Opera in the living room: an old tradition sees restoration in Italy
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Opera is a serious pastime in the birthplace of world famous composer Verdi. But to increase accessibility, performances are being held in private homes.
Parma, Italy—A young tenor’s voice, in his rendition of “La donna e mobile,” fills the palatial living room with one of Giuseppe Verdi’s most famous canzones from “Rigoletto.”
It’s a late Thursday afternoon and the sun is setting, as guests seated around the piano begin to clap. The hostess is suddenly in the center of the circle for a short waltz.
For a moment, it feels as though we are transported back to the 19th century, when Verdi, among the world’s most famous composers, created 27 operas, some of them the most-loved in the world.
But it’s 2017, and this is the sidelines of the month-long Festival Verdi held each year in Parma, Italy. If any region can call itself a heartland of opera, it's this one.
The festival is an international affair, drawing foreigners from around the globe for four major operas staged each year in the opulent theaters in and around where Verdi was born. But it also aims to bring opera off the stages into the community in a series of events – from Verdi sung in rap, to the staging of “Nabucco” by inmates at the local jail, to these living room performances for aspiring opera stars. And at least with the latter, the festival brings an ancient custom of private home performances that started in mid-18th century Europe to 21st century Italy.
Accompanist Claudia Zucconi, who is studying for her masters and wants to specialize in opera, says that playing these antique keys in such a living room “was very emotional.”
“The piano was very ancient, so it was special for a pianist to play it. I felt like it was another epoch, in another time, like I could be dressed liked a princess playing in a room like this.”
Her brown eyes light up when she talks. And this Parma native is no anomaly. Opera – and specifically local hero Verdi – are so central to the town’s identity and culture that people debate it at locales the way they might discuss the latest soccer match. Opera marks status to this day: with membership in the exclusive Club dei 27, a group of 27 associations named after each of Verdi’s operas, or in the boxes of Teatro Regio owned by well-off families that include an adjacent private room for entertaining during intervals.
The director general of Parma’s Teatro Regio, Anna Maria Meo, says the responsibility she feels is nothing short of enormous. Only a few nights ago, after a performance that had only one intermission, theatergoers stopped her on her way down from her office and asked why there weren’t two. She replied that the opera was already long. “ ‘But you can’t cut the space for us to discuss what we are watching, we need at least two,’ they said,” she recounts over a cappuccino in the theater’s baroque café.
That exuberance is felt inside and outside the theater. In the middle of a production of “La Traviata” at the tiny Busseto theater, inaugurated in 1868 with Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” two guests arrived famished at the cash bar. There was no hot food – but no need to worry. Franco, behind the counter, arranged for a restaurant nearby to deliver anolini, a stuffed pasta in piping broth, in two big bowls.
The living room performance is another way to showcase Italy’s hospitality, says Ms. Meo. But it also serves to recapture lost traditions.
Such private concerts were common in the 1750s, says Giuseppe Martini, an Italian music historian in Parma. They started in France when musicians began to host events to show off their work – and their new status. The practice expanded to Austria, Germany, England, and Italy. It was also the way friends and families simply spent time together – as any Jane Austen book illustrates – before the onset of radios, televisions, and iPhones.
On this afternoon, visitors arrive at a pink façade at the Piazza Duomo. As the bell chimes 6 p.m., they file in through a plant-filled courtyard and up the stairs into a frescoed salon – decidedly not your everyday Italian home. The host is the Marquise Zaira Dalla Rosa Prati, whose family has owned this palace since the 1700s.
Donna Dalla Rosa Prati grew up with music around her. Her first name is a nod to the inaugural performance at Teatro Regio, Bellini’s “Zaira.” Her mother studied music at the conservatory, she says, showing off a family album fittingly covered in musical notes. “My father was a doctor, but he had a great voice,” she explains. “My house was always full of musicians coming through.”
So hosting such an event many decades later feels only natural, and her only hope, she says, is that her guests leave “enraptured.”
They seem to have pulled it off. Simona Tedeschi, a psychologist, came here right after work for a different glimpse of the art form she so cherishes. “In a theater you live the experience of abundance and magnitude because all of the arts come together,” she says. “In the experience of the house you live the closeness of the artist, so it’s more intimate.”
It’s a new endeavor for the performers too. Ms. Zucconi says it’s more intense without the distance of the stage. “At my first living room concert I thought, ‘Oh my God.’ It was a very small room and there were a lot of people around the piano. Everyone could read the sheet music,” she says. “But it’s fantastic because music should be everywhere. Not only in the theater or in music halls, but everywhere.”