Elon students, faculty perform for a re-emerging Florence, Italy

Seventeen months ago, programs at The Elon Center in Florence were cancelled as the city was gripped by the first wave of COVID-19 outside of China. This summer, Elon students are performing with professional musicians in some of the city's first concerts since Florence reopened this month.

As Florence, Italy, reopens from the pandemic, Elon students and faculty are participating in some of the iconic city’s first concerts, filling ancient courtyards with vocal and jazz music as they study abroad.

Twelve students are studying opera and jazz at The Elon Center in Florence through the Accademia Europea di Firenze. Elon has been AEF’s school of record since in 2008. Through the partnership, students performed as the ensemble in the Opera Company Florence’s productions of “La Boheme” and “La Traviata.” They also performed two of their own concerts at the Orti Di Pinti garden and at St. James Episcopal Church. Their final performance, of “La Traviata,” is Thursday night.

This is the third year the Summer Opera Workshop has been held in Florence. Senior Lecturer in Music Polly Cornelius developed the summer opera program in collaboration with AEF music faculty and leads the course.

“It’s a miracle that it happened this year and we’re so thankful that it did,” Cornelius said. “Art, classical music, opera, jazz: Every artform is appreciated on a high level here. Professionals are also grateful to be performing again, and there’s great joy in that right now.”

Programs were cancelled in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic as the virus ravaged Italy and international travel was suspended. AEF and Elon feverishly resumed planning for summer programs last fall, hoping travel and ensemble performance would be possible. As luck would have it, Florence began reopening just as Elon students arrived this summer. Students and professional ensembles are performing outdoors and unmasked to masked and physically distanced audiences.

Studying opera in its birthplace and being invited to watch celebrated professionals rehearse has been awe inspiring, said Alexa Lugo ’22, a vocal performance major. Performing with them and an orchestra was thrilling.

“They were generous and kind to us,” Lugo said. “To have this real-world opera experience, to be in the room while they rehearse, to watch real opera happening and be onstage has been so fulfilling.”

“The whole experience has been wonderful. The faculty have been very nurturing but also pushed us out of our comfort zones,” said Abigayle Harnum ’23, a music theatre major. “Performing with professional opera singers at an old convent was amazing.”

The demanding pace of rehearsals and performances has also been a good teacher.

“I’ve learned a lot of discipline for sure, learning in such a fast-paced environment,” said vocal performance major Mary Louise Fuller ’22 “It’s taught me a lot about learning and collaborating with others. Performing in a professional opera and next to theses incredible singers, I learned so much just soaking it all in.”

Elon students and faculty in Florence, Italy.

Sharing in the creation of art, collaborating and learning together is at the core of AEF’s mission, said its Academic Director Antonio Vanni. That sense of community has been heightened as Florence returns to life.

“The drive, interest and curiosity of people to go back to performances, there’s a real energy here,” said Antonio Vanni, AEF’s academic director. When Elon students performed, “it was (the opera company’s) first time singing “La Boheme” onstage after 18 months of lockdown. The energy was incredible. We will never forget these moments we’ve shared together.”

Assistant Dean of Global Education and Associate Professor of Music Matthew Buckmaster is teaching and leading a jazz ensemble there. Playing jazz internationally is akin to being a cultural ambassador of an American artform, and he and students shared conversations about authenticity and cultural identity in preparation to perform.

“This experience was made possible and special and meaningful by our good partners at AEF,” Buckmaster said. “It wouldn’t be happening without them. The strength of Elon’s partnerships is a real highlight of the university, and this experience shows how wonderful things can be because of our great partners.”