The Italian opera Serse (in Finnish Kserkses) brings together students of Jyväskylä. In an innovative collaboration project, the Italian libretto was translated by a group of Italian language students of the Department of Language and Communication Studies of the University of Jyväskylä. Serse will be performed in Italian with Finnish surtitling in April 2022.

Italian is well-known for being the ‘language of music’. Perhaps we can offer a definition that is historically more precise and closer to reality: Italian is ‘the language of theater in music, the language of opera’. Even today, 80 percent of the most represented musical works in theaters around the world are in Italian.

Opera is first of all theater, a scenic representation of a text with musical accompaniment. The libretto has a central role and the language in which it is written must allow for balance and harmony between word and music. This is why the use of Italian language is so important for this form of theater.

Italian was created as a poetic language at the beginning of 1300s, by two great Italian poets, Dante Alighieri and Francesco Petrarca, who paid particular attention to harmony, balance, musicality and elegance in language. Thanks to their work, the invention of opera in 1500 was favoured by the existence of a language, Italian, that was ideal for musical accompaniment.

What does it mean to stage an opera?

Behind the staging of an opera hides a complex process that requires considerable economic expenses, as well as a long commitment of time and energy from a large number of people with different skills and responsibilities.

The writer of the article Lucrezia Sette has studied intercultural communications and Italian language at the University of Jyväskylä. Photo: Lucrezia Sette’s album

An innovative project organized by EduFutura brings together the University of Jyväskylä, JAMK University of Applied Sciences and Jyväskylä Educational Consortium Gradia, in a collaboration to expand students’ opportunities and find new learning solutions.

The result of this collaboration will be visible in spring 2022 with the staging of Serse, an 18th century opera composed by Georg Friedrich Händel on the Italian libretto, written by Silvio Stampiglia.

The project revolves around the work of students and professionals from Jyväskylä. Their activities are all essential for the success of the project: the direction of the orchestra, the production of costumes and sets, the arrangements of lights, the creation of audiovisual documentation and advertising and of course, the Finnish translation of the Italian libretto and the linguistic preparation of the singers.

“It is very important to consider how words sound”

The opera will be performed in Italian with Finnish surtitling. The translation of the Italian libretto was made by a group of Italian language students of the Department of Language and Communication Studies of the University of Jyväskylä. The students worked under the direction of the lecturer Giuseppe La Grassa, who has been involved in translation projects of Italian opera librettos for several years.

Valtteri Iso-Rautio, Katriina Lundström, Anni Mäkelä and Anne Karppinen found working in the opera project very gratifying.

The students worked on the translation of Serse from October 2020 to June 2021. Due to the covid situation, the work had to be carried on remotely.

Anni Mäkelä and Katriina Lundström, who wish to become translators after their studies, particularly appreciated the possibility of working on a concrete product that will be visible to the public.

 “Students should work on different kinds of texts; languages are not only grammar. A translator should have a good amount of creativity. When translating lyric opera it is very important to consider how words sound. Direct translation is often not an option”, says Katriina Lundström.

 “In the future, I would like to translate books. So this project has been very useful as it showed me the real translation process, how to really do it in practice, and how to maintain the balance between the sense of the text and the authentic language”, tells Anni Mäkelä.

Lyric opera is an important part of Italian culture

At the University of Jyväskylä you can compele Basic and Intermediate Studies in Italian Language as Optional Studies. There is also a thematic module on Italian language and culture for all students of the University of Jyväskylä and Edufutura.

Students had the possibility to apply their knowledge of Italian and translation strategies on a practical level.

Katriina Lundström underlines the importance of knowing the target culture when translating. Knowing the culture related to a foreign language often requires a study period abroad, but in this case students could deepen their knowledge of Italian culture and Italian opera even without travelling to Italy.

“Lyric opera is an important part of Italian culture. It is very interesting because it is possible to learn not only the language but also Italian culture”, Mäkelä says.

Anne Karppinen, who is an English teacher and a musician, underlines how different cultures can influence each other to create an opera work.

“There are always cultural aspects in translation. In this opera the music was composed by Händel, who was German; but it was written in England, and the libretto was written by an Italian. It is a heterogeneous work in a sense”, Anne Karppinen states.

Italian speakers can easily read old poetic texts

In nowadays’ foreign languages studies, it is quite rare to work on very old texts, especially in basic or intermediate level courses. But in Italian language studies, translating opera texts allows students of every level to learn the language and develop their knowledge of Italian culture.

In fact, Italian represents a unique case among European languages, as it has changed very little in the last 700 years. Consequently, today’s Italian speakers can easily read a poetic text of the 1300s, such as the Divine Comedy.

Students like Valtteri Iso-Rautio, who want to pursue a career in fields that are not related with language studies, appreciate this experience and consider the skills developed during this project useful for their future.

“I hope, in five or ten years, to become the director of a school. Therefore, Italian language will probably not be the main thing I’ll have to use in my future job. But hopefully, I will be able to improve the level of the school by introducing cultural studies. The knowledge of Italian culture, and especially of Italian literature, will be useful”, Iso-Rautio says.

 The collaboration of students and teachers of Jyväskylä in EduFutura’s project is extremely interesting from both a cultural and educational point of view.

Students could learn Italian by working on a concrete project and applying their language skills on a practical level. All students found working in the project very gratifying, and they all agreed that this experience will open new opportunities in their future.

Serse will be staged in Jyväskylä, at the Finnish Music Campus (Suomalainen musiikkikampus) on three dates: 28.4., 30.4. and 1.5. The play is directed by Ville Saukkonen, who is a professional director and an expert in opera works.


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