Thursday, July 25, 2013

Have you ever dreamt of learning to speak Italian in Italy?

The quiet of Matera, Basilicata

One of the benefits of blogging about Italy is meeting others who are as crazy in love with my adopted country as I am. Melissa Muldoon is one of them. Earlier this year Melissa and I met and exchanged a few messages on our social network pages. Soon we had made plans to meet, face to face, in Venice.
It was a gorgeous spring day when I found myself seated next to Melissa and across the table from the very lively group of Italian language students she had accompanied to Venice. Over plates of steaming seafood lasagna and fresh fried calamari at Al Diavolo e l’Acquasanta, a restaurant owned by family friends and one of my favorite places to eat in Venice, Melissa told me she was planning other Italian Language and Cultural Immersion Trips for 2013 and 2014. When I saw how much fun this group of all ages was having I thought my readers might be interested in learning more about her upcoming trips, too, and perhaps join her on one! So, I invited Melissa to write about her learn while travelling trips to Italy here, on Italy to Los Angeles and Back. Please welcome Melissa Muldoon…la Studentessa Matta!

Melissa Muldoon

Ciao! Sono Melissa, la studentessa matta – the crazy student of Italian! I studied Art History and painting in Florence in college, and now I am a graphic designer in the San Francisco Bay area. About fourteen years ago on a whim—regretting I didn’t learn the language well as a college student—I began to self-teach myself Italian. I started my journey with grammar books bought at a local bookstore. Then I went on to find every means available to advance my language skills: I’ve taken evening classes, on-line courses, watched films and soap-operas, listened to music, participated in conversation Meet-up groups and on-line forums, Skyped with Italian friends and traveled all across Italy. I’ve even hosted an Italian high school student in my home for a year. Now, to exercise and flex my language skills, I write the Studentessa Matta Blog in Italian. The blog explores aspects of Italian culture and current events in a light humorous way. You can find my posts about il bel paese on Twitter (italiamelissa) and on the Studentessa Matta Facebook page,too.

St. Mark's Basilica, Venice
Recently I’ve taken my passion for Italy and Italian a step further. I now organize language and cultural immersion trips for language students and travelers who want to go beyond the typical Italian tourist experience. When I travel in Italy I like to wander off the beaten track so that I can use and practice the language in a worthwhile and rewarding way. In fact, some of my most meaningful moments in Italy have been those in which I pause to have a conversation with one of the locals. There’s the used book shop owner in Venice who keeps his merchandise safe from acqua alta by storing them in old gondolas in the middle of his shop; the man in a bar in Gubbio—who turns out to be a truffle hunter—and unlocks his shop at midnight to share his homemade wine; the scamorza cheese maker in Martina Franca who fashions her cheese into fanciful shapes for her customers; a restaurant owner in Pienza whose wife makes a to-die-for ribollita soup that is the talk of the town; a Roman cab driver who extends our drive together to include a tour of the city "gratis" so that we may continue our conversation; an artist in Ostuni who welcomes me back into his shop and shows me his latest work of art; and a young musician from Lecce who takes the time to chat with me prior to the Ferragosto parade in which Sant’Oranzo, the town’s patron saint, is celebrated. 

Wine tasting after morning language lessons

Most of these locals don’t speak a drop of English so, not only is it a rewarding experience to speak to someone using their native language, I tend to make a lot of new friends and improve my Italian with each new encounter, and I always learn something special about Italy and Italian culture. The goal of my language tours is to create these kinds of moments for the intrepid travelers who come along with me. 

Check out my past and current Italian tours. I would love for you to join me on my next trip to Italy! You can reach me by email at or find me on my blog  

In August 2012 I co-lead a group to Lecce in Puglia with my friend and partner Ylenia Sambata of YLTours. We stayed in a renovated farm house in the middle of an olive grove, complete with swimming pool and a lovely big kitchen where we cooked with Italian nonne—grandmothersand shared evening meals together. We studied Italian in the mornings and visited Alberobello, Locorotondo and Gallipoli, where we swam in the sea, in the afternoons. We enjoyed professionally guided tours of Lecce, met with local artists and pastry chefs, had dinner with local cheese makers and learned how to properly taste olive oil in a local producer’s grove.

In April 2013 I co-lead a group with my friend and partner Diego Cattaneo of the Venice Italian School in Venice. We stayed on the island of the Giudecca. In the mornings we bought cornetti and cappuccini at the neighborhood bar and enjoyed our breakfast alongside the local tradesmen before taking the vaporetto across the canal to Venice to study at the Venice Italian School. In the afternoons we walked around the city, visited churches, observed glass artists and learned how to work with hot molten glass, and met carnival mask makers. We even got the chance to learn how to row a gondola, and found time to take in an opera at Teatro Malebran.

This fall I have two trips planned for September 2013. There are still spots available if you would like to join me!

I Sassi of Matera by night
September 14-21 2013: I’ll be co-leading a group to Matera in the Basilicata region with my partner Ilaria Navarra of Percorso Italy. We’ll live in the sassi, Matera’s historic city center, take classes in the morning and explore the city in the afternoons. We’ll cook, taste wine, take art history tours, visit famous movie sights and treat ourselves to an underground grotto spa experience. You can sign up now! Spots are still available and details for the Matera trip can be found on the the Studentessa Matta Blog. 

