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Home for aging musicians hums with Verdi's spirit


MILAN, Italy -- Carefully and gently, as though his life woul crumble away in his hands, Eraldo Coda unfolds the yellowing papers and points with pride.

"There's the proof if you need it," the 90-year-old says. "I was once famous, the talk of Milan."

And the papers do indeed reveal that Mr. Coda had plenty of fame. Among the documents stored in his giant chest are playbills, newspaper clippings and opera programs -- all evidence of Mr. Coda's career as a well-known Italian tenor for 30 years before retiring in 1958.

"My favorite role," he says, swooning over a playbill for Mozart's opera "Don Giovanni" at Milan's famous La Scala opera house. "I sang Leporello 63 times."

His voice is now hoarse, but he talks on: more than 2,000 times on stage; 388 performances of a Verdi opera.

Giuseppe Verdi. Here the old singer stops and looks up at a portrait of the great 19th-century Italian composer.

The words are unspoken but understood. Mr. Coda sang when musicians earned a few dollars a performance. He receives a pittance from the Italian government.

But thanks to Verdi, he is able to spend his old age in dignity at the "Casa Verdi," a retirement home for 55 male and female musicians and singers just a few subway stops from Milan's bustling downtown.

Verdi worked and lived in this villa until he died in 1901. In his will he left the mansion as a home for poor musicians and ordered that the royalties from his operas be used to keep the place going.

Over the years, the Casa has taken on legendary proportions. The royalties on Verdi's operas eventually expired, but private donors and the government have kicked in to keep the home going. Many of this century's greats lived here, such as singer Giuseppe Manacchini.

Up until his death three years ago, Mr. Manacchini's room resembled a museum, its walls covered with honorary orders, medals and pictures.

His voice long since gone, the tiny singer used to put records on and act the roles, transforming his small room into the opera stages that he once ruled.

At least that was the way it was up until a few years ago. Today, some members aren't too sure if the musicians now being admitted would be appreciated by Mr. Verdi.

In the place of the Manacchinis of the opera world, the rooms are being filled by piano-bar players, big-band musicians and even a pop star. Eyebrows arched, some of the more traditional guests say that the new residents can't even read music.

The reasons for the change can be seen in any record store. Few could imagine Luciano Pavarotti staying in one of the tiny apartments. The multimillionaire has little need for the charity.

Nor do the others who rule today's opera world. In an age when a "Christmas favorites" quickie can easily net a six- or seven-figure fee, who among the greats could claim poverty?

That leaves the unsung heroes from decades of the past -- plenty of them. "I think the house was meant for all musicians, regardless of style," says Vittorio Belleli, Italy's first big pop star, whose career started in 1933.

And even if Mr. Belleli has never performed at La Scala, he still commands a pretty impressive following. The singer of "Don't forget my words" still gets love letters from women who just can't forget him.

Whatever changes, one thing has remained: gossip about which aging tenor is romancing which aging diva. Walking through the main lounge, a former pianist on trans-Atlantic steamers laughs at the gossip.

"Ha," says 82-year-old Alessandro Polacci as he passes a group of women. "They don't even seem alive anymore. I'm the only youngster in this place."

Whatever the controversies, Mr. Coda feels that all is unimportant next to Verdi's enduring generosity. With a look of honest thanks, Mr. Coda glances up again at Verdi's portrait on the wall and murmurs: "Grazie, maestro."

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