For Opera Singers, Life After Retirement — At Least At One Very Special Rest Home

Jan 10, 2019
Originally published on January 11, 2019 3:06 pm

Opera star Renée Fleming drew concern last year after a New York Times profile suggested the acclaimed soprano would be retiring. Luckily for fans, it turned out to be a false alarm. But if Fleming does ever start to ponder retirement, she might consider a move to Milan — where she'd likely be welcomed with open arms at Casa Verdi, a retirement home for opera singers and musicians founded by the famed Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi more than 100 years ago.

Soprano Lina Vasta spent her career performing in Italian operas around the world. Twenty years ago, she settled at Casa Verdi. The tiny singer, who uses a cane to get around, won't reveal her age (through a translator she admits to being "over 65"), but she still enjoys singing bits of The Barber of Seville around the home.

Vasta came to Casa Verdi with her husband when they both retired from singing. Since he died this is all she has. But with "a beautiful house, a piano, a very nice garden, nothing is missing here — it's perfect. Grazie, Verdi," she says.

Verdi founded the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, simply known as Casa Verdi, in the late 19th century. He's buried here, along with Giuseppina Strepponi, his second wife, says Biancamaria Longoni, the assistant director of Casa Verdi.

"In Italy, Verdi isn't considered only a composer, only a musician, but kind of a national hero," she says. "He used his operas to give voice to people — to humble people, to modest people, to poor people."

Many of Verdi's own former colleagues found themselves living in poverty toward the end of their lives. At that time, there were no pensions for musicians in Italy.

"Verdi perfectly knew this situation," Longoni says. "And when he was about 82 he wanted to use his patrimony to make a rest home for his colleagues and the less favored by fortune."

One of the communal areas at Casa Verdi.
Diego Rinaldi / Courtesy of Casa di riposo per musicisti, Fondazione Giuseppe Verdi

Using his own fortune, Verdi built the retirement home for opera singers and musicians, a neo-Gothic structure that opened in 1899. The composer died less than two years later, but he made sure the profits from his music copyrights kept the home running until the early 1960s, when they expired. Today guests pay a portion of their monthly pension to cover basic costs – food and lodging — while the rest comes from donations.

The 93-year-old Bissy Roman has been living at Casa Verdi for nearly three years. She has no family, but she has Casa Verdi. "I'm very grateful because if not, I will be lonely and very upset, she says. "Here, I cannot be upset because there are a lot of people around — we are talking, we have music, we have guests."

Guests of all ages, it turns out: Casa Verdi has an extra 20 rooms set aside for conservatory students aged 18 to 24. Roman gives voice lessons to a young woman from China, one of the six students she sees on a weekly basis.

Armando Ariostini, a baritone in his early 60s, comes to Casa Verdi every Wednesday to visit the guests, some of whom are his former colleagues. And while Ariostini himself is still several years away from retirement, he says he knows exactly where he'll be hanging up his hat once he leaves the opera stage for good.

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Eyebrows went up when a New York Times profile suggested that legendary opera soprano Renee Fleming would be retiring. Luckily for fans, that turned out to be wrong. But if Fleming ever does start to ponder retirement, she may want to consider a move to Milan, Italy. That's the home of Casa Verdi, a retirement community for opera singers and musicians Founded by Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi more than a hundred years ago. Rebecca Rosman paid a visit and sent this report.

REBECCA ROSMAN, BYLINE: Lina Vasta is a soprano who spent her career performing in Italian operas around the world.

LINA VASTA: (Speaking Italian).

ROSMAN: Twenty years ago, she settled here at Casa Verdi.

VASTA: (Speaking Italian).

UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: She doesn't want to tell me how old she is.

ROSMAN: While she's reluctant to reveal her real age, she admits to being over 65. She's tiny and uses a cane to get around, but age hasn't stopped her from wearing her favorite black heels or from doing this...

VASTA: (Singing in Italian).

ROSMAN: The soprano says singing makes her sorrows go away. Vasta came to Casa Verdi with her husband when they both retired from singing. Since he died, she says this is all she has.

VASTA: (Speaking Italian).

UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: She has a beautiful house. She can play the piano. She can...

VASTA: (Speaking Italian).

UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: There's a very nice garden at Casa Verdi. She said that, like, nothing is missing here. It's perfect.

VASTA: Grazie Verdi.

ROSMAN: Italian composer GIUSEPPE VERDI founded the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, simply known as Casa Verdi, in the late 19th century.

BIANCAMARIA LONGONI: In Italy, Verdi isn't considered even today only a composer, only a musician, but a kind of national hero.

ROSMAN: Biancamaria Longoni is the assistant director of Casa Verdi. We're standing in front of Verdi's crypt. Verdi is buried at the retirement home alongside his second wife, Giuseppina Strepponi.

LONGONI: He used the music, he used the operas to give voice to people - to humble people, to modest people, to poor people, to dominated people.

ROSMAN: Many of Verdi's own former colleagues found themselves living in poverty towards the end of their lives. At that time, there were no pensions for musicians in Italy.

LONGONI: Verdi perfectly knew this situation. And when he was about 82, he wanted to use his patrimony to make a rest home for his colleagues less favored by fortune.

ROSMAN: Using his own fortune, Verdi built the retirement home for opera singers and musicians, a neo-Gothic structure that opened in 1899. Verdi died less than two years later, but he made sure the profits from his music copyright kept the home running until the early 1960s, when they expired.

Today, guests pay a portion of their monthly pension to cover basic costs like food and lodging, while the rest comes from donations. Bissy Roman is a maestra who has been living at Casa Verdi for nearly three years now.

BISSY ROMAN: I don't have family. I don't have sons. I have Casa Verdi. I have here. I'm very grateful because, if not, I will be lonely and very, very upset. Here, I cannot be upset because there are a lot of people around. We are talking. We have music. We have guests.

ROSMAN: Guests of all ages. Casa Verdi has an extra 20 rooms set aside for conservatory students aged 18 to 24.

ROMAN: (Speaking Italian).

ROSMAN: Today, the 93-year-old Romanian born Roman is giving voice lessons to a young woman from China, one of the six students she sees on a weekly basis.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (Singing in foreign language).

ROSMAN: The sounds that fill these hallways are what make Casa Verdi feel sacred, like moments that belong in a time capsule.

ARMANDO ARIOSTINI: (Vocalizing).

ROSMAN: Armando Ariostini is a baritone in his early 60s. He comes to Casa Verdi every Wednesday to visit the guests, some of whom are his former colleagues.

ARIOSTINI: (Vocalizing).

ROSMAN: And while Ariostini himself is still several years away from retirement, he says he knows exactly where he'll be hanging up his hat once he leaves the opera stage for good. For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Rosman in Milan, Italy.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (Singing in Italian). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.