Our Italian Heritage

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Sailing the High C's

The History of Opera is Very Much Informed by Italian Culture

Ask anyone what language comes to mind when they hear the word ‘opera’ and you will not hear German or French; you will without a doubt hear “Italian!” Opera and Italian go together like spaghetti and meatballs. 

Ask someone to name an opera singer and you will hear Luciano Pavarotti or Enrico Caruso; you will likely not hear Lauritz Melchior. 

The noted musicologist, Robert Greenberg teaches that the beauty and musicality of the Italian language lends itself to song. It is no coincidence that the first recognized opera Dafne was composed by Jacopo Peri (1561-1633) of Rome in 1597. Operas were originally written for the entertainment of the royal courts and were considered “opera seria”. Shortly thereafter “opera buffa” developed for the common people. Opera itself combines the wonder of sight and sound in one package to be enjoyed by all.

Opera houses quickly sprung up all over Europe in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries in the same way movie theaters and later television spread into the life of the 20th century. As opera developed, until the 19th century, very little was written that was not Italian. The great German based composers — Handel (1685-1759), Gluck (1714-1781) and Mozart (1756-1791) — all wrote the majority of their operas in Italian. It was not until the 19th century that French and German operas began to take hold on the operatic stage, but clearly opera was still dominated by the likes of Bellini (1801-1835), Donizetti (1797-1848), Rossini (1792-1868), Verdi (1813-1901) and Puccini (1858-1924). 

When the Metropolitan Opera House opened in New York City in 1883, twenty operas were presented during that first season; nine were written by Italian composers, seven by French composers, and four by German composers, yet all were sung in Italian! The greatest Russian opera, Boris Godunov was sung in Italian at the Met until 1975.

In the 19th century, given the absence of television, opera was often the vehicle for political propaganda. Giuseppe Verdi, who eventually served as a senator in the Italian Parliament, incorporated a great deal of the politics of the day into the plots of his many operas. His very name itself became an acronym for the unification of Italy: V.E.R.D.I. – Vittorio Emanuele, Re D’ Italia (Victor Emmanuel, King of Italy). 

Many of Verdi’s operas were subjected to censure by the authorities so that plots and locales had to be altered for the opera to be produced. The most famous case of censure occurred with Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera of 1859. That opera depicted the assassination of Gustav III of Sweden, which was too close to home for European royal houses. To get the opera on stage, Verdi changed the focus of the plot to the assassination of the Governor of Massachusetts during a masked ball. Ironically, its first performance in New York took place in 1861 and coincided with Abraham Lincoln’s journey to Washington, D.C. for his inauguration; President-elect Lincoln attended a performance at the Academy of Music near what is now Union Square in New York City. Lincoln actually attended more than 30 operas during his presidency!

While Europe is the home to many small regional opera companies, for many years many in America have perceived opera as entertainment geared for the wealthy and the elite. There is some truth to that image if you consider that the cost of a seat at the Metropolitan Opera in 1889 was $3. and that that seat now costs in excess of $500. But that scene is changing. Now you can see an operatic performance on public television and for $25 you can see a an opera in high definition in a movie theater on a comfortable recliner lounge chair – far more comfortable that a stiff seat in the opera house. 

The situation is no different than baseball: you can spend a lot for great seats at a stadium, or you can watch the game in the comfort of your home on television. Many even enjoy going to a minor league game as opposed to major league baseball; similarly with opera, there are many small local opera companies now in the United States from which to choose. Thus, opera is no longer available exclusively in major cities. There are lots of opportunities to see an opera in person, on television, or in a movie theater. 

If you have never experienced ‘opera’ – try it! See what people have enjoyed for centuries, and experience a true gift from Italy! 

This article was prepared by our National Historian, Ronald Sme.

Italian Heritage in Alpha Phi Delta is actually of two minds or two tracks of history. In the first case, it is about the grandiose heritage and symbolism imbued by Imperial Rome. In the second case, it is about the cultural glories of Italy (its food, its art, its music, its architecture, etc.).

Alpha Chapter vs. Beta Chapter:   Two Views of Italian Heritage

For Alpha it was was about culture, for Beta it was about Imperial Rome

We often think of Alpha Phi Delta Fraternity as having a unified view of “Italian Heritage” — that it is all about famous Italians, Italians who built our nation, Italian food, Italian music, etc. But that is only half true. You see, in the early days of our Fraternity, there were two distinct views of Italian heritage — one from Alpha Chapter (Syracuse) and one from Beta Chapter (Columbia University). 

In the view of Alpha’s founders, the Italian-ness that they envisioned came from a common language, common home-life, common food, common custom. For them Italian Heritage was their heritage — the heritage brought over by Italian immigrants to America during the waves of immigration.  (continued on page 2)

In the view of Beta Chapter, which started out as Sigma Gamma Phi Fraternity (which Alpha merged with in 1916 to form Alpha Phi Delta National Fraternity), Italian heritage didn’t go back to Italy of the 20th century, rather it went back to imperial Roman and all of the trappings of the Roman Empire.  

These two views of Italian Heritage (from Italy and from Imperial Rome) are baked together in the cake of Alpha Phi Delta — though the Beta-view took precedence, especially since most of the early Presidents of Alpha Phi Delta had hailed from Beta Chapter.

For example, the symbols of Alpha Phi Delta were all brought to us courtesy of Beta Chapter — the torch, the fasces, the eagle, the star of divine guidance, the scroll, etc. are all symbols that find their origin in ancient Roman heraldry (though the fasces was adopted by Italy during Mussolini’s era 1922-1945, as the symbol of the fascist government). Likewise our motto: Faciamus (“we do”). It comes from Latin not from Italian. 

Another example of this “Beta-view” taking hold deals with officers. When Alpha Chapter was formed, the officers were President, Vice President, Secretary, and Treasurer. Once Alpha Phi Delta (Alpha Chapter) and Sigma Gamma Phi (Beta Chapter) merged, part of the merger agreement dictated that the Americanized officer titles would be replaced by Romanesque titles. Thus, President became Consul; Vice President became Pro-Consul; Treasurer became Queastor; and Secretary became Tribune. Likewise the Fraternity’s first motto “Brothers unto the Altars” was replaced, as noted earlier, with “Faciamus.”

So, does Alpha Chapter’s view of Italian Heritage have any representation in Alpha Phi Delta today? Well, the original symbols adopted by the Seven Founders at Syracuse in 1914 are lost to us. We  have no record of what they were. However one symbol of the Fraternity established by our brothers at Alpha Chapter did survive: the Garafano, the white carnation. The Garafano was adopted early on, as it was the national flower of Italy at the time of the founding of Alpha Phi Delta in 1914.

Over the decades, though, the Italy-based Italian Heritage known to our Seven Founders roared back to the fore of Fraternity life. Most especially since World War II, Italian culture in terms of language, music, food, the use of the Italian flag, and most especially the sense of family (la famiglia) have taken hold as the hallmarks of Italian culture within the lived life (if not the heraldic life) of Alpha Phi Delta. 

So here in 2023, Alpha Phi Delta has symbols and traditions that take our brotherhood back to the time of Imperial Rome and simultaneously we have a lived brotherhood experience that imbues us with the glories of Italian culture. It is thanks to the unique merger of Alpha Phi Delta (Alpha) and Sigma Gamma Phi (Beta), and the special compromises made at that merger, that allows our brothers today to enjoy the best of both worlds: the culture of Italy and Imperial Rome. Faciamus!

This article was prepared by our Central Office