The strange case of the missing review of my “Operatic Italian”

My book “Operatic Italian” was published in 2008. Readers of this blog will have read the blogs and from time to time I have used this blog to tell people about it. It took at least a year to write the book but I enjoyed the process. I also enjoyed the reviews. (Such balm for the ego!)

Two weeks ago I was googling various things and up came a review of “Operatic Italian” that I had never seen. What a mystery! On closer scrutiny I saw that it appeared in 2012 in a review called “The Opera Journal” and was written by Mr. John Harrison. It was one of the best reviews I had seen of “Operatic Italian” and I was so pleased that Mr. Harrison had dared to comment on some of the most difficult parts of my book, e.g. the dative of advantage. See for yourself: here is the text of his review. Below it you will find summaries of the five other reviews that I mention above. I am still mystified as to why no one informed me about Mr. Harrison’s review.


By Robert Stuart Thomson

Self-published: Godwin Books, 2008

453 pages. $35. Paper

Thomson (with a Yale doctorate in romance languages) began with a smaller book, Italian for the Opera (1992), in his quest to help singers and enthusiasts understand the intricacies of Italian sentences with stumbling blocks for me like “ne” and “se.” This excellent expanded book has 22 loaded chapters on Italian and marches with authority through the parts of speech from nouns (chapter 4) through subjunctives in the past tenses (chapter 16).

The 6 chapters on verbs provide all kinds of much-needed help and like the other chapters on parts of speech merit many re-readings. He uses precise interlinear translations of key passages from the standard repertory (with many deliberate duplications) to illustrate the parts of speech and their idiosyncrasies. For example, the first line in Rodolfo’s aria addressed to Mimi:

   Che gelida manina, se la lasci riscaldar ! [imagine that the ge of gelida is underlined to show the stressed syllable Ed.]

   What a freezing little hand, let it be warmed for you! (165).

The underlined e in gelida indicates the accent is not in the usual place, the second to the last syllable. A more word for-word interlinear translation of the second half of the line would be something like this:

   se la lasci riscaldar!

   For you it let be warmed!

He also includes the music for the line to show how it sounds. Another feature is a phonetic transcription (IPA) of a word with sound challenges, for example, “delizia” [delittsja] from Act 1 of Traviata (p. 69). He identifies the “se” (for you) in Rodolfo’s line (165, above) as a reflexive, a dative of advantage, something personal, part of Rodolfo’s charm and seductiveness which he uses “to create intimacy with Mimi.” This “se” doesn’t mean “if” as it often does. He gives an example of “ne” (to our benefit) as another dative of advantage in a line from the Duke of Mantua’s “Questa o quella”:

   Di che il fato ne infiora la vita.

   With which fate to our benefit embellishes life.

“The flowery, subtle language of the Duke suggests his exalted station as a learned Renaissance prince. As in most good dramatic writing, language reflects character.” (165) These comments on the operatic character reflected in the language of each adds depth to Thomson’s explanations. He also states that “ne” (with an acute accent) can mean “neither” which can cause confusion with its use as a dative of advantage (51) Also it can mean “of it”, “about it” or “of them” as in this line from Rossini’s Figaro:

   Che ne dite,                                   mio signor ?

   What about it do you say,            my Lord? (177)

The 3-page list of typical operatic adjectives (127-130), from “ammagliato” (bewitched, hexed) to “vindice” (avenging) presents more challenge to the learner.  As if these challenges in the parts of speech weren’t enough, he gives Italian definitions from the great dictionaries of Palazzi and Zingarelli to help the reader think in Italian. For example, Zingarelli’s pointed definition of “empio”:

   «irriverente verso Dio,      et le cose divine     o la patria, o  i parenti »

    (irreverent toward God,  and things sacred  or the fatherland or kinsfolk).

“I encourage the reader to use an Italian-only dictionary because this will draw him/her into thinking in Italian. The sooner this happens, the better.”

