Opera Singer Honored in Bicentenary
Published: Thursday, October 17, 2013
Updated: Thursday, October 17, 2013 00:10
“We are here to celebrate a genius, and we are here to celebrate Italy,” began Laurie Shepard, associate professor in the department of romance languages and literatures, to a room of faculty and students in Gasson 100 last Thursday, Oct. 10. The “genius” being celebrated was Giuseppe Verdi, in an event titled “Verdi 200th: A Celebration for Giuseppe Verdi’s Bicentenary.” Verdi is often considered one of the preeminent opera composers of the 19th century, and some of his most famous pieces include Nabucco, Rigoletto, and a version of Macbeth.
The event began with an introduction by Francesco Castellano, an independent scholar who previously served as a lecturer of Italian at Boston College. Castellano focused mainly on Verdi’s upbringing, providing a historical background for the composer and tracking his musical success. Despite Verdi’s immense success at the height of his career, Castellano explained, he was initially rejected from the music conservatory of Milan—at 19, he was considered too old, and he was a foreigner, born in the French-controlled Duchy of Parma. In addition, he married the daughter of his patron, Margherita Barezzi, and had two children with her, but both died in infancy, and his wife passed away shortly after. Despite these tragedies, Verdi continued with his work, and when asked what he remembered of his first success, he said, “Non grandissimo, ma abbastanza buono,” which translates to, “It wasn’t great, but it was good enough.”
Castellano’s introduction was followed by Mattia Acetoso, a visiting assistant professor of Italian, who described Verdi’s role in the unification of Italy. Verdi was considered a “prophet” of this period, known as the “Risorgimento,” for the manner in which his music affected the political atmosphere of a very divided Italy.
“Verdi played a highly symbolic role in the development and fulfillment of an idea of national unity,” Acetoso said. “[He] was an inspiring figure, and also provided through his work a cultural common denominator to a country divided into many political, linguistic, and cultural entities.”
Verdi’s operas were met with popular support, and his music served to unite people of different factions. Verdi himself was a strong political activist—he was a close friend of Giuseppe Mazzini, one of the two prominent figures in the unification movement. Although Verdi never actually fought in any of the Italian wars for independence, Acetoso explained, he had a strong emotional investment in the struggle for Italian independence.
Jeremiah McGrann, assistant chair and director of undergraduate studies in the music department, concluded the presentations with an analysis of the technical aspects of Verdi’s operas. He began by addressing the idea of opera as a distinct genre, which has its own rules about dramatic action and does not follow those of a spoken word play.
“If you love Shakespeare, you will hate Verdi,” McGrann said. If one looks at Verdi’s interpretation of Shakespeare, such as his version of Macbeth, one may be able to understand what music can bring to such a play, and become open to new artistic possibilities. “It’s the human capability of voice to express emotion in a way that spoken words can’t,” McGrann said.
McGrann encouraged listeners to avoid viewing opera as a play, and instead to consider how music creates the characters through melody and rhythmic quality. Those who attended the event were able to witness this firsthand—after the professors’ three presentations, a short concert was presented in which singers performed songs from Verdi’s various operas. Performers included David Lara, GA&S ’18, and his wife Andrea; Martha Ebel, a former professional singer; Cynthia Bravo, director of the Language Laboratory; and pianist Leah Kosch, part-time faculty member in the music department. Through facial expression, movement, and vocal inflection, the singers attempted to express the personalities of Verdi’s characters.
“He’s great at bringing out the drama through these incredible contrasts between the characters,” McGrann said. “It’s the way he makes them come alive.”