Viva VEneRDIi: I Was at the No. 1 Music Event of the Year (Almost)!

At the close of last year, Alex Ross, cultural writer for the world-famous magazine The New Yorker, announced what he believed to be the number one music event of 2011, not in New York, but in the entire world. And I was (kind of) there! Let me explain.

Riccardo Muti, long-time director of Teatro della Scala in Milan and one of the greatest living Verdian conductors, recently signed on as director of the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma (in addition to his duties at Chicago Symphony). This is a big deal for Rome, as opera in this city is not near the best in Italy. After Milan come Venice, Naples, and even Palermo. 5th is the best position Rome has been able to hope for in recent memory.

Now I could go into why this is, citing the banning of the budding art form of opera in pope-ruled Rome during the Counter Reformation, how opera was illegal in Rome until the 19th century and how the opera house wasn't even built 1880, so it's little wonder opera never really caught on here. But you don't want to read a bunch of history, right? Not on Verdi Friday.

But with Muti at the helm, we can expect the quality and prestige of Rome's opera company to go nowhere but up. On occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Unification of Italy last March, the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma staged Verdi's Nabucco, with Muti at the podium, of course. This was an obvious choice. This opera, since its very premier in 1842, has resonated with Italians. It tells the story of the ancient Hebrews' struggle to free themselves from Babylonia King Nebuchadnezzar. In 1842, Italy was in the thick of the Risorgimento, a struggle of their own to achieve not only unification, but more importantly their independence from the nearby countries who had ruled over them in one way or another, for so many years, Spain, France, and more recently, Austria.

In the 3rd act, the Hebrew slaves perform a haunting and simple chorus, Va pensiero, in which they sing of their lost homeland and their yearning to return there. Legend has it that when the stagehands at La Scala (northern Italy was particularly subjugated by the Austrians at this time) heard the singers rehearsing Va pensiero they broke into spontaneous applause. In fact, Italians identified so greatly with the Jewish slaves' song, that on opening night the audience went wild after the chorus was performed and insisted that it be repeated immediately. As I have said before, it is always a good idea to believe in legends. They make life so much more interesting. I write a bit more about Verdi's connection with the Risorgimento in my first Viva VEneRDI post.

Ever since, Va pensiero has been the unofficial national anthem of unified Italy, and you would be hard-pressed to find a native Italian alive, from a street-sweeper to a prince, who couldn't sing at least the first stanza. Opening night of Nabucco here in Rome in March of 2011 was a high profile event. The audience was full of VIPs from all over the country. After the moving chorus (moving at any performance, but particularly on such an important anniversary) Muti did something unexpected. He put down his baton, turned to the audience and spoke. Right in the middle of the opera!

He spoke to the audience about the recent announcement of cuts to culture funding, which would cost the Opera di Roma 37% of their annual budget. He recalled the most moving line of the chorus, "Oh mia patria, si bella e perduta!" (oh, my fatherland, so beautiful and so lost!) and announced: "...if we kill the culture upon which the history of Italy is founded, it will truly be 'our fatherland, beautiful and lost'." The orchestra and singers began to applaud and cry. Leaflets were thrown from the balcony like so much confetti, some with the message, "Viva Giuseppe Verdi" others with more political messages.

But what happened next was what earned this event Ross' award. He motioned for the chorus to stand and the audience as well, and he asked that they all sing that beloved hymn together. Every Italian in that audience sang Verdi's music that night. Just thinking about it gives me goosebumps.

When I watched it on the news the next day, I was moved to trembling, but sad that I couldn't have been there. I hadn't even hoped to attend the opera at all, but the Maritino, by some miracle, managed to score two tickets for closing night. I didn't even hope that the extraordinary event would repeat itself, in fact, it would have been silly. I teared up a bit (as usual) during the chorus, and the applause it received seemed to go on and on and on. But to my delighted surprise, at the end of the chorus, Muti turned to the audience again.

This time his speech was more hopeful. On the 21st of March, about a week after the premier, and three days before that final performance, the entire opera company played Va pensiero inside Italy's equivalent of the House of Representatives in protest. He reported to us that his protests had worked, and the proposed cuts were being reconsidered. Someone threw an Italian flag from the balcony and shouted "Viva l'Italia!" And then Mr. Muti said the words I was dying to hear. He said that on occasion of this victory, another encore of Va pensiero would be sung, and the audience was again asked to join in. I was so thankful to have memorized the words in advance and so proud to sing under Muti's baton that night.

Photo sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6