In Thomson’s last helpful chapter on verbs, he deals with tricky forms of common verbs in the past subjunctive like “dessi” from “dare”, “fossi” from “essere,” “facessi” from “fare” and “stessi” from ‘’stare” and gives five operatic examples of “fossi.” After his examples he gives a quiz on the subjunctive mood to help the reader test comprehension. He keeps the reader alert to what the examples teach with 11 such quizzes. Also, this last chapter on verbs has a 4-page list of typical operatic verbs (326-30), from “accorare” (to distress) to “vaneggiare” (to act deliriously, crazily, to hallucinate).

An insightful book to help with the many nuances of operatic Italian and the labor of brute memory to learn a foreign language. Recommended.

John Harrison

University of Northern Colorado

Note from Robert Thomson: I am sad to say that when I tried to email “thanks” to John Harrison this morning (October 26, 2020) I found out that he died recently. RIP.

“Operatic Italian” is a useful resource for studying the kind of antiquated Italian that is found in operas, canzoni and many Italian poems. Voice students in particular will find “Operatic Italian” illuminating. Here are snippets of what various critics have thought of the book:

1 From “Opera Today”, Jan. 19, 2010
“Operatic Italian” is well organized and direct, introducing each libretto example with its corresponding musical score, IPA translation, English word-for-word translation, and marked accents for atypical words. Topics of particular interest to the music student include pronunciation and developing an Italian accent, understanding what is lost in translation from Italian to English, what to appreciate in libretti, and Dante’s influence on Italian literature (opera libretti included). “Operatic Italian” would make a fantastic textbook for a conservatory or university. It would also serve as an excellent source for seasoned musicians or opera-lovers to deepen their understanding of the language from a literary standpoint, and bridge the gap from their rudimentary knowledge of Italian to a fuller understanding of the richness and depth found in classic Italian literature.” Sarah
Luebke, “Opera Today”, Jan. 19, 2010

2 From “Opera America”, summer, 2009
“Robert Thomson brings clarity to the Italian language as used in librettos by using a variety of teaching techniques and visual aids, including hundreds of memorable extracts from operas; accurate word-for-word translations; phonetics and stress patterns; detailed exercises; commentary about historical background; operatic themes, composers’ lives, nuances contained in the original Italian which do not translate well, if at all, into English; and links to specific audio-visual examples on Web sites.” Alexa B. Antopol, “Opera America”, summer 2009.

3 From “The Music Reference Services Quarterly”, May, 2011
“What is so intriguing about this book is its personal touch. There are quizzes for the reader to take throughout, along with numerous musical examples broken down to a minutiae level. There are also numerous black-and-white photos throughout (…) The end of the book contains a few appendices, an index, a bibliography and a discography. Overall, this type of book is rare in musical literature: a book that is based on a lifetime of personal teaching experience and love of the language, but one also presented in a first-person format that takes the reader on a tour-bus type
trip through the Italian operatic landscape. Any performing-arts voice student needs to read this book (…)”

Bradford Eden in “The Music Reference Services Quarterly”, May 2011.

4 From the NATS (“Nat. Asso. of Teachers of Singing”) Journal, 2009
“The essential component of a successful teacher is a deep knowledge of a subject. A great pedagogue, however, is one who combines this expertise with a love for the material so palpable that it inspires students. Thomson is such a teacher. He combines (…) expertise with a love for the material so palpable that it inspires students. “Operatic Italian” has a rightful place next to the Italian dictionary and handbook of Italian diction on the shelf of every serious student of opera. Thomson wrote an earlier book, “Italian for the Opera” (1992) dealing with the same topic. “Operatic Italian”, however, is three times as long and contains many topics and resources that were not included in the previous volume.” Debra Greschner, NATS journal, August 2009.

5 From the forward to the 2009 edition of “Operatic Italian”
“In short, Thomson not only explains the grammar [of operatic Italian], he also guides the student to an understanding of the deep subtleties of the text by commenting astutely on the literary, social and psychological richness contained in it.” Preface to “Operatic Italian”, by Joanne Hounsell, formerly Head of the Voice Department, The Victoria Conservatory in Victoria, B.C.

“Operatic Italian” contains, along with many quotations from operas, lots
of IPA and musical quotations with staff lines.

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