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Verdi at 200: Composer of the Popular Imagination

In the 1970s, a commercial for Coca Cola had a kid sharing a “Coke and a smile” with a football player by the name of “Mean Joe” Green.

Prior to that time, pianist and comedian Victor Borge had begun his shtick of poking fun of classical music and opera. One of his routines consisted of a series of malaprops, prior to his playing the “Cacamame” aria from an opera called “Rigor Mortis,” composed by someone else with the name “Joe Green.” Or rather, he told the audience that it was “Joe Green to you.”

The actual opera is Rigoletto, and the composer’s real name is Giuseppe Verdi (which sort of translates to Joe Green), whose 200th birthday is on 10 October. Along with Richard Wagner, whose own 200th birthday occurred in May, Verdi continues to maintain his position as one of the titans of opera. As well, he remains one of the longest-lived “major” composers, just making it into the 20th century before his passing at the age of 87 in 1901. A decade after the titanic Wagner’s passing, the 80-year-old Verdi composed the well-regarded autumnal opera Falstaff, based on Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Merry Wives of Windsor.

Admittedly, Verdi doesn’t resonate as much with me as other composers and musicians. Certainly not to the same degree as Wagner, so this posting won’t be quite as dense as others (or, like the one I wrote about Wagner, come in four parts). As well, he might not have had the same seismic influence on the broader culture as his German counterpart and contemporary. What distinguishes Verdi the most from Wagner, however, is his tendency to come across as more readily accessible. Related to this notion, one thing that’s interesting to me is a sentence in the introductory paragraph of the Wikipedia entry for the composer:

His works are frequently performed in opera houses throughout the world and, transcending the boundaries of the genre, some of his themes have long since taken root in popular culture…

For those of you who know of my interest in genre crossing, I swear on my mother’s urn that I didn’t write that sentence. Certainly, one cannot dispute the extent to which his works have appeared in various manifestations of the popular culture… or at least excerpts thereof. The Internet Movie Database entry on Verdi lists numerous television shows and films that feature his music. Despite his most recent film’s apparent allusions to Wagner, even Quentin Tarantino throws some Verdi into Django Unchained, in the form of the apocalyptic Dies Irae (God’s Wrath) from his Requiem.

The very first example listed in Wikipedia’s Verdi entry, however, comes from the previously-mentioned Rigoletto. La donna è mobile, which translates into something about the “fickleness of women,” is a light-hearted sounding piece, and is likely one of the reasons why it can easily be considered perfect for comedic film and television… never minding the opera’s tragic aspects. It even appears, along with some other Verdi pieces, in various versions of Grand Theft Auto.

I like much better other pieces by Verdi, which I picked up from hearing my mother play them many years ago (despite her antipathy towards “screeching” in opera). And on those, I can write a lot more comfortably; one a specific excerpt from his opera Nabucco (1842), and the other an entire opera.

Certainly, Verdi has historically captured the popular imagination in Italy, almost to a point where he emerged as a symbol of the Risorgimento… the resurgence of Italy, brought about by unification of Italian peoples, which to all intents and purposes occurred in 1861 with the installation of Vittorio Emanuele II as monarch. Interestingly, a rallying cry for the Risorgimento was Viva VERDI, or “Vittorio Emanuele Re [King] DItalia.” Adding fuel to Verdi’s symbolic value to Italian nationalism was the legend that formed around the very moving and stirring Va, pensiero (“Fly, thought, on golden wings…”), sung by Israelites exiled from their homeland by the opera Nabucco’s titular Babylonian king (known in English as Nebuchadnezzar). At the time Verdi wrote Nabucco, the Austro-Hungarian Empire occupied parts of what became present-day Italy. Presumably, the situation of exile portrayed in Nabucco resonated with Italian nationalists, and Va, pensiero became their theme. As with many such historical myths, however, this story has generally been debunked. Nonetheless, just the music on its own power can make the legend seem plausible. How could one not imagine Va, pensiero as an anthem of oppressed or exiled people seeking freedom and justice, at once mournful and hopeful?


It has, of course, appeared in films and television as well. In Godfather III, a small village band plays it during Michael Corleone’s return to the family homeland.

Another favourite, which my mother would play frequently, is La Traviata (“The Fallen Woman”), the supremely tragic story of Violetta Valéry, a courtesan who finds happiness and loses it due to social conventions, ultimately succumbing in the end to consumption… but not before reuniting with the man she loved, and who really loved her (despite his renouncement of her, due to a misunderstanding). Yeah, it’s that sad, and Verdi underscores the point quite well. Excerpts have appeared in numerous television series and films as well, perhaps among the more famous being Pretty Woman (with Julia Roberts as a modern day courtesan, who faces a more “fairy tale” ending than her predecessor)…

and (of all things) Twilight.

I haven’t seen it due to (1) word of mouth about its god-awfulness and (2) my seething rage that I didn’t write my own teen vampire novel in enough time; seriously… I even had an “Isobella,” whom I decided to make “Isadora” instead (as in the dancer Duncan). But, one would have to live under a rock not to know that sparkly Edward and the rest of the Cullen clan are undead bloodthirsty vampires. And being born not too long after Verdi died, one would imagine he was a potential victim of tuberculosis as well, and perhaps this was some kind of subtle allusion to that (and the coughing up of blood, etc.). But maybe I’m thinking of how I would’ve written it.

Anyhow, enough of my hack criticism… the opening several minutes is great in itself, from the melancholy prelude with its acknowledgement of the fragility of life (and of the protagonist) and how we try grasping at happiness to help us forget, to the carefree festivities being given at Violetta’s house to celebrate her recovery from a previous illness. The drinking song (Libiamo ne’ lieti calici), which appears in the first ten minutes, is a fairly well-known showstopper. Here’s the whole thing, in a fairly well-known “modern-style” production from Salzburg in 2005.

While Verdi’s music overall hasn’t insinuated itself as much into my psyche as that of other musicians, and my knowledge of Verdi is admittedly relatively slim compared to that possessed by numerous others (including opera fans and experts who gravitate towards his works), I would be remiss to not acknowledge the 200th anniversary of his birth with some kind of tribute. Perhaps I will someday make that deeper “connection” and delve a bit deeper into his works at some point, beyond the holding pattern of works that underlies this posting. But if you’ve stumbled upon this and know little about Verdi, perhaps something has piqued your interest, anyway. Perhaps one or more bits from the posting will start you on a journey to finding more works by him, and maybe even learn more about his legendary stature not only in world of opera, but within popular culture as well… whether as a symbol of Italian pride, or as music that somehow seems appropriate within numerous artifacts in the broader culture: from a shoot-em-up videogame, to a movie about sparkly vampires.

At any rate, libiamo to Verdi’s contributions!

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