A new way of looking at things
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” –  Henry Miller

Curt Veeneman, Ph.D.


Mandatory Opera Business Part 1

31 May 2013

Disclaimer:  This blog entry is the result of a wasted attempt to ponder the myriad causalities in the mysterious link between Italian composers and the phenomenon of opera.  The following thoughts transpired during an almost interminable intermission in an Italian opera performance in an outdoor amphitheater — in the midst of a delirium-producing, record-breaking heat wave (see Hot Opera).  Any resemblance to actual events in music history is purely coincidental and can only be considered lucky.

Signor Crescendo


Étienne Carjat (1828–1906), photographer:  Gioachino Rossini, 1865

 (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}



Have you seen both of Rossini’s graves?  “Huh?” you may ask.  Yes, there are, in fact, two of them.  It’s not that he was too large to fit into just one, although, considering his portliness, that may have made things a little difficult.  It’s just that, well, he stopped composing operas and, shall we say, sensed a certain urgency to leave Italy . . .

Gioachino Rossini, known affectionately as "Signor Crescendo" to his opera audience, was born on Leap Day in 1792 and by the time he saw 37 (technically nine years old, if we want to be strict about the 29 February date) he had composed 39 operas, including Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), La Cenerentola (Cinderella), and even an Otello (Othello) with a happy ending.

He boasted, "Give me a laundry list and I'll set it to music."

Rossini was so on top of his game that he liked to give advice to young composers with tips such as, "Wait until the evening before the opening night.  Nothing primes inspiration more than necessity, whether it be the presence of a copyist waiting for your work or for the prodding of an impresario tearing his hair.  In my time, all the impresarios in Italy were bald at thirty."

But, after composing more operas than he had lived in years, he seemed to have lost interest in the process.  He lamented, "Oh how wonderful, really wonderful opera would be if there were no singers!"

So, even with all of that success, once he composed his last opera, Guillaume Tell (William Tell; you know, the one with the overture that goes like, da-da-da, da-da-da, da-da-da, da, da — that’s the sound of a horse running away), Rossini had to flee Italy and eat lots of food in France.

It was difficult at first.  The Parisians called him a “musicien barbare,” and, to cope with the northern climes, according to Mme de Hegermann-Lindencrone, Rossini often wore one wig on top of another, and when it was especially cold, on top would be a third one that was curlier than the others.

Then there was the French passion for technological progress, as we all know.  On Rossini’s first train ride, he fainted and had to be carried out feet first.  It took him several days to recover from the shock of traveling 15 miles per hour.

Félix Nadar (1820-1910), photographer:  Gioacchino Rossini, 1858

 (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}

 But, after some time, even after sneaking back into Italy for various periods (including for the purpose of finding a wife), Rossini managed to adjust to Parisian life.  He hosted musical soirées with a guest-list that included Franz Liszt, Camille Saint-Saëns, and Giuseppe Verdi, and started spending more time in the kitchen.

Unfortunately, after a certain point, he was unable to cross his hands when playing the piano due to his expanding girth, but he came up with some pretty incredible culinary creations — he helped a famous chef create tournedos Rossini, for example.  (The usual explanation for this term is that one must turn one’s back — "tourner le dos" — to keep the recipe a secret.)


Tournedos Rossini:  consisting of bread crouton, filet mignon, foie gras and black truffle slices with Madeira wine sauce

 (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


Rossini eventually admitted that, "I know of no more admirable occupation than eating, that is really eating.  Appetite is for the stomach what love is for the heart.  The stomach is the conductor, who rules the grand orchestra of our passions . . ."  Thus, some of the last works that he composed, mostly for solo piano, have titles like, Hachis romantique [Romantic Hash], Ouf! Les petits pois! [Bah! The little peas], and Hors d’oeuvres, with individual movements titled, “Les radis [radishes],” “Les anchois [anchovies],” and “Les cornichons [pickles].”



A statue of Gioachino Rossini stands in the Piazza del Popolo in Pesaro, Italy, Rossini's birthplace.


Organized Rhyme Syndicates

So, has anyone ever asked why Rossini could not remain in Italy after he stopped composing operas?  I have a theory.  (Shhh . . . parliamo sotto voce.)

It’s due to the pervasive influence of the m.o.b. — the mandatory opera business.  Rossini had stopped paying ‘protection monody’ and had to flee to France.  The m.o.b. is one of several organized rhyme syndicates operating in Italy, and when an opera composer stops making a racket with new operas, he is perceived as not cooperating with the protection racketeers.


H. Mailly:  Caricature of Gioacchino Rossini on the cover of Le Hanneton, 4 July 1867

 (photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


Everyone in the music business knows what a money note is, say when a soprano or tenor hits a high note, such as the nine high "C"s in Donizetti's opera La fille du régiment.  My theory is, if Rossini had continued producing money notes, he wouldn’t have had to leave Italy.  Rossini had simply upset the librettist (book-maker), and ultimately had to face the wrath of da capo (di tutti capi) aria.

