Opera: The Path to Dante's Vineyard

by Mary Ann Archer, retired second flutist and piccoloist

In the fall of 2003 I took early retirement from the MET Orchestra, having played second flute and piccolo there for just over 26 years (1977-2003). Now living in Virginia, I still miss playing in the orchestra, but it’s amazing where the love of opera that was instilled in me over those years has led. Learning Italian, teaching Italian-through-Opera, visiting Italy six times in five years, playing in a regional opera company, and even transcribing arias from operas for piccolo and piano are all things that came right out of playing in the MET Orchestra.

Photo by Christian Steiner

Photo by Christian Steiner

Starting to study Italian happened when I discovered that my backyard neighbor, Patrizia Prevosto Johnson, was a native Italian. I asked her if she would teach me Italian. I felt as if I had a huge balloon of Italian words that I knew from operas in my head, but I couldn’t make a single sentence - except for Tosca’s line “e avanti a lui tremava tutta Roma!” This translates to, “and before him all Rome trembled.” Unfortunately, this is not particularly useful in everyday conversation.

So Patrizia agreed to teach me, and with some additional students we gathered around her kitchen table studying the Italian language. Often I would learn a word that I had heard in an opera and I would say things like, “Oh, Figaro was suggesting that the Count pretend to be drunk (‘ubriaco’)!” or “That’s what Despina wanted to do – taste (‘assaggiare’) the hot chocolate!” Pretty soon Patrizia came up with the idea that the two of us should teach Italian through opera together, and when her German-professor husband found a book geared exactly that way, we were off and running teaching Italiano all’Opera at Speak Language Center in nearby Charlottesville. After we exhausted the first book, we started writing our own lessons.

(L-R) Principal Piccolo Stephanie Mortimore, Mary Ann Archer, and Principal Flute (ret.) Michael Parloff

(L-R) Principal Piccolo Stephanie Mortimore, Mary Ann Archer, and Principal Flute (ret.) Michael Parloff

Traveling to Italy came out of studying the language. The first three trips were to a sister language school in the hill town of Todi (in gorgeous Umbria), two hours north of Rome, for an immersive experience. This involved living with an Italian couple, studying at the school every morning, and sightseeing with other American students in the afternoons. In class I communicated with Japanese, Slovak, and Swiss students, all in the Italian language – even singing “Una donna a quindici anni” (from Mozart’s Così fan tutte) with a Japanese voice teacher!

On the next three trips I was the opera teacher, with Patrizia teaching Italian, to music lovers as we saw operas in the outdoor amphitheater in Verona and at La Scala in Milan. We lodged at the wine-making estate of Dante Alighieri’s descendent – Count Alighieri, outside Verona. What a dream those three trips were!

Patrizia and I decided we had enough students to teach separately, so now I teach “Inside Opera,” giving a view from the orchestra pit on operas of all languages. Teaching that course has led to the opportunity to give the pre-opera lectures at the beautifully renovated Paramount Theater in Charlottesville, before the Met HD broadcasts. 

Playing at the Met also led to teaching ‘Opera History’ here at Hampden-Sydney College, becoming the principal flutist and orchestra manager of Lynchburg’s Opera on the James, and arranging the two Ave Marias from Otello and Dialogue of the Carmelites for piccolo and piano (published by Nourse Wind Publications).  To paraphrase an old line from Saturday Night Live, “Opera been very, very good to me!”

Mary Ann and her family after a cooking class, with the town of Todi in the background

Mary Ann and her family after a cooking class, with the town of Todi in the background