UNI Glee Club tours Italy

Someone once said, "Life is not about the number of breaths you take; it's about the moments that take your breath away." If that's true, then I'm sure many of the men in the University of Northern Iowa Varsity Men's Glee Club have never felt more alive than during the summer 2010 trip to Italy.


We departed from Cedar Falls by bus on the morning of Wednesday, May 12. We arrived at the Chicago O'Hare Airport at about 12:30. Our flight departed from Chicago at about 4:30 as we prepared to explore European lands for the next nine days!

Some of the men endured the 11-hour plane ride by sleeping, others by sampling the plane's free wine. The main highlight of the ride was singing our theme song, "Brothers, Sing On!," as well as a few others for the folks on the plane. Apparently the Glee Club knows how to entertain, even when flying thousands of feet in the air.


We finally landed in Rome the next morning at about 9 a.m. As soon as we retrieved our luggage from the Leonardo da Vinci Airport, we met our wonderful tour manager, Sonja. Immediately we began to work our way through the narrow brick streets of Rome. We stopped to do our first bit of singing inside the lovely Church of Sant'Agnese in the Piazza Navona. When the tourists clapped after "Ave Maria," we already knew this trip was going to be something special.

We got to see the famous Pantheon. This is where the ancient Romans used to worship their many gods. The Glee Club took the opportunity to sing inside there as well. As a couple hundred tourists stopped to listen, the Glee Club's voices filled the perfectly round dome of the Pantheon.

After our first Italian lunch, we sang just outside the Pantheon to gather the remaining wandering Glee Clubbers. This turned into an impromptu mini-concert in the square, singing some Glee Club classics. Our singing attracted many people from the square, along with much applause. When we were finished, one Italian man actually approached director Fred Kiser and asked him, "finito?" When Kiser confirmed we were, the Italian stormed off in disappointment, hoping he was going to hear more.

We worked our way to the Trevi Fountain, the largest and most well known fountain in Rome. Legend has it that if you toss a coin into the fountain over your left shoulder, then you will return. Some of us made sure to toss a coin before Sonja pushed us onward. We also visited the famous Spanish Steps, where most of us climbed to the top to see a great view of Rome.

We met back up with the bus to visit the catacombs. It was forbidden to bury people within city limits, so there are many tombs and catacombs outside the city. We received a tour inside one of the more famous ones, the Catacombs of San Callisto.

After a surprising five-course dinner, the Glee Club settled into a long-awaited relaxing night, in which a handful of the group had a sing off from the hotel balcony with another touring American choir from Eureka College in Illinois.

DAY 3: ROMEUNI Glee Club outside Coliseum

We started the jam-packed second day of Rome by visiting the famous Roman Coliseum.  After jaw-dropping views and a few gladiator jokes, we continued our tour as our guide led us to the old Roman Forum, the religious, political and commercial center of Ancient Rome, the city that once controlled the majority of the modern world. It was incredible seeing the remains of pillars and government buildings that have lasted more than 2,000 years of weather and government upheaval.

After lunch we moved on to the day's other main attraction - the Vatican. Our guide led us through the Vatican museum, packed with art of every kind. The museum led right into the incredibly famous Sistine Chapel, known for Michelangelo's ceiling frescos. It is also known for Michelangelo's "Last Judgment" painting, and the place where church cardinals elect the next pope after one dies. While the paintings were amazing, the security guards were persistent about "NO PHOTOS. SILENCIO, POR FAVOR." We then went inside the majestic St. Peter's Basilica, the largest church in the world.

We then had to speed to the bus to get changed into our tuxes for the biggest and most important performance of the trip - we were THE music for THE mass in front of the high altar at St. Peter's for 5 p.m. mass! What an honor! We performed four pieces - "Salvation is Created," "Promised Land," "Dona Nobis Pacem" and "Ave Maria." The crowd in St. Peter's was somewhere between 500 and1000 people, including the eight cardinals celebrating the mass. Truly a wonderful opportunity.


As we bid "arrivederci" (farewell) to Rome, we moved north to Assisi. Assisi is reminiscent of something out of "Lord of the Rings," being a gorgeous little city built into a hillside. Although it was rainy, many of the men enjoyed the clean, quaint, perfect little streets, as well as the incredible view.

We sang in the St. Francis Basilica, home to the tomb of St. Francis of Assisi.
By the time we were finished singing "Ave Maria," the audience inside the church had grown from just the first few pews to having almost every pew filled!

After an afternoon on our own, roaming and shopping around the town, we headed to Perugia, our destination for the night. After another great Italian five-course dinner, we prepared to sing our first full concert. We performed that evening for a great audience, which included a group of UNI Capstone students who happened to be in Perugia, Italy, the same time we were! After performing nearly every song in our music arsenal, we left the church to a standing ovation. The crowd was so receptive that they continued cheering and even cheered us back in. We returned to the front to sing an encore with the song "Bridge Over Troubled Water." As alumnus Paul Marlow put it, "I've been on eight tours with the Glee Club, and I've NEVER seen an audience do that before."


As we said arrivederci to Perugia, we traveled onward to the beautiful medieval city of Siena. Siena, besides being known for the name of the color, is known for its many neighborhood territories (snail territory, turtle territory, panther territory, etc.) These territories have a strong connection to the people of Siena.

