Love opera or hate it – Florence is the perfect place to find your voice

Kate Simon enjoys an Italian city break with a difference on a weekend that combines the history of music with singing lessons

Gianluca Lastraioli furrows his brow. He is considering my question: which opera might have the power to stop my eyes closing before the end of Act I? His brow unknits as he smiles: "I think you would like Rossini's The Barber of Seville," he concludes. "There's a lot going on in it."

I feel a little foolish, exposing my cultural limitations to this professor of music. But then his job is to try to help me embrace opera – which I struggle to enjoy – to understand a little of its history, and how to listen to it. Our encounter is part of a new opera masterclass being offered to guests at Rocco Forte's Savoy Hotel in Florence.

It's not that I hate opera. A few years ago, I fulfilled a long-held dream of taking singing lessons. I found a neighbour who worked as a vocal coach when he wasn't performing at the Royal Opera House. He taught only opera and I didn't really care what I sang; it was an enjoyable fait accompli. But while I found it fun to sing the arias, I had no desire to attend a performance. Could this experience in Florence, the birthplace of opera, change my attitude?

I needn't worry about appearing to be an intellectual pygmy to Gianluca; he is an easy-going chap, whose love of music, from Bach to the Beatles, spurs him on to inspire rather than judge. His 90-minute lecture, delivered with infectious enthusiasm, is more of a discussion, and the time flies by.

Gianluca tells me about the rise of theatrical performances under the mighty Medicis and explains how opera grew out of the musical interludes played between acts. He creates a picture of the audience at the performance of Jacopo Peri's Euridice at the Pitti Palace in 1600, which he argues was the first opera, and he trips through the ages to chart the development of the form over the subsequent centuries. Most importantly, he attempts to dispel the fear that is paralysing my aural appreciation of opera by impressing upon me the simplicity of thought behind plot and character, demystifying this high art as the light entertainment of its time.

Theory done, next comes the vocal lesson, led by Anna Aurigi, a professional opera singer. Anna is a hard taskmaster who cares not that I'm just a tourist wanting to give my vocal cords a thrill. "You said you wanted a singing lesson," she admonishes, as I try to explain that I'm finding the breathing technique she's teaching me confusing because it contradicts everything I've been taught by my tutor at home.

I submit and focus on sucking air deep into my belly as inaudibly as I can, as directed. We use the breath to make noises like emergency sirens and play around with the letter "e", Anna all the time encouraging me to make like a wide-mouthed frog, while guiding my voice up and down the scales with her looping hand.

By the end of the lesson we've done plenty of "e-ing" and "oo-ing" but we've only managed the opening line of "Ave Maria". It's a disappointing but inevitable conclusion. The opera singer's technique cannot be conquered in a mere hour – never mind getting to grips with libretto. I come away with an acute sense of just how difficult it is to master this art.

So far my exploration of opera and Florence has been confined to the classrooms of the Accademia Europea di Firenze, a cultural school largely attended by Americans, which is set in a building just a few steps along the Via Roma from the Hotel Savoy. It's time to hit the streets.

With too much to explore, I confine my tour to a few highlights of the Medici era. I start at the 15th-century Palazzo Medici Riccardi, a hulking symbol of the dynasty's dominance, where I am drawn to revisit the exquisite Chapel of the Magi, with its frescos by Benozzo Gozzoli of the journey of the Magi to Bethlehem, an interpretation that stars a fair few of the Medici clan.

Then, on to the Basilica di San Lorenzo, the Medicis' private church and final resting place, filled to the brim with work by the great Renaissance artists – designed by Filippo Brunelleschi and containing Andrea del Verrocchio's tomb to Piero di Cosimo de Medici and Michelangelo's New Sacristy. And finally I cross the Ponte Vecchio to the Pitti Palace. I am directed to the Boboli Gardens to discover where Euridice was first performed, but end up wandering aimlessly, if happily, because no one can pinpoint the exact spot for me.

That evening, I discover the only opera being performed in the city is, serendipitously, The Barber of Seville, in the intimate surroundings of St Mark's English Church in the Oltrarno. I take a pew as the lights go down and the piano strikes up (no room for an orchestra here). By the end of the performance, I sense a change within me. My eyes are still open.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Kate Simon travelled from London City to Florence with CityJet (0871 66 33 777;, which offers return fares from £131.

Meridiana (0871 423 3711; flies to Florence from Gatwick.

Staying there

Kate Simon was a guest of Rocco Forte’s Hotel Savoy (00 39 055 2735831;, which offers the Opera Masterclass package from €1,011 (£815)pp, based on two people sharing, including two nights’ B&B, accommodation, a session with a music academic, a singing lesson and a guided walk.

More information

Pitti Palace (00 39 055 23885;; admission various). Palazzo Medici Riccardi (00 39 055 2760340;; admission €7/£5.65). Basilica di San Lorenzo (00 39 055 216634;; admission €6/£4.84), Accademia Europea di Firenze (00 39 055 21 15 99;

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
Angel Di Maria is shown the red card
Roger Federer after his win over Tomas Berdych
Life and Style
News in briefs: big pants in 'Bridget Jones's Diary'
fashionBig knickers are back
James Milner is set to sign for Liverpool this week despite rival interest from Arsenal
sportReds baulk at Benteke £32.5m release clause
The controversial Motor Neurone Disease Association poster, featuring sufferer Michael Smith, has drawn a series of angry complaints
newsThis one has been criticised for its 'threatening tone'
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Bid Writer

    £25000 - £34000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Recruitment Genius: Membership Sales Advisor - OTE £20,000 Uncapped

    £15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Guru Careers: Membership Administrator

    £23K: Guru Careers: We're seeking an experienced Membership Administrator, to ...

    Day In a Page

    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific
    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

    Dame Colette Bowe - interview
    When do the creative juices dry up?

    When do the creative juices dry up?

    David Lodge thinks he knows
    The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

    Fashion's Cher moment

    Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
    Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

    Health fears over school cancer jab

    Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
    Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

    Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

    Weather warning

    Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
    LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

    High hopes for LSD

    Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
    German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

    Saving Private Brandt

    A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral