Articles by: Fred Plotkin

  • Op-Eds

    THE ITALY I LOVE - The Unique Gift of Sociability

    I am asked several times a day—at least—what it is I love about Italy. I find that the way the question is posed says more about the person asking it than how I might answer. The questioner otten seeks confirmation for his or her perception of what Italy might be. And that, to me, makes little sense. The Italy the person is asking about represents a mere slice of what Italy is. 

    For people who love food and wine, that is what they want to know about. And, yes, I think Italian food is the best in the world and the wine is distinctive because it is made to pair with all manner of dishes that emanate from kitchens in all 20 regions of Italy. There is so much more that we might call the Excellence That Is Italy: Agriculture, Architecture, Automobiles, Cinema, Dance, Design, Fashion, Gardens, History, Literature, Mountains, Music, Natural Beauty, Opera, Painting, Religion, Romance, Scientific research, Sculpture, the Sea, Theater, Urban Studies, and many other things you can surely think of. 

    One of the things I love about Italy—I have not yet reached the mo- ment to disclose the thing—is the Italian people in all of their beauty and imperfections. They are more connected to their humanity than in many other countries and live life so that everything can be savored. 

    While in other countries people see social media as a tool of friend- ship, in Italy they are a tool of communication. But nothing beats the sense of intimacy when you and your Italian friends are together. This gift of sociability is something very treasurable about Italians.

     When an Italian is your friend, he or she becomes devoted to you and your inclination is to do the same. All over the country I have people about whom I think and care and they feel the same about me.

     I know, I know—Italians are not perfect. But who is? Yet it is the full expression of their humanity— whether it is based on compassion, frustration, irascibility, curiosity, generosity or humor—that makes being with Italians so pleasurable. They are the inheritors of one of the great civilizations the world has known and they often feel its weight and the demands it makes. Such a burden—and the bureaucratic and structural challenge it can impose—means that life can seem less beautiful than it could be. But in Italy, it is the juxtaposition of beauty and burden that makes every delight the nation offers so much more savory.

    Which brings me to the answer as to what it is I love about Italy: This nation is an extraordinary teacher for anyone who is open to it and eager to learn. Its civilization and its seemingly natural vocation for creativity means that everything one sees, tastes, touches, hears or smells in Italy is part of a magnificent whole.

    Italy is a compliant muse whose only requirement is that anyone who claims to love her be willing to learn and have one’s assumptions challenged and upended rather than merely confirmed. Italy teaches us what it means to be human. 


    A "Pleasure Activist"
    Fred Plotkin is one of America’s foremost experts on opera and has distinguished himself in many fields as a writer, speaker, consultant. He has written for the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Opera News, and other publications. He lectures frequently at the Smithsonian Institution, the Juilliard School, and Columbia University. He is the author of nine books, many of them on Italian topics. He lives in New York and Italy. “I am known as a pleasure activist, which does not connote mindless hedonism, but a deep and passionate pursuit of ideas and knowledge, with emphasis on using one’s senses and intuition to the fullest,” Fred says. In June 2016, Frank Bruni wrote in The New York Times: “Fred Plotkin [is] an American who might as well be Italian, given how extensively he has studied and worked in Italy, the subject of many of the books he’s written.” 

  • Dining in & out: Articles & Reviews

    Starbucks! Just an American Coffee Bar

    When you say to someone, “Andiamo a prendere un caffè”, what that means is not only “Let’s go have a coffee” but let’s spend time together. Let’s take a break from our busy lives, share it, and then go on with our lives. They call it “la pausa caffè”, the pause for a coffee. Il Caffè Italiano, which is just espresso, to me is also the exclamation point at the end of a magnificent Italian meal. There are other kinds of coffee and there are coffee drinks but that is not for me. I like ‘un caffè espresso all’Italiana senza zucchero’, without sugar. Just a beautiful espresso.

    I am troubled by the idea of Starbucks opening in Milan because it confuses what quality coffee is. This happens to be a very fine company in terms of the environment, the proper treatment of its employees and various forms of social policy. However, its founder, Howard Schultz built the legend of his company on his discovering the classic Italian coffee bar in Milan and bringing its traditions to the U.S.A. Starbucks, which is sui generis, does not reflect an Italian model in terms of style and service.

    Most especially, its over-roasted coffee beans are a gross exaggeration in terms of flavor and the enormous size of its cups are distortions that do not correspond to anything an Italian would know or like. Starbucks adds all kinds of syrups and flavorings to its coffee drinks, something that is very un-Italian. 

    The food Starbucks sells is inferior to the wonderfully yeasty and airy brioche with apricot jam that is the traditional accompaniment to a morning cappuccino or the delicate savory tramezzini sandwiches that come later in the day. Starbucks does not serve alcoholic beverages while Italian coffee bars do. If Starbucks wants to open stores in Italy, it has the right to. But it should be advertised for what it is: an American coffee bar.

    FRED PLOTKIN  is an American expert on everything Italian. He is one of America’s foremost experts on opera and has distinguished himself in many fields as a writer, speaker, consultant and as a compelling teacher. 

  • Art & Culture

    Florence & Its Music Scene

    Signor Sindaco, We know Florence for its visual art, its textiles, in architecture. But I would like to begin by talking about something  that is less spoken about: music. I know that you are a musician yourself but you are not from Florence. Why did you go Florence in the first place?

