Verdi's Nabucco: By the Rivers of Babylon

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Psalm 137 depicts the ancient Hebrews, enslaved and weeping “by the rivers of Babylon,” as they remember their homeland, Jerusalem. Those words have inspired songwriters of reggae, Broadway, disco, folk and more, but one of the most memorable versions is featured in Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Nabucco.

The opera retells the story of the Babylonian captivity when Nebuchadnezzar (or Nabucco, in Italian) seizes Jerusalem, destroys the temple, and enslaves the Israelites in his kingdom. At the heart of the opera is “Va, pensiero,” also known as the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, in which the Israelites yearn for their lost home.

It’s this yearning for home by those exiled from their homeland, and of refugees trying to build a new identity in a new land, that has helped make Verdi’s first big hit resonate far beyond the opera house since its premiere. Host Rhiannon Giddens and her guests explore the experience of refugees and immigrants, the significance of memory and community, and the power of 100 voices joined in song.

Donald Palumbo has been the chorus master at the Met Opera for 15 years. He can remember almost every time he has ever performed “Va, pensiero,” and usually ends up standing in the wings just to listen to it. He previously was the chorus master at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and has taught at Juilliard since 2016.

Professor Mark Burford is a musicologist at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. He specializes in 19th-century Austro-German music, and twentieth century African American music, and is the author of the award-winning book Mahalia Jackson and the Black Gospel Field. He previously taught at the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall, Columbia University, and City College of New York.

Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg is the Scholar in Residence at the National Council of Jewish Women. She writes books about the messy business of trying to be a person in the world, and about how spirituality can transform that work. She is the author of seven books, including Nurture the Wow and Surprised by God. She’s been named one of the top 50 most influential women rabbis.

Roya Hakakian is an Iranian Jewish writer and the author of two volumes of poetry in Persian. Her family was exiled from Iran following the 1979 revolution, after which they lived as refugees in Europe for a year before immigrating to the United States. Her most recent book is A Beginner’s Guide to America: For the Immigrant and the Curious.

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