The opera is Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi, the chorus is Va, pensiero, the singers are enslaved Jews, dragged to Babylon after their defeat by Nebuchadnezzar in 590 BCE. This lament for the lost homeland is one of the most magical moments in opera.
This year, Nabucco was performed in Rome to mark the 150th anniversary of the modern Italian state, in the presence of the unpopular Prime Minister Berlusconi. Also attending was the mayor of Rome who, in a speed before the performance, had criticized cuts in the cultural budget. The mayor’s speech had earned him a long applause. The Italians love Verdi and his operas, most of them know his operas by heart and often sing the famous arias.
The performance was uneventful until the chorus Va, pensiero, whose lyrics include “Oh, my country, so beautiful, and lost…” (Oh mia patria sì bella e perduta!)
There was a strange tension in the audience, felt both by the conductor and the performers. At the end of the chorus, there was a deafening applause. The conductor heard calls for repetition. The clamor refused to die down.
In Italy, asking for repetitions in the middle of a performance is not customary.
When the clamor finally did die down, the conductor, Riccardo Muti, turned to Berlusconi and said:
“I am an Italian. I travel all over the world, and I am ashamed now of what is going in my own country. Therefore – and this to the audience – I honor your request for a repetition. This is not just because of its patriotic content. It is also because, when directing the words ‘Oh, my country, so beautiful, and lost…’ I think about the fact that if we continue in this way, we will destroy the culture that forms the historical foundation of Italy. In that case, our country will truly be lost.”
He added: “I, Muti, have been silent for years. But now, listen, I want to give this song genuine meaning. Here I am, at home in Rome, in an opera house with an outstanding chorus and a fabulous orchestra to play accompaniment. I propose that you all join in, and we will all sing all together.”
He restarted the chorus, then turned to the audience and conducted their singing. Because only the stage was illuminated, the audience could only be seen indistinctly, but it was clear that both the audience and the chorus on stage were on their feet, singing. At the end, the women in the chorus were seen wiping their tears.
And think hard how to preserve our American culture.