Music Makers

Verdi's Gift: Wringing Catchy Music From Touchy Subjects

In his operas, Giuseppe Verdi had a knack for empowering  marginalized people — like the title character of Aida, who is an enslaved Ethiopian princess (played in this 2011 French production by American soprano Indra Thomas). i i

In his operas, Giuseppe Verdi had a knack for empowering marginalized people — like the title character of Aida, who is an enslaved Ethiopian princess (played in this 2011 French production by American soprano Indra Thomas). Gerard Julien/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Gerard Julien/AFP/Getty Images
In his operas, Giuseppe Verdi had a knack for empowering  marginalized people — like the title character of Aida, who is an enslaved Ethiopian princess (played in this 2011 French production by American soprano Indra Thomas).

In his operas, Giuseppe Verdi had a knack for empowering marginalized people — like the title character of Aida, who is an enslaved Ethiopian princess (played in this 2011 French production by American soprano Indra Thomas).

Gerard Julien/AFP/Getty Images

Two hundred years ago this week, Giuseppe Verdi was born in an Italian town midway between Bologna and Milan. On the occasion of his bicentennial, All Things Considered wanted to know what makes the great opera composer so enduring — why his work is still so frequently discussed and performed these two centuries later. The answer, says conductor and arranger John Mauceri, is that Verdi had a knack for making thorny topics accessible.

"One of the incredible achievements that he had, besides the fact that he wrote 30 operas — which makes his input into the repertory huge — was that he had this ability to create popular music dramas that are actually about something," Mauceri says. "There's this kind of earworm music, where you get these tunes that you just know from the day you're born, seemingly. And yet, when you see the operas, you realize that they're actually about important subjects, which are just as important today."

Those subjects include the sexual politics at the center of La Traviata, the themes of race and imperialism explored in Aida, and other topics provocative enough in Verdi's day to inspire vitriolic reviews — and the occasional protest.

John Mauceri spoke with host Robert Siegel about how Verdi's button-pushing tendency turned into a lasting legacy. Hear more of their conversation at the audio link.

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