Opera boring? Quite the contrary. Born in the Florentine courts of the late sixteenth century, opera often carries with it the reputation of being boring and stuffy, but during the nineteenth-century heyday of Italian opera, it became an increasingly popular phenomenon. It was neither elite nor stuffy. Indeed, no! Just a quick look at the life and times of legendary composer Giuseppe Verdi provides a reminder of how exciting the opera can be.
Verdi was born in 1813, the same year as Richard Wagner, and lived through one of the most turbulent moments in Italian history–the Risorgimento. In 1861 Italy became the unified nation it is today, and the years leading up to and following that key date were punctuated by battle cries and blood spilt in the war for unification. These political circumstances had a greater impact on the Maestro’s work than one might expect: they inspired lyrics and tunes, impacted censorship decisions, and occasionally created nothing short of riots in operatic auditoriums. Can you imagine getting so worked up by the patriotic sentiment expressed in song that you took off your clothes and threw them from the balcony onto the stage below? This was the world of theatrical performance in Verdi’s day.
Depressed by his wife’s death, Verdi had vowed never to write again when his opera Un giorno di regno flopped in 1840, this before his best-known works were ever written! He bitterly and reluctantly took home the libretto for a new opera when the impresario at Milan’s opera theatre, La Scala, insisted, but he had no intention of writing a note. When the libretto fell open to the pages of “Va, pensiero,” however, Verdi admits he was so moved that he was compelled to write–and write he did. This opera became Nabucco, his first great success. Its “Va, pensiero” act three chorus was so well received that the law banning encores was ignored and, at the crowd’s insistence, the chorus was sung again. The Austrian government ruling Northern Italy banned encores because they were considered dangerous opportunities to rally the audience against their rule; interpreted as a patriotic comment by the audience, “Va, pensiero” created exactly the kind of furor the Austrian rulers feared. Today some Italians consider the number an alternate national anthem. It’s worth going to the opera just to hear the heartfelt response the piece is sure to receive! (Rome’s Opera Theatre performs Nabucco this July at the Baths of Caracalla.)
And to think, this insistence on an encore can be considered a fairly mild reaction when compared to the clamorous Verdian performances in later years! In 1849, The Battle of Legnano premiered at Rome’s Teatro Argentina (a theater still in action in the city center). Its story of the defeat of German King Barbarossa by the northern Italian Lombard League in the twelfth century naturally called to mind the current conflict with Italy’s Austrian rulers. Accordingly, it provoked shouts of “Viva Verdi and Viva Italia” in the audience, not to mention the above-mentioned stripping by an overcome audience member, a soldier thrown into a frenzy by Verdi’s patriotism. After just a few performances in various Italian cities, the Austrian government censored the work.
The fervor reached its height on the cusp of Italian unification in 1859 during and after the premiere of Un ballo in maschera, when “Via Verdi” became nothing short of a battle cry. People shouted it in the theatre and on the streets and took to scrawling it on walls across the peninsula, for “V E R D I” also stood for “Vittorio Emanuele, Re d’Italia,” or “Victor Emanuel, King of Italy.” Victor Emanuel of Savoy’s troops were indeed already on the move, and in 1861 their victory resulted in the unification of independent Italy, with him crowned its first king. “Viva Verdi” was thus at once a celebration of the great composer, a nationalist battle cry, and a vote of confidence for the eventual king of the new nation.
This is the stuff the opera is made of! Join us for an Annotated Opera Workshop, head to the opera, close your eyes, and let the melodies take you back in time to when an evening at the theatre was a real adventure!
–Patricia Gaborik, PhD, is a theater historian and docent for Context Rome. She has designed and will lead our Annotated Opera Workshop.