On October 10, 1813 – 200 years ago – Giuseppe Verdi, the greatest composer of Italian operas who ever lived or will ever live was born in Le Roncole, a small village near Busetto, Italy. Verdi exhibited great musical talent early in his childhood, but his parents, poor and illiterate peasants, were unable to give him the musical tutoring he needed. But thanks to the benevolence of Antonio Barezzi, a Busetto merchant and music lover, Verdi’s was eventually able to study in Milan. (Verdi would later marry Barezzi’s daughter Margherita, and they would have two children – a boy and a girl.) He applied for admission to the Milan Conservatory, but was turned down. After he became the greatest opera composer in Italy, he was approached about having the Conservatory renamed in his honor, but he refused to give his permission. “They wouldn’t have me young,” he said, “they can’t have me old.”
After being turned down by the Conservatory he took private composition lessons in Milan for two years, and began his career with an opera at La Scala (the great opera house in Milan) called Oberto which was a minor success. During its composition, both of his children died.
His second commission was to write a comic opera, but during its composition his wife died, and, understandably, the opera, Un Giorno di Regno (King for a Day) was not successful. In fact, it was only performed one time.
Embittered by the loss of his wife and children, and the failure of Giorno, Verdi vowed to never write another opera. He was so adamant, that Bartolomeo Merelli, the impresario of La Scala cancelled his contract. However, one night Verdi ran into Merelli who complained that Otto Nicolai refused to write an opera based on a libretto written by Temistocle Solera. It was called Nabucco, and was based on the Bible story about King Nebuchadnezzar, and the Babylonian exile of the Jews. Though Verdi told Merelli that he had absolutely no interest in writing another opera, Merelli succeeding in getting Verdi to take the libretto back to his apartment – just to read it, and to give his opinion of it.
Verdi took the manuscript out of his pocket and threw it on the table. It fell open, and he found himself drawn to it in spite of himself. Fitfully he began to read it. “I read one passage, then another,” he wrote. “Then, resolute in my determination never to compose again, I forced myself to close the book and go to bed. But Nabucco kept running through my mind, and I couldn’t sleep. I got up and read the libretto, not once, but two or three times so that by morning, I almost knew it by heart. Even so, I was determined to stick to my decision, and that day I returned to the theatre and handed the manuscript back to Merelli.” Despite his resolve, Verdi was hooked. The opera premiered at La Scala on March 9, 1842 with a cast that included a beautiful soprano named Giuseppina Strepponi. Remember that name.
Nabucco was an astounding success. Its theme of Jews oppressed by Babylonians struck the Milanese audience as synonymous with their own oppression by their Austrian occupiers. The third act chorus “Va, pensiero,” which tells about the Jews’ longing for their homeland, had to be repeated, some say, because the audience was so emotional about it. Others say it was not repeated because the Austrians did not allow encores. Regardless, Giuseppe Verdi instantly became famous as an opera composer and as the de facto composer of the Risorgimento, the movement to create a united and free Italy.
One interesting story is that Italians would write VERDI on the walls of buildings. The Austrian soldiers, thinking that this was a tribute to Verdi, would leave it on the wall. In reality VERDI stood for Vittorio Emanuele, Rei D’Italia – Vittorio Emanuele, King of Italy. Vittorio Emanuele was the king of Sardinia, and would become the king of Italy as well when it became united in 1861.
During his lifetime Verdi would compose a total of 26 operas including Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, La Traviata, Un Ballo in Maschera, La Forza del Destino, Don Carlo and Aïda. In addition Verdi, who loved the plays of William Shakespeare (in Italian translation, of course) would write three operas based on the Bard’s plays – Macbeth, Otello, and Falstaff. Otello, which premiered when Verdi was 73, has all of the energy that you would expect in an opera composed by a man half his age. Personally, I consider Otello to be the greatest collaboration ever of two of the world’s supreme dramatic geniuses – William Shakespeare and Giuseppe Verdi. Arun Rath thinks that Verdi perhaps improved on Shakespeare’s play. Do yourself a favor: take time to read Shakespeare’s play and to then watch Verdi’s musical adaptation of it. Love opera or hate it, the word “genius” will surely spring into your mind.
