ROME (AP) - It isn't every day that a conductor concedes an encore for an opera chorus. Even rarer is asking the audience to sing it, but maestro Riccardo Muti has just done so for the love of homeland.
Muti swirled about on his podium late Saturday night to face the audience during Giuseppe Verdi's "Nabucco" at Rome's Teatro dell'Opera when shouts of "bis!" (encore!) rang out. The chorus had just sung "Va' pensiero," a rousing number many Italians say they wish were their national anthem.
The Italian maestro, who opened the performance by lamenting the government's recent slashing of the arts budget, said he would concede the encore only if the audience sang "Va' pensiero" in support of culture and with a patriotic spirit.
Virtually every opera-goer in the packed house, including in the four tiers of private boxes, rose to their feet, and those who knew the words, sang.
Saturday's was the first of several "Nabucco" performances Muti will conduct this month, including a special evening on Thursday, March 17, which Premier Silvio Berlusconi's government recently declared a national holiday to commemorate 150 years of Italian unity.
"Nabucco," composed in the first part of the 19th century when many in Italy where chafing under Austrian rule, is associated with inspiring Italians' successful drive for unity in 1861. Surveys in the last decades have shown many Italians would want to adopt "Va' pensiero" as the national anthem.
Just before lifting his baton to begin conducting the orchestra, Muti reminded the audience that "Nabucco" was seen at its 1842 debut as a patriotic work aimed at Italy's unity and identity.
Bemoaning the cuts in the culture ministry's budget as the conservative government tries to cope with a persistent economic crisis, he added: "I don't want, today, in 2011, that 'Nabucco" becomes a funeral hymn to culture and music."
Hands fluttering as he encouraged the chorus to give their all during "Va' pensiero," Muti appeared full of energy during the three-hour long opera, capping a physical comeback only five weeks after the 69-year-old conductor fainted during rehearsal in Chicago, and suffered jaw and facial fractures.
Musical director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, he underwent surgery to have a pacemaker implanted in his heart and was determined to make it back on the podium in Italy in time to celebrate his country's 150 years of unity.
After the opera, Muti briefly chatted with a few reporters backstage early Sunday.
"I tell the chorus, the orchestra, the technicians to keep up their work, but their salaries don't even let them pay their bills at the end of the month," the conductor said.
"Culture is seen like some kind of aristocratic bonus" by too many politicians, instead of being intrinsic to the nation's identity, the maestro contended.