Viva Verdi and All Who Love Him

Opera Santa Barbara Opens Season of Verdi with New Production

by Charles Donelan

Following the pattern for its festival seasons established last year, Opera Santa Barbara will kick off its 2006-07 season with a production of Viva Verdi on Friday night at the Arlington. Viva Verdi is an original dramatic rendition of a crucial moment in Verdi’s life that will include both an actor playing Verdi and six singers, each offering a highlight from Verdi’s extraordinary body of work. Arias to be sung in Viva Verdi include the Triumphal Scene from Aida and the Quartet from Rigoletto.

Viva Verdi was written by Peter Frisch, and this production will be directed by James Marvel with Valéry Ryvkin conducting the Opera Santa Barbara orchestra. This is not only a great way to enjoy multiple operas and learn about Verdi, it is also a warm-up for the actual festival, which runs this season from February 24 to March 11 at the Lobero Theatre, and will include full productions of two of Verdi’s greatest works, Rigoletto and Un Ballo in Maschera.

Opera Santa Barbara brought the world’s foremost authority on Verdi, Mary Jane Phillips-Matz, to town last week to deliver some remarks about Verdi’s life at their Opera On the Go series. I spoke with Phillips-Matz last Thursday, and her enthusiasm and broad range of knowledge were instantly apparent as she told me about her subject, the great Italian composer, Giuseppe Verdi. What follows is a partial transcript of our conversation.

Where did Verdi’s musical talent come from? You know, people always say that he was the son of peasants, but that’s not true. His parents were innkeepers. They had a tavern. When he was young, a group of amateur musicians came to play at the tavern and he was delighted by them. His parents saw that Verdi was interested and they managed to buy for him a little keyboard instrument, a kind of children’s piano, which he kept throughout his life. It can be seen at the Verdi museum today.

What sort of person was Verdi? He was a powerful force in the world for good. He didn’t want to be a politician, but became one in any case to fulfill his duty to Italy, first as a legislator, then as a member of the first Italian parliament. His interests were extraordinarily broad, and his occupation as a composer brought him into contact with many, many people. The music industry in Italy in those days (1820-1880) was kind of like Time-Warner or Sony today — very large companies employing literally thousands of people. And not only employing many people, but also entertaining many people. Pretty much everybody went to the opera. There were boxes for the rich, and other seats, either way up top or at the bottom on the floor, for those who could not afford to pay as much. People came to the opera to be warm. The season was in the winter, and believe me, those Italian houses got cold.

What else was Verdi interested in? He was a dedicated farmer. He owned an enormous farm that stretched all the way down to the banks of the Po, and he took an energetic interest in managing every aspect of it. He was also a collector of art, mostly contemporary French and Italian, and he had a very good eye. The museum holds the collection today, and you can still see the pieces he bought and put together. Finally, he was a great philanthropist. He took care of the peasants, what are called in Europe the “ag/lab,” or agricultural laborers, and made sure that they received proper medical attention when they were sick. He founded a hospital for the poor, and he also created a home for destitute musicians, of which there were many, that still operates today in Milan. He is buried there, in the courtyard, with his wife. This shows how anti-clerical he was, to be buried on unconsecrated ground.

How can we expect to see this man’s life reflected in his work? You will see that he was truly respectful of all strata of society, that he was a great human being who embraced every kind of person, from the peasants to the nobility. His operas, wherever they are set, always show the full range of society, and often focus on surprising connections between the top and the bottom. The opera house itself also reflects this, with its hierarchy of seats, yet all of them under the same roof and seeing the same show. But of course you don’t need an opera house to see theater in Italy! Just go into the street and wait a minute — something very dramatic is sure to happen. This is the other thing that we see in Verdi’s work that reflects his life, the extraordinary theatricality of Italian life. I see this quality at work in Santa Barbara a bit, there must be a strong Italian influence here. The city is so real and vibrant.

4•1•1 Opera Santa Barbara presents Viva Verdi on Friday, September 29, at 8 p.m., in the Arlington Theatre. See or call 898-3890 for more info.

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