Verdi as Icon for Contemporary Composers? You Bet.
Thursday, October 10, 2013 - 04:24 PM
An enduring canard in opera histories is that Verdi did not have “much noticeable influence on younger generations of composers.” (The quote is from The New Grove Guide to Verdi and His Operas by Roger Parker.)
The claim holds up well in the case of Italian composers: in Puccini’s music one catches frequent whiffs of Wagner and Debussy but relatively little Verdi. And esterofilia—the abject, knee-jerk predilection for all things foreign—was already the cancer of Italian culture in Verdi’s day, as he often lamented in his letters. (In its current, terminal stage it has brought to virtual extinction the heritage of Dante and Caravaggio, Luchino Visconti and Oriana Fallaci.)
Luckily for us Operavores, composers from other nations have been glad to learn from Verdi. This is true of Benjamin Britten, who expressed unconditional admiration for Verdi, and whose operas echo the older composer’s terse, astringent style. And it is true of some of today’s most admired young opera composers, too. Here’s what Mohammed Fairouz, David T. Little, Missy Mazzoli, and Paola Prestini have to say about Verdi.
Mohammed Fairouz, composer of Sumeida’s Song
My first memory of a live encounter with Verdi was seeing Rigoletto with my parents at Covent Garden. At 11 or 12 I had already written vocal music, so I was taken by just how amazingly Verdi did what he did for the singers. I remember being totally entranced by the atmosphere and environment he had created. I felt real fear in that darkened theater (especially at the appearance of Sparafucile).
As a composer obsessed with text and driven by melody and drama, I have found Verdi’s influence irresistible. He showed me what it meant to create an immersive atmosphere, and I’ve attempted this in my large-scale works, ranging from Sumeida’s Song and the scenes that I am developing in Bhutto to my third and fourth symphonies. As I’ve developed a musical output that often engages with current events, the idea of Verdi’s career as a composer accompanying and seeming to comment on the Risorgimento has fascinated me.
I first heard Verdi as an undergraduate. I was taking a class on choral masterworks, and his Requiem was assigned listening. I remember not being especially excited by the opening movement, which at the time felt a little conservative and “classical” to me. But the Dies irae really won me over. I had grown up listening to a lot of death metal, and heavy music in general, so the Dies irae was really speaking my language. It remains one of my favorite moments from the traditional rep.
When I first encountered Verdi’s operas, I wasn’t really a fan. I started with Macbeth, which I decided to explore as a follow-up to Berg’s Wozzeck. Subject-wise it seemed it could [work]: keeping it dark, so to speak. And the whole notion of Verdi exploring the genere fantastico of that time was really exciting to me. But when I listened, although there were some really beautiful moments in the score, it felt strange—unexpectedly jubilant.
But then I heard Rigoletto, which I’d say is probably my favorite Verdi opera of those I’ve had the chance to really dig into. In this piece, the bright jubilance of the score makes more sense to me than in Macbeth, and it serves as a great counterbalance to the tragedy of the story.
Missy Mazzoli, composer of Song from the Uproar
I first encountered Verdi while studying composition at Boston University. I heard the cello quartet and love duet from Otello, followed quickly by the death scene in Act IV, and felt that I had opened a door onto a dark new world.
Verdi encourages me to find plots and characters that resonate with me in a personal way, instead of gravitating towards stories that I feel will be widely loved or commercially successful. I haven’t done research on this but I’ve always felt that he was in love with his characters, and I think you hear that in the music.
Paola Prestini, composer of Oceanic Verses
My favorite Verdi opera is Falstaff, and the fact that he wrote it in his 80s, without the pressures of a commission or a deadline, makes it even more appealing. The counterpoint and ten-part fugue at the end create one of the most inspiring moments in all opera—he brings everyone into the conversation, unifying them through polyphony, and making it a musically democratic conclusion. Being a lover of 16th-century counterpoint and often utilizing counterpoint in my own music, I love this example.
I also love Verdi’s relationship to the texts he worked with. All great opera composers need to be part dramaturg, part director, and the foremost advocate for the musical arc. All this, and yet the process needs to be collaborative. I feel Verdi navigated this beautifully in his works. The libretti are tight and serve the action on stage. What works onstage is often a leap from what works on the page. As I gain confidence in my own abilities and process, I seek out collaborators who bring democracy to the table for the art at hand.