The year after my apprenticeship with San Diego Opera, I found I had three months of free time at my disposal. Weighing the benefits of another YAP versus heading off to Italy for some language training, I looked to SDO’s general director, Ian Campbell, for advice: “Learn the language, it will benefit you for your entire career.”
But how do you find the perfect language program on a singer’s salary? In addition to searching the Internet, I started e-mailing friends and directors, asking for recommendations on international schools. I knew Italy was my desired destination, but the number of schools overwhelmed me. Schools that carried a “big name” also carried costly tuitions, and were primarily found in touristy, English-speaking cities such as Florence or Rome.
And then I found L’Università per Stranieri di Perugia (The University for Foreigners in Perugia). All practical information was easily attainable on their website (www.unistrapg.it/english/). I received a confirmation of the school’s high caliber from trusted colleagues here in the States, and the price was the lowest I had yet come across, at $250 per month (as opposed to $1,200 at rival programs).
L’Università per Stranieri caters to students from all over the world and offers a variety of classes from the most basic beginning level to advanced and concentrated studies (including an opera class offered in the summer). Classes are in session 12 months a year, with new sections beginning each month, conveniently allowing students to start at any time. It is also possible to switch between levels if you feel the need for more or less of a challenge. Classes are full of variety, broken down into grammar, culture, and conversation sections, and range in size from 10-30 students in age anywhere from 16-60! Students come from all over the world to study in this beautiful mountain capital of Umbria, making Italian their only commonly shared language.
Upon arrival in Perugia, I tested into the second level and joined a three-month intensive class. A wonderful Napolitano who made jokes and told us cultural tidbits to use on the streets led our grammar sections. The smaller discussion classes seemed right at my level as we all struggled to conjugate and communicate.
By the end of the first month, I no longer felt challenged. Knowing I only had three months to learn as much Italian as I could, I decided to move up a level and once again spent my classes in fear of being called on. But the more I was challenged, the faster I absorbed the language. The sessions became more intense, with culture classes full of Italian history and cuisine, festivals and traditions, and hundreds of new vocabulary words a day!
Frantically, I tried to keep up while I continued to make friends who spoke no English. I finally had a real incentive to learn. I wanted to communicate with these new friends, to make my personality known, to talk about more than just the mundane things for which I had the vocabulary.
By the end of that second month I could trade in my text books for nights socializing at the bars and clubs with friends, or dinners where I was the only non-native Italian speaker, negotiating in Italian over loud music and in large groups of fast talkers!
I made it my goal to learn Italian in three months, and it required the same discipline singing requires. I lived with a host mom who spoke no English, immersed myself in the culture around me, and attended (almost) every single day of class. I would continually put myself in situations in which I was forced to speak the language outside of my comfort zone (the telephone turned into a very frightening tool for a while), and I made an “Italian only” pact with my English-speaking friends. I realized all of this was paying off when I began talking to myself in Italian.
I definitely faced many challenges. I moved to a country where I was a foreigner, unable to understand the people around me or to communicate my true self to them. Sometimes it was very isolating and lonely. I felt as if my conversations where taking place under water while I desperately tried to grasp two or three words to understand the topic. But as I learned, it was like breaking a code. I found that I had a different personality in Italian, that some feelings just couldn’t be captured in English words, and that I suddenly understood Italian culture in a completely new way.
Here’s the best advice I can give someone learning a language: get used to making mistakes. Not only will it happen frequently, it is the only way to learn. (Besides, it can be rather endearing to the natives correcting you). If you are too scared to open your mouth and risk mistakes, you will make the entire process much longer and harder—and laughing at yourself is a good skill to cultivate, anyway.
Secondly, force yourself to hang out with native speakers, even though the speed of their speech can make them intimidating and more difficult to understand. It is useful to practice with other students, but students all tend to make the same mistakes. I learned the most from my native Italian friends, such as the slang and street Italian in everyday use. Most natives are interested in understanding English, as well, so it becomes a trade—I translated lots of pop songs in three months.
Finally, take advantage of the social life the school offers: free movies, local hangouts for students, class trips to wineries and olive oil factories, or overnight trips to various Italian regions. Learning the language is important, but each country also has an entire culture to enjoy.
This life-changing experience brought me an added bonus: it did far more than simply teach me a new language, it introduced me to the world. For three months I lived in a town with friends from Syria, Cypress, Egypt, Iran, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Montenegro, Cameroon, etc. We shared our cultures through dinner parties, over coffee, while sightseeing, and during class—and the world became smaller and more understandable to us.
I have crazy stories that fill the memory book of life, like singing “O mio babbino caro” to get free pizza loaded up with french fries, or dressing up in costumes for the Carnevale (Mardi Gras) in Venice, or teaching my Egyptian and Mexican friends how to ice skate. And I have already put my newly acquired Italian skills to good use numerous times in my life and career, whether I’m memorizing operas, communicating with conductors, translating for other performers in rehearsals, or even just helping tourists on the subway.
The experience has also given me a love of other cultures and a desire to know the world. What started as a means to further my career ended up truly enriching my life.