Nearly 120 years after Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi called it his “most beautiful work,” aging musicians still play out their days at his Casa Verdi retirement home.
Piano music resonates down the corridors of the sumptuous Milan palazzo, while a singer performs in the vast main room for dozens of pensioners who were once professional musicians themselves.
With about 60 residents who have all dedicated their lives to music, the sound of music in one form or another is everywhere.
“This place is paradise,” says Marisa Terzi, 79, who arrived four months ago. “For me, music is everything, and I didn’t expect to find such a fantastic place.”
“It’s everything but a rest home. It’s a holiday home,” she said. “Time flies ... in the morning there’s a pianist, and everyone comes to listen, even those in wheelchairs. We all sing together, it’s so beautiful, and then there are concerts all afternoon.”
Romanian-born musicologist Bissy Roman, 94, is also happy to be in a place where residents can play music themselves, enjoy listening to others play it and are surrounded by fellow musicians.
“There came a time when I felt like I was all alone in the world, I didn’t have anyone anymore, and the Casa Verdi was the last solution: dying with music in my heart and near my musician companions,” she said, adding that she had lived in Russia, France and the US during her long life.
Verdi, who composed Aida and La traviata, was himself elderly when he decided at the end of the 19th century to create a “rest home” in what was then the countryside outside Milan.
The neoclassical palazzo, designed by Camillo Boito, the brother of one of Verdi’s favorite libretto writers, was built to allow impoverished musicians to live out their days in dignity.
According to his own wishes, the Casa Verdi only opened in 1902, a year after the composer died aged 87.
Almost 120 years later, the home is run by the Giuseppe Verdi Foundation and has neither debts nor public funding, which is “a real miracle,” home president Roberto Ruozi said.
Residents make a monthly contribution based on their means.
However this amount always comes to “less than one-fifth of the running costs,” with the lion’s share covered by income from past investments, Ruozi said.
“Verdi left the rights to his royalties to Casa Verdi, which was for 60 years a non-negligible sum, part of which was invested” in 120 apartments that are today rented out, he added.
The home has also received donations, such as one of about 6 million euros (US$6.81 million) from the daughter of Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, which are subsequently invested.
Beside retirees, the Casa is also home to about 15 music students, some from Milan’s renowned La Scala Academy, as part of a project to connect different generations that started in 1999.
Just like her fellow musicians from Italy, Japan or South Korea, 30-year-old soprano Marika Spadafino appreciates the mix.
“I speak a lot with the pensioners, they listen to me sing, give me tips,” said Spadafino, a southern Italian native.
“They know how to share their experiences. For me, coming from a family where no one played music, it’s really important,” Spadafino said. “And when things don’t go well, they know how to console you and give you the strength to go on.”
Nevertheless, passions can run high at times among the group of musicians.
“Put 60 artists living together, oh la la, you can just imagine,” Campisi said.
The Casa Verdi has a waiting list of about 10 people, who will have to bide their time for a spot until a resident dies.
“I hope I’ll be here a little longer,” Terzi said. “But we all know that we’ll die here, so we’re always ready.”
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