Anthony DiRenzo

Professor, Writing
School: School of Humanities and Sciences

Nights at the Opera

Va, Pensiero

Edward Hower, author of The New Life Hotel and Storms of May, says my writing is "operatic in [its] intensity." That's not surprising. As a boy, I dreamed of being a Verdi baritone. I wanted to play Doge Simon Boccanegra, calming through sheer legato the fratricidal rage of Genoa's warring political parties.

My adult voice, however, proved better suited for comedy. During my twenties, I sang patter roles in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and Italian opera buffa in regional companies. Sometimes I tackled character roles in more serious operas, such as the Sacristan in Puccini's Tosca. Unfortunately, chronic catarrh (the result of an inoperable sinus condition) scuttled a promising career. Ever since, with the exception of the CRS Barn Studio's 2011 production of The Magic Flute, I have confined my singing to church. God will forgive me for sounding like Felix Unger but not a paying audience.

For historical as well as personal reasons, however, I remain passionate about Italian opera. This unique art form practically created our national identity. Giuseppe Verdi's early work contributed to the Risorgimento, the 19th-century Italian unification movement. "Va pensiero," the chorus of the Hebrew slaves from Nabucco (1842), is often compared to "America the Beautiful." Until a generation ago, this heartfelt patriotic hymn, not the bombastic "Inno di Mameli," was considered Italy's true national anthem. Most modern Italians can't remember the words to either.     

"Opera once was an important social instrument," said composer Luciano Berio. "With Rossini and Verdi people were listening to opera together and having the same catharsis with the same story, the same moral dilemmas. They were holding hands in the darkness. That has gone. Now perhaps they are holding hands watching television."

Both composers appear in a working collection of essays and stories called Nights at the Opera. The title comes from the Marx Brothers film, of course, but the book is dedicated to the memory of professor and music critic William D. West. I don't know when, or even if, I will complete this collection. Writing about Italian opera in a world conquered by American pop is often heartbreaking. Its vanishing beauty too obviously symbolizes my vanishing culture.

O mia patria sì bella e perduta! O membranza sì cara e fatal!