Tale of two epoch-defining classical music titans born in the same year

Operatic face-off shows that in Milan at least, Verdi v Wagner is still more of a cultural draw than Strictly v The X Factor

It's the ultimate operatic face-off. In the blue corner is Giuseppe Verdi, the great Italian humanist and hero of the Risorgimento, the unification of Italy. In the red corner is Richard Wagner, creator of gigantic Gesamtkunstwerken (total works of art) and classical music's greatest myth-maker, both in his lifetime and in his sometimes baleful influence from beyond the grave.

It's one of those flukes of history that these two century-defining Titans, who both did as much to mesh music with national identity as any other composers before or since, should be born in the same year. For an industry obsessed with its anniversaries, that's really a bit of a bummer.

Stéphane Lissner, running the world's most famous opera house at La Scala in Milan, could be forgiven for cursing both Giuseppe's God and Richard's Wotan for conspiring to make 1813 their shared anno di nascita: how do you celebrate both of them in the same season?

In Milan, there ought to be no contest as to who matters more: including revisions, 10 of Verdi's operas were premiered at La Scala, including both his late Shakespearean masterpieces, Otello and Falstaff. So it's no wonder that La Scala's decision to open its blockbuster Wagner/Verdi season with Richard's Lohengrin has caused a typically Italian furore, as the glitziest night in the international operatic calendar is given over to a decidedly Teutonic swan-loving knight instead of one of Verdi's all-too-human heroes and heroines.

What's brilliant about the barney is that it shows that, in Milan at least, Verdi v Wagner is still more of a cultural draw than who wins Strictly or The X Factor. Now, personally, I'd rather have had a drink with Verdi, but would rather hear Parsifal than Aida. Who wins? Thankfully, we don't have to decide: as opera-lovers, we'll get a feast of both of them next year.


Tom Service

The GuardianTramp

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