When the Glee Club came upon the Panther neighborhood, the guys launched into the "UNI Fight Song." As the words "Hail our Panthers, we are ever loyal" thundered down the street, a curious resident asked our tour guide why the Americans were singing. "They are singing in honor of the Panther!" said Sonja. Indeed we were!

Since the territories no longer battle each other, they still compete in a huge horse race, held twice a year. We visited the Piazza Del Campo, one of Italy's most visited attractions, which is where the horse race is held. We also had a tour of the Palazzo Publico (Public Palace).

We saw the stunning Cathedral of Siena, made from white and green marble. The inside had enormous pillars, as well as marble carvings on the floor that took two centuries to complete. After a wonderful afternoon in Siena, we went back to the hotel for dinner.


We traveled to the nearby historical town of Pisa, obviously most known for their leaning tower. The main attractions we saw were in the Piazza del Duomo, which included the baptistery, the cathedral, the hospital, and the cemeteries (representing birth, life, sickness, and death, respectively). An interesting fact is that the tower isn't the only thing leaning in Pisa; several of the other buildings are on a noticeable tilt. It is also home to the Leaning Tower, leaning at a solid five-degree angle. Some people took the time to actually go to the top of the tower, while others stayed planted on the ground, taking plenty of pictures "pushing over" and "holding up" the leaning tower.

After an afternoon of exploring and shopping the town, the Glee Club headed back to Montecatini Terme, a wonderful little resort town in Tuscany, for our final full concert that evening at the Spa La Salute. Before the show, we split into two groups and walked through the streets singing "Brothers" as a promo for the concert. Although they were unable to turn off the disco ball and laser lights for the concert, we still performed well before a large and very receptive audience.


Then we headed to the dazzling city of Florence. Our sightseeing began at the Galleria dell' Accademia, most known as the home of Michelangelo's "David." We saw many places of stunning beauty throughout the day, including the famed Ponte Vecchio Bridge, the Palazzo Vecchio, and Gitto's Campanile. We saw and sang in the awe inspiring Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. Some people even went up to the top of the 300-foot duomo (dome) overlooking the city.

We also visited a famous Florentine leather shop. Some of the Glee Clubbers purchased new leather coats after the fashion show put on by a few of our own. We then returned for our third and final night in the Montecatini hotel.


Today was a travel day with a few key stops on our way north from Florence to Venice. We first stopped in Bologna, famous for its university and the Fontana del Nettuno (Neptune's Fountain). After we sang in the town cathedral, we ate lunch, where some of the group had the famous Bolognese spaghetti.

Our next stop of the day was at Padua, also famous for its university (the second oldest in Italy). We visited the Basilica del Santa, a church dedicated to St. Anthony. With possibly the best acoustics of any church yet, the Glee Club and Camarata sang songs, including "Salvation is Created" and "Prayer of the Children." The church was adorned with many beautiful works of art, as well as the tomb of St. Anthony and many gold relics. We then spent a short time relaxing in the beautiful square called the Prato della Valle. This square was like a park surrounded by water and more than 80 statues of some of the founding professors of the university. The Glee Club had a "singing battle" between each other from each side of the water, but came together to sing an interesting impromptu acoustic version of "Bridge Over Troubled Water" on the bridge.


This was the grand finale of the trip: Venice. Since there are no cars in Venice (one must either walk or ride a boat in the canals) we left our bus to board a ferry to take us to the inner city of Venice. After seeing some sights in the ferry, including Elton John's seaside home, we arrived at St. Mark's square, the largest and busiest square of the city. We toured the Doges Palace, full of artwork depicting the history of the city, as well as the "Bridge of Sighs." We also saw and sang in the prestigious St. Mark's Basilica. We also visited one of the famous Venetian glass factories. We even watched a "glass master" spin a glass jug in about five minutes right before our eyes, only to throw it back into the kiln.

We had the entire afternoon to explore the city of Venice. Some of the group sang Glee Club classics to shoppers of the Venican market on the Rialto Bridge, the oldest and largest bridge across the Grande canal. We then met up again outside St. Mark's Square to take a gondola ride.

After the relaxing gondola ride, we headed toward the restaurant for our farewell dinner. With the exchanging of gifts, hugs, and some touching words, it was time to start heading back for one more night in the hotel. Fueled by the several pitchers of free wine at the restaurant, the Glee Club walked to the train station, boisterously serenading the unsuspecting night streets of Venice. No better way to end our escapade of Italy than letting the whole town of Venice enjoy songs from the Fight Song to "Christmas Soup."


We had to bid our final arrivederci at 5:30 a.m. Friday morning. We took a plane from Venice to Rome, and then again endured the haul from Rome to Chicago. Although the trip was coming to a close, many guys were still sporting the awful Italian accents, still saying some of the trips catch phrases including "bippity boopity," "ciao bella," "you shut-up-a your mouth," and of course the ever popular "NO PHOTO."

Although the departure was bittersweet, much of the group breathed a sigh of relief to be back on American soil. After a week of the best Italian food in the world, we stopped at good ol' McDonald's on the way home. The quarter-pound cheeseburgers tasted shamefully wonderful. (Apparently you can take the boy out of America, but you can't take America out of the boy!)