Sounds Of Italy: Popular And Cultural Traditions At The Time Of Covid-19

Orsola Leone will be our guide in the adventures of an opera singer in Italy at the crossroads of cultural and popular traditions.

Hartmann Ensamble - Opera Singer - Orsola
Photo courtesy of Hartmann Ensamble.

Today I had the pleasure of interviewing an Italian soprano from Salerno, Orsola Leone, voice of the new folk group Hartmann Ensemble

Orsola Leone will be our guide in the adventures of an opera singer in Italy at the crossroads of cultural and popular traditions.

Orsola, it is a pleasure to have you here today with Italics Magazine. When did you decide you wanted to be an opera singer?

Doing gymnastics! Me and my sister always had a lot of extracurricular activities, and preparatory music was a part of the gymnastic course. At age 6, I entered a children’s choir, that I had to leave at 16 when my voice matured. I missed singing, so, I started looking for a “Maestro.”

Would you like to tell our readers which kind of training an opera singer gets in Italy?

First of all, even if Italy is the cradle of opera, to work in the field is extremely difficult. Music schools, or conservatories (i conservatori in Italian), have now been equated with colleges. So now you can enter only after earning a high school diploma. Beyond that, you need to have had training anyway. So, usually music school students come from a high school where music is the core subject. 

Does this reform mean that everyone can become a musician? Before it, an aspiring musician had to attend conservatory at the same time as compulsory education, or hire private teachers… 

Reality is more nuanced. The “music industry” exists only for talent. These gifted people are identified when they are very young and channeled, via dedicated private agencies, to a different training program. There they can be taught by teachers who, in few years of dedicated and personalized training, manage to mold their voice to sound beautifully and to hold up without damage despite almost daily rehearsals. Of course, there are also public academies that offer great quality education, but, to get admitted you need an immense, clear and precocious talent.

Basically, would it be the same situation of a football player if there were only the Premier League?

Correct, spaces where you can perform music are very few. At the local level, public spaces are underfunded, so there is no space for everyone, while private producers who host shows tend to prefer shows where success is guaranteed to ensure a return on investment. This is why Puccini’s Tosca is more represented than Mozart’s Bastien und Bastienne, for example. This also translates to an impoverished cultural scene: there is no interest in creating a local grassroots cultural network. Musicians and artists are abundant everywhere, but they need to go somewhere else to work, to big cities or to Northern Italy.

But how would you explain that a lot of foreign students, especially from China and Japan, come to Italy to study music?

It is paradoxical: not only do a lot of students come here to study, but Italian musicians are appreciated in the whole world. Local private orchestras often go perform abroad, but nobody created a network to bring Italian artists in smaller theaters. At the same time, a lot of foreigners – in love with Italy and music – would like to invest in the music industry, in training programs, in new productions. We are not promoting at all our immaterial wealth.

This indeed rings a bell. And now? How is Covid-19 impacting musicians? 

It is a difficult situation. It is impossible to do concerts, take masterclasses, do auditions, do live music. All the scheduled events have been cancelled and ahead of us we only have a big question mark. Those who earned their living doing live music in pubs or at marriages, now are forced to go back to their parents. All the professionals who have to go out, looking for gigs and opportunities, are suffering. In addition, the entertainment professionals without contracts have been left without any support. People are scared: a lot of places will not open again and live music may be considered an unbearable extra cost. It is very important that the government keeps its promises and doesn’t let people down. You have to consider that some of these workers are musicians who take advantage of the summer to work at events, festivals, marriages all around Italy. With the summer earnings, they sustain themselves for the whole winter. If events are cancelled, many of them will enter into a depression, or fall for loan sharks. We have already seen a proliferation of “easy loan” advertisements….

It is a tragic situation, indeed. Would you like to talk about Neapolitan popular music? Or better, of the world behind “‘O Sole Mio?”

(Laughs) Yes, with pleasure! Have you ever heard of  the Festival di Piedigrotta?

No, I have only heard about la Madonna di Piedigrotta…

So, between the end of the 1800s and the end of the 1950s, at Piedigrotta there was a festival. It all started as a procession to the Madonna di Piedigrotta, then the King of Naples started to participate with the whole court. With time, a singing competition developed. Anyone with a guitar and a few lyrics could participate. Then, authors like Salvatore di Giacomo, an aristocratic poet, or Raffaele Viviani, who used the sounds of the streets of Napoli to compose his melodies participated… the quality skyrocketed. As a matter of fact, all the most famous Neapolitan songs were born at the Festival di Piedigrotta. Then they were exported in the States where they become international hits.

