It's not necessarily over when the fat lady sings. In Milan, musicians and singers from the great opera house La Scala exit the stage to live out their lives happily together at Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, known as Casa Verdi.
La Scala retirees aren't the only residents of this rest home, an imposing mansion set on a traffic circle near the Metro stop Buonorotti. Anyone with a musical career is welcome to pass the sunset years in Giuseppe Verdi's living monument.
This year marks Casa Verdi's 100th anniversary. Verdi was writing "Falstaff" when he conceived of a musician's retirement home as an enduring memorial to his music. Verdi's father was an innkeeper, so perhaps a family tradition of hospitality also influenced the composer, who bought the property in 1889 and founded the retirement home in 1899, providing a substantial endowment in memory of his second wife. In October 1902 the rest home opened. Verdi had died the year before and was buried in an elaborate mosaic crypt in Casa Verdi's courtyard, which is open to visitors during the day.
Diego Mattiello, Casa Verdi's director, leans back in his swivel chair in a paneled office ornamented with marble busts, paintings and mementos of opera's greatest composer. Royalties from Verdi's many operas funded the institution for decades after he died, explains Mattiello, but now the foundation runs on donations.
"We just received another gift from the Toscanini family," he says. In the main hall, honor rolls of big donors are carved in marble plaques. Luciano Pavarotti is on the list. So are Marilyn Horne, Maria Callas and the Metropolitan Opera Company.
There are 79 places in this "residential hotel," as the director describes it, and a short waiting list. Fees are on a sliding scale; everyone pays according to ability. "But they all are treated equally," Mattiello hastens to add. "The ages of our 55 current guests--we consider them guests--range from 69 to 104, including a 100-year-old lady pianist who still plays."
Originally intended for Italian artists, Casa Verdi is now home to an international musical clan, who seem to do little resting given their schedules of concerts, receptions and family visits. "To live here, there are two qualifications," says Mattiello. "They must have made their living from music and be physically self-sufficient." Residents live in self-contained units--room with private baths--and eat in a communal dining room. In Verdi's day, old people without extended families would bed down in a ward with no privacy.
By continuing to live in an environment steeped in theatrical lore, the musicians never really leave their profession, which may account for the upbeat atmosphere at Casa Verdi, said Mattiello. No shuffleboard and canasta here. Concerts are offered several times a week. Verdi's own piano, an Erard, holds pride of place in the concert hall decorated with wood paneling and painted trompe l'oeil draperies. Younger musicians compete to get on the programs. "And after 100 years," says Mattiello, "we've modified the bylaws to give opportunities to younger musicians. International students enrolled in a music school in Milan may also live at Casa Verdi."
Residents are given free tickets to La Scala and enjoy Milan's other offerings. The stream of musical pilgrims looking for Verdi's tomb provides a diversion, as do the young resident conscientious objectors who help at Casa Verdi as an alternative to military service.
A warbling voice echoing down the hall testifies that singers are in residence. Former ballerinas, composers and orchestra musicians live here, along with dedicated music teachers such as Berta Bandina, who was born in Tuscany near Sienna but lived many decades in South America, moving into Casa Verdi in 1996.
At the time-darkened bronze statue of Verdi that looms over the main staircase, Bandina pauses. "I touch this statue every time I go by to thank Verdi for making this house," she says. "That's why there's the bright spot on his boot." Upstairs, in a reception room outfitted with several grand pianos, she settles into one of the many large chintz-covered sofas. But Bandina can't talk for long; a student is expected. "I played in Buenos Aires, but not concerts, the organ in church. I am a music teacher, all my life."
Luigi Veccia was first cello with La Scala and taught the orchestra musicians for 25 years. Dapper at 86, eyes like black olives, he tugs at a music stand by the window of his room to make space for guests. The walls are an orderly collage of photos, diplomas, awards and concert programs. "That's me with the Papa," he says, pointing to Paul VI. Sure enough, a younger Pope Paul covers Veccia's hands with both of his. "And me when a child, playing the cello," says Veccia, stabbing the frame of another photo with his index finger.
"Do you want me to play?" he asks, gesturing to the canvas-encased cello. But an insistent dancer at the door pushes forward his sister the ballerina.
Back in 1931, Italia Vescovo, now 82, was a star dancer with La Scala. She's a rather stunning octogenarian, striking eyes outlined in kohl and trim body swathed in fur. She gestures to a picture of herself en pointe in a tutu. "I was in Egypt touring with La Scala company, dancing in Cairo," she reminisces in gravel-voiced Italian, while her brother, Bruno Vescovo, still too young to live in Casa Verdi, echoes her words in English. Bruno also danced with La Scala, squiring prima ballerina Carla Fracci around the stage.
Outside the infirmary, four women with sculpted cheekbones perch in identical poses on a bench. They look like frozen great-aunts of the four cygnets who dance with joined crossed hands in "Swan Lake." An elderly tenor in a business suit stands on an upper floor and uses the stairwell as an echo chamber, rolling out strands of some long-ago performance.
Down the hall lives Cesare Bardelli, a baritone who toured for years with New York's Metropolitan Opera. Bardelli hails from Genoa, studied in Milan and won first prize in a field of 350 singers in 1939. He skips over a long singing career with the Met, the Philadelphia Orchestra and other companies to tout his biggest memory, performing "Rigoletto" at the White House for a memorial service for President Kennedy. Richard Tucker and Roberta Peters, whom Bardelli admires, were also on the program.
Bardelli pops a tape into a small pink tape player and time stops. "I always sang this for my daughter," he says. "I went all over--Boston, San Francisco, Chicago. My favorite role is 'Tosca's' Scarpa."
He settled in New York City because "New York is like Milano--you can go everywhere in the world from here." But when his daughter married an Italian, he decided to follow her back to the old country.
When asked his age, he crows, "I'm 37," and for a New York minute it's believable, though he's really 88.
Carola Szaloy, born in Budapest, has lived at Casa Verdi for only a month. "La Scala people suggested I come here," she says in a mixture of English and Italian. She was living alone in Milan and still teaching, but couldn't keep up financially on her own.
On the wall above the wooden bed is an oil portrait of her as a young dancer, painted in 1938 by Feiks Jeno, according to newspaper clippings stuck in the frame. "I danced many years with the Opera de Budapest during the 1930s," she says. Marriage to an Italian journalist (Italo Zingaralli) whom she met in Vienna brought her to Italy in 1941. "In the 1950s, I was engaged as a teacher at the La Scala School of Dance."
Life at Casa Verdi is good for Szaloy, who is coy about her age. "It's like La Scala, marvelous. There are other ladies here from La Scala that I know." A typical day features music, of course, a formal concert or impromptu playing by residents. Visitors drop by and students seek advice.
This summer Szaloy plans to go to Budapest, as she does every year. "I visit the cemetery," she says. "That's where my other friends are."