When Lyric Opera of Baltimore presents a new production of Verdi's first hit, "Nabucco," this week, there will be a guaranteed encore: The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves.
"It's so good, you have to hear it again," says James Harp, the company's artistic director.
That's what the first audience for "Nabucco" in 1842 at Milan's La Scala thought, too. For 172 years, this choral piece has been routinely encored at many an opera house, especially in Italy, where it enjoys the status of an unofficial national anthem.
"There is a tradition in Italy of the audience singing along during the encore," Harp says. "We will do that here. We will have the music printed in the program and the Italian text on the supertitles."
The chorus is known commonly by the Italian title, "Va, pensiero," from the first line of the text: "Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate" ("Fly, thought, on wings of gold").
Unlike most of Verdi's choral writing, it is written mostly in unison, making it easier to absorb and recall. Even people who don't go to operas as a rule have probably encountered it on radio or in some other way.
For those new to the piece, or who need a refresher, Harp will hold a rehearsal in the lobby during intermission. He offered that same service when "Nabucco" was staged by the Baltimore Opera Company in 2006, a few years before that organization folded.
"It really is quite thrilling to hear the audience singing along," Harp says. "And when I can look up and see Verdi's name in the pilaster at the Lyric, I get emotional."
This superbly constructed choral piece has an ear-grabbing melodic line that moves with eloquent grace as it slowly builds to an expressive peak and recedes. It has a way of striking an unusually deep chord.
Although the opera offers lots of drama and a score filled with colorful music — Lyric Opera Baltimore has engaged a promising cast and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra to deliver it — "Va, pensiero" is the passage that compels extra attention.
"Nabucco" is based on the biblical tale of Nebuchadnezzar, who destroyed Jerusalem and deported its people to his kingdom in Babylon. "Va, pensiero" is sung in the third act by the now-captive Hebrew slaves, who yearn for their own country, "so beautiful and lost," and the days "when our land was free."
"There is something profoundly, deeply personal about it," Harp says. "We have all felt oppressed, have felt like an outcast in some way. The music speaks to that. There's a tremendous plaintiveness in it, but there's also hope."
For the people in Milan who first heard "Va, pensiero," that hope was especially pertinent.
Their part of Italy was under Austrian rule, preventing a unified country, so they had no trouble identifying with the Hebrews in "Nabucco."
At the opera's premiere, "Va, pensiero" clearly touched a nerve — Verdi made sure it would, putting a little crescendo at the start of the words "O mia patria" ("O my country"). The music seemed to speak directly to dreams of Italian freedom and unity.
An encore was demanded, even though the Austrian authorities prohibited all encores, fearing that they could be turned into demonstrations of some kind. And so began a longtime association of Verdi with the Italian unification movement that would eventually triumph.
Verdi did not set out to be a hero. He almost didn't write "Nabucco."
His first opera, "Oberto," had been a mild success in 1839 at La Scala. But the second, "King for a Day," was practically hissed off the same stage the following year. Verdi then declared he would never compose again. Fate had other plans.
La Scala's impresario, Bartolomeo Merelli, bumped into Verdi one day and thrust a new libretto at him.
"When I got home," Verdi told his publisher years later, "I threw the manuscript on the table with a violent gesture, and stood staring at it. It had fallen open, and, without realizing it, I gazed at the page and read the line: 'Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate'."
The composer kept reading, one page after another. He thought about the libretto all night, but still resisted the next day. He went back to the impresario to return the libretto.
"Merelli thrust it into my overcoat pocket, grabbed me by the shoulders and not only pushed me out of the room but locked the door in my face," Verdi said. "What was I to do?"
Three months later, "Nabucco" was finished.
Many years and many operas later, long after the likes of "La Traviata" and "Aida" had greatly overshadowed Verdi's early triumph, Italians still treasured the chorus from "Nabucco."
When Verdi, who died Jan. 27, 1901, was laid to rest, huge crowds lined the funeral route. People knew that the beloved composer had, in his will, asked that there be no music or singing.
An eyewitness, Carlo Gatti, told Verdi biographer Joseph Wechsberg what happened at the grave:
"Half the people of Milan were there. ... We all stood at a distance, silently crying. … Then, suddenly, there rose from among the crowd a chorale — soft at first, then louder and louder as it swept through the throng. It was 'Va, pensiero.' "
If you go
"Nabucco" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 3 p.m. May 11 at the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric, 110 W. Mount Royal Ave. Tickets are $52 to $162 (plus fees). Call 410-547-7328, or go to ticketmaster.com.