If we can believe Giuseppe Verdi, if it weren't for one chance encounter early in his career, he might never have written a single great opera -- and his country might have lost a unique, musical moment of national inspiration.
Verdi's second opera, King for a Day, premiered in 1840 at Milan's historic opera house, La Scala. The piece was a dismal failure, and it came at a time when the composer's emotional health was already fragile. His wife had died earlier that year, and the couple had recently lost both of their children. Following the failed opera, and in the throes of depression, Verdi decided to give up music altogether.
Then, the composer later reported, he unexpectedly ran into La Scala's impresario, Bartolomeo Merelli, on the streets of Milan. Merelli had a new libretto on his hands -- called Nabucco -- and he talked a reluctant Verdi into looking at it.
Verdi, as the story goes, took the libretto home and put it aside, finally reading it late one night when he had trouble sleeping. He happened to open the pages to the words of a now-famous chorus: "Va, pensiero, sull' ali dorate " -- "Go, thoughts, on wings of gold." Drawn in by those words, he agreed to compose the opera, which became his first unqualified hit.
It's a great story -- though Verdi did have a tendency to exaggerate tales of his early career. He once recalled the busy years after Nabucco somewhat bitterly as his "years in the galley," and while he certainly composed feverishly during that period, he was hardly working for slave wages.
In fact, the tremendous success of Nabucco propelled Verdi to a series of triumphs that made him one of the most famous men in Europe. The now-familiar chorus "Va, pensiero" also includes the words "my country, so beautiful and lost," and in some circles it became a sort of unofficial anthem -- inspiration for the "Risorgimento," the Italian movement for unity and independence.
In the process, Verdi became a true Italian hero. And, if his remarkable creative life began with Nabucco, we might say it ended with it as well. When Verdi died in 1901, the immense crowd that gathered for his funeral procession joined a massed choir to sing that same chorus -- a melody that helped launch one of music's most celebrated careers.
On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Nabucco from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in London. The production features one of the most acclaimed singers of the 20th and 21st centuries, Placido Domingo, reinventing himself as a baritone for his first ever performance in the opera's title role.