20 May 2013

An evening with Verdi

One by one they introduce themselves, shaking hands. Nabucco, La Traviata, Rigoletto, La Forza del Destino, Otello. I was meeting the members of the Club dei 27, a Verdi appreciation society unlike any other. Every Thursday, they gather in a vaulted wine cellar in Parma, the central Italian city that celebrates the opera maestro in a particularly spirited manner.

Verdi was born 40km away in Busseto, but that’s close enough for the Parmigiani to have adopted the man who changed Italian opera, and was the inspiration behind a wonderfully elaborate opera house that rivals La Scala in Milan.

The men of Club dei 27 – and it’s only men – have been meeting since 1955 over a glass of wine, sharing their love of Verdi and genially arguing over his music. They each take the names of Verdi’s 26 operas – plus his Requiem – which makes the introductions somewhat surreal and sweetly amusing. Un Giorno di Regno (real name: Enzo) ushers me into the vaulted meeting room, where wooden chairs are neatly lined up against the wall. It’s not their usual Thursday, and about a third of them have made a special exception to meet me on a Monday.

As we all shuffle into the room, Un Giorno di Regno says: “This is what we do when we welcome guests.” The lights dim, and the club members line up in front of me. Someone has turned on the CD player, and the sound of the "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves" from Nabucco seeps gently into the room.

The men begin to sing along to the recording, quietly at first. Their eyes are half closed, moved by the music as it crescendos. I am too, and I can feel my eyes pricking slightly. It is one of the most evocative pieces of music Verdi ever wrote, in which he transposed the 19th-century Italian desire for statehood to biblical times.

I’m still enveloped in the cocoon of sublime music when Un Giorno di Regno tells me about the other work that the Club dei 27 does. Its greatest pride is the education programmes it runs in local schools. Children as young as six are introduced to opera in an entertaining and unintimidating way, which has proved a huge success. Some have gone on to study classical music and opera formally at a conservatoire, Un Giorno di Regno tells me with a beaming smile.

I’m then shown the opera wall of fame, on which stars of the opera world have been given maestro status by the Club dei 27. Singers and conductors have been awarded this honour, some posthumously, others in the room in which I’m standing. These stars, too, are given the same musical welcome I received. I spot Placido Domingo’s photograph on the wall.

“So Placido Domingo was here too? And did you greet him the same way you greeted me?”

“Yes,” the men answer.

“But wasn’t it a bit daunting to sing in front of one of the world’s greatest tenors?”

“No,” says Un Giorno di Regno, in all seriousness. “Singing this aria is like singing our national anthem. We sing it with the same sense of pride, and no fear of who might be listening.”

Opera for the masses indeed.

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