Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Celebrating Verdi’s 200th — Life and Operas of Verdi: Otello

During the first half of his professional life, Giuseppe Verdi worked like a proverbial dog. (An odd idiom, “worked like a dog”. Yes, I suppose some dogs do work, but most of them spend the bulk of their time sleeping, eating, scratching themselves and licking their privates. If the latter is what is really meant by “working like a dog”, well then, the idiom takes on a whole new meaning, doesn’t it? With that possibility in mind, permit me to restart this post, sans the canine reference.)

During the first half of his professional life, Giuseppe Verdi worked REALLY HARD. In the fourteen years between 1839 (when he completed his first opera, “Oberto”) and 1853 (when he completed “La Traviata”), Verdi composed and oversaw the casting, staging, and premieres of eighteen operas. (A nineteenth opera – Jérusalem, produced in 1847 – was in actuality an adaptation and translation into French of an earlier opera entitled “I Lombardi alla prima crociata”.) Verdi himself referred to the period between 1839 and 1853 as constituting his “galley slave years” because to his mind (and to ours), he worked like a slave: 18-20 hours a day, almost every day, always under deadline, harried endlessly by librettists, producers, singers, instrumentalists, critics and conductors.

To hear Verdi tell it, he hated the whole stinkin’ opera composing trip, and claimed constantly that all he wanted to do was retire once he’d made enough money.

As early as 1945, at the age of just 31, he was already thinking about retirement. On April 21st, 1845 he wrote his friend Giuseppe Demalde:

“I look forward to the passing of these next three years. I have six operas to write, and then farewell to everything.”

Six months later, on November 5, 1845 – just 3½ years after his breakthrough triumph with Nabucco – the now 32 year-old Verdi wrote to a friend in Rome:

“Thanks for remembering your poor friend, condemned continually to scribble notes. God save the ears of every good Christian from having to listen to them! [You ask] How am I, physically and spiritually? Physically I am well, but my mind is black, always black, and will be so until I have finished with this career that I abhor.”

As we all know, Verdi didn’t retire in 1848. Nor did he retire in 1853 after producing “La traviata”, although his growing fame and wealth did allow him to slow down a bit. No, real retirement (or at least what seemed at the time to be “real retirement”) did not occur until 1871 when, following the production of “Aida”, the 58 year-old Verdi hung up his spurs, joined AARP, and took down his shingle.

Verdi came out of retirement two years later, in 1873, in order to compose a Requiem in honor of the Italian writer, humanist, and patriot Alessandro Manzoni. The Requiem received its premiere on May 22, 1874, and Verdi swore that he was now, absolutely, positively, unconditionally and categorically RETIRED FOR ALL TIME, thank you very much.

While Verdi might have been happy to quit his day gig, a number of other folks were not happy about it at all. Verdi’s wife Giuseppina (Giuseppe and Giuseppina: isn’t that cute!) wanted him working and not sitting around the house, making trouble for the help. Verdi’s publisher, Giulio Ricordi, had no desire to see his golden goose on the sidelines. The newly born Italian nation did not want to see its greatest son and hero put out to pasture, and the world-at-large could not imagine a still-healthy Verdi not creating new operas.

Thus, there were constant plots afoot to somehow get Verdi back to composing operas. Verdi must have felt like Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) who famously complains in G3 (“The Godfather, Part Three”) that “Every time I try to get out, they pull me back in!”

In the end, Verdi was pulled back in, and late in life he created two of his greatest operas: “Otello” (1886) and “Falstaff” (1893). I invite you to watch the excerpt below from Lecture 25 of my The Great Courses survey “The Life and Operas of Verdi” in which I tell the story of the plot that got Verdi back to the compositional table.