Italian Opera Singing Is Now Protected by the U.N.

UNESCO announced 55 new additions to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage

Man wearing a burgundy robe sings with arms outstretched on stage
Italian opera singing is now among the hundreds of cultural practices officially recognized by UNESCO. Elena Di Vincenzo / Archivio Elena Di Vincenzo / Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

UNESCO has added Italian opera singing—along with more than 50 other practices from around the world—to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

The agency, the cultural arm of the United Nations, created the list in 2008 to help safeguard traditions, festivals, rites of passage, art forms and other practices across the globe. It stems from the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

UNESCO also recognizes culturally and historically significant buildings, structures and properties with its well-known list of World Heritage Sites.

Because of the convention, “the very definition of cultural heritage is now broader,” says Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO’s director-general, in a statement. “It is no longer just a matter of monuments, sites or stones. The convention recognizes that heritage is also alive—that it can be sung, written, listened to and touched. Each of us carries a part of this heritage in us, and protects it.”

With UNESCO’s decision, opera singing joins several other Italian traditions on the list, including truffle hunting and pizza making.

Italian opera is a “physiologically controlled way of singing that enhances the carrying power of the voice in acoustic spaces such as auditoriums, amphitheaters, arenas and churches,” writes UNESCO. “Performed by people of all genders, it is associated with specific facial expressions and body gestures and involves a combination of music, drama, acting and staging.”

The practice dates back to the Medici family in Florence in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. Jacopo Peri’s Dafne, which was performed for the Medicis in 1598, is considered the first Italian opera.

“This is an official confirmation of what we already knew: Opera singing is a world excellence,” says Gennaro Sangiuliano, Italy’s culture minister, in a statement, as reported by the Agence France-Presse.

A wide array of cultural practices, food dishes and festivals also made the list at UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Intangible Heritage Committee meeting in Botswana last week. The committee narrowed down nominations submitted by 72 nations, ultimately selecting 55 to add to the list. The full list now includes 730 practices from 145 countries.

Six of the new additions are “in need of urgent safeguarding,” according to UNESCO. These include Syrian glassblowingolive cultivation in Turkey and a Malaysian theater tradition called Mek Mulung.

The non-urgent additions include several annual events, such as the Rotterdam Summer Carnival in the Netherlands, the Sango Festival of Oyo in Nigeria, the Junkanoo festival in the Bahamas and the Shuwalid festival in Ethiopia. Many food dishes also made the list, including ceviche (raw fish marinated in citrus) in Peru and Xeedho (a celebratory wedding dish) in Djibouti.

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