Musical theater storytelling immerses students in Italian language, culture and folk literature

Written by
Steve Runk, Lewis Center for the Arts
Jan. 24, 2023

A 2022 Global Seminar takes students to Gesualdo, Italy, to learn musical theater writing and performance processes

As the dark and cold days of January settle in, 13 Princeton students can warm at the recollection of six engaging weeks they spent this past summer immersed in musical theater in the picturesque Italian town of Gesualdo.

The Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies (PIIRS), in collaboration with the Lewis Center for the Arts, offered the 2022 Global Seminar, “Musical Theater Storytelling in Italy: An Exploration of Giambattista Basile’s The Tale of Tales.” The for-credit course ran from June 20 to July 29 and brought students to Gesualdo, a small village 90 miles northeast of Naples, for an intensive immersion in Italian language and culture, folk literature, and musical theater.

The seminar was led by Princeton alumni and founders of New York City-based Prospect Theater Company Peter Mills, Class of 1995, and Cara Reichel, Class of 1996, and Stacy Wolf, Professor of Theater in the Lewis Center and American Studies and Director of the Program in Musical Theater.

The Tale of Tales, also known as the Pentamarone, comprises 50 stories and is recognized as the first collection of literary fairy tales to appear in Western Europe. The work was written by Giambattista Basile in the Neapolitan dialect and published posthumously c. 1634–36 by his sister Adriana Basile, a well-known early opera singer. Bridging the gap between oral folk tradition and literature, The Tale of Tales became a reference point for fairy tale authors Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, as well as a valued resource for folklorists. After Giambattista’s death from the plague, Adriana published her brother’s work so that these stories—which up until that time were passed down orally—could be shared more widely and with future generations.

Through the course, Mills and Reichel collaborated with students and professional artists to develop and premiere an original musical inspired by the Basile siblings. “We were so intrigued by Giambattista and Adriana and wanted to bring this story to a wider audience,” Mills shared. “The opportunity to research the piece in the very place where the tales were handed down was essential. Workshopping the songs with musicians steeped in the traditions of the Neapolitan region was an incredible opportunity.” Mills’ score drew inspiration both from folk music of the region and the early operas Adriana performed, including works by Monteverdi. In the early 17th century, the Kingdom of Naples was under the Spanish crown, and the score reflects this cultural influence as well.