In celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Giuseppe Verdi, we posed seven questions about the composer to various people (for Bill McGlaughlin, it was actually nine questions). Having differing opinions about the composer, we hope, will add dimension to one’s understanding of the Italian master. Bill McGlaughlin offers his answers as we continue our two-week exploration of Verdi (weeknights at 7:00 PM) on WFMT.
Q. What was your first impression of Verdi?
I first heard Verdi at home — my grandmother was a good pianist and her repertoire included a lot of the best known operatic excerpts — arias and overtures. Also, my pop was big opera buff and after he presented me with a harmonica and showed me how to play a scale, we moved on to harmonica duos — playing ‘the tunes we knew,’ which included the big hits from La Traviata, Rigoletto, Aida, some Wagner, Fledermaus, Carmen and such. Of course, since we were playing simple diatonic harmonicas, we’d soon run into chromatic passages we couldn’t handle. No problem — we’d just move on to another aria. Also, my father was a big fan of the Met broadcasts and began to amass a collection of opera recordings, which we practically wore out.
The first performance of Verdi I heard was a version of La Traviata with minimal staging and piano accompaniment in a small auditorium upstairs in the Wanakmaker Building, the big Philadelphia department store. I’m sure it was excerpted because I don’t remember a chorus, but I was completely taken by the music making. For some reason, the Overture and the Prelude to the final act stay in my memory and I know I went home and found a piano/vocal score and did my best to learn the opera.
Around the same time, my grandfather, seeing that I was serious about this music business began to take me up to an old movie theater at Broad and Wyoming. I think that by that time the building was used as a union hall during the day but on Wednesday nights, they showed films of operas. That’s where I first saw Rigoletto, La Traviata, Lucia di Lammermoor, Eugene Onegin, and a lot more. I’ve no idea when or where the films were made or who the singers were but it didn’t matter very much to me. I was hearing and seeing this wonderful music.
Q. What recordings were most influential?
I never really devoted myself to the study of Verdi recordings, not in the way I did to Wozzeck, for example. When I was in graduate school I went to the library every day with a score in hand to listen to the old Carl Bohm/Dietrich Fischer Dieskau, Evelyn Lear DG recording. I’m sure I listened to that forty times.
Also spent time with Wagner, especially the late recording of Tristan with Furtwangler.
With Verdi, I listened to the recordings more for sheer pleasure. Which endures.
Q. Has Verdi made a lasting impact on music? On culture, or on our world?
Verdi had an enormous impact, in his own time and far into the future. He took what had become a very popular and entertaining vehicle for great singers, built on that, added depth of emotion and psychology, more subtle and penetrating study of character, a wide ranging imagination and of course, wrote the greatest tunes and choruses of the 19th century. In doing so he created a body of work which changed the way we define not only opera but any notion of musical story telling. Two hundred years after his birth, Verdi’s operas justly remain tremendously popular all over the world and I can’t imagine a world in which that would not be true.
Q. Verdi seems especially vulnerable to poor interpretation. He’s been criticized for doing nothing more than a lot of “boom chuck chuck,” yet with some conductors, that rather frivolous music never happens. Why is he so misunderstood after 200 years?
Well, I have to say I never underestimated Verdi. Not even when I was in the throes of Wagnerisme (that came after I’d encountered Verdi in my development, in my later teens. Around the time that some of my friends were embracing Ayn Rands, I was enthralled by Siegfried and Fafner and the like.) But I never lost my deep affection for Verdi. As a young orchestral player, as a conductor lucky enough to have led many performances of the Requiem, as a listener to this day, I remain riveted, eager to hear what Verdi has to say, even when I’ve already heard it a dozen times.
Verdi couldn’t be more different than Wagner or Berg, for example — there’s no obvious theory or big pseudo-philosophical architecture that seems to be dictating what he composes. Though some of his accompaniments may seem simple (that’s the basis, I’d guess for the ‘boom chick’ rap) they serve the voice and the drama so well it seems churlish to want anything more. Verdi is a man of the theater — his music goes straight to the heart, but there’s plenty for the soul and brain as well.
Q. Compared to singers of the past, have today’s voices or approach to singing Verdi really changed so much? How?
I’m really not a scholar of vocal performance. I tend to fall in love with certain voices and stick with them. On the other hand, it was very interesting to come upon Jonas Kaufman’s new Verdi recording just as we were preparing for this show and to give a listen to Placido Domingo singing baritone roles, although I have to admit that when Maestro Domingo took the high notes in Di Provenza, I heard a tenor and missed the depth of some of the great Germonts I’ve heard in the past.
Q. Does singing Verdi favor certain types of voices?
A singer needs a bit more heft to the voice for Verdi than he or she might need in Mozart, for example, but beautiful singing will alway carry the day. As long as the opera house isn’t too big and the orchestra sensitive.
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.
T.S. Eliot said that mankind can’t bear too much reality. I’d add that too much talent and abundance can overwhelm us. Verdi wrote twenty-eight operas. That’s a lot of music for any one person to hold in his noggin. I think the generosity of Verdi’s achievement can just wear us out. And we humans do tend to cling to what we love. Actually, that’s one of the things I really like about human beings.
Q. You chose a lot of Muti for your two weeks of Verdi. Why?
Two reasons. 1. Muti has a deep understanding and love of Verdi, combined with masterful conducting skills. 2. This is more mundane. In putting together a big radio presentation one doesn’t have time to listen to everything. Sometimes, you just go with what you know will work. And Muti and Verdi work.
Q. In preparation for your Verdi immersion, have you learned anything about the composer that surprised you?
Gary Wills’ book, Verdi’s Shakespeare; brought a lot of insight about Verdi as a man of the theater. He wasn’t sitting in an ivory tower composing for some imagined performers — he was writing for a specific opera house with specific singers in mind and very clear ideas of how he wanted the roles sung. For example, for Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Verdi wanted monsters — repulsive to see and rough in voice. They weren’t heroes, he said and they shouldn’t look or sound like heroes. I take that very seriously, but I also can’t help thinking Verdi would have been delighted if he could see and hear someone like Tom Hampson taking on that role — the music manages to convince despite Tom’s movie-star good looks and ravishing voice.
That’s what I really learned from these shows — not only the depth and breadth of this extraordinary music but that it’s performer’s music — Verdi puts magic into his operas and the singers breathe it alive.