Q. and A. with Arias and Songs host Larry Johnson
In celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Giuseppe Verdi, we posed a set of questions about the composer to various people. Opinions differ, which isn’t surprising, adding dimension to one’s understanding of the composer’s art, and of his impact. Larry Johnson reflects on the composer, as he finishes recording a two-part special on Verdi (Saturdays at 4:30 PM):
Q. When did you start really getting into Verdi, and what was it that did it for you?
Verdi was actually the first composer I became aware of as of age three. My father bought the newest technology in record players. It was an RCA Victor phonograph that played the new 45 RPM records. He bought an album of highlights from La traviata featuring prominent MET singers of the time who were Licia Albanese, Jan Peerce and Robert Merrill. The album was issued in 1951 noting the 50th anniversary of Verdi’s death.
Q. What recordings were most influential?
After Traviata I moved on as a teenager to Rigoletto. The local library had a recording with Leonard Warren, Jan Peerce and Erna Berger. It is still a favorite. Later I bought and still enjoy the Solti Falstaff and Jon Vicker’s 1960 Otello.
Q. Has Verdi made a lasting impact on music? On culture, or on our world
Lasting impact? How could we define 19th century Italian opera without him?
Q. You’re a connoisseur of the scratchy old recordings…Have today’s voices or approach to singing, and approach to Verdi really changed so much? How?
The approach to all operatic performance has changed dramatically which we can discern from listening to vintage recordings. In the 19th and early 20th centuries the singer was allowed a lot of latitude in performances. Interpolated cadenzas or notes held as long as one’s breath could sustain them. Up through World War II a soprano would interpolate her choice of an aria like the Mad Scene from Lucia into the Lesson Scene in the Barber of Seville for example. It was the age of the singer putting an individual stamp on interpretations of roles. Then conductors like Toscanini and Mahler began to clean up opera’s “act” so to speak. “Come scrito” or “as written” became the norm with a new respect for what the composer wrote, not just what singers wanted to do that suited their vocal advantages and temperaments.
Q. Verdi has a number of operas that are lesser-known. Are they not as good? Why do you think they’re not performed as often?
Early Verdi can be a bit clunky with all the oom-pah-pah, oom-pah-pah which was a universe away from Falstaff as his last opera. He had not found his true voice yet although here and there are some quite wonderful arias well worth hearing.
Q. In your work, have you learned anything recently about the composer that surprised you?
I’m using a duet from La forza del destino in my second program noting Verdi’s 200th birthday anniversary. I was delightfully surprised while doing some research on this opera that Verdi had priorities other than strictly operatic. Before embarking on the long journey by train from Italy to St. Petersburg for Forza‘s premiere Giuseppina Verdi sent ahead copious quantities of pasta, wine and salami. She knew that he would be a lot happier, and no doubt knew her life would be easier too. I guess a way to a man’s heart is still through his stomach.