Senator wants to change Italy's national anthem – to opera

Umberto Bossi has proposed replacing the current military march with “Va Pensiero,” an aria from Giuseppe Verdi's masterpiece “Nabucco.”

MILAN, ITALY – What Italy needs, in these times of crisis, is more opera.

Or at least that's what Italian Senator Umberto Bossi seems to suggest. Mr. Bossi, leader of the Northern League party, a major partner in the conservative government, has proposed abolishing the current national anthem, a 19th century military march, and switching to something a little more melodic: “Va Pensiero,” a popular aria from Giuseppe Verdi's opera masterpiece “Nabucco.”

“Nobody understands the lyrics anyway,” says Bossi of the current anthem, known as Fratelli d'Italia, (Brothers of Italy), by obscure composer Goffredo Mameli. But "Va Pensiero" - "Now, that one most people love," he says.

Bossi is not new to political provocations: years ago he called for the peaceful secession of northern Italy, which he insists on calling Padania, from the rest of the country. Last summer he organized a soccer tournament with other “oppressed nations,” including Tibet, Northern Ireland, and East Timor. Padania's team, by the way, won.

So Bossi may be a little eccentric. But on this one, he may be right.

The music of the current anthem is indeed mediocre – quite a shame for a country that has produced artists of the caliber of Vivaldi and Puccini, not to mention Mr. Verdi himself. The lyrics are also difficult to understand, and a bit too militaristic for my taste.

I always wondered, in school, why we had to sing three times: “We are ready to die, if Italy calls.” As a fourth grader, I didn't hold martyrdom as my top priority.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi might have been thinking the same thing, when accompanied those lyrics with a “not so sure” hand gesture during his party convention in March. (To view the prime minister singing the anthem, click here.)

Bossi, on the other hand, opposes the line “God made [this nation] a slave to Rome,” as he views the capital as corrupt and decadent – or “Rome the thief,” as he likes to put it.

Bossi is usually a very divisive figure. But this time his idea is gaining praise from across the political spectrum, although it is unclear whether he will actually succeed in actually changing the anthem.

“Verdi is our national pride, after all,” wrote the left-wing columnist Rina Gagliardi in L'Altro newspaper. “Moreover the old anthem is a little machista.”

“I disagree with Bossi's views [on Rome], but he's right when he says 'Va Pensiero' is more beautiful,” said conservative congressman Italo Bocchino.

Opera lovers like the idea as well: “Va Pensiero is very popular, it's so powerful and patriotic,” says Carlo Fontana, the director of La Scala theatre in Milan.

In Italy opera is not considered as much of an elitist genre as elsewhere, and the aria is indeed well known to the wide public. Pop star Zucchero Fornaciari turned into it a major hit about a decade ago. When "Nabucco" is presented once a year at the open-air Roman theater in Verona, the public often sings along with the “Va Pensiero”– much to the horror of purists.

The aria, written in 1842, laments the sufferings of the Hebrew slaves in ancient times. Some see it as a metaphor for Italy's struggle for independence, and others as a universal hymn to freedom. Finally, some simply see it as one of the best musical pieces ever written.

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