So, after having to contend with French cuisine for all of those years, Rossini finally died an expatriate in 1868 and was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, far from his homeland.


Gioacchino Rossini’s empty tomb at Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, Paris


Nonetheless, in spite of the fact that Rossini had lived for nearly 40 years after Guillaume Tell and refused to write another opera, based on the exemplary actions of the titular character of Rossini’s earlier opera, La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie), there was a sort of reconciliation with the mandatory opera business.  Thus, in 1887, although deceased, Rossini was allowed to return to Italy, his remains being buried in the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence.


Gioacchino Rossini’s tomb in Basilica di Santa Croce, Florence



All’opera! [To work!]

Opera is uniquely an Italian invention.  It is such a natural fit to the Italian character that it is thought of as elemental.  For example, when I was refreshing my Italian language before a recent trip, I listened to a series of instructional CDs.  On the first one they recited the alphabet: “. . . emme come mamma [m as in mama] . . . enne come Napoli [n as in Naples] . . o come opera [o as in opera] . . .”  This tells me that all of the mothers in Naples are singing insertion arias when they put pacifiers in their babies’ mouths.

I think Luigi Barzini gives us a clue in a chapter headed “The Importance of Spectacle,” in his book, The Italians, as to why opera is indigenous to Italian culture:


"Vendors extol the advantages of their wares in loud voices (watermelons are always ‘good to eat, drink, and wash one’s face with’).  Craftsmen carry on their work in the open air, in front of their shops, and sing or chat with passing friends:  mechanics dive under disemboweled cars, cobblers hammer shoe leather, carpenters polish table-tops with the sweeping gestures of a conductor directing an adagio cantabile.  A waiter changes tablecloths and snaps each in turn in the sunshine with twists of his wrists . . ."


Barzini goes on for another fifteen pages describing this spectacle (Barzini, being Italian, does this in his own spectacular manner), concluding that, “Only later [the traveler] begins to suspect that there may be, with all this, a theatrical quality which enhances but slightly distorts all values.”

It is little wonder, then, that Italians invented opera and that opera continues to thrive in Italy today.  Ever since Jacopo Peri's Dafne, the first of the genre in 1597 (now lost), opera has been the primo piatto of composition in Italy.

Of the 300 or so Italian composers of any significance (we’re including some really minor ones here, too), and active between Peri in 1597 and 1901, when Giuseppe Verdi died in Milan — that rounds off to 300 years, or about one composer a year — and this shouldn’t come as a surprise, the majority of those 300 or so Italian composers composed operas. And the majority of that majority composed operas almost exclusively.


The Palazzo Pitti in Florence, Italy, where the first opera to have survived to the present day, Euridice (1600) by the composer Jacopo Peri and the poet Ottavio Rinuccini, was performed


On the other hand, the rest of music (non-opera) might feel a little neglected.  Georges Bizet wrote in 1858, “There are no pianists in Italy, and if you play only the scale of C with both hands you pass for a great artist.”

We could go further into the twentieth century, but those world wars drastically altered, along with everything else, the musical landscape, and then we have to talk about definitions, such as, into what taxonomic designation does scoring for film fall?

It is a fact of life that opera composers are venerated in Italy.  Opera music can still be heard in Italian television commercials and at soccer games, and, for example, countless restaurants are named after opera singers or composers and their works (Il Verdi in Milan, Ristorante Maria Callas in Verona, Caffè Tosca in Lucca, Ristorante Mascagni in Rome, and Ristorante Bellini in Naples are but a few of thousands of examples).

During the formation of the modern state of Italy in the nineteenth century, the  Risorgimento (Resurgence) movement for Italian unification used a beloved opera composer’s name as a political slogan:  VERDI — Vittorio Emanuele, Re d’Italia [Victor Emmanuel II, King of Italy].  Vittorio Emanuele II soon became king of a united Italy.

Then, when Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901), who had composed 28 operas, was staying at the Grand Hotel et de Milan and dying of a stroke, the people of Milan made sure to speak softly and covered the street outside the hotel with straw to muffle the noise from horses' hooves and passing carriages.  The two hundredth anniversary of Verdi’s birth is being celebrated this year.


The Sala Verdi, the room in which Giuseppe Verdi died in the Grand Hotel et de Milan in Milan, Italy



The Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, a rest home for retired opera singers and musicians, founded by Giuseppe Verdi in Milan, Italy


When news of the death of Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924), who had written ten operas, reached Rome during a performance, the opera was halted and the orchestra played Chopin's Funeral March.  To get an idea of how Italy reveres its opera composers, try reading the plaque on the outside of Puccini’s house in Lucca:  


“Da lunga progenie di musici degni della viva tradizione patria ovi nacque il 22 dicembre 1858 Giacomo Puccini che alle nuove voci di vita accordo note argute di verità e leggiadria riaffermando con le schiette agili forme la nazionalità dell’arte nel suo primato di Gloria nel mondo — la città orgogliosa di lui …"

From a long line of descent of musicians worth the vivid tradition of our country, Giacomo Puccini was born here on 22 December 1858, and to the new voices of life he turned keen notes of truth and grace, reasserting through smooth, agile forms the nationality of art in its primacy of glory in the world — the city, proud of him . . . 

