An Italian in Ethiopia Opera

An Italian in Ethiopia Opera 2010-2013 (Music and Libretto)

Concert held on February 2013 the Sydney Conservatorium.  (Duration 1 hour and half)

About the opera:

“An Italian in Ethiopia” is the true story of a real Italian war hero only recently discovered: the architect Sebastiano Castagna, born in 1868 in Aidone, Sicily, and brutally murdered in his beloved Ethiopia during a mission of peace in 1938. During his life he received many honours, among them a Gold Medal for Military Service from the Italian government, recognition from the Russian Czar for his contribution to the development of the new city of Addis Ababa, and was appointed by Ethiopian authorities to build bridges, aqueducts and public buildings. The St George Cathedral represented in the opera was commissioned by King Menelik and built by Castagna in 1898. The story of the opera is that of a brave and eccentric European of the Victorian era venturing to an exotic land to give rather than to plunder.

Brief scenario:

For centuries massive stone buildings have inspired people’s creativity not only in the architectonical construction but also as a place of gathering, a central point of focus in culture. In Castagna’s story, his Octagonal Cathedral becomes a resonator of voices, sounds, human events and secrets. All the characters in the story are somehow in constant touch with the Cathedral that is the central focus of the stage setting for a full production. Around this central setting plays drama that moves periodically from “present” to “past” events in the narrative.

Original Libretto:

The main story is based on a true-life story. Castagna was a member of my familywho lived in Ethiopia and was the architect to the Ethiopian King Menelik. More extensive historical notes are available in the following article: Pegolotti, B, “Un Italiano alla Corte di Menelik,” (“An Italian in Menelik’s Court”) Storia Illustrata 148 (March 1970).

I wrote this libretto in two languages: Italian and English. I believe this a good way to understand modern opera. The story can be understood from a different perspective.

The experience of writing the libretto was very challenging for me and it has triggered the compositional musical side almost at the same time. Certain written scenes had some musical ideas already there in my inner brain.

Also Blake’s poem “My spectre is around me” triggered in me the first inspiration for the libretto and became part of the vocals and electronic parts.

The libretto also includes a few poems I wrote over recent years, which were linked with the experience of writing this opera.

The Composer view:

I have adapted this incredible story through some minor alterations to actual events and a small number of dramatic additions of fictional happenings. In the opera, the nature of Castagna is that of a heroic but eccentric man who lives freely with both an egocentrically naive lack of fear of the unknown or adversity, but with an obvious passion for dignity, justice and peace. Castagna has many ways of expressing himself.  So he changes from the creative, respected and outspoken architect to the man who buys slaves at the market, no matter what the risk, then marriesa princess and finally risks his life to save a loved one. The Musical idea heard at the beginning in the electronic part is leading main theme in the opera. It also generates all the themes that describe each character.

I did some research and analysis on sound in order to recreate the acoustics of the octagonal St George Cathedral in Addis Ababa. The aim is to recreate virtually the cathedral interior and its psychological impact. This is done by the positioning of musicians and the electronic “secret sound”. In the opera The Secret Enchanting Sound is a special sound effect Castagna secretly created while constructing the actual cathedral. It is a sound-effect like a singing bowl and it is used dramatically.

I envisaged, for a production, the stage as physically divided into two fixed parts: the “present” and the “past”.  The Present, where the Cathedral is located and from which Castagna tells his story and the Past from which Castagna life’s event are taking place. The story moves from one setting to another, and sometimes events take place in both parts simultaneously. For example, Castagna’s wild journey (Part III) while his wife has a dream about him, or in the Finale, the two women singing. In general the two facets of the story, even if occurring at the same time. The instrumental and electronic music also underpin the partitioning of “Present” and “Past”.

Opera An Italian in Ethiopia
Premiered 22nd of February 2013


Sebastiano Castagna (Protagonist - Architect) - Daniel Tambasco - Tenor

Damtew (King’s general - Tegna’s husband) - Andrew Woodley - Baritone

King (King of Ethiopia) - Jared Lillehagen - Baritone

Armarha’ (a female slave) - Rebecca Moret - Soprano

Princess Beline’ (Castagna’s wife) - Sylvie Humphries - Soprano

Princess Tegna (King’s daughter /Damtew’s wife) - Nyssa Milligan - Mezzo Soprano

Spectre - Corinne Urtquhart - Dancer/choreographer

Little Girl - Celine Urtquhart

Father - Robert Urtquhart

Composer/Pianist - Ursula Caporali

Lights & Tech - Rebecca Cernec