The Creation of Rigoletto

Victor Hugo is born in the French city of Besançon, 13 years after the beginning of the French Revolution and two years before Napoleon Bonaparte crowns himself Emperor of France.

Giuseppe Verdi is born on October 9 or 10 (the exact date is uncertain) in Roncole, a tiny Italian village near Parma. Verdi’s parents are innkeepers with no musical training, yet they soon recognize their son’s prodigious talents. He will receive his first music lessons at the age of three.

Following a series of bruising military defeats, Napoleon abdicates his throne, and the Bourbon dynasty once again takes power. Napoleon will make a brazen comeback the following year, but after his decisive loss at the Battle of Waterloo a few months later, the French government seems to be securely in Bourbon hands.

Verdi, only nine years old, is hired to play organ at San Michele, a beautiful church across the street from his parents’ inn. But Roncole’s limited musical life falls far short of Verdi’s needs, and he soon moves to the nearby city of Busseto to continue his musical studies.

Once again, revolution breaks out in France. The Bourbon king is replaced by a constitutional monarchy.

Verdi moves to Milan, the operatic capital of Italy. He hopes to study at the Milan Conservatory, but his application is rejected for bureaucratic reasons. (Ironically, the conservatory will officially be renamed “The Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory” after the composer’s death.)

On November 22, Victor Hugo’s play Le Roi s’Amuse premieres in Paris. Its success is short-lived: Deemed overly antagonistic to the crown, the play is banned the morning after its premiere.

Verdi’s first opera premieres at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan’s most famous opera house. The opera is successful enough that Bartolomeo Merelli, the impresario in charge of La Scala, signs Verdi to a contract for three more operas.

In stark contrast to the successes of 1839, 1840 is one of the worst years of Verdi’s life. His wife dies on June 18, and his second opera, is a total flop.

On March 9, La Scala hosts the premiere of Verdi’s third opera, Nabucco. It is an extraordinary hit. Singing the powerhouse role of the anti-hero Abigaille is Giuseppina Strepponi, a riveting young soprano who will become the love of Verdi’s life. Nabucco’s success launches a period of extraordinary productivity for Verdi: Between 1844 and 1849, he will compose no fewer than 11 operas.

Verdi moves to Paris and begins living with Strepponi.

Revolutions break out across Europe, sweeping through Germany, Denmark, Belgium, Ireland, and the sprawling Austro-Hungarian Empire. In France, the constitutional monarchy is overthrown, and a new republic is established. In northern Italy, uprisings in Milan and Venice drive out the ruling Austrian army. When the Austrians retake the cities a few months later, however, they institute a brutal crackdown on free speech and politically motivated art.

Verdi returns to Busseto, bringing Strepponi with him. In September, he expresses interest in writing an opera based on Le Roi s’Amuse.

Verdi hopes to stage the new opera, which he has named Rigoletto, in Venice. Unfortunately, the city is once again under the control of the absolutist Austrian monarchy and the conservative censors find Hugo’s story “obscene” and “immoral.” Verdi must fight tooth and nail to bring the opera to the stage.

Rigoletto finally premieres at Venice’s Teatro La Fenice on March 11. It is a phenomenal success.

Back in Paris, the president of the French Republic seizes power in a bloody coup d’état. As an outspoken critic of the regime, Hugo must flee the country. He remains in exile, first in Belgium and then in the Channel Islands, until 1870.

For centuries, the region now known as Italy has been a political patchwork of tiny city states, principalities, and duchies. Yet citizens and political thinkers across the peninsula have begun to imagine a unified Italy free from foreign domination. Victor Emmanuel II, King of Sardinia, is tapped as a potential leader of the prospective country, and Verdi’s name is employed as a handy acronym for the hopeful phrase “Vittorio Emmanuele, Re d’Italia” (Victor Emmanuel, King of Italy).

Italy is finally unified. At the behest of the new prime minister, Camillo Cavour, Verdi enters the Italian parliament. He will serve until 1865.

Verdi dies on January 27. The funeral is small, in accordance with the composer’s wishes, but a public memorial procession through the streets of Milan is attended by thousands. Verdi is mourned as a national hero: just one man, yet a towering figure who embodied the political aspirations and artistic pride of an entire country.