Verdi’s Masterwork: Opera and the Birth of Modern Italy

Marines’ Memorial Theatre, San Francisco

In the early 19th Century, Italy was essentially a “geographical expression,” a patchwork of principalities spread across islands and peninsulas, dominated by foreign powers. By century’s end it had united as the independent Kingdom of Italy, its people citizens of a modern nation with an emerging common culture and language. The great Giuseppe Verdi became the leading artist of this resurgent movement, the “Risorgimento.” In his operatic masterworks he brought to the stage the values and issues of the reunification, giving vivid creative expression to the ideals of his time. His stirring and melodious music provided a common bond for peoples divided by political boundaries, customs, and dialects. Verdi’s life—his humble beginnings, his professional triumphs and family tragedies, his moral integrity, his patriotic yearnings—symbolized an emerging nation’s vital spirit. Verdi’s life and art were transformed by the Risorgimento and in turn helped to transform it.

Presented in collaboration with the San Francisco Opera, Consul General of Italy, Italian Cultural Institute, and the Leonardo da Vinci Society, celebrating 2013 as the Year of Italian Culture in the US.

Verdi: “Let’s go back to the old times and we will have made some progress.”

Friday, 7:30 pm to 9:30 pm

Giuseppe Verdi and the Risorgimento. William Berger (Metropolitan Opera). Verdi was a true Italian patriot who served his nation as a statesman as well as an artist. The operas of his youth became identified as “Risorgimento” art filled with both explicit and hidden revolutionary messages. His personal experiences—combined with the “escape-from-tyranny” literary tastes of his time—led him to create operas that resonated with the nationalist aspirations of the nascent Italian nation. Embraced as the musical manifestation of the “Risorgimento,” Verdi found his name employed in the late 1850s as a political slogan: “Viva VERDI,” an acronym for “Viva VittorioEmmanuale Re D’Italia,” “Long Live Victor Emmanuel II, King of Italy.” This keynote lecture examines Verdi’s works from the 1840s through the time he became a member of the first national Parliament in 1861, capped by works that became forever identified with the spirit and dream of the Risorgimento, Nabucco and Ernani.

O PATRIA MIA: Bringing Patriotism to Life on the Stage. Clifford (Kip) Cranna (San Francisco Opera). What does patriotism sound like? What does it look like? Opera producers confront this problem often when they stage Verdi’s operas, with their veiled, and sometimes overt, expressions of patriotic longing, rebellion against oppression, and nationalistic aspiration. In this lecture-demonstration, video examples will explore the ways in which opera companies of our era have made these scenes unfold for modern audiences, while live performances  will help bring us into Verdi’s emotional world of personal devotion to homeland. Accompanied by Ron Valentinoon the piano, soprano Hope Briggs performs “Ritorna vincitor” and “O patria mia” from Verdi’sAida.

Saturday, 10:00 am to noon and 1:30 pm to 4:00 pm

Verdi and Garibaldi: Heroes of the RisorgimentoGiovanna Ceserani (Stanford). Italians in the 19th  Century, dreaming of a unified nation, nourished their hopes by insistently turning to the past. History—with its relics and its heroes—was everywhere in the formative years of the Risorgimento: in novels, in paintings, in operas. Excavations of ancient Rome brought monuments associated with ancient democratic ideals into plain view. Political thinkers reflected on which ideas and heroes from the past might catalyze their dream of a unified Italy. Giuseppe Garibaldi fashioned a heroic persona for himself out of the materials provided by romantic literature. The heroic characters and revolutionary feelings of Giuseppe Verdi’s operas emerge from this very same world of Risorgimento ideals. This lecture considers the influence of the Risorgimento on Verdi, in order to illuminate his musical work, but also to provide for a deeper appreciation of the parallel lives led by two heroes of the Risorgimento: Garibaldi, its chief military architect, and Verdi, whose music provides a kind of soundtrack to that same effort.

How to Listen to VerdiClifford (Kip) Cranna. The music of Verdi’s operas is compelling, uplifting, dramatic, and full of melody. But what’s behind the structure and the shape of the music? Verdi’s innovative and imaginative approach to opera broke new ground, but was nonetheless based on established operatic practice. Can understanding the musical and dramatic construction of a Verdian scene help the listener to appreciate and enjoy it even more? Kip Cranna explores this question with an analysis of how Verdi scenes are put together, using video and live musical examples to help us to a new perspective on a great musical genius at work. Cheryl Cain(soprano) performs “Ah, fors’è lui . . . Sempre libera” from Verdi’s La Traviata, accompanied byRon Valentino. With Chris Coyne (tenor).

