Hitting a High “C” in Urbania

Opera students mix scales and trills with Italian pronunciation as they learn both in a summer program.

URBANIA, Italy — “Si Parla, Si Canta; we speak, we sing,” is the motto and name of an Italian operatic and language program in the Marche,180 miles north of Rome. Here vocal students from around the world gather in June for four to six weeks to learn Italian, and to improve their singing as they immerse themselves in Italian culture.

As the doors of the Centro Studi Italiani open early on the morning of June 1, Giovanni Pizzolo, the managing director for three years, joyfully awaits the arrival of the new students at Si Parla, Si Canta.

“I like seeing people when they first arrive, feeling hesitant and not really sure what they’re getting into, and watching them grow,” Pizzolo said.

One student in particular, Bjorg Hilmarsdottir, 21,spoke about her journey from Iceland to the United States, ending up in Urbania for four weeks.

“I became interested in opera when I went to a recital by Deborah Voigt (a world-famous soprano),” Hilmarsdottir said, “when she was singing American music, and I fell in love.”

Originally from the capital of Iceland, Reykjavik, she learned English at 6, and has been involved in singing classical music since the age of 17. She is a junior at Columbus State University in Georgia where she is studying vocal performance. Hilmarsdottir became interested in Italian through her voice teacher who suggested she apply to Si Parla Si Canta.

Another student, Elizabeth Tasch, 21, a voice student from New York, said she chose this program because her voice coach studied with the director when he was getting his master’s. She said that the program was exactly what she was looking for with the smaller classes, the many master classes, and professors who give individual attention.

“I think everyone is born with a gift,” Tasch said, “and I think the main goal of the gift you are born with is to share it with the world and show everyone how passionate you are about it.”

The artistic director, Benton Hess, 64, from Rochester, N.Y., founded the program in 2007. He said that the main focus of his program is for opera students to study Italian. The music courses, though a very strong component, are secondary.

“It’s called Si Parla, Si Canta. Parla is first, canta is second, but the better you parla, the better you canta,” Hess said.

Hess was originally part of another program based in Urbania, but when they moved to Prezzo in 2006, he stayed.

“By the second week [of the previous program], students were so tired from practices and coaching that they stopped going to Italian classes,” he said, “which should be the reason they came to Italy in the first place. If you want a program with a lot of stage experience, you’re better off staying in the States.”

Hess had been coming to Urbania for seven years before Si Parla started. The first year they had only seven students. Last year, however, the program had grown to 47 students, which Benton said was too large because the students didn’t get the direct attention they needed. Currently there are 35 students who pay about $5,000 including room and board.

Applying to Si Parla, Si Canta is much like competing for American Idol or The Voice. Students audition by sending a tape of eight to 12 minutes. Many do not make the cut because they do not meet the standards vocally or musically. Many students who have attended the program have gone on to successful careers, and for the last three years, Metropolitan Opera singers in New York have been coming here to learn Italian.

Students give weekly concerts during the program, including an American music evening when they sing American- based operatic pieces.

The program’s enrollment reflects the state of opera singers internationally.

“There are more sopranos in the world than anything else,” Hess said. “Of the 35 students enrolled in the program this year, 20 are sopranos.”

The town of Urbania benefits from the Si Parla Si Canta program because the students bring attention to the small town, they spend their money on food and souvenirs, and they fill the streets with endless echos of various operatic melodies.

“I love singers, I love singing, I love Italy and I love the Italian language,” Hess said. “The opportunity to lump all those together in one glorious six- week period just preoccupies my thought all year long. I adore it.”