Opera Santa Barbara Opens Season of Verdi with New

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

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


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