If you look at the song list on any popular tenor album, you’ll notice that along with the opera favorites (Una furtive lagrima, Che gelida manina, E lucevan le stelle) there are often Neapolitan folk songs that are not taken from any stage opera production. Songs like ‘O sole mio, and Torna a Surriento, for example. So what gives? Why do these folks songs always seem to make their way on to opera albums of selected arias?
As it turns out, there are a few key players in the history of music who have contributed to this phenomenon. Let’s have a look…
Opera and Neapolitan Folk Music
Gaetano Donizetti was certainly one of the more well-known composers of his time, producing the beloved Bel Canto favorites such as L’elisir d’amor and Don Pasquale. In fact, for the six or seven years between Bellini’s death and the rise of Verdi’s fame, Donizetti was THE prominent figure in the Italian opera world.
His earlier accomplishments had gained the attention of the leading impresario of the day, Domenico Barbaia, who invited the young composer to Naples to study under his tutelage. Donizetti would remain principally based in Naples for the bulk of his productive years.
It was within this period, roughly the 1830s, that Donizetti entered a song-writing contest during the first edition of the Festival of Piedigrotta in Naples. This festival remained a popular annual event, all the way up until the 1950s. And during that inaugural year, Donizetti’s song, Te voglio bene assaie, won first place, suggesting a musical bridge, or at least some common ground, between opera lirica and musica napulitana.
Then at the beginning of the 20th century, a type of stage musical formed in Naples called Sceneggiata. The literal translation is “scripted,” so in essence, these were a type of soap opera that dealt with daily life issues of people living in Naples, and later, Italian immigrants in the U.S. Common themes were domestic troubles, love affairs gone wrong, betrayal, revenge—in summary, many of the same human themes explored in traditional opera. Perhaps one difference is that some of the dialogue was spoken (almost always in Neapolitan dialect), and then every so often the stage action would halt for one of the characters to belt out a tune, not unlike an aria.
Perhaps the lasting popularity of Neapolitan folk songs can also be attributed to Enrico Caruso, who often sang them as encores at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in the early 1900s. Nowadays, it seems almost obligatory that operatic tenors be required to have these in their repertoire, therefore, it’s not unusual to find a few Neapolitan folk songs on “opera” aria albums. Even if not taken directly from a full opera production, the songs certainly sound “operatic,” as if they could have been from an opera. These crowd-pleasers seem to be as popular with the singers as they are with the listeners. Just about every famous tenor, from the great Luciano Pavarotti to “popera” crossover singer Andrea Bocelli has recorded albums full of these songs.
Even up to the present day, there are artists in Naples who are keeping the traditions of the folk song alive. Not only by singing the old songs, but also by creating new ones in the same musical style. Pino Daniele, who died in 2015, was among the most famous of these singers, who often combined elements of Neapolitan folk music with rock, jazz, and other musical genres. The group Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare was founded in Naples in 1969 and is still touring and making albums today, although with various lineup changes. Their mission has always been to research and spread the traditional music from Campania (and more generally from South Italy), working with an ethnomusicologist to ensure that the music is genuine and true to its origins.
Most people know the traditional songs, or at least the melodies, even if they can’t name them (or pronounce them). To help you out, here is a short list of the most popular of these beloved tunes… which are YOUR favorites? Leave a comment below.