Risorgimento Fantasies. Mary Ann Smart (UC Berkeley). What kinds of political messages did audiences in 19th-century Italy hear in the opera of their time?  Censorship of the press and the theater meant that very few overt statements were made that linked opera to political ideas. Yet some of the most influential players in the operatic world were also central figures in the revolutionary movements of the 1830s and 1840s. To mention just a few of these connections, Donizetti collaborated on his I puritani with the exiled poet Count Carlo Pepoli, and on Marino Faliero and Don Pasquale with the Ruffini brothers, who had been boyhood friends of Giuseppe Mazzini, founder of the “Young Italy” movement. Professor Smart examines the political ideas that swirled around the edges of the operatic world, voiced by poets, journalists, and theater officials, and explore how those ideas found their way into the music.

Verdi, Shakespeare, and Falstaff. William Berger (Metropolitan Opera). Verdi’s life-long love affair with the plays of Shakespeare resulted in only three actual settings of Shakespearean plays,Macbeth (1847 and 1865), Otello (1887), and Falstaff (1893), two coming near the end of his life, when the appearance of Boito as librettist offered the composer new motivation to write operas. Although the composer long hoped to create musical settings based on other plays, especially King Lear, he does not seem to have undertaken any actual composition for them. Boito brilliantly wove together into Falstaff, Verdi’s last opera, based essentially on The Merry Wives of Windsor, the appearances of “fat Jack” in Henry IV. Verdi’s score is a masterpiece of free composition, but it has its roots in earlier Italian opera, sometimes even quoting his earlier works ironically (think of Mistress Quickly’s “Povera donna,” which quotes from La Traviata). Verdi often said that, while he admired Wagner, he remained Italian to his core.

Panel Discussion with Presenters Moderated by George Hammond (Humanities West)


William Berger (Creative Content Producer, Metropolitan Opera) studied Italian Literature and Latin Literature at the UC Santa Cruz, working part time at San Francisco Opera. He has lived in New York City since, where he taught Italian part time at Baruch College for 12 years and worked in the design industry. In the 1990s, he concentrated writing on music and opera and also worked on theater pieces. He is the author Wagner Without Fear, Verdi With a Vengeance, and Puccini Without Excuses, and has contributed articles for many opera companies, including Seattle, San Francisco, Washington National, the Liceu of Barcelona, Austin Lyric, and, most recently, the Los Angeles Opera. He hosted WNYC’s Overnight Music from 2004-2006 and created the show El Salón, focusing on the role of Hispanic culture in classical music. Since 2006, at the Metropolitan Opera he writes for programs, website, and radio programs, is a producer of the Saturday afternoon broadcasts, and is the on-air commentator for Metropolitan Opera Radio on SiriusXM, appearing as the commentator in the 2011 film Wagner’s Dream. He is a frequent lecturer in venues including the Embassy of Finland, Smithsonian Institute, Italian Cultural Foundation of New York, Boston University, Seattle Opera, Dorothea’s House of Princeton, and the Wagner Societies of New York, Washington, Boston, Chicago, and Dallas.

Hope Briggs (soprano) made her San Francisco Opera debut as the Duchess of Parma in Busoni’s Doktor Faust. Other operatic roles have included Die Zauberflöte at Frankfurt Opera, Le nozze di Figaro and Carmen at Opera Company of Brooklyn, Don Giovanni and Die Zauberflöte at Opera San Jose, Suor Angelica at Pacific Repertory Opera, Il Trovatore and Don Giovanni at Operesque Classical Concerts, and Houston Grand Opera’s National Tour of Porgy and Bess. She created the role of Paula in Hector Armienta’s River of Women. Her concerts include Verdi’s Requiem, Mozart’s Coronation Mass and Requiem, Vivaldi’s Gloria, Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras, Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise and Lailstork’s I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes. She was featured soloist in San Francisco Symphony’s Wondrous Sounds of Christmas; Marion J. Caffey’s Three Mo’ Divas and the Rev. Billy Graham Crusade. Her awards include National Finalist in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, Metropolitan Opera International Vocal Competition Award, and the Encouragement Award of Licia Albanese Puccini Foundation.

Cheryl Cain is a professional singer, violinist and teacher in San Francisco. She performs with the San Francisco Opera, the San Francisco Symphony, American Bach Soloists, and San Francisco Renaissance Voices. She has her Bachelor of Music degree from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and her Master of Music degree from the Manhattan School of Music, and she continued her studies in opera in Florence, Italy. She is a member of the American Guild of Musical Artists and the National Association of Teachers of Singing. She has performed in operas in both San Francisco and New York and as a soloist throughout North America and Europe. She is a regular soloist at the San Francisco Swedenborgian Church and teaches voice, violin and more.