Verdi’s first opera was composed when he was 26 years old; his last when he was 79. Unlike many opera composers whose style was stagnant, Verdi’s operas are broken into three different periods: an early period, a middle period, and a late period. And the operas of each period are distinctly different from one another. His early operas were much like those of his predecessors – Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti; then he found his own style in his very rich middle period and composed Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, and La Traviata; and finally he moves on to a new style which breaks from long, beautiful overtures, and set arias. Two examples from that period are Otello and Falstaff.
Verdi also had a full life beyond opera. He briefly served in the Chamber of Deputies following the unification of Italy, but he was not a natural politician. He preferred to spend his days composing new works or supervising the new productions of past operas throughout Europe. He never forgot his roots among the poor and provided money for a number of charitable works including a retirement home for opera singers and musicians in Milan known as Casa di Riposo per Musicisti. “Of all my works, that which pleases me the most,” he wrote to a friend, “is the Casa that I had built in Milan to shelter elderly singers who have not been favored by fortune, or who when they were young did not have the virtue of saving their money. Poor and dear companions of my life!”
I mentioned Giuseppina Strepponi above because she became his mistress in 1847, and his second wife 12 years later. They remained together until her death in 1897. She saw the talent in Verdi and supported him from his first opera to his last. And as a leading soprano of her time she appeared in many of his early works. With her knowledge and love of opera she was the perfect companion for him – his muse perhaps. One has to wonder if he would have been as productive – especially in his late career – if she had not been there beside him. She is still beside him, in fact, because they are both buried in the crypt of the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti in Milan.
There are many books about Verdi, and recordings of his operas. The Complete Operas of Verdi by Charles Osborne is an excellent companion to his works since it contains both information about his life, and an act-by-act breakdown of each of his operas. Since each chapter is broken into two parts, it is easy to learn about his life without going into the details of his operas or vice versa. I highly recommend Osborne’s book.
I also recommend that you purchase a book, such as Henry W. Simon’s 100 Great Operas and Their Stories: Act-by-Act Synopses in order to learn more about the operas of Verdi and the other major opera composers.
When it comes to listening to or viewing Verdi’s operas there are many, many choices. There are numerous CD recordings of Verdi’s major operas though the availability of any particular recording is always changing. If you have SiriusXM radio in your car or on your computer, you can listen to Metropolitan Opera broadcasts 24/7. Each week the Metropolitan Opera channel features approximately a dozen different broadcasts from the Met’s vast archives as well as three live operas each week during the Met season (late-September thru early-May). They provide a weekly schedule so that you will know what’s coming up. In fact, the Met channel is featuring a seven day tribute to Verdi’s operas beginning today. Because this tribute is so spectacular, I have decided to publish this post prior to Verdi’s birthday. Here is the notice that the Met provided concerning the tribute:
“Met Opera Radio on SiriusXM celebrates the 200th birthday of Giuseppe Verdi with a special week-long tribute, featuring a lineup of classic Met performances from eight decades of radio history. Two of these legendary broadcasts have never before been heard on SiriusXM: a rare 1935 La Traviata starring the great Rosa Ponselle as Violetta, and a 1940 Un Ballo in Maschera, starring Jussi Björling as Riccardo. Both broadcasts, newly restored and remastered, represent the only complete surviving recordings of these operas featuring these two major Met artists. Other highlights range from a 1950 Simon Boccanegra, starring Leonard Warren and Astrid Varnay, to a 2006 Don Carlo conducted by Met Music Director James Levine, who also leads eight of the other performances.”
The ideal way to learn about opera is to watch it. You can see it live at many locations throughout the U.S., and the world, and you can watch DVDs of many operas. The Met even offers a series of live HD performances in theaters throughout the U.S. that will almost make you believe you’re sitting in the audience at the Met. You can even watch operas or selections from operas on YouTube.
Below are three excerpts from Verdi operas that I found on YouTube.
The first is the chorus “Va, Pensiero” from Nabucco. You have probably heard it before – perhaps performed by Nana Mouskouri as “Song for Liberty.”
Next is the quartet “Bella Figlia Dell’Amore” from Rigoletto which features Luciano Pavarotti, Isola Jones, Leo Nucci and Joan Sutherland.
And finally we have the majestic “Triumphal March” from Aïda.
Many opera lovers concentrate their attention on arias – especially those sung by tenors and sopranos. Arias are important, but constitute only a small part of what every opera offers its listeners. You also get duets, trios, quartets, choruses, overtures, preludes, and ballet music. All of these elements are important, and Verdi offers you all of them in his operas. Starting with the operas of Verdi is starting at the top.