June 2 marked the anniversary of the birth of the Italian Republic. 150 years ago a bunch of fractured and mostly unrelated states were brought together by the wills of a few visionaries and the revolutionaries who followed them. Were they able to come back for this year’s celebrations, they might be appalled at the mess we have made of the original ideal. I shouldn’t say “we” as my only contribution was to abandon my land for what I deemed better shores, a choice somewhat disguised under a personal need for adventure.
A stateless person like me, when invited to the festivities the Italian community organized at UCLA, politely declined, secretly aware that the speeches would have been too long and prosaic for my short attention span. There is a saying in Italian to describe things or people who are not clearly defined – neither meat nor fish. And it aptly describes my condition of not belonging anywhere in particular and my lack of patriotism.
A friend who refuses to believe in my indifference (although, rather than indifference, I would describe it as “emotional and logistical displacement”) sent me the link to a YouTube video of a moving performance.
Maestro Riccardo Muti, an ambassador of Italian culture in the world if ever there was one, after conducting a performance of Verdi’s “Nabucco” in a Rome theatre, was asked for an encore of the popular aria “Va’ Pensiero”. He paused and, with the choir standing on the stage, he addressed the audience (amongst whom our ridiculous chase skirting Prime Minister) to chastise the recent slashing cuts to the arts and to reiterate the importance of culture in a place that, at many points in time, was the cradle of more than one art form.
Then he turns around and, asking the audience to join in, leads the choir into one of Verdi’s best known arias. To many Italians, Va’ Pensiero (Go, thought, on golden wings) carries more patriotic meaning than our (not terribly good) national anthem, partly because it has a patriotic theme and partly because, at the time it was written, it could have been interpreted as a veiled call to arms for the unification movement. Alas, historians have debunked this myth – Verdi was struggling to make himself known and was forced to compose for a libretto of an opera that tells the story of the Jews’ escape from Egypt (Nabucco is short for Nebuchdnezzar, the Egyptian pharaoh who enslaved the Jews). When Verdi read the lyrics to “Va’ Pensiero”, the music followed quickly and the opera became his first “hit”.
Truth notwithstanding, Italians have made the aria their own and most know at least some of the lyrics, as attested by the video which is so emblematic of the “Bel Paese”: melodrama, pride, misunderstanding and culture all rolled into one.