Speeding down an Italian country road in a taxi, whizzing past everything from grassy farmhouses to humble homes and ramshackle ruins of long ago, I’m on my way from the bustling community of Parma to the vibrant, but decidedly quieter town of Busseto. My destiny is someone’s home; from what I’ve heard it’s a sprawling property that I was told to just check out. Unfortunately, the owner of the ornate villa will not be there to greet me. He died more than 100 years ago.
Parma may not even be in the top 10 places in Italy that future visitors dream of traveling to. After all, there is the eternal city of Rome, the urban center of Milan and the pizza-centric Naples, not to mention the picturesque Amalfi Coast or the idyllic Capri, the shimmering waters of Como, but also Puglia, Bologna, Florence, Venice, Sicily or whatever. number of other communities where tour buses run, couples honeymoon, and influencers gather to post Instagram selfies that say “La Dolce vida(and yes, I saw someone do this). The only thing that brings the name Parma to mind in most people’s minds is cheese.
Simply put, Parma is the Wisconsin of Italian life, at least in the sense that cheese culture reigns supreme here. As you may have guessed, Parma is the proud home of Parmesan Reggiano. (The Reggiano part of that name comes from the name of this region.)
As a result, Parma and the surrounding communities serve as a minefield for the lactose intolerant, as the area is positively plastered with formaggio, including the shops selling cheese wheels the size of Goodyear tires. In trattorias in this country, the cheese is rarely if ever grated, but served in large chunks piled high on a plate to be eaten by hand along with the other specialties of the area. Those include Parma ham or torta fritta, which are essentially salty, light puffs of deep-fried dough. Yes, piles of cheese, but also fatty and fried foods. Here in Parma, American catnip is on the menu.
But there’s another beloved claim-to-fame of this community that isn’t made of salt or fat. His name is Giuseppe and he was born and lived in these regions a century ago. What is ironic, however, is that I heard that Giuseppe Verdi was not as fond of scenic Parma, and certainly not as much as he enjoyed the nearby big city life of Milan, which he would later move to in search of a career as a composer . It’s a career that culminated in what became a famously long streak of creativity and world-renowned operas. For 87 years he was the mastermind behind classics like Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, Aida and La Traviata. Yes, along with the aforementioned dairy, Guseieppe is Parma’s favorite son, even if he didn’t reciprocate that sentiment.
Yet Verdi’s footprints can be found all over Parma and the surrounding communities, as the late composer continues to direct this part of the world like a musical spirit. Sure, the composer Arturo Toscanini also hails from these parts, but his legacy is small potatoes compared to Mr. Verdi. (Moreover, Verdi never left Italy, while Toscanni left for New York for a time where he conducted internally at NBC Radio).
While Verdi’s legacy is top-of-mind year-round, he really takes center stage (or to modify that figure of speech, steps squarely into the conductor’s gallery) every fall. Then Festival Verdi settles in the region; four weekends when the area welcomes a flood of visitors to feast their eyes and ears on its productions at Parma’s lavish Teatro Reggio and Teatro Magnani, located in nearby Fidenza, along with street performances and lectures. Many of the Americans in attendance are avid fans of the opera and regularly travel the world in search of the art form. The New York-based non-profit organization International Friends of Festival Verdi acts as a pipeline from America to Parma for many of the attendees, and it’s who I went with on this particular weekend. Admittedly, for someone with a formerly rudimentary knowledge of opera (I was happily stoned when I saw my first and only opera at New York’s Met, being angrily silenced by the man next to me), it was an education.
Fortunately, Francesco Izzo is here to fill in my gaps. Izzo, a part-time resident of Parma and a professor of music at the University of Southampton in England, is “Direttore Scientifico” of Festival Verdi Parma. In other words, he is one of the custodians of Verdi’s legacy. A good example, Izzo tells me with passion in his voice: “Verdi in Parma is a responsibility; no right or privilege. It is a challenge and must remain a challenge.” Suffice to say, this is a man who takes his Verdi seriously.
It’s Saturday afternoon in rural Roncole, about 30 minutes from Parma. Still full of yesterday’s plates of, you guessed it, cheese and ham, and I walk through Casa Natale Verdi Museum, Verdi’s childhood home. Today, cheese wheel magnets reading “Parma” are sold in the gift shop while an Italian flag flies outside in the country breeze.
