His exceptional vision for musicians in retirement
Talk to anyone in Busseto about Giuseppe Verdi, who was born five kilometers away in Roncole, and he or she will have a strong opinion about the composer who was also a national hero for giving Italy definition and voice in his operas and political activities. As often as not, Verdi is regarded with grudging respect locally for his indisputable achievements. But there is also a memory of the man, handed down through generations from those who knew him, as being rather hard-headed and easy to anger.
While the outside world thinks of Verdi for his brilliant melodies and the complexity of the plots of some of his operas, many bussetani see him as another product of their land, much like prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano-Reggiano. In many shops, Verdi’s image is displayed next to ones of the world-class ham and cheese that are staples both in the diet and the economy.
Verdi was indeed a product of this land, with its rich soils and atmospheric fogs and mists that give it special character. At his home in Sant’Agata, three kilometers from town, he ran an active and busy farm with crops and animals. His ledgers and notebooks are filled with details about weather, sales of livestock and payment of employees. Although he was the greatest composer Italy ever produced, he often signed his correspondence, “Giuseppe Verdi, Agricoltore.”
The farmer-composer is remembered for being volatile and subject to sudden changes in opinion and approach as he ran his business. His sometimes explosive outbursts toward workers and his wife, the retired soprano Giuseppina Strepponi, required patience. And yet Verdi’s anger was often directed toward society at large. He helped lead the fight for Italian unification from the 1840s to the 1860s but then was frequently critical of the political figures he considered too self-serving and out of touch with the needs of il popolo italiano.
While the oral tradition in and around Busseto would have it that Verdi was difficult, there are many people who point to an aspect of him that was farsighted and revolutionary. He gave voice to the voiceless and, as has been often noted, “loved and wept” for us all. This was a man who embraced and gave humanity to outsiders in his operas, holding up a mirror to a society that was often prejudiced against those who were different.
One need only look at the famous Middle Trilogy of operas to understand this. These were the first three works he composed at his farm, which he purchased in 1848 and occupied in 1851. Rigoletto (1851) has a title character, a hunchback, who was reviled and ridiculed for his disability. The central role of Il Trovatore (1852) is not Manrico but Azucena, the Gypsy whose suffering is belittled by the majority of characters even if they have violent disagreements on other issues. La Traviata (1853) is the story of a prostitute whose wisdom and humanity so far outstrip those of the people who surround her, yet they smugly judge and feel superior to her.
In these operas, Verdi beguiled audiences with gorgeous melodies but also demanded that they face uncomfortable truths about the human condition. His attitude was the same in the way he thought of his workers. He could be willful but he also saw the humanity of the lives of people who labored faithfully but had no access to the benefits he believed a nation should offer to all of its citizens. He noticed that his workers had little access to proper medical care.
His holdings were in Sant’Agata, which was one of four villages that were part of a territory known as Villanova sull’Arda. The total population was about six thousand. While Busseto had a hospital, it was not necessarily available to people who lived in Villanova which, administratively, was part of the city of Piacenza. However, Piacenza and its hospital were thirty-five kilometers away. Most of the infirm in Villanova with life-threatening conditions died before they could reach Piacenza.
Verdi determined that the people of Villanova needed a hospital and he decided he would have to be the one to build it. Although property was acquired in 1878 to create the hospital, which came to be known as Ospedale Giuseppe Verdi, it did not open until November 5, 1888. The delays were a source of aggravation for Verdi, who doggedly pursued the project in a series of letters and meetings with political and religious figures. His ambition to provide help to the poor was seen in some quarters as self-serving. Some newspaper articles lamented that the hospital would be too small and was more about Verdi’s vanity than about doing something for the greater good.
When the hospital finally opened its doors, Verdi insisted that it be done without pomp or ceremony. He said that twelve patients should be admitted and their care begun. Verdi visited periodically and, when he felt that conditions and care were inferior, he made sure that improvements were made. In a famously testy letter written from Genoa on January 16, 1889, he complained that he had learned that the milk, oil, pasta and rice used to feed patients were of inferior quality and he demanded that improvements be made. He also demanded to know if it was true that, as he had heard, funeral costs were required from families who were destitute when, in fact, Verdi had made provisions for such expenditures.
The genesis of the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, a retirement home for musicians on the Piazza Michelangelo Buonarroti in Milan, is a better-known story of Verdi’s benevolence. The composer realized that some instrumentalists, chorus members and solo singers see their careers end without having enough funds to live in a dignified way. Verdi initiated a project to create a building that would become a community of musicians. He engaged the architect Camillo Boito (brother of Arrigo Boito, who wrote the libretti for Otello and Falstaff) to design a building with a budget of one million lire.
Again, the composer took a very active role in the design and construction of this institution. When it was completed in 1899, Verdi made a pun on the word opera, which in Italian means both “work” and “opera,” and declared the Casa di Riposo “la mia opera più bella.”
Verdi’s only requirement was that no residents be admitted to the home until after his death, which took place on January 27, 1901. The first group took occupancy on October 10, 1902, which would have been his eighty-ninth birthday. Verdi and Strepponi (who died in 1897) were buried in a crypt in the central atrium of the home and, ever since, residents go to talk to the Maestro, to thank him, and to hum his melodies. The number of residents at the home ranges from seventy to one-hundred and, nowadays, music students from foreign countries reside there. Not only do they receive tutelage and wisdom from the retired musicians but, in return, provide company and intellectual stimulation.
In his final will and testament, Verdi generously provided for the poor, the sick and the disadvantaged in Genoa, Busseto, Villanova and Milan. Royalties from his operas, properly invested, give funds to this day to various institutions, although it is now necessary- – and wise – for lovers of Verdi’s music and ideas to contribute to the maintenance of the places he created for those not as fortunate as he was.
It is easy to remember Verdi for his beautiful music. Those who live near where he did might recall the stories of his volatility and consider him brilliant but difficult. But it was his deep humanity and sense of justice, and his willingness to do battle for those who could not, that are the legacy of the benevolent Verdi, the man who put his music in service to the greater good.
About the Author
Fred Plotkin is the author of six books on Italian topics in addition to Classical Music 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera, and Opera 101: A Complete Guide to Learning and Loving Opera, the standard text in America for opera education. He studied Italian history and theater and opera production at the Universities of Wisconsin, Bologna and Pavia and, as a Fulbright Scholar, worked at Teatro alla Scala. He also has a M.S. in journalism from Columbia University. He is a popular lecturer at many institutions, including the Metropolitan Opera, BAM, the New York Philharmonic, the Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò of NYU (where he leads a series on Italian opera), the Royal Opera House in London, and the University of Oxford.