Italians are a musical people. When you walk down the side streets and alleys of any Italian city or town you can hear music being sung and played in many of the apartments. Grand opera began in Italy and when Italians emigrated to this country they brought their musical heritage with them. The Live from the Met opera performances on Saturday afternoons were a staple in many North End homes.
Fifty years ago the espresso bars on Hanover St. had juke boxes that played Italian popular music. The stars were people like Jerry Vale who sang at the Revere Beach Frolic Lounge, Jimmy Roselli and Al Martino. I think the Café dello Sport wore out its recording of Jimmy Roselli singing Mala Femina because so many people played it.
The North End also produced some outstanding vocalists the best of whom was my father’s cousin Angelo Picardi. Angelo had a wonderful career as a singer and traveled all over the world. He sang at many North End weddings and you can still see him perform on You Tube videos. I wanted to have Angelo sing at my wedding but couldn’t afford him and my Boston Irish in-laws wouldn’t have appreciated it anyway.
Last Sunday evening Angelo organized and was master of ceremonies at a concert in honor of St. Joseph. The theme of the evening was Italian/American music and Angelo assembled an outstanding group of musicians. Local celebrity Ron della Chiesa was given a musical achievement award and Angelo entertained the sellout crowd with stories and humorous anecdotes. One of the highlights of the evening was the NEMPAC singers who sang a selection of Italian opera arias concluding with the drinking song (Brindisi) from Verdi’s La Traviata.
There is a charming story about the day Giuseppe Verdi died that illustrates the passionate love affair Italians have with opera.
In 1901 Verdi was 87 years old and was living in a suite at the Grand Hotel in Milan. On January 21st he suffered a stroke and was rendered unconscious. A pall settled over the city. Straw was spread on the streets surrounding the hotel so as to muffle the sounds of the wagons and tram conductors were ordered not to sound their bells when passing the hotel. No one wanted to disturb the master. On January 27th Verdi passed away and Milan went into mourning. Ironically, he left orders that there would be no flowers, music or singing at his funeral and his wishes were honored. As the horse drawn hearse bore his coffin through the streets of Milan, people spontaneously began singing the great chorus from his opera Nabucco, va pensiero, the song of the Hebrew slaves. First one person began singing, then a few more joined in and soon it seemed the entire city was singing this beloved chorus.
Is there another country in the world where this could happen?
A warm thank you to impresario Angelo Picardi for organizing such a wonderful evening and to all the musicians who performed at the event; Street Magic, the NEMPAC Singers, the always fabulous Ray Cavicchio and Sharon Z, the outstanding young violinist Pei-Wen Liao who is Ray’s god daughter and the Tom LaMark orchestra.
Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.