There should be no doubt that they are in awe of this opera composer.


The Ristorante Puccini in Lucca, Italy (regrettably, they couldn’t fit the composer’s entire name on the sign:  Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Maria Puccini)


Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848), who wrote about 75 operas, is much admired in Italy.  In his home town of Bergamo all of his effects have been preserved in a museum, including the chair in which he composed and the bed on which he died.


The Museo Donizettiano in Bergamo, Italy:  the composer’s piano can be seen in the foreground, and in the background, his chair and bed


Even non-Italian opera composers are held in the highest regard.  The German composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883), or as Italians like to call him, Riccardo Wagner, has a square named after him in Milan, for example.  Wagner’s bicentennial, like Verdi’s, is being celebrated this year as well.


The Piazza Riccardo Wagner in Milan, Italy (note the Italian form of the composer's first name, Richard)


So back to the 300 or so Italian composers who lived during opera’s ‘golden age’.  What about the minority who let their opera output lapse?  Whatever they were composing, it most likely wasn’t in Italy.







The photographs used in this blog, unless otherwise noted, are by Curt Veeneman.

Related Posts (Italy)

Who started Travel Con Brio®?

Composer, scholar (in music theory, ethnomusicology, and music history), performer, educator, conference organizer, and entrepreneur, Curt Veeneman received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

His additional interests, subsumed in wonder at the beauty of God’s entire creation, include art (he was an art major before the balance tipped ever-so-slightly toward music), literature, architecture, photography, mathematics, history, languages, cultural studies, world-cuisines, and, of course, travel.
photograph by Colleen Veeneman

In founding Travel Con Brio®, Curt was eager to synthesize all of these interests to create imaginative, stirring, and enlightening experiences to be enjoyed by both young and mature travelers alike.  The tours that he organizes reflect his extensive travel experience and familiarity with the art, music and culture of numerous countries, with each tour being richly enhanced by local experts.

Curt and his wife Colleen live near San Francisco.  They have three children.

What is this blog about?

Culled from a number of trips abroad, this blog compiles various experiences in an attempt to reveal the cultural nuances of places visited on Travel Con Brio® tours.  Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, Curt’s observations are intended to describe and appreciate the personalities, character, idiosyncrasies, conventions, mood, and ambiance of places visited.  Contemplations of topics ranging from language and customs to climate and bureaucracies are freely offered alongside art and music reviews.  Any cultural issue, if illuminating, can become the focus.

These musings on the personal impact of various cultures are offered so that you, as a traveler, may compare and contrast your own impressions with them.  Do you share a similar interest?  Do you agree with a specific conclusion?  Or is there a fine distinction to be made regarding a particular point?  You are invited to leave your comments; please, however, be respectful of other readers.

And last, a caveat:  flukes, asymmetries, and twists of fate may suggest more about Curt than about any foreign culture under discussion.

What are some of Curt Veeneman’s musical activities?

As a composer, Curt has spoken and/or his works have been performed throughout the United States, in Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Bulgaria.  He is the winner of several awards, including the ASCAP-Hubbell Award for composition.

Curt Veeneman's compositions include Les Cloches, inspired by the life of Joan of Arc (premièred by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra), The Wiry Concord for 5-string banjo, dulcimer, cimbalom, harp, harpsichord, piano, viola and percussion (available on Capstone Records), Mountain Thyme, based on Bulgarian folk music (recorded by the Sofia Symphony Orchestra), Alcuin's Riddle, for orchestra and 15 soloists who cross the “audience-river,” Hommage for voice, flute, 'cello, piano, and percussion, Windmills, computer music featuring sampled wind turbines on California's Altamont Pass, and Pneuma for solo flute, (also available on Capstone Records).

Of this last work, the following comments have been made:  “J’ai beaucoup apprécié le lyrisme et la rigueur de Pneuma pour flûte de Curt Veeneman”  (I greatly appreciate the lyricism and the precision of Curt Veeneman’s Pneuma for flute) —Gérard Condé, Le Monde, Paris, 29 August 1996; “a well written piece”  — Robert Dick, flutist, author of The Other Flute; “it is quite exciting!” — Molly Alicia Barth of eighth blackbird; and “strong and imaginative” — Jules Langert, San Francisco Classical Voice, 13 March 2006.

As a new music promoter, he directed the new music ensemble Sonor Borealis at University of Alberta, Canada, and founded and directed the concert series, PACIFIC MARKET: Fresh Music From Around The World, at the University of the Pacific.  As a performer, Curt Veeneman is recorded on Music and Arts.

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