Verdi's Gift: Wringing Catchy Music From Touchy Subjects

Oct 8, 2013
Originally published on October 8, 2013 6:24 pm

Two hundred years ago this week, Giuseppe Verdi was born in an Italian town midway between Bologna and Milan. On the occasion of his bicentennial, All Things Considered wanted to know what makes the great opera composer so enduring — why his work is still so frequently discussed and performed these two centuries later. The answer, says conductor and arranger John Mauceri, is that Verdi had a knack for making thorny topics accessible.

"One of the incredible achievements that he had, besides the fact that he wrote 30 operas — which makes his input into the repertory huge — was that he had this ability to create popular music dramas that are actually about something," Mauceri says. "There's this kind of earworm music, where you get these tunes that you just know from the day you're born, seemingly. And yet, when you see the operas, you realize that they're actually about important subjects, which are just as important today."

Those subjects include the sexual politics at the center of La Traviata, the themes of race and imperialism explored in Aida, and other topics provocative enough in Verdi's day to inspire vitriolic reviews — and the occasional protest.

John Mauceri spoke with host Robert Siegel about how Verdi's button-pushing tendency turned into a lasting legacy. Hear more of their conversation at the audio link.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. Today, we mark one of this year's two great operatic bicentennials. Two hundred years ago this May, Richard Wagner was born in Leipzig. And 200 years ago this week, a baby was born in an Italian town midway between Bologna and Milan. When his father, a local innkeeper, registered the baby's birth with the local French imperial authorities, the boy was given a properly French, official first name: Joseph. But nobody called him that. They called him Giuseppe - Giuseppe Verdi.


SIEGEL: Giuseppe Verdi's operas include "Aida" "Rigoletto," "La Traviata," "Nabucco," lots more famous operas. And for more on the life and works of Giuseppe Verdi, here is John Mauceri, who's an American conductor, producer and arranger; who joins us from London. Welcome to the program.

JOHN MAUCERI: Thank you for having me.

SIEGEL: Two hundred years ago, Verdi was born. And we're still talking about him, and his operas are performed all over. Why is Verdi so enduring?

MAUCERI: Well, you know, I think one of the incredible achievements that he had - besides the fact that the wrote 30 operas, which makes his input into the repertory huge - was that he had this ability to create popular music dramas that were about something. So there's this kind of earworm music, where you get these tunes that you just know from the day you were born, seemingly. And yet when you see the operas, you realize that they're actually about important subjects - which are just as important today.

SIEGEL: When you say important subjects - well, I guess "La Traviata" is about sexual mores of...

MAUCERI: Well, wait a minute. Let's go even further than that. I mean, has anybody put a prostitute on the stage as the main character, and she's the best person in the story? I mean, all the guys around her who are pretending to be this and that, you know, they're all cowards, and they're hypocrites; and she's the one who becomes the most valuable, the most courageous heroine on the stage.

SIEGEL: "Aida" was hardly contemporary, but you would say it also raised a big issue.


MAUCERI: That one, like a number of Verdi operas, is about racism. I mean, you know, the slave girl, who is Ethiopian - i.e., black African - is in love with the military leader, who is Egyptian. So that opera deals with racism as well as imperialism and slavery. So there you are again.


SIEGEL: So when these operas were first staged, people could expect great tunes, but also some drama that resonated with important concerns about life and society.

MAUCERI: Yeah. And those concerns were so important that the censors were always watching. And there were sometimes what - we hear about - of riots or demonstrations of the public at some of those premieres because it was provocative, and it was about important issues.

SIEGEL: For Italians, is Verdi a latter-day Dante, Petrarch; one of the great Italians in the pantheon?

MAUCERI: Yeah. For Italians, there's no question that Verdi stands as the greatest composer they ever produced. He's just the guy. He is just - equals music. And that is an extraordinary achievement. After all, the Italians invented opera, in 1598. They named it. So for them to choose one person to be on their money, to be the names of their music conservatories, says everything you might want to know about the Italians' attitude toward Giuseppe Verdi.

SIEGEL: Is it true, really, that "Traviata" or "Aida" actually got bad reviews when they first ...

MAUCERI: Oh, yeah. When I was a student in college, I did a paper on Verdi in New York, and I went into the archives. And I read the reviews in The New York Times and the New York Herald, of the day after the first "Traviata," the day after the first "Macbeth." They are so condescending, and so - they refer to him as Senor Verdi. You know, there's a great review of "Macbeth," saying, you know, within the first five minutes, we realized that Senor Verdi was totally incapable of encompassing Shakespeare's great play.

And first of all, he was being reviewed as if it were an opening - a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber. That's the only thing I could say - is that it had the same vitriol that you sense with certain kinds of critics when they talk about Broadway musicals. In other words, he was not Stephen Sondheim. He was Andrew Lloyd Webber. And it would be as if Andrew decided to write a musical based on "King Lear," you know...

SIEGEL: So who was the Stephen Sondheim of those days? Who was the person whom they thought was writing great operas?

MAUCERI: That was a very good question. Generally, Wagner.

SIEGEL: Wagner, yeah.

MAUCERI: Yeah, yeah - because he was serious. And that's why when - presumably, the question was asked, after Wagner had written one of his tomes on the theory of the theater, they - someone came up to Verdi and said, Maestro Verdi, we've just read Maestro Wagner's books on the theory of the theater. Do you have a theory of the theater? And Verdi took a moment and said, yes, I do. The theater should be full.


SIEGEL: Is there a particular moment from a Verdi opera which, if called upon to present the single piece of evidence that demonstrates what this man was all about and what he created, that you would direct the visiting musicologists from Mars to listen to?

MAUCERI: Well, that's, of course, a hard question. But what comes to mind is the central moment of the first scene of Act 2 of "La Traviata."


MAUCERI: Here's why. In the second act of "La Traviata," we know that the girl - our Violetta, who is a courtesan - has moved in with her boyfriend. And she has decided to become a middle-class housewife, as it were. And Violetta and her beloved meet only for something like two minutes in the very center of this act.

And she says, love me, Alfredo; love me. And she leaves. She leaves him, presumably forever. And this is why Verdi is so amazing. The scene is totally symmetrical, as if it were built, you know, like a Greek temple. And yet the passion of this little two-minute moment, it's the only moment in that entire 40-minute scene where the two protagonists meet.


MAUCERI: I have to say that it's one of the most shattering moments in music theater. And she sings this tune - (Singing) Amarmi, Alfredo - which is the motive of her descent toward death. So that, for me, is that great moment.

SIEGEL: John Mauceri, thank you very much for talking with us today.

MAUCERI: I'm very happy to be with you, Robert.

SIEGEL: Conductor John Mauceri, talking with us about Giuseppe Verdi, who was born in Italy 200 years ago this week.


BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.