Praised as having a “naturally clear voice” (La Scena Musicale) and noted as a “…striking tenor, with fine diction [and] a passionate delivery…” (SF Classical Voice), Chris Coyne has most recently played the role of Lurcanio in Handel’s Ariodante, Jean in the world premiere of Debussy’s Le Diable Dans le Beffroi, as well as Ferrando in Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte, conducted by maestro David Agler. Other credits include the Tenor Soloist in the Verdi Requiem, Barinkay in Der Zigeunerbaron, Colin in Le Devin du Village, and Eisenstein in Die Fledermaus. Future engagements include Count Almaviva in Barber of Seville with the SF Opera Guild outreach as well as Don Ottavio in a concert performance of Don Giovanni with the Cathedral Bluffs Symphony Orchestra in Toronto. Chris is a laureate of the Jeunes Ambassadeurs Lyriques International Competition, and was invited for workstudy at both the Opera Studio Nederlands and the Bayerische Staatsoper. Additionally the Stara Zagora (Bulgaria) and the Sletzke Divadlo (Prague) opera houses have shown an interest in the young talent.

Giovanna Ceserani (Associate Professor of Classics and, by courtesy, History, Stanford) is an intellectual historian of modern Europe, focusing on the history of classical scholarship, historiography and archaeology from the 18th-century onwards. She is interested in the role that Hellenism and Classics played in the shaping of modernity and in how the questions we ask of the classical past originate in specific modern cultural, social and political contexts. She is the author of Italy’s Lost Greece: Magna Graecia and the making of modern archaeology (Oxford, 2012). She is now writing on the emergence of modern histories of ancient Greece and on modern travels to ancient lands. For this project she was awarded a Mellon New Directions Fellowship in 2012-13. Her interest in travel engages new digital approaches with a focus on the Grand Tour for the Stanford digital humanities project, ‘Mapping the Republic of Letters.’

Clifford (Kip) Cranna, Director of Music Administration at San Francisco Opera, has served on the staff since 1979. He holds a BA in music from the University of North Dakota and a PhD in musicology from Stanford University. He has served as vocal adjudicator for numerous groups including the Metropolitan Opera National Council. For thirty years he was Program Editor and Lecturer for the Carmel Bach Festival. He lectures and writes frequently on music, teaches at the San Francisco Conservatory, and often moderates panel discussions such as the Opera Guild “Insights.” In 2008 he was awarded the San Francisco Opera Medal, the company’s highest honor, and in 2012 he received the Bernard Osher Cultural Award for distinguished efforts to bring excellence to a cultural institution. Dr. Cranna is a member of the Board of Trustees of Chanticleer, a professional vocal ensemble, and of Humanities West. He is on the Advisory Board of the contemporary music group Opera Parallele.

Ronald Gallman, the San Francisco Symphony’s Director of Education Programs, is an educator who has written and lectured extensively on symphonic music, chamber music, and opera. Gallman manages the San Francisco Symphony’s extensive slate of education programs, including the Symphony’s pre-concert lecture series, Inside Music.  He has written program notes for the San Francisco Symphony’s program book and created educational materials for students, teachers, and families.  Gallman has also presented lectures at the San Francisco Opera and the New World Symphony, and provided program notes for the New York Philharmonic’s Chamber Music Series, the Boston Symphony, the San Francisco Opera and SF Opera Guild, the Opera Theater of Saint Louis, and New World Records.

Mary Ann Smart is a professor of musicology at UC Berkeley. She is author of Mimomania: Music and Gesture in Nineteenth-Century Opera (California, 2004) and editor of the critical edition of Donizetti’s Dom Sébastien.  Her book on opera and political opinion in 19th-century Italy, Waiting for Verdi, will be published in 2013. Her recent work tackles the old question of the political meanings of Italian opera in Verdi’s lifetime, during the fight for Italian unification known as the “risorgimento.” The book she is currently writing, Risorgimento Fantasies: Italian Opera and Italian Politics to 1848, locates the debate about opera’s political significance not in the symbolism of plots or musical structures, nor in the personal opinions of the composers involved, but in networks of political activism and opinion formation that granted a central place to opera.

Pianist Ron Valentino has performed with many of today’s best-known classical artists, including Ruth Ann Swenson, Nathan Gunn and Deborah Voigt. In addition to concert work Mr. Valentino has been on the music staff of the San Francisco Opera and Opera Center, Los Angeles Opera and the New National Theatre in Tokyo. Ron has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, California Symphony and the Sacramento Symphony. Additional credits include the American Conservatory Theatre and the record breaking San Francisco production of Phantom of the Opera. A resident of San Francisco, Ron enjoys traveling and hiking.