    I am not originally from Florence. I was born near Naples. My family moved from Naples to Florence when I was twelve years old. My encounter with music preceded the one with politics by many years. I started studying music when I was seven years old, in Naples, in the oldest conservatory in Europe, the San Pietro a Majella Conservatory. I then continued as I moved to Florence. I attended the Luigi Cherubini Conservatory, named after a great Florentine composer and musician. And there I got a violin diploma. I pursued my studies in Switzerland and specialized in chamber music.

    And then you went into law. How come?

    In part because I had to come to terms with the reality of Italy, a country with great artistic and musical heritage, which however doesn’t give young musicians many opportunities for work. So I chose a more pragmatic road, to have more professional opportunities. I went into law because I had always been fascinated with it. For a while I continued both with music and university work. I have to say that the relationship between music and law is a good mix because music is based on very precise rules. On the one hand, music follows a more natural law, which is what makes it universal. But there is a form of regulation, just like there is in law, living besides it, that humans had to come up with in order to interpret music.

    And this form of regulation was first written down in Tuscany, by Guido d’Arezzo! So now tell me, who has more imagination, a musician or a lawyer?

    Good question! For a musician, imagination is necessary. For a lawyer, it is not. But lawyers who try to interpret law with creativity and courage, often meet with greater success.

    Let’s talk about Florence now. Obviously, many of the tourists who go to Florence, do so to experience the visual art and to go shopping. But for me Florence is the city where opera was born. Unfortunately, I find that when people think of opera, they think of Milan, Naples, Venice, Turin now, and other cities, but not of Florence.

    That worries me a little too. Because, as you said, opera developed from “Recitar Cantando” which originated in Florence. And even today theatre is very important in Florence and we have the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino (Florence Music May Festival), which is the oldest such festival in Europe after that of Salzburg. The orchestra of the Maggio Musicale was founded in the 1930s, so it has a great history. But if this fact isn’t well known around the world, then we Florentines have to ask ourselves some questions. We must become more effective in conveying this aspect of Florentine culture. In fact, many tourists come to Florence and the first thing they do is visit the Uffizi Gallery. However, it would also be great for these tourists to visit the spaces dedicated to music, where opera was born. We surely don’t lack in cultural patrimony, we just have to learn how to promote it to the full.

    What about the Nuovo Teatro? Can you tell us about that?

    It was sold to get the resources to build the new one and to invest in transformations all over the city. The architecture of the Teatro will remain the same on the outside, changes will be made on the inside. It will serve a mixture of functions: part residential, part touristic, but also educational. This year we will also reopen, after twenty years, the Teatro Nicolini.

    A classical Italian theatre of barely 400 seats, it’s located right next to the Duomo and was built in the mid 1800’s. So, as we open a new theatre, we also bring back an old one. Then there’s also the Teatro della Pergola, the most famous legitimate theatre of Florence, one of the most ancient in the world, an architectural jewel. It’s linked to the history of the United States because it’s there that Antonio Meucci, the inventor of the telephone, worked. Although everyone believes Alexander Graham Bell to have been its inventor, it was in fact Meucci who came up with the first system that we know today as the telephone. To this day, the Teatro della Pergola has a great program, it hosts the great artistic director Gabriele Lavia. It also hosts opera and many other concerts.

    So there are many theatres in Florence, but is there a system of communication and collaboration between all of them, especially considering that not many people know about them?

    During the last years we have been working to create networks between theatres. We have created a net that ties together prose theatres not only within the city but all over the metropolitan area. It incorporates many contemporary and experimental theatres. At the same time, we have a net of musical institutions, encompassing the orchestra at the Opera and the orchestra of the Teatro Verdi. Florence is a small city but with the numbers of a capitol: We have three permanent orchestras, one important theatre company, a well-developed ballet, especially in the field of contemporary dance.

    How do you attract the young public in Florence?

    Starting with small children. We have created a project that will offer one hour of musical instruction per week starting from kindergarten. It will be launched in a few months in all kindergartens in Florence. Music can be learned very early on, as a game. We also have program with the Teatro dell’Opera called “Crescendo” aimed at older children in elementary and middle school, who will get the chance to experiment Opera by reenacting simplified versions of operas themselves. I believe that by living music in first person, it’s possible to get a deeper understanding of it and to then appreciate it more as a spectator.

    Finally, moving on to Florentine food and restaurants. Since Florentine cuisine is particular in that it’s “cucina povera” (poor cuisine) brought to excellence, it is sometimes underappreciated compared to other Italian cuisines. Are there any initiatives being carried out to further promote Florentine cuisine?

    Well, first of all, we should note that, from a historical point of view, Florence is home to the first major cookbook to cover all the cuisines of Italy, written in the nineteenth century by Pellegrino Artusi. In addition, by coming to Florence, people can experiment some of the newest spaces dedicated to Italian cuisine such as the “Mercato di San Lorenzo”. Florence also hosts many celebrated restaurants, like Enoteca Pinchiorri, which offer cellars filled with exquisite Tuscan wines and a variety of Tuscan dishes. But like in any touristy city, the best restaurants have to be dug out and it may take some time to discover in which “osterie” lie the best “ribollita” or a truly unforgettable “pappa al pomodoro”. Florence is not a city that can be experienced in a hurry.