The Jewish Opera Italy Couldn’t Bear to Hear

It was canceled 80 years ago due to anti-Semitic laws. Now, it’s finally going mainstream—but so is the fascist ideology that blocked it in the first place.

La Scala opera house in Milan
La Scala opera house in Milan (Alessandro Garofalo / Reuters)

In 1937, Aldo Finzi received word that his dream would come true: His newly composed opera, “Serenata al Vento,” would premiere the following year at Milan’s La Scala, one of the world’s most renowned opera houses. A successful 40-year-old composer, he’d already had his music performed in some of Italy’s most prestigious theaters, but never at La Scala. That had a special significance for him, as he was a proud Milanese, born and raised in the city. But Finzi was also Jewish. In 1938, Italy passed the “racial laws” that barred, among other things, the performance of plays and music composed by Jews. And so his opera was canceled at the last minute—and, until recently, never performed.

“We saw it coming, because you could feel anti-Semitism in the air, but he was devastated: One day he was an acclaimed composer and the next day