The Beginner’s Guide to Verdi

Italy’s leading nineteenth century opera composer, Giuseppe Verdi revitalised Italian music over the course of 50 years, resulting in some of the best known works in the repertoire.

Find out a bit more about him here…


Verdi is famed for three of his operas: Rigoletto (1851) Il trovatore (1853), and La traviata (1853). Although these are the works that truly cemented his status as one of the opera greats, he was already dominating the nineteenth century Italian opera scene with some (now) lesser-known works.

In the 11 years leading up to La traviata, Verdi wrote 16 operas. One of which, Luisa Miller (1849), was his last successful opera before the famous three. Unlike its predecessors, Luisa Miller’s score was more refined, suiting the portrayal of real human emotions. The opera is often seen as the preparing ground for an introverted composing style he would go on to perfect over the next four years.

In the 18 years following La traviata, Verdi wrote significantly less works for the stage. He came out of near-retirement with Aida (1871), and didn’t write another opera for 15 years following that. In the years leading up to his death, he had great success with Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893) before his death 1901, aged 87.



It was while working on his second opera, Un giorno di regno (King for a Day), that his wife Margherita suddenly passed away. Verdi had already lost his two infant children whilst working on his first opera (Oberto) just a year earlier in 1839.

Devastated by the loss, his rising career was brought to an abrupt halt as he vowed never to compose again.

When the manager of La Scala, Bartolomeo Merelli, presented him with a text a year later on which to base his next opera, Verdi was convinced to compose once more. Just three months later, he had written the score for Nabucco. Its premiere in March 1842 secured Verdi’s fame throughout Italy.


Italian opera in the nineteenth century had a bad reputation for under-rehearsed and shoddy productions. Singers didn’t always know all their lines and costumes were rarely suitable (or relevant) for the production.

Verdi, the perfectionist, not only expected his singers to know their lines, he demanded they study the entire score. In doing this, he wanted them to understand the piece as a whole in order to interpret their lines, rather than just sing the ones given to them.

It’s not only the singers who felt Verdi’s wrath during rehearsals. He relentlessly worked the orchestra and conductor until he felt that his work was performed the way he intended. It wasn’t uncommon for Verdi’s conductors to complain about their copy of the score, once it had been blotched by their sweat from an intense rehearsal. Unsurprisingly, wherever possible, Verdi would conduct his operas himself.


The year 1813 was an important one for classical music. It was in this year that both Verdi and his German counterpart Richard Wagner were born.

Despite being the two most significant composers in nineteenth century opera, the pair are said to have resented one another.

Although both Verdi and Wagner focused on writing tragic operas, there a few similarities in their writing. Both composers wrote a single comedy during their careers, both very late on. For Verdi, Falstaff came when he had reached the age of 88. Wagner’s lighter opera, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg), premiered when he was 55.

Rigoletto Arias