The New York Times described Fred Plotkin as “a New Yorker, but with the soul of an Italian” who is a legend for “his renaissance mastery” of Italian music and food. He attended the Universities of Bologna and Pavia, worked at La Scala as a Fulbright Scholar and is the Italy expert that others turn to for definitive and complex answers about everything in his favourite nation. He lectures all over the world on topics on which he is passionate, including how we can live the life of the Renaissance Man in modern times. www.fredplotkin.com
ITALIAN JOURNAL: You have recently taken part in the celebrations of Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò (NYU) for the 150th anniversary of the Italian Unification with a lecture on the art of singing the works of Giuseppe Verdi, the most representative composer of the Italian Risorgimento. In your opinion, what was Verdi’s main contribution to the making of the Italian nation?
FRED PLOTKIN: Verdi greatly admired political entities that spoke to his republican sentiments. He had a particular feeling for Genoa and spent 40 winters there drinking in the noble yet egalitarian spirit of that city, which has always been a centre of free thought, hard work and progress. It is not an accident that one of the operas he held closest to his heart was Simon Boccanegra, about the Genoese doge who gains power and then governs warring factions of Guelphs and Ghibellines. Verdi knew that the future Italian nation would combine the brilliance and diversity of regional and local cultures along with the fractiousness that often goes with them. He could, with early works such as Nabucco, I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata, Attila and La Battaglia di Legnano, stir emotions for the expulsion of foreign domination. Later works such as Rigoletto, Un Ballo in Maschera and Don Carlo, explore the corrupting nature of the abuse of power. Verdi’s main contribution to Italy, apart from being the unsurpassed composer of operas in the Italian language, was to use his 26 operas to hold up a mirror to an evolving society from 1836 to 1901, reflecting its struggles and dreams and then serving to caution leaders of the young nation. Remember that the last word of Aïda (1872) is pace (peace), which is repeated many times. In that year Italy was a young nation with a capital newly established in Rome, but Verdi felt that many things were already going wrong. I love that the last words of his final opera, Falstaff (1893) are “tutto il mondo è burla ” (“all the world is a joke!”).
How Verdi’s Risorgimento sentiments continue to speak to the modern ear?
I think his sentiments speak more to the heart than the ear, which is merely a conduit. We perceive Verdi’s operas, and all operas, with numerous senses, including eyes and ears. As someone in Calabria once said to me, “Verdi was our national composer when Italy became Italy.” So his operas serve as essential reminders of what it means to be Italian, to believe in genius and fate as twin phenomena in national life. Italians, in their deepest thoughts, understand that Italy is a great nation but resist feeling a part of it. This was the case in 1861 and it is the case in 2011. They would rather belong to a town or city or province or, at most, a region, but they don’t see themselves as part of the nation. But in Verdi they see the best yearnings of an Italian nation and connect to it on that level.
Among the most celebrated Italian operas, which one is your favorite and why?
I would hate to have to limit myself to only one opera — what good is there in that? I can name three and we will have to leave it at that. First is Verdi’s Don Carlo, which is both perfect and complex. It is the story of public versus private obligations and morality and pulls no punches on how certain religious institutions can do more harm than good. It has six major characters in all vocal categories, each with his or her own important role in the larger picture. In this way, Verdi was different from Puccini, who usually focused on one character. With Verdi we have a rich tableau, not a portrait. And the music in Don Carlo is simply glorious, dramatic and heart-rending. I also love Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, which has perhaps the most beautiful music for tenor in any opera. Because it is about the life of a French poet, the libretto is much more poetic than most. It speaks of the importance of an individual taking a moral, principled stand in society, no matter the consequences. And then there is Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri, a comedy I think is funnier than Il Barbiere di Siviglia. The character of Isabella inspired Italians to think of themselves as a nation when they were not. Her aria, “Pensa alla Patria,” told Italians all over Italy to think of themselves as resourceful, talented and divertente, and to think of these qualities as reflections of their homeland.
You are also a profound connoisseur of Italian wine and cuisine. How did this passion develop?
I grew up in New York, where there were many Italians in my neighbourhood. I tasted food in their homes, mostly recipes from Naples or nearby with just a few from Sicily and elsewhere. When I went to Italy in 1973 I learned that every ingredient has a history, a passport and ways that it should be treated. When I moved to Bologna in 1975, it seemed to me the most sophisticated food place in the world. People shopped once or twice a day for food for the next meal, always preferring what appealed to the palate, nose and eye at that moment. Everything had to be fresh and of highest quality. I lived there for almost 3 years and learned all of the city’s classic dishes. I traveled all over the peninsula and learned things even most Italians did not know about their national cuisine. In the 1970s and early 1980s, many young people in Italy accepted what I call a culinary blackout in which foods of the tradition, the past or the countryside, were hard to locate and were threatened with extinction. They wanted to be like other Europeans who ate fast food. So I saw it as one of my responsibilities to absorb and document the nation’s culinary knowledge and history so that, when the day comes when Italians want to know about their food heritage, there would be someone around to teach it to them. It is important to point out that I see the whole nation as worth documenting. Most people who take an interest in Italy focus only on one region and would like to think it is the best. How would they know if they have not diligently studied and explored all 20 of Italy’s regions? I have written 6 books on Italian food that really are history books and biographies that also contain recipes. And I go back all the time to learn more. That is why I always update my book, Italy for the Gourmet Traveller. Italy is not a museum, but is the guardian of more creativity than any other nation, and that includes its food and wine.
What do you think are the symbols of the Italian unity today?
It is said that Italians feel most Italian when they national football team plays other nations. But this really about sport and not identity. The symbols of Italian unity are the products designed and manufactured in Italy, where the people retain a pride in work, in quality and the belief that this cheese or that shirt that is made in Italy is an ambassador for a way of life. I wish Italians would recognize how wonderful and unique their nation is, and they might do more to preserve it.
What would you recommend to a traveler who goes to Italy for the first time?
Accept that Italy must be visited slowly and often. It has 40% of the world’s artistic patrimony, 450 cheeses, 2000 wines and more than 100 cities that are worth an extended stay. Pick one major city to stay in on your first visit and discover it well. [Don’t even think of “doing” Rome, Florence and Venice on one visit.] Then pick a smaller city or town in another region and live there for a week, discovering the rhythms of the place and using it as a base for visits to nearby towns and to places in nature. You will find that you start to fit in, that people recognise you, and you take joy in feeling as if you have made this place a part of you. And, if you are very lucky, it might turn into a place that you will return to often. Otherwise, there are always new places in Italy to discover. I have been doing this since 1973 and still ache if I am away from there for more than a few months.
If you had to imagine Italy in the next 150 years, what would you see? How would you like it to be?
What I hope for Italy is that it does not become swept up in globalisation, a movement that seems to require a low common denominator. Italy should be the nation that conserves all of the human arts and crafts and teaches them to the world. How to make a shirt that flatters the physique. How to clean that shirt so that the fabric remains beautiful. How to make a violin. How to play that violin. How to make a wine that pairs well with food. How to know what food pairs with that wine. Where Italy still is unrivaled in the world is in understanding these simple but essential things. If the nation attempts to compete with mass production in other countries, it will fail. But if it reasserts its position as the crucible of culture and creativity, if it trains its citizens in these arts, if it is the unmatched guardian of memory of human creativity and potential, it will remain a singular nation that every other one will admire and want to visit.
Laura Giacalone is the Associate Editor of the Italian Journal.