September 22-30, 2013: I’ll return to the Salento area of Puglia with my partner Ylenia Sambata of YLTours. We’ll begin our visit in Puglia in the historic center of Lecce where we’ll take classes and tour the city, and then move out to the countryside to the Masseria for more cooking with Italians chefs, gelato making and wine tasting. We’ll do all the fun activities we did last year and more! You can sign up now! Spots are still available and details for the Puglia trip and can be found on the Studentessa Matta blog.

Matta Language & Immersion Trips for 2014! 
Italian coast

June 1-12, 2014: I’ll be co-leading a language and cultural immersion with Lucca Italian School in the town of Lucca in Tuscany. We’ll live in the heart of the historic city center and take morning class at Lucca Italian School. In the afternoons, we’ll visit nearby hill towns, making excursions to Pisa, Monte Carlo and Pietrasanta, wine tasting, biking & picnicking along the wall in Lucca. We’ll also attend a concert featuring arias by Puccini and other Italian composers, as well as taking cooking classes. You can sign up now! Details for the Lucca trip are available on the Studentessa Matta Blog.

September 2014: Fall trips to Arezzo in Tuscany and Le Marche are in the works and will soon be posted. Stay tuned to the Studentessa Matta Blog to learn more about the upcoming 2014 fall Italian trips.


Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Otello at the Doge's Palace: a Venetian night at the opera.

The stage backdrop in the Doge's Palace courtyard with St. Mark's Church in the twilight.

Two days later and visions of Otello, the opera, are still running through my head.

On July 14, 2013 il cortile di Palazzo Ducale, the most beautiful courtyard one can imagine, played host to Giuseppe Verdi's Otello and gave a spectacular performance. It was 1960 the last time Othello sang in the Doge's Palace courtyard, and this event was well worth the wait. Last Sunday tenor Gregory Kunde, a fellow American, interpreted General Othello's power and jealousy beautifully, without sacrificing il Moro's underlying tenderness. Lucio Gallo wore the evil vest of Iago so well some wanted to hiss when he took his final bow but instead applauded the baritone for his bravura. Carmela Remigio's lovely soprano voice was sincere and sweet as Desdemona and gained my sympathy throughout the opera, especially when she met her tragic end. The director, light and visual designers illustrated Venice's historical majesty through symbolic set changes projected against the courtyard fa├žades creating the most fantastical, yet real, stage I’ve ever seen. This, and much more, was beautifully conducted by Maestro Myung-Whun Chang. Teatro La Fenice deserves praise for bringing the city of Venice this production and a night to remember.

While exiting the 'theater' at the end of the evening I found myself standing next to an elderly man leaning on his cane. He wore a wise smile and his eyes glistened as he watched the courtyard empty out. He told me he had seen Otello, forty some years ago, the last time it was performed in the courtyard. I asked what he thought. Was this performance as good as the last? He raised his free hand toward the empty stage and sighed, “It was bellissima then, but how can you compete with what we saw tonight.”

I was careful and discreet while snapping these photos with my smartphone and I didn’t use the flash. There were so many more I could have taken, but I didn't want to disturb those around me, and I wanted to fully enjoy the opera first hand. I understand one of the performances may eventually be available on DVD or for public television. You might want to see it! In the meantime here's a taste of what I saw:

Il Gonfalone di San Marco

Otello giving Desdemona the handkerchief

Iago and Otello

San Marco: the winged lion

Fantastical stage design

The applause
Leaving the 'theater' behind.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Otello: a lesson to those who carry handkerchiefs

Preparations for Otello in the Doge's Palace courtyard

When a good friend mentioned that Teatro La Fenice’s 2012/2013 opera schedule included three performances of Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello in the cortile of Venice's Doge's Palace I decided, no matter what, I was going to attend. Fast forward more than a year; that will happen this week.

Otello is based on the play The Tragedy of Othello written in the 1600s by William Shakespeare, and more than two hundred years later adapted to a libretto by Arrigo Boito and scored by Giuseppe Verdi. First performed at Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 1887 it was last viewed in the cortile of Palazzo Ducale forty-seven years ago with Mario Del Monaco in the lead role.  Also referred to as the Moor of Venice—this sublime tragedy is said to have been taken from a true story—or at least taken from a few true stories—based on people who lived and ruled in Venice. In brief: Desdemona, a noble woman, is inaccurately accused by Iago, a deliciously devious conniver, of betraying her husband, Otello, a Venetian military general. The opera includes all the necessary ingredients: wealth, power and war, love, lies, jealousy, revenge, betrayal, manipulation, and of course murder. What makes this story more authentic to Venice and Venetians is an exquisite palace facing Santa Maria della Salute church on the Grand Canal. It is said to have been Desdemona’s and another palace in the Dorsoduro area is said to have been Otello’s. It is still known as the home of Il Moro—the Moor.

Opening night is July 10, 2013; no doubt dignitaries and those with deeper ‘black tie’ pockets will fill the cortile, creating a red carpet feel and most likely bringing positive press and substance for Teatro La Fenice’s future archives. However, based on the interest of about 20 close friends—all either Venetian by birth, marriage or residential adoption—who are as anxious as I am to attend and will join me at one of the following performances—July 14th and July 17th—I expect our evening to be quite the Venetian experience.  I will take a photo or two to share with you here after the event.

About the handkerchief: I won't ruin it for those who don't know the significance of il fazzoletto di Desdemona. You might want to pick up the libretto or see the opera. Let's just say that all, men and women, might want to hang on tight to their intimate belongings…Desdemona paid the ultimate price for letting hers drop to the floor.

Interested in a magical night with Otello at Palazzo Ducale? Tickets are still available!  or follow Teatro La Fenice here: