art every day. And I also got to know the churches of Florence very well: I worshiped in one, sang concerts in another, and practiced my music in a third!

Day by day, things began to change.  The people in my Florentine neighborhood started to accept me as one of their own.  The guys in the pizzeria nodded as I went by. I had a “regular” order at the caffè in the piazza.  I shopped in Italian stores and read Italian news. Once, I even got interviewed for a market research survey about Italian brand names!

But I didn’t realize just how Italian I had become until the day I moved back to the States.  My mother had come to Rome to help me move, and we were shoving all of my worldly possessions into the trunk of a taxi.  But the taxi driver, thinking that we were gullible tourists, charged us triple the usual rate. Naturally, I started to argue with the taxista in a loud voice, with my hands flying. The Italian language had become a part of me, gestures and all!  (Click here for a quick guide to Italian gestures.) I won the debate and got my money back, but then I looked over to find my mom suppressing giggles.  “I can’t help it,” she insisted. “My daughter sounds like Sophia Loren!”

So that is the story of how I became Italian, just for a little while.  It wasn’t a permanent change. After returning to the United States, I lost some of my italianità.  But every now and then, my inner Italian comes out!

My Italian side can be triggered by little things: the smell of oregano, the sound of a vespa, or an exquisite piece of Renaissance art. And suddenly I feel like I’m back under the Tuscan sun, my heels clicking on the cobblestones while I adjust my sunglasses and chatter away in Italian with my friends.

If you really want to learn Italian, make it a top priority! Then, get in touch with your Italian side. Eat Italian food. Argue with an Italian taxi driver. Read an Italian website. Listen to an Italian opera! Release your inner Italian. Arrivederci.

Inside the Master Class

What really happens at a master class?

I’ve had the privilege of studying with several famous opera singers at master classes. They have taught me more than just vocal technique and musicianship.

Here are some of the secrets I’ve learned from great singers.

I remember the moment that I first saw Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. It was January 2002. I was sitting in a crowded auditorium in Stuttgart, Germany. Suddenly, the backstage door swung open.  In that instant, the room fell silent and three hundred heads swiveled to look at her. At the age of 86, Schwarzkopf could command attention simply by walking into a room.

A master class is a seminar for advanced music students (or young professionals) conducted by a master musician. The student performs a piece of music in front of the whole class while the teacher critiques the performance.

Frau Schwarzkopf was famous for making caustic comments at her master classes. She could be pretty brutal with her students.  I was thinking about her reputation when I climbed onstage to sing Hugo Wolf’s Schlafendes Jesuskind for her.  The song opens with the words, “Sohn der Jungfrau, Himmelskind!”  But it took me eight tries to get to the word “Himmelskind,” because Frau Schwarzkopf kept interrupting me.  A couple of times, I hadn’t even made a sound before she yelled, “Nein!”

Elisabeth Schwarzkopf was a stickler for detail. Every breath, every expression, every vowel had to be just right. I learned a lot about Wolf Lieder that day. But I learned even more about willpower and charisma, qualities that Schwarzkopf possessed in abundance!

Master classes are never just about singing.  They’re about how to live your life.  (See Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture.) Singers are natural mimics — we learn by imitation and even by osmosis! We absorb a great deal of information simply by being around great artists. And this has little to do with what is actually taught or discussed.

Montserrat Caballé is one of the most joyful people I have ever met.  A couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of singing at her master class in Zaragoza, Spain. Her curriculum included a lot of vocal anatomy; she enjoys the science of singing. But it was her contagious joie de vivre that most impressed me. Studying Casta diva with her was simultaneously gratifying and alarming, because her passion for Bellini is visible. It shines through her like a light.

Master classes are special times in the life of a singer because most voice lessons do not happen in front of an audience. Soloists usually take individual lessons. Professional opera singers continue to work with voice teachers and vocal coaches throughout their career, but this training is usually one-on-one.

And yet, there is something about the group learning experience that really works for musicians. Singers who have struggled for years can make huge breakthroughs in a master class. I’ve seen it happen. In just a few days, a student can experience an exponential learning curve.

That’s why I was thrilled to discover that Mirella Freni teaches her own students in a “master class” format. When I moved to Italy to study with her in 2005, I did not realize that my “classroom” would be a sixteenth century palace! On the day of my first lesson, I climbed up a magnificent spiral staircase to a large chamber with painted ceilings, where sixteen young singers were singing arias for each other while Signora Freni made suggestions.

Mirella Freni is, of course, a musical genius.  She sings in a very natural and authentic way, as if she were holding a conversation.

I think the best moment may have been when some of my colleagues asked Ms. Freni how to produce a pianissimo. They wanted to hear about the physical process, how to use their abdominal muscles and resonance chambers, etc. But she gave them a more profound answer.

“What is the best way to support a soft sound, Signora?”

Bemused, Mirella Freni gazed back at them. “Con lo stato d’animo, ragazzi.” (Stato d’animo can be translated “mood,” “spirit,” or “frame of mind,” but what she literally said was, “With the state of your soul, kids.”)

When I went to visit Ms. Freni last spring, I found that she had moved her academy to Modena, the town where both she and Luciano Pavarotti were born. Her master classes are held in a former hospital, in what used to be the cardiology wing.  There is poetic justice in that, since Freni’s music is about singing from the heart.

Of course, master classes are often a mixed experience. When a student wants to learn, and a teacher wants to teach, there is nothing better than a master class.  But sometimes it gets more complicated than that.

Master Class is actually the title of a play about Maria Callas, written by Terrance McNally, in which Callas teaches students about singing while reliving episodes from her own life. And like the play, a real master class can reveal someone’s hidden agenda.

Sometimes, the student just wants to demonstrate how fabulous she already is. Meanwhile, the teacher wants to prove her greatness as a teacher. They both need professional affirmation; they both want to shine.  And they both end up feeling hurt and unappreciated. This is completely unnecessary.

A really masterful pedagogue can adapt to the student’s own learning style. Some students are more kinesthetic; others are more verbal.  Some make huge intuitive leaps simply from imitating the sounds in the room; others need a step-by-step methodology that they can write down.

An experienced maestro knows how to critique a student without discouraging him. He knows what to say and what not to say. Some of the best vocal coaches I’ve known have a Zen-like ability to teach without saying anything at all!

I was not quite that wise when I went to teach vocal workshops at the Kathmandu Jazz Conservatory in 2009. I had prepared a several multi-media presentations on topics from breathing technique to the history of Western opera. And I think it was useful. But I noticed that my students got even more from my energy and attention than they did from my information. That’s how it works.

Master classes aren’t just about music. They’re about life.