Of Verdi and Vaudeville

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Today (or tomorrow, the birth record is a little ambiguous) is the birthday of the great opera composer Giuseppi Verdi (1813-1901).

Jokes are often made about the fact that his name translates into English as “Joe Green” but it’s a joke with resonance. Though most Americans undoubtedly can’t match his name with his music, I would bet that most DO know at least some of his music, and probably know more of his music than any other opera composer, including Rossini, Puccini, Wagner or even Sir Arthur Sullivan. Music from Verdi’s operas (especially Rigoletto, La traviata, Il trovatore, Aida and Nabucco) has been used constantly in pop culture: in sound films, recordings, even cartoons. This was based on the fact that his tunes were ALREADY recognizable to audiences; selections from his popular works were among the “greatest hits” opera singers Enrico Caruso, Fritzi Scheff and the Ponselle Sisters would bring to big time vaudeville stages back in the day. Visionary producers like Martin Beck liked to book such acts at flagship venues like the Palace to give them an aura of class. When Ed Sullivan picked up the mantle for his television variety show, he maintained that tradition, and thus the operatic music of Verdi and others were part of mainstream popular entertainment at least until the early 1970s. It’s really not until after that, that it became COMPLETELY segregated on a separate “cultural” network (.e., P.B.S.). But I’m with the great impresario Oscar Hammerstein, who believed in making culture available to the masses. It ain’t so bad once you develop a taste for it. Plus, you can whistle it!

To learn more about vaudeville past and presentconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famousavailable at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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