Monday Musings for Monday October 8, 2012
Volume II. No. 36/88
The Prophet Who Brought Us the Opera
By Assad Meymandi, Md, PhD, DLFAPA*
Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi was born on October 10, 1813, the same year as Richard Wagner. We dedicate today’s “Monday Musings” to Maestro Verdi and to the marvelous invention of a group of Italian literati/composer/musician/ scientist, the Florentine Camerata, that gave birth to the western opera. The group met weekly in sessions lasting as long as 16 hours, pouring over Greek operas, combining words (libretto) with emotional impact of music which they christened “the opera” (see below). Before examining the life of Verdi, let us focus on the importance of opera.
There are four powerful instruments used for introspection and research on self. One can learn more about one’s self through psychoanalysis which is usually very expensive and time-consuming. The other tools are studying history, theater and poetry. The last but certainly not the least is understanding and studying opera. Opera, a combination of words and music offers us the most comprehensive and potent introspectoscope. Opera give the participant an opportunity to become aware of one’s unconscious in dynamic gradation. Do we, as viewers possess at least some of the evil and sexual identity confusion that eclipses Iago and Othello (in opera Otello)? Are we endowed with passion that made Don Jose kill Carmen? Are we capable of transcendence that come with the Zoroastrian parables in Wagner’s Ring Cycles? In order to get to know ourselves better, I believe opera should be an integral part of every citizen’s cultural and intellectual diet. It is much less expensive than psychoanalysis, and while being intellectually stimulating, it is more enjoyable and entertaining.
History of Opera:
Opera is an Italian word. It means work . In the late 16th Century, a group of Florentine scholars decided to get together every week and study the music and writings of the ancient Greek. They called themselves the Florentine Camerata. It was very much like our modern-day book clubs. Except that these people were very serious about their work. The culmination of these studies and discussions was Jacobo Peri’s composition of Orpheo which was performed at 8:00 PM, October 6, 1600, at Pitti Palace in Florence. Of course, in 1607, Claudio Monteverdi gave us his version of Orpheo. It marks the beginning of Opera. We have enjoyed 400 years of opera as result of the intense work of this group.
Types of Opera:
Italian opera dominated Europe throughout the 16th and early 17th centuries. Around 1670s, French opera with its founder and inventor, Jean Baptist Lully (1632-1687) emerged. Lully was an Italian orphan who immigrated to Paris at age 14. He rose to become the court composer for the Sun King, Louis 14th, who reigned for 73 years. Lully gave us the French Overture and its dotted rhythm brings on grandeur, pomposity and majesty meant for Louis 14th. Other French composers followed: Jean-Philip Rameau, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Christoph Willibald Von Gluck, Giacomo Myerbeer, Bizet etc. There are German, Russian, Chinese, and now many third world countries’ operas. Also, there are lyric opera, grand opera, opera buffa and opera seria, just to name a few.
Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi
Verdi was not a revolutionary composer as was Richard Wagner. Verdi was a hard-working, steady, predictable, unemotional master who perfected his craft gradually, steadily, and constantly. In 1842, with Nabucco, he began his climb to fame, and by the time he staged Aida in 1871, he had reached the height of fame and fortune. People adored him. They would line the streets and cheer him on whenever his carriage would pass. Shouts of Viva Verdi would break out at the slightest hint of his presence. People turned his name Verdi into a political code Viva Emanuel Re D’Italia (VERDI) for the return of the King Emanuel, the deposed King of Italy, to reunite the war-torn Italian peninsula.
Verdi was a sullen dark-complexioned, dour looking young man with a face marred by scars of acne or possibly small pox. His beginning was not illustrious. He failed the entrance examination to La Scala in Milan. His first two operas Oberto and Un Giomo Di Regno, were major failures. It was during his work on those two operas that he lost his wife and two children to infectious diseases. His relationship with the Italian press was ugly and confrontational. Yet, with persistence, determination and support of his father-in-law, he continued to work hard and ultimately become triumphant. Staging Nabucco in 1842 marked his first artistic, social and political triumph.
Verdi wrote 29 operas including Aida and Falstaff which was his last opera staged February 9, 1893. He then bought a large farm and spent the rest of his life as a very well to do farmer. He opted to live with an opera singer, and gave no heed to the critiques who chastised him for his immoral life style, He was above fray and told the press to mind their own business. An aside: the late Maestro Arturo Toscanini, played first chair cello in Aida, December 24, 1871, After the completion of the opera and the jubilant crowds on the street shouting Viva Verdi for literally hours, way past midnight, Toscanini went home screaming joyfully and calling his mother to get up, kneel and thank the Lord for Maestro Verdi and Aida…
Verdi is the chosen child of God who was commissioned to bring to the inhabitants of this earth the beauty, the sanctity, and the remedial effectiveness of Opera. As a psychiatrist, I work to get people cured of addiction. But I don’t mind to encourage our readers to get addicted to the opera. Opera is a gift, and addiction to the Opera is a blessing. Verdi died on January 27, 1901.
*The writer is a Distinguished Life Fellow American Psychiatric Association, Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill. He is the Founding Editor and Editor in chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012)