Operatic Italian


Italian for the Opera by Robert Stuart Thomson 

Vancouver, Godwin Books: 1992
150 pages, paperback. Contains photos and an index.
Price is $29 US  We pay the postage. Price in Canada is $32. Can.
All Godwin Books publications can be ordered at www..godwinbooks.com or
by telephone to Canada: 250 370 7753

This book focuses on “operatic” Italian (literary Italian in the classic mode) Parts of speech provide the framework, each of which is illustrated by extracts from many operas. The author works his way from the simple (nouns and articles) to the complex (past subjunctive) and clarifies points of language which non-native speakers often find troublesome: pronunciation, archaic language, convoluted syntax, datives of advantage, nuances and connotation, use of the passato remoto, etc. Included are chapters on the sounds of Italian, the meaning of its idioms, the limitations of translations and surtitles, suggested criteria for evaluating libretti (selections from Verdi’s correspondence help to illustrate this section), operatic aspects of canzoni, and the all-important influence of Dante. There is even a chapter on Neapolitan. All translations use the interlinear approach which helps the reader to see connections clearly. IPA and music staff lines are used throughout. Fourteen quizzes with answers enable the reader to monitor progress. Numerous photos and website addresses (e.g. Roberto Benigni reading Dante) help the reader to explore the subject in greater depth.  Index included. 460 pp.


“I would like to point out to the “Opera-L List” (an Internet chat-line for opera enthusiasts) the existence of a “must-have” book for every opera aficionado, whether they already know Italian or not. The author of this marvelous book–which is both a serious language study and an extremely funny work–has a Ph. D. in Romance languages from Yale University. All in all the book is highly useful and a very entertaining read. I heartily recommend it.” Alain Letort

“Operatic Italian is a unique lingual phenomenon (…) characterized by exotic and often obsolete words, contorted syntax, and concision of phrase. As a result, it necessitates special understanding and treatment. This manual of Robert Thomson (…) succeeds admirably in presenting a clear, logical key to this operatic world. Singers and teachers of singing cannot afford to be without this excellent text. (…) Much is of such importance in this book that the reader will return to it again and again.”

Prof. Richard Sjoerdsma, Editor, Journal of the National Association of Teachers of Singing. 

“I wish I had had something like this book when I was starting my operatic career. It would have been extremely helpful and indeed, still is!” Barbara Livingstone, soprano, Victoria, B.C.

“Your book is very interesting and complements the Cambridge Italian Dictionary and Signora Colorni’s book.” Tom Wilkinson, tenor, Opera Lyra, Ottawa

“In all honesty, I had not expected such a well thought-out, concise but pithy, as well as informed and informative little book. My sincere compliments!”   Dr. Jim Legnani, New York City

“A useful book and a good read. It goes a long way to explaining the peculiarities of operatic Italian.”  Stephen G. Landesman

“Your book is on a shelf (and often gets pulled from that shelf) next to an Italian/English dictionary and 501 Italian Verbs. My ear for languages is dreadful but your book has been very useful in helping me to understand and enjoy the lyric stage much more than I had before. As you probably  know, you have several other fans on this List.”  Ed Waffle, Michigan

 “This book is your tool to understanding the Italian opera libretto.” San Francisco Opera Boutique catalog

“This is an excellent book! I wish I’d had it when I taught operatic Italian at the Yale Music School years ago. Every student of Italian opera singing, every  conservatory and university music department ought to have this book.”  Steve Tanner, Vermont 

“Thomson has produced a real gem. His presentation of Italian grammar is well-organized, intelligent, and useful. He has also provided a first-class introduction to the Opera. What a great teacher! Somebody should give the guy a prize. ”  A college music teacher

 “Interesting. Illuminating. An excellent source for both the professional singer and the opera lover.”  French Tickner, professor emeritus, Opera Studies, U. of British Columbia

 “A marvellously useful book! I wish I’d had this guide when the opera bug first bit me years ago…”  Walter Lippincott Jr., Director, Princeton U. Press

 “I don’t speak Italian and I know nothing about opera but Thomson is changing all that. What a great teacher!”  An engineer in New York City.

What critics have written about ‘Operatic Italian’ 

“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  http://www.operatoday.com/content/2010/01/operatic_italia.php

 “ (…) 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, Aug.2009. 

 “ Reading about opera’s connection to Dante was particularly inspiring.  (…) This text provides students not only with the motivation to learn more about opera but also to take on the additional challenge of Italian grammar. Dante began his journey in a dark forest with no road to follow, much like students of Italian; however, they will find in Operatic Italian a road map leading them through the “infernal” nuances of Italian grammar to finally emerge and once again see the stars.”  January 2011 issue of  the journal  published on-line by the Northeast Conference on the  Teaching of Foreign Languages: NECTFL

 “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, Music Ref. Services Quarterly, Available online May 16, 2011 .

“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.