200 Years of Giuseppe Verdi

Today is an important day for all Italians, as opera composer Giuseppe Verdi, one of Italy’s best-loved national heroes, was born 200 years ago today, on 10 October 1813.

For Italians, Verdi is much more than just an opera composer. He is the man who wrote the soundtrack of the Risorgimento, the decades-long struggle for Italian unification and independence.

As someone who prefers the music of Puccini to Verdi hands down (I’ve received a lot of flack for this from Italians over the years), I didn’t always get the connection between Verdi and Italy. When I first arrived in Rome, still plenty wet behind the ears, someone explained to me that every true Italian prefers Verdi’s operas to Puccini’s. While I adore Verdi as well, Puccini, with his passionate, flowering, uber-Romantic melodies, was to my mind much more the embodiment of the Italian soul. Verdi was Grand Opera with a capital G. His operas tell the stories of kings and queens, grand passions and grand ideals, with massive choruses and formidable heroines. It’s all a trifle distant from the real world of Italian experience. Clearly, I didn’t get it.

 Portrait of Giuseppe Verdi. [ Source ]

Portrait of Giuseppe Verdi. [Source]

As heavenly as Verdi’s music is (La Traviata’s “Addio del Passato” is, in my opinion, his most beautiful and heart-wrenching piece), Italians’ love for Verdi isn’t really about his music at all. It’s about his role as a patriot, someone who, through his music and through his political actions, fought to bring Italy together. Even the letters of his name became an acronym for the dream of the unification of Italy, as revolutionaries scrawled “Viva VERDI!” on walls, secretly expressing their support for the man who would go on to become united Italy’s first king, Victor Emanuel Re D’Italia (V-E-R-D-I)

Verdi’s slave chorus “Va’Pensiero” from Nabucco is the unofficial Italian national anthem, a hymn almost any Italian alive could sing on the drop of a hat if asked, a song that represented to Italians in the mid-1800s their own loss of freedom to the Austrians who ruled northern Italy at that time. I'll never forget the night, back in March of 2011, when I attended Nabucco in Rome on the 150th anniversary of the Unification of Italy, when Maestro Muti asked the audience to sing along with "Va' Pensiero." I wrote about it here.

Earlier this year, I had the honor of interviewing the greatest Verdi conductor alive today, Maestro Riccardo Muti. For those of you who know my operatic past, this was a very, very big deal for me. I chatted with the Maestro about the importance of Verdi to Italians, the future of opera in Italy, a country that has been de-funding its cultural institutions, and the Maestro’s plans for the Rome Opera, of which he has recently become the Honorary Conductor for Life.

The interview appeared in the March 2013 issue of WHERE Rome magazine, but I’ve posted an excerpt of it here in honor of Verdi’s 200th birthday. (You can see the PDF version of the full interview here.)

T.P.: Who is Verdi to you? Do you consider him a musician or a national hero?

R.M.: Verdi is one of the greatest pillars of operatic music. He represents the soul, not just of Italy, but of all humanity. People in every corner of the world, from Australia to America, Canada, or Africa, can find elements in Verdi’s music that speak to their very heart and soul. In this sense, he is one of the most universal composers in the history of music. As a national hero, Verdi was a man who, through his music and his ideals of democracy, freedom, and equality, helped to ignite the hearts of Italian revolutionaries during the Risorgimento, undoubtedly contributing to the unification of Italy.

T.P.: Historically, opera in Rome has developed less rapidly than in other Italian cites, such as Milan and Venice. Since you have come to the helm of the Rome Opera, however, it has begun receiving wider acclaim, for example, the extraordinary triumph of this season’s opener, Simon Boccanegra. What is your plan for bringing Rome to the highest possible level of operatic greatness?

R.M.: It’s important to note that Rome has had great opera houses, such as the Apollo, the Valle and the existing Teatro Argentina, which predate the current Teatro Costanzi, and also that Verdi had a strong and active relationship with Rome. Rome’s present opera house may have a shorter history than Italy’s historic theaters, like La Fenice or La Scala, but the Teatro Costanzi has a history of many important conductors as well as premieres, including Tosca and Cavalleria Rusticana. Then followed a period of decline, during which it attracted less public attention. It is now experiencing a strong revival because the orchestra, chorus, and technicians have enthusiastically reattained past levels of brilliance, although it has been an uphill battle. Of course, the credit does not go to only one person; it is all about teamwork. Everyone is contributing; for example the orchestra has been performing symphonic concerts with major conductors, doing some excellent work. All this raises the level of the company and gives the public new faith in the quality of the opera house, and the most important thing is that the public see the theatre as a house of culture, art, and music. Once that happens, progress becomes easier.

T.P.: No tourist would come to Rome without visiting the Sistine Chapel or the Colosseum. Would you suggest a tourist also attend an Italian opera, perhaps by Verdi, to get a complete picture of Italian culture and history?

R.M.: In recent years, opera has enjoyed an increasingly positive reputation at the international level. When tourists come to Rome, a city thousands of years old, it’s natural that the ancient sites and museums will immediately grasp their attention, but if people come to learn of the history of Rome’s opera house––for example, that it hosted the premiere of Puccini’s Tosca, one of the most performed operas of all time and known to all music lovers around the world ––more tourists will visit our theater. However, I am confident that, little by little, this will occur.

T.P.: In light of heavy cuts to cultural funding in Italy, as well as the economic crisis in general, is there a risk that opera––an integral part of Italian culture––is increasingly becoming a privilege reserved for the elite?

R.M.: People were asking that even when I was a child. Of course, the arts have always been of greater interest to those who have the financial resources to attend universities or academies, and so in that sense there is a cultural elite. The solution then would be a cultural education that begins in primary school, in which all children, regardless of their financial situation, would have the privilege to learn about one of the most important and foundational pillars of our history and our country, namely, music. Italy's contribution to music is centuries old, and an understanding of it is essential to create a society in which classical music is available to everyone. Otherwise, it’s inevitable that this privilege will become reserved for a few devoted fans and those who have the financial means to attend the opera. It’s a matter of education, which is the duty of the state.

T.P.: What kind of non-classical music does Maestro Muti listen to?

R.M.: I have three children, so when they were young I listened to many different genres of music at home, although I didn’t have the time to really study them. Of course, when I was a kid I remember adoring the Platters, and now, when my five-year-old grandson is in the car, he always asks to hear their hit Only You. They were amazing. Over the years, I've been struck by other singers, for example the Beatles were a brilliant group. I've always been fascinated by a voices like Céline Dion and the late Whitney Houston, although less for the content of their music than for the beauty of their voices.

 With Maestro Riccardo Muti after a performance of Verdi's  I Due Foscari  at the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma.

With Maestro Riccardo Muti after a performance of Verdi's I Due Foscari at the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma.

**This interview has been translated from Italian.**