Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Scandalous Overtures — Giuseppe Verdi: The Conspiracy to Get Him Back To Work

Early retirement; who doesn’t dream of it, or at least think about it now and then? But for the vast majority of us, early retirement is like winning the lottery: a fantasy never to be realized.

Now, if you are one of the lucky few that genuinely like what you do for a living, retirement holds little attraction. I have a good friend, a fabulously successful investment manager in his mid-60’s, who could retire today. But, as he says, he would wake up tomorrow and simply start another business doing exactly the same thing he had been doing before he “retired.”

For me, the issue isn’t so much retirement as having the liberty to do less: of not feeling constantly pressured to write and perform and worry, endlessly, about money.

People who use their bodies for a living – professional athletes and dancers – do not have the option to do less. They know that time is not on their side and that only total physical commitment is possible. And woe to the athlete or dancer who goes on for too long: their bodies break down and their reputations are permanently sullied.

On the flip-side of that coin are those great athletes who quit in their prime and went out on top. Such retirements leave fans with mixed feelings: what amazing things might Sandy Koufax and Jim Brown and Rocky Marciano have accomplished had they kept at it for another five years? Sandy Koufax retired at 30 with three Cy Young Awards, four World Series Rings, and a lifetime ERA of 2.76. Jim Brown retired after only nine years in the NFL during which he was MVP three times and led the league in rushing eight times. Rocky Marciano retired from the ring as the undisputed heavyweight champion at the age of 32. His professional record? 49 wins, no losses or draws, 43 wins by knockout. D’oh!

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) was the greatest Italian-born opera composer who ever lived. And as early as 1845, the 32-year-old Verdi was already considering retirement. As it turned out, he did not retire from the opera stage until 1871 when, following the premiere of Aida, the then 58-year-old Verdi threw in the towel and announced that he was DONE. But, in fact, he wasn’t done. Finally lured out of retirement by a conspiracy of family and friends, Verdi went on to complete what are – arguably – his two greatest operas: Otello, completed at age 73, and Falstaff, completed at the age of 79.

It’s one thing to quit when you’re relatively young. It’s another thing entirely to comeback when you’re no longer so young and not only regain your past form but reach an entirely new level. Verdi did it, and so did his spiritual brother, Michael Jordan.

In 1993, 30-year-old Jordan was at the TOP of his game. He had just won his third consecutive NBA title and third Finals MVP award. He had been voted league MVP three times. So when His Airness announced that he was quitting basketball in order to play baseball(!) you could hear the proverbial pin drop across the entire planet.

Jordan was a bust as a baseball player and he returned to the Chicago Bulls and professional basketball in March 1995. I remember the pundits saying that he was through: that the demands of the game and his advancing age spelled inevitable doom for his comeback.

Nah — it was as if he had never left. In his first game back Jordan scored 19 points. In his fifth game back he hung a double-nickel (55 points) on the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden. Jordan’s Chicago Bulls went on to win three more NBA championships and Jordan himself three more Finals MVP awards and two more league MVP titles. Jordan finally retired — for good — in 2003, at the age of 40. Thanks to his comeback, MJ’s legacy went from “the greatest of his time” to “the greatest of all time”.

The same can be said of Giuseppe Verdi’s and his comeback. Stay tuned to Ora TV and “Scandalous Overtures” for “The Nefarious plot to get Giuseppe Verdi Back to Work!”

Watch the episode below:

  • Dr. Bill Creasy

    Bob–Nice blog about retirement. I know just what you mean. I “retired” from 25 years of teaching English literature at UCLA, but continue teaching courses all around southern California . . . well, just because I love doing it (some of us desperately need an audience who laughs at our jokes!). That and leading 3 or 4 teaching tours each year around the Mediterranean and the Middle East (nothing like teaching the “Iliad” on site at Troy)! I’d be bored to death actually being “retired.”

    I’ve listened to ALL of your courses through The Great Courses, and your new “Scandalous Overtures” via Ora TV is seems a great medium for reaching a wider audience: your presentations are quick, snappy and entertaining. May they lead to many more students coming your way; your “Great Courses” are a treasure. Keep up the good work, my friend.

  • Elias

    Giuseppe Verdi inspired me to grow a beard.