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music history

Viva La Traviata

two hundred years later, composer Giuseppe Verdi is still contemporary

by Eileen Reynolds / GSAS ’11

You might remember the movie in which Julia Roberts, dressed in elegant white gloves and a fetching red gown, is moved to tears as the swelling strains of an aria float up to the glittering opera box where she sits next to her date, the tuxedo-clad Richard Gere. That iconic scene is, of course, from Pretty Woman. But can you name the opera? The 1990 film makes no direct reference to Giuseppe Verdi, but the music is from his most commonly performed work, La traviata—and our protagonist’s weeping is no wonder: The “fallen woman” of the opera’s title, like Roberts’ character, Vivian, is a prostitute whose life changes drastically when she meets a loving man of means.
The Metropolitan Opera’s 2013 production of Verdi’s Rigoletto transportS the original story from 16th-century Mantua to 1960s Las Vegas.

“People know Verdi without even knowing that they know him—there are certain tunes that one has heard.”

This year, as opera houses across the world mounted Verdi classics such as Rigoletto, Aida, and, of course, La traviata in honor of the bicentennial of the Italian composer’s birth, Francesco Izzo (GSAS ’98, ’03), co-director of NYU’s American Institute for Verdi Studies (AIVS), has geared up for a series of events that explore how the very same works that delighted and scandalized 19th-century audiences have continued to enthrall operagoers long after his death. The centerpiece of the celebration was “Verdi’s Third Century: Italian Opera Today,” a four-day conference—presented in partnership with NYU’s Casa Italiana and Humanities Initiative and timed to coincide with the composer’s 200th birthday on October 10—that brought together not only scholars and musicologists, but also dramaturges, directors, performers, and critics.

“What interests us today is how his music has infiltrated a number of contexts in really unexpected ways, from film to television commercials,” Izzo says. “And it is absolutely true that people know Verdi without even knowing that they know him—that there are certain tunes that one has heard. They’re just out there.” Chief among those is “La donna è mobile,” a bouncy, triple-meter aria to the fickleness of women originally sung by the playboy Duke of Mantua character in Rigoletto. With a couple of well-placed high notes, it remains a favorite showpiece for the world’s great tenors, but the catchy tune has also been recorded by the likes of Alvin and the Chipmunks and put to use as a taunting chant in soccer stadiums. Stephen Colbert even sang it with opera legend Placido Domingo on his show in 2012.

Born in 1813 in a small village near Parma, Verdi was encouraged by his father, an innkeeper, to study music with the local priests. By the age of 9, he’d landed the first of several posts as a church organist, and at 18 he moved to Milan to continue his studies. Verdi’s first opera premiered in 1839, with more than two dozen to come in the decades that followed. A month after Verdi died, in 1901, thousands of mourners singing the soaring unison strains of “Va, pensiero,” the chorus of Hebrew slaves from his opera Nabucco, walked with his remains through the streets of Milan. Celebrated as national treasures, Verdi’s early operas had come to be viewed by some as revolutionary works that had fueled the movement for the unification of Italy, which was achieved in 1861. “Va, pensiero” had become an unofficial national anthem.

Nineteenth-Century Verdi Librettos from the Collection of John Mazzarella, recently bequeathed to NYU’s American Institute for Verdi Studies.

It might come as a surprise to some that one of the world’s largest collections of Verdi paraphernalia is housed at NYU, in a small windowless room inside Bobst Library. Since 1976, when the AIVS was founded, it has been home to a growing archive of some 25,000 Verdi letters, contracts, and librettos, along with about 80 precious microfilm reels that were filmed by researchers at the composer’s home in Sant’Agata, a site not generally open to the public. At this year’s conference, the AIVS announced Gundula Kreuzer as the first-ever recipient of the Martin Chusid Award for Verdi Studies, a prize named in honor of the NYU professor who founded the institute and began the painstaking work of acquiring materials for the archive. And in early 2014, Izzo will curate “Giuseppe Verdi: An American Tribute,” an exhibition of treasures from the archive to be displayed in the lobby of Bobst Library.

So why does Verdi’s music endure? Izzo has several theories. One has to do with the composer’s knack for emotional realism: For his 1847 Macbeth, for example, he read Shakespeare, studying the psychology of the characters and at times “really bullying” the poet writing his libretto into shaping his vision. The result is a unity of words and music, Izzo says, that flies in the face of those who call opera “quintessentially implausible.”

And as Vivian discovered in Pretty Woman, Verdi operas also have a way of foreshadowing contemporary events. Izzo points to a scene in I lombardi alla prima crociata in which a Christian woman who has fallen in love with a Muslim accuses an invading band of crusaders of sacking a Muslim palace not out of religious piety, but out of a lust for gold. Izzo hears in her cry—“No, no! It is not the just cause of God to soak the earth with human blood”—something of a precursor to the “no blood for oil” slogan adopted in the early 2000s by Americans who opposed the Iraq War.

“Of course Verdi had no idea that certain things were going to happen in today’s world,” Izzo says, “but we are able to draw connections, and that brings us closer to his operas.”

Photo © Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera