Italian opera has been added to the United Nations’ list of intangible cultural heritage list.
The UN cultural agency’s committee has been looking at 55 nominations to the prestigious list this week, from the preparation of traditional Peruvian ceviche to loincloth-weaving in the Ivory Coast.
Now alongside, the Italian culinary phenomenon that is pizza-making, opera singing, which developed in the Medici family court in the 16th and 17th centuries in Florence, has made it onto the world-famous inventory of heritage that must be protected.
What is the UNESCO list?
The UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage dates back to 2003, and was ratified by 30 member states in 2006. It provides a record and an official description of artisan traditions and cultural phenomenon that are of social and historical significance and could be in danger of dying it.
Despite some initial fears about conflict over the list and the “ownership” of traditions, 181 countries are now enthusiastically signed up, and rather than arguing, many have put forward shared bids, such as the sixteen Arabic-speaking countries who teamed up to campaign for “Arabic calligraphy” to be listed in 2021.
Italy’s culture minister Gennaro Sangiuliano reacted with delight to the news. “This is an official confirmation of what we already knew: opera singing is a world excellence,” he said.
UNESCO recorded Italian opera as “a physiologically controlled way of singing that enhances the carrying power of the voice in acoustic spaces such as amphitheatres and churches”. The recognition also notes that the art of opera is not only a tool for forging “collective cohesion and sociocultural memory”, but also a “a means of free expression and intergenerational dialogue”.
Some may see opera as something high-brow, elitist or even as a thing of the past. A row even broke out in the UK parliament last year when it was implied that a working-class politician should not be attending the opera, causing widespread anger about debates about who opera and art is for.
In fact opera could be argued to be more popular than ever. There are a record-number of opera houses across Italy today (around 60) and the last century’s advent of the recording industry and television has seen opera singers like soprano Maria Callas, tenor Luciano Pavarotti, and soprano Dame Kiri te Kanawa become household names. The use of opera to soundtrack World Cup tournaments, in commercially successful films like Pretty Woman and, of course, in advertising, have popularised the form.
Maybe it will now become more popular still and more people will try treating themselves to a night at the opera. After all, in the 10 years since the Belgian tradition of horseback shrimp fishing was added to the UNESCO list, the number of practitioners of the customary fishing method have increased more than ten-fold.