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.
Kate Simon travelled from London City to Florence with CityJet (0871 66 33 777; cityjet.com), which offers return fares from £131.
Meridiana (0871 423 3711; meridiana.it) flies to Florence from Gatwick.
Kate Simon was a guest of Rocco Forte’s Hotel Savoy (00 39 055 2735831; roccofortehotels.com), 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.
Pitti Palace (00 39 055 23885; polomuseale.firenze.it; admission various). Palazzo Medici Riccardi (00 39 055 2760340; palazzomedici.it; admission €7/£5.65). Basilica di San Lorenzo (00 39 055 216634; polomuseale.firenze.it; admission €6/£4.84), Accademia Europea di Firenze (00 39 055 21 15 99; accademiaeuropeafirenze.it).Reuse content