Italy has been making an unfortunate name for itself lately: piles of uncollected garbage in Naples, unrestrained persecution of Roma (gypsies), and a prime minister known more for corruption and “bunga bunga” parties with underaged girls and prostitutes than for anything remotely resembling statesmanship.
But on March 12 this year, the Teatro dell’Opera in Rome was the site of a dramatic moment which not only electrified a nation, but changed the course of the government.
It was a performance of Verdi’s Nabucco, celebrating the 150th anniversary of Italian unification.
The opera recounts the plight of the Jews in captivity in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon as they pine for their lost homeland. Written in 1842, Verdi’s work is often credited with helping to arouse Italy’s national consciousness. The famous Va, pensiero, also known as The Chorus of Hebrew Slaves, became an anthem for Italian patriots in the years leading up to unification in 1861. Recent polls suggest that many Italians wish Va, pensiero were their national anthem.
When conductor Riccardo Muti began leading the orchestra and chorus in Va, pensiero, he felt the atmosphere in the theater shift.
“Before, there was a silence of people listening to the opera. At the moment people realised Va, pensiero was starting, the silence was filled with fervour,” he says.
He could feel the audience’s visceral reaction to the Hebrew slaves’ lament: “Oh mia patria, si bella e perduta!” (Oh my country, so beautiful and lost!)
“They were thinking: everything that made our country great in the past is lost.”
When the chorus ended, the audience exploded with applause, which soon turned to a rhythmic beat as people called called out “Viva l’Italia!” and demanded an encore. Muti, who felt strongly that an opera should be performed straight through, was reluctant to grant an encore. But the change in the atmosphere had affected him as well. He turned to face the audience — which included Prime Minister Berlusconi and most of the Italian government — and made a short, sharp speech regarding the government’s drastic cuts to art funding and the culture it was endangering.
“I agree with that ‘Viva l’Italia!’ See, I’m not young anymore, but as an Italian who travels around the world I feel great pain for what’s happening in Italy. So if I respect your requests tonight and we repeat Va, pensiero, I won’t do it only for patriotic reasons. Tonight, while the chorus sang ‘Oh mia patria, si bella e perduta!’ — I was thinking, if we kill the culture on which the history of Italy is founded, then our country really will be beautiful and lost.”
The audience applauded vehemently — and the chorus members broke character, rising to their feet and applauding with the audience. In a departure from tradition, Muti agreed to the encore, then departed even further from tradition by inviting the audience to sing along. He raised his hands and began, but this time he was not conducting the chorus or the orchestra. He was conducting the audience.
It was, he said, a “magical moment.” The entire audience stood and sang along, as papers fluttered from the box tiers above. At the end, the chorus members were wiping tears…and I suspect much of the audience was as well.
Eleven days after this performance, the government reversed its position. The minister of culture, who had also been roundly criticized after November’s collapse of the House of the Gladiators at Pompeii, was sacked, and his replacement’s first act in office was to restore the nation’s arts and culture fund to its 2010 levels. It had previously been cut nearly in half.
It may only be a temporary reprieve, but it is still a marvelous reminder that sometimes, a small act can make a big difference.
(Hat tip to Ana.)