Tag Archives: Birth of Opera

On Verdi’s “Otello” and the Super Bowl

Monday Musings

Volume III, No. 5/108

by: Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*

Maestro Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello and Super Bowl XLVII
Super Bowl has become an unofficial National Holiday. The following first appeared in The Fayetteville Observer, Sunday January 31, 1988, and since reprinted every year in various publications.  But first, a word about Verdi’s’ Otello: 

I:  Verdi’s Otello


This year’s super bowl falls on February 3, two days before Verdi’s Opera, Otello, opened at Teatro Alla Scala, Milan, Italy, February 5, 1887. By the way, Shakespeare’s play is Othello, but Verdi’s opera is Otello. The opening of Otello was just as spectacular and hyped up as is the super bowl sporting event. Arturo Toscanini (March 25, 1867 – January 16, 1957, lived to be almost 90 years old and died on Mozart’s birthday) held the first chair cello in Maestro Verdi’s orchestra at the premiere of Otello. The opera was received with a tumultuous public endorsement. Verdi was not only a beloved composer and the quintessence of the 19th century Italian opera, but he was hailed as a hero capable of bringing various semi-independent political hegemonies under one government and one king. The political pundits promulgated Verdi as an acronym for Viva Emanuel Rei (Reign) D’Italia (Long live Victor Emanuel King of Italy). Yes, the war-torn Italy was united because of the work of a composer, the beloved Maestro Verdi.  At the conclusion of the opera, near midnight of February 5, 1887, there were thousands of people in the streets shouting Viva Verdi. Toscanini, the young gifted cellist, was very excited about the triumphant premiere of Otello. He wrote “I went home after midnight.  I was very excited.  I knelt at my mother’s bedside, and woke her up with a scream ‘Mama, Otello was a success.’  Maestro Verdi is a miracle maker.  Viva Maestro Verdi, Viva Verdi…”
That evening Verdi could not sleep, because throngs of people gathered outside of his window chanting Viva Verdi. Otello, just like Nabucco, debuted in 1842, was an unbelievable triumph.  We will devote several essays to Italian Operas in the months to come.


II:  American Football Loses Something in Translation

A while back, my sports-minded, slim, trim, 67-year-old sister, from Iran was visiting us in America.  In her younger days in Iran, she had taught physical education and music. So, her interest in American sports was genuine. One day she asked me to explain American football to her. I tried.  We sat down on a Monday night to Cowboys/Bears game on television.

“The ball, why is the ball egg-shaped and not round? She asked.”
“I don’t know,” I said.

Then came the kickoff, the convergence of defense and offense, I could not quickly find an equivalent for “first and ten” in Farsi (the Iranian language) as I translated play by-play.  So I set out to say “You see, Khanum Baji-respected form of addressing an elder sister–, the offense, that is the team that has the ball, has four chances to gain ten yards…” by the time I had gotten this far, a Bear defense had intercepted Danny White’s pass with what the color commentator was colorfully and hyperthyroidically screaming on top of his lungs as “a spectacular, fantastic and unbelievable catch’n runback.”  Golly, I was getting behind my translating. The interceptor was tackled.

“Why these fellows beating on the guy who intercepted the ball?” she asked “Oh, they are just congratulating him!” I said. “I can’t believe it, look; they are hitting him on the head and pushing him around as hard as they can…” “Khanum Baji, please take my word for it. This is just a friendly celebration of their victory. There are somethings that you just have to take on faith…” I exhorted.  She was not satisfied. I could tell from her subtle frown.  By now, an injured Bear was being worked on, Frank Gifford guessed that he “must have had the wind knocked out of him,” as I translated faithfully. “What do you mean the wind knocked out of him?” She asked in disbelief, “The guy is half dead.  He is not moving.  He has been lying on the field for five minutes. I really don’t want to watch this violence…” “Okay, I said.” We started to move when the TV cameras panned Mike Ditka on the sideline.  He was spitting all over the place and maniacally pacing the sideline. “Why does that guy spit so much?” she asked pointing at Ditka. “I don’t know,” I replied. The next play was a Bear touchdown, We were ready to change channels, but my sister, hearing the thunderous applause asked me to explain to her what had happened. I did. “Why are these half-naked women doing this lewd dance after the ball carrier spiked the ball?” she asked.   What are those fluffy frilly things they are twirling?” she asked.  “Pom Poms” I said. “They add to the excitement.”  I added. I explained the function of the cheerleaders:  Cheerleading is a highly competitive field.  Cheerleaders are a national resource honored by Playboy, Penthouse, Presidents, Senators and Congressmen.” She interrupted me:  “There they go again, beating the guy who carried the ball and scored,” she observed, “They are celebrating again,” I said. “Will they arrest or penalize those who knocked out the other guy?” she asked.  “No, Khanum Baji, they are heroes, they get their pictures in the paper.” I said.  People love violence. My sister’s frown got a mite deeper.  “Tell me, is this a state supported game?” she asked. “No, Sis, It is private enterprise at work.” I explained. “You see, the players go on strike if they don’t get their way.  An average player makes around $250,000 for six months work.  Why, one fellow, Steve Young, whose contract called for $47 million,” I continued, my sister’s frown had definitely deepened, She seemed concerned and curious.  “What is the salary of high school or college teachers here?” she asked.  “In the range of $19,000 to $30,000 a year” I said. She was visibly upset.

“What is going on now?” she asked looking at Ditka with an expression of disdain and disbelief.  “I don’t know, “I replied. “You sure don’t know much, do you?” She said. I grinned, and we flipped to the concert in PBS-something that both she and I could understand and enjoy.

 *The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill. He is Emeritus, Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012)

Leave a comment

Filed under The Writer

Giuseppi Verdi: The Prophet Who Brought Us the Opera

Monday Musings for Monday October 8, 2012

Volume II.  No. 36/88

Giuseppe Verdi

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.

Why 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)

Leave a comment

Filed under The Writer