Through emigrants?

It was not a music for the use and consumption of Italo-Americans. It is true, Napoli is a parallel separated universe: what originates there you cannot completely understand outside the borders of the city. At the same time, the genius of the Neapolitans created a universal music, appreciated by everyone, mixing sacred and profane contexts. And please, do not think about stereotypes like the Sceneggiata, think of Roberto de Simone, think of Lo Cunto de Li Cunti, The Tale of Tales… Did you know that Cinderella was invented by a Neapolitan?

But this is breaking news!

Yes, Basile, the author of Lo Cunto de li Cunti, the Dante of Southern Italy… Roberto de Simone, the founder of La Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare, incidentally, wrote an opera called La Gatta Cenerentola

I hope that our readers are ready to hit la Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare and La Gatta Cenerentola on YouTube, but, please, carry on. Who was Roberto de Simone?

He was a gifted musician and composer, who was also an anthropologist and a musicologist. He toured the countryside in Campania extensively, to transcribe — pay attention, not record, but transcribe — the traditional chants and songs from the last generation of people who knew them. His immense effort put a wealth of tradition, centuries-worth of history, in a safe. Out of this, he found an original synthesis, finding his own style that became theater. If one wants to do something new, one must travel far in the past… and in this way the new folk genre was born.

To say that De Simone’s music is beautiful is reductive: it is a perfect synthesis of the cultural and popular traditional Neapolitan music. It is a good thing that it is available to everyone.

This was a merit that nobody can take away from De Simone, though, if we can say something critical, I can say that every translator is a bit of a traitor. An example: when we sing, we do that in the major or minor keys. Traditional Neapolitan music had other keys, varieties of 1/4 tones between major and minor. This has been lost, not only for the fact that it is impossible to write this on our typical music staff, but also because the singers cannot naturally repeat this variation as it is not coded in standard music. Also, the fact that these chants can be reproduced outside of their context (which was dying and that is now lost) has encouraged their use in mass events like “La Notte della Taranta.” I mean, it is all good, but, the poetry of the 1/4 tone has been lost, but there was hidden the archaic world that they came from.

A great merit of Italian intellectuals of the 60s and 70s has been their ability to realize that a whole civilization was about to die, and they tried to document that. I think of Ernesto de Martino and his studies on Tarantism, Pasolini with rural civilization…

Yes, Pasolini was right, the process of becoming ubiquitous spoils everything it touches. Though, there is still a lot of music closed in Neapolitan libraries which is not studied and whose scores are not getting restored.

You made reference to the new folk genre… would you like to tell us more about the artistic project of Hartmann Ensemble?

In a way, we are children of De Simone as well. But our work is a synthesis of our backgrounds and feelings. We are truly a diverse group: I have a trained voice, others come from theater and direction. We also have integrated instruments which are not part of our tradition like the dilruba, rubab and oud. 

This is wonderful! And what drew you to Hartmann? How do you create your music?

We found each other. I knew the medieval music repertoire and at the beginning we just wanted to explore these sounds together, then the desire emerged to create something starting from there, accepting suggestions from the popular and cultural traditions. It is a continuous process. Often the inception for a new piece comes out of all the hours we spend together improvising. Our research is free, joyful, flows out naturally. Then we look for the lyrics in theater, traditional rhymes… we do not propose to be a living fossil: we rework ancient forms of art, be they popular, oral, cultural, theatrical, Neapolitan, Asian, Catalan, creating an unknown musical universe, where everyone can find a part of themself.

The Hartmann Ensemble in a public performance

Thank you Orsola. Can I express all my admiration for musicians? You know, at university, even if you are not fully prepared, sometimes you get the right question and you pass the exam anyway. But if you do not know a piece, or a note comes out wrong, well, you cannot cheat or look for shortcuts. You have a commendable work ethic.

Yes, you are completely naked while playing. What changes from musician to musician is only talent, because everyone has the same determination to express themselves with that language to enter into communication and empathy with people. To be able to do so repays you for all the years of study. Even in the most desperate situation you think: it does not matter as long as there is still music.

What would you suggest to an aspiring musician?

A lot of effort, a lot of practice and a lot of lucky breaks!

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