It’s clear that Gusieppe definitely didn’t come of age with a silver spoon in his mouth, but grew up here of fairly modest means as the son of both an innkeeper and that long-ago full-time career known as a “spinner.” True to Italian form, there seem to be two dining rooms here: one small and another that is, well, larger. A wooden table displays a place setting where the Verdi’s would have gathered, complete with a bottle of Chianti and its signature wicker base, along with a loaf of bread. The floors here are clad in brick and the ceilings are fitted with long wooden beams, the imperfections clearly conveying a handmade quality.
Verdi spent his early years here which were marked by tragedy in the form of the death of his younger sister, Giuseppa, who was also his best friend. In fact, his later years were marked by a similar loss with the death of his only two children by blood, as well as his first wife; the latest of an inflammation of the brain with the terrifying name Encephalitis. It’s no wonder the operas I see on my journey are so angry with emotion, depicting extreme heartbreak and loss, with scenes ricocheting between pure joy and the depths of despair. Although perhaps his best-known production, Il Trovatore, portrays characters exploding with extreme joy, it ends with the two main lovers in a dungeon, both dying in utter agony.
The house that Verdi eventually made for himself is much more extensive than his modest childhood graves. It’s called Villa Verdi because when you’re both famous and wealthy, your home has a nickname that’s as flashy as it is eponymous. Located in the village of Sant’Agata, the property has remained virtually untouched from his death in 1901, complete with his books, curtains and sheets, down to his trademark black hat standing idly by, unworn for the past 120 years. It’s a sprawling property, complete with horse stable, wine room and ornately decorated bedrooms, complete with floral wallpaper that has long since lost its garish colour.
The man had a dedication to his craft that would be inspiring if it didn’t border on eccentricity, including sleeping in a separate bedroom from his wife so as not to wake her, we’re told, when inspiration struck late at night. Elsewhere it is said that he deliberately covered his walking path around the estate with sand, as gravel would have drowned out his musical thoughts while walking through nature.
After walking through his dusty bedrooms, I later ask Izzo about the basics of the festival itself. “In some ways Festival Verdi has no reason to exist; it is absolutely indispensable,” he says during a moment of candor. Izzo is well aware that we are not talking about a ubiquitous well-known name like Beethoven or Shakespeare, but someone the majority of lay people have never heard of. “The festival can only exist if there is still so much to learn about him, and there is, both in terms of performing his lesser-known works and performing them in a way closer to the spirit of Verdi’s intent itself lies.” For the team behind the festival, this also means a sense of risk. Word to the wise: Do not anger opera diehards as they will retaliate. At a performance by Verdi’s Simon Boccanegera at the Teatro Reggio, some members of the (presumably vegan) audience jeered over a new addition to the age-old show: the depiction of a butcher’s shop in the production.
Back at Villa Verdi, the guide brings a piece of news that leaves the assembled group gasping: after a century of private ownership, the house and property are closing to the public this fall, perhaps for good. Izzo tells me about the backstory, explaining that Villa Verdi is for sale and only God knows if anyone will want to buy it. Verdi’s distant relatives do not have the financial means to keep the business open. While Villa Verdi may return to the Italian government, it is an open question whether they would also have the financial resources for maintenance and public visits. (It is the Italian government and everything).
On the other hand, unlike in America, they’re not going to demolish it and build a Citibank. “Under Italian law, it must be kept as Verdi left it,” explains Izzo. “So we hope they can find a motivated buyer that can step in, like an institute or university that might want to have cultural activities there.” Still, he adds with a wink: “For now we are in a phase where we don’t know what will happen. Which is scary. I’d rather not think about it.” A glimmer of hope came last November when Gennaro Sangiuliano, Italy’s culture minister, walked through the house and assured the press that “many entrepreneurs were ready to intervene”, adding “the government is very alert to the fate of these villa, of this museum, because Verdi is the foundation of our nation, he is a legacy of all Italians.”
Whatever happens to the Villa, I’m lucky enough to be one of the very last people in a multi-generational legacy to see it. Whatever happens, the uncertain future of the Villa confirms the obsession of both Parma and Festival Verdi to keep the man alive. It is a mission that fights against the end of memories, lives and real estate; even though Verdi himself was not as much a fan of Parma as Parma loves him at the moment.
Specifically, Izzo tells me that this Italian pride of Verdi blossomed in the early 1900s. “There was a widespread search for symbols of Italian role models and many cities began to celebrate and glorify and be proud of some of their most illustrious citizens,” he explains. “For Parma, that is Verdi. Every Italian city has a Verdi street, Piazza Verdi, Ristorante Verdi, Pizzeria Verdi, and so on and so forth. But Parma does it to a much greater extent.”
“When my mother decided to move to Parma, she moved into what was called the Verdi building,” he adds. “Verdi himself would have strongly objected to this.”