This month, after having a Verdi fiesta with the Teaching Company’s 32-CD set of lectures by music historian Robert Greenberg (see sidebar for info), I’ve attempted to distill what I’ve learned into seven principals Verdi embodied. These principals may offer insight into Verdi’s life, the world he inhabited, and how to maintain artistic integrity in the business of opera.
Law No. 1: Be Self-Referring
Certain historical figures seem so representative of a time, so central to that time’s important events, that it is easy to forget the revolutionary nature of their choices. For 19th century Italy (or what was to become Italy, forged from an assortment of regional governments under various rulers), Verdi was such a person. In his choice of libretti, Verdi continually gravitated toward subjects of political rebellion and class discrimination. He fought the censors more than once, even suing them over changes they made to Un ballo in maschera.
In his personal life, after the death of his children and first wife due to illness, Verdi chose Giuseppina Strepponi as a life partner, an unmarried woman who had given birth to three, possibly four illegitimate children by at least two different fathers, a singer who had performed well into her pregnancies, and who seemed, like Verdi, to make her own rules. The two settled, unmarried, in Verdi’s home region of Parma, suffering rebuff by the locals, including Verdi’s own parents.
When looking at Verdi’s music, you can see the utter devotion to the dramatic moment, in a way that rises above any particular stylistic convention. It is easy to see he was a person with a courageous spirit, adhering to his own judgment, his own passion, and his own truth above all else, regardless of what others thought.
Law No. 2: Be Cranky
Verdi seems to have been a cantankerous sort. Perhaps this is not something to emulate, but he seems to have used precious little energy repressing his dissatisfaction (whether with singers, productions, or impresarios). His creative energy, his life force, seemed equally unrepressed.
Law No. 3: Have Good Friends and a Bit of Luck
“I’ve always been lucky, and the harder I work, the luckier I get,” the saying says. Verdi certainly was an industrious man, but he also had some key helpers along the way. One of the most important relationships of Verdi’s life was with his father-in-law, Antonio Barezzi. A merchant in Busetto, the town that neighbored Verdi’s birthplace and would become his home, Barezzi supported Verdi’s early studies and became his father-in-law when Verdi married his daughter, Margherita, who died a few years later. The two men remained friends throughout Barezzi’s life. Barezzi was one of the few to accept Verdi’s choice of Strepponi as partner, even though the community at large rejected her.
Whether it was friendship or self-interest that prompted Bartolomeo Merelli, the impresario at La Scala who almost had to force Verdi to compose Nabucco, we cannot say. Verdi, grieving deeply at the loss of his wife and child, said he never wanted to compose again. Merelli, the story goes, brought Verdi to Merelli’s office to show him the libretto for Nabucco. When Verdi refused it, Merelli shoved the libretto into Verdi’s hands, pushed him out of his office, and promptly locked the door.
When Verdi did begin to write, the words “Va pensiero” jumped out at him and inspired him to write the chorus that, at least in lore, became an inspiration for the Risorgimento (the unification of Italy) against the Austrian government, and is a de facto Italian national anthem. A good friend might loan us money, but an even better friend might, if we really need it, give us a kick in the pants.
Law No. 4: Retire Early and Often
When feeling cranky, Verdi would say how much he loathed the opera world, vowing to never write another opera. Compared with his immediate predecessors, Donizetti and Rossini, Verdi’s tenure as Italy’s premier opera composer was a long one. Rossini, for example, retired at the age of 37 in ill health, blaming the grueling realities of the opera business for the stomach problems that persisted after his retirement. Donizetti wrote his last operas in his mid-forties. The illnesses for which he was institutionalized at that age (likely syphilis and possibly bi-polar disorder) aren’t as easy to attribute to his life in the opera.
Verdi called his early period as an opera composer his years as a “galley slave.” Fortunately for posterity, his retirements were less successful than his operas, and he always seemed to return to composing with renewed vigor. What was it that so rejuvenated him?
Law No. 5: Enjoy Your Hobbies and Buy Real Estate
Verdi and Giuseppina lived quietly in Busetto, avoiding society and re-remodeling their dream home (Villa Verdi in St. Agata, which you can visit to this day). There, he enjoyed his dogs, his guns, and apparently, cooking. In discussing a large ovation Verdi had received, Giuseppina once wrote how much larger the ovation would have been if the audience had ever tried the composer’s Risotto alla Milanese.
Law No. 6: Have Self-Confidence
In all that I have read and heard about Verdi, one thing seems conspicuously absent: any trace of the artist’s worst enemy, the inner critic. The voice of self-doubt, which can muddle, inhibit, or even prevent an artist’s best efforts from emerging, seems to be entirely absent from Verdi’s genetic or psychological makeup. Even when his work seemed to fail (such as the premiere of La traviata), Verdi did not internalize the experience. He would cite the poor production or performances, and say that history would judge whether the work was worthwhile.
This absence of a certain critical introspection seems to have made him difficult to live with. Giuseppina wrote in her letters that, at least in one difficult period, he never ceased finding fault with her, but it does seem to have protected him from second guessing his talents.
Law No. 7: Live at the Right Time
Focusing, as we singers do, on the beautiful music created by Verdi and other opera composers of the 19th century can give a distorted view of the era, which was far less pristine and gorgeous than the work it inspired. Indeed, the Italian language and country as we know them were just coming into being, and along the road to unification political unrest was more the rule than the exception. Verdi was more than the embodiment of Italy’s musical potential; he was a symbol of its birth. He seems to have been fated to express the longing for the freedom and equality that eluded his people for too long.
It is a recipe we cannot recreate, but perhaps plumbing the depths of a musical life such as Verdi’s can prompt us to search and explore the facets of our lives and times that inform our own artistic choices. We can be inspired by Verdi’s courage, and ponder how a sense of self-confidence can help to fulfill our own artistic destinies.