NEW YORK—Followers of Guiseppe Verdi, says Anna Maria Meo, are on par with sports fans in their zeal. They watch closely whenever a new player is cast in a production of one of his operas and have no qualms about loudly voicing their critiques if they feel some interpretation isn’t true to him. Sure, they love other composers, but not with the same passion and defensive spirit, she said.
Meo would know. Just a couple of days before, she had wrapped up one of the largest celebrations of the composer: a month-long, nonstop music festival in his hometown of Parma, Italy.
Meo was appointed general director of Festival Verdi less than two years ago, and has doubled attendance and expanded the festival’s offerings significantly in the 2016 edition, which ended Oct. 30. Only a few days later, there was already a flood of interest from festival-goers about the 2017 program, and her schedule was already filled with meetings to promote Festival Verdi internationally.
In animated tones and at times full-on pantomime, Meo spoke of the power of music; art and our heritage; the old masters; and getting young people interested in opera.
Verdi, sometimes known as the king of opera, is possibly the most produced opera composer in the world. He wrote 27 operas (a disputed number) in his lifetime, and they remain some of the most popular operas today. You can be sure that even those who have no interest in opera can recognize some of his melodies, and even hum along.
“I think the secret of Verdi’s music, apart from being incredibly beautiful, is always speaking to the heart of people,” Meo said. “This is the secret that makes his music always actual, present, and never getting old.”
Stories With Substance
Some of Verdi’s works were controversial, and many of his operas were subject to censorship. During his time, theaters in Italy had to submit new opera ideas to the local chief of police. Verdi, an ardent patriot, ran into problems with occupying Austrian censors in Italy due to his depiction of political structures, religious themes, and social issues. Later, some of his operas were censored abroad as well.
The subjects of his operas remain prevalent topics of debate in our world today. “Aida,” for instance, touches on imperialism and race relations. “Rigoletto,” based on the play “Le roi s’amuse” by Victor Hugo, balances sympathy for a father who lost his daughter with vengeance that results in a murder. “La traviata,” based on the play “La Dame aux Camélias” by Alexandre Dumas, stars a prostitute who is also the most sympathetic character of the story.
Of course, the works were also dramatically outlandish love stories highlighting relationships filled with grief, jealousy, heartbreak, and so on. Opera highlights the brutality of conflict, although in a surreal manner. And like all classical forms, opera encourages, if not requires, resolution.
“They surprise me, even now—and I know the operas, I know the musical sides, I know the subjects—but still, you say ‘wow’,” Meo said.
The relationships between parents and children explored through song never fail to grip her. “It is always somehow a surprise for me to see how in depth he has been able to go in showing our sentiment, our feelings.”
She sees this surprise in the young attendees and her own children, ages 13 and 16, as well. The issues we debate today are similar to those of 100 or 200 years ago, and the young people today can see that, Meo observed.
All Verdi, All the Time
The word festival suggests something festive, Meo said, but we often think of classical music festivals as these buttoned-up and ritualistic nights at the opera. There’s nothing wrong with the ritual—getting dressed up, having a glass of wine, visiting a beautiful concert hall—but Meo wanted Festival Verdi to be more than that.
In addition to the four or five big operas of the festival, Meo has organized Verdi Off, a series of free performances in public venues or sometimes at unexpected places. It helps to have the perfect setting: For nearly 30 days, Verdi’s music permeates his hometown.
“We want … people who do not usually go to the opera … to have a taste of Verdi’s music in the month of Verdi’s festival,” she said. So the team brought Verdi’s music to children at a hospital, to a retirement home, to town squares via a piano built onto a bike, to a sports stadium, and even to a local jail, where they taught the people inside how to sing a chorus from “La traviata.”
They also did little things, like having a performer sing one of Verdi’s arias out of a theater window every day at 1 p.m. for 27 days straight. Incidentally, a nearby bus stop had a great view of that window, and by the last day there were 300 people outside waiting for the aria.
People in Parma were opening their private homes for piano performances, while public concerts took place in parks and in the gardens of corporate buildings. There was also a choral marathon from afternoon to morning outside one of the theaters one day that drew a happy crowd and encouraged conversation with the singers.
Next year, there will also be public performances of a set of unfinished pieces with unknown origins, some of which have never been performed before. “We are fairly sure Verdi wrote some of the music, but for others we are not so sure at all,” Meo said. A panel of experts will determine whether the pieces were left unfinished by Verdi or were authored by one of his students, for example.
Verdi was born in a small town near Busseto in the province of Parma, which is known for its artistic cultural heritage as well as gastronomic claims to fame (like Parmesan cheese). In addition to its art, sights, and good food, the town is full of meaningful structures connected to Verdi’s history. The house he was born in and the one where he spent the second half of his life (as a farmer as well as a composer) are open to visitors, for example.
And then there are the theaters: The Teatro Farnese is a wooden, Baroque-style theater—antique and sumptuous, Meo says—that is celebrating its 400th anniversary in 2018.
For years, the Farnese had been in use only as the entryway to an art gallery, because it has no traditional back of the house and doesn’t function as a working theater. But Meo pushed to get permission to perform at the venue because she felt it was such a fascinating space that needed to be shared.
“I think we can say that has been a challenge we won,” Meo said.
Then there is the Teatro Giuseppe Verdi di Busseto, a tiny theater with fewer than 300 seats that Verdi actually contributed to while it was being built. And the Teatro Regio di Parma, which is known for its opera buffs.
Opening night usually starts with one of Verdi’s blockbuster operas at the Regio.
Then the Farnese, because it is such an unusual space, may show a more experimental production, as it will have to be custom-made for the unique space.
The team will also try to showcase a lesser-performed opera of Verdi’s at every festival; in 2016 it was “Giovanna d’Arco” (Joan of Arc), and in 2017 it will be “Jerusalem.”
“In Italy, this is really part of our cultural identity,” Meo said.
One of Meo’s main missions is to introduce opera to the next generation and to introduce young people to Verdi’s music.
For the 2016 festival, she set that into motion with Verdi Off, inviting students to dress rehearsals and creating a social media campaign to help them understand the often over-the-top storylines of some of the operas.
Also in the works are partnerships with vocal competitions, as Meo feels it is important to showcase up-and-coming performers in some of these works when possible. This is a particularly interesting challenge, Meo explained, because Verdi’s operas require a dramatic and mature vocality, so it’s not easy to find young singers who are suited to them.
She added that she has a practical and professional interest in growing opera attendance, but this interest probably stems from her personal life as well. Her 16-year-old daughter sings in a choir and her 13-year-old son plays the violin. She has witnessed in them the rich experiences that only art can provide.
“I don’t push them because you can’t push kids to do something like that,” she said. But from an early age, both have had exposure to music and the works of the old masters, and she has seen that something about that stays with them. They still listen to pop music and go to the movies with their friends, but there is something about this old music and beautiful harmony that resonates with children.
“This is something that they cannot renounce,” Meo said. “I really believe that music is a language that has no age.
“We cannot discount the fact that this is our musical tradition.”