Giuseppe Verdi was on the verge of giving up opera when — to the eternal gratitude of music lovers everywhere — his third opera, "Nabucco," met with huge success and launched the young composer's career. The rarely heard work, which recounts the enslavement and exile of the Jews by Babylon's King Nebuchadnezzar II, is coming to the Kennedy Center April 28 through May 21, and the new production by the Washington National Opera promises to be a spectacular event, with some of Verdi's most ravishing music.
But to those involved in the production, "Nabucco" is more than just entertainment: It's a surprisingly relevant look at political issues — including religious fundamentalism, nation-building, conflict in the Middle East, resistance to foreign occupation, even genocide — that are as critical now as they were in 587 B.C., when the story takes place.
" 'Nabucco' has never been done in Washington, which really surprises me," says Thaddeus Strassberger, director of the new production.
"What happens in the opera house is meant to be a point of discussion for what's happening in contemporary life," he says. "It's not that I have a thesis statement about America's role in foreign wars or our role in occupation. But opera has the power to spark conversation in other areas of life."
"Nabucco" has, in fact, been a lightning rod for political discourse almost from the day of its premiere in 1842. Italy at the time was fragmented and under the domination of the Austrian Empire, and many Italians saw the enslavement of the Jews as a parable for their own struggle for freedom. That may account for some of the work's extraordinary popularity at the time; in fact, its most popular chorus, "Va pensiero," served as the unofficial anthem of Italy's Risorgimento movement to unify the country.
But does the opera have any direct connection to our own geopolitical involvements? Mr. Strassberger prefers to let viewers draw their own conclusions, noting only that "it's pretty easy in the same Middle Eastern context to find lots of contemporary parallels." What's important, he says, are the broader, more universal issues raised in the opera, which are still very much part of our lives.
"The power of 'Nabucco' resonates in American society right now — this idea that religious fundamentalism can really divide people and a nation," he says. "The way I'm treating it in the opera is to throw up the irony of the situation: That the Jews and the Babylonians profess to be very different, but their day-to-day behavior ends up being quite similar."
Mr. Strassberger, 36, has been working on the production for 2½ years, immersing himself in both Verdi's life and the background of the opera itself. He spent weeks on end in Italy, researching in the archives at Teatro alla Scala in Milan (where "Nabucco" premiered) and visiting Verdi's home in Busseto, where, he says, "I spent days just soaking in the soul of the man." It would turn out to be an inspiring time.
Verdi was just 29 when he wrote the opera and recently had suffered the deaths of his wife and his two young children. Though devastated, he was obliged contractually to finish a comic opera — a disaster that closed after opening night. He vowed never to compose music again but finally was persuaded to write "Nabucco," and its success led to some of the most loved operas of all time, from "Rigoletto" and "La Traviata" to "Aida."
"There's something about the life force that Verdi put into the piece that resonates with me," Mr. Strassberger says. "He had this dark period in his life, when he was about to throw in the towel, and to find this well of creativity within you seems against all odds."
Kind of like ... the challenge of mounting an opera in the 21st century.
"You feel like you're fighting the odds in many ways," he says. "The opera house seems separated from cultural life, and sometimes you think, 'Maybe I should just throw in the towel and do something productive for society.' But then there's this thing inside you that says, 'No, this is really valid, and it's worth carrying the flag for.' Verdi did that — and there's something in that that I find very inspiring."
WHAT: Giuseppe Verdi's "Nabucco," with libretto by Temistocle Solera. New co-production by the Washington National Opera, the Minnesota Opera and the Opera Company of Philadelphia. Performed in Italian with English supertitles.
WHERE: The Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St. NW
WHEN: April 28-May 21.
TICKETS: $25 to $300
RUNNING TIME: Approximately 2 hours, 40 minutes, with one 20-minute intermission.
PHONE: Kennedy Center Box Office at 202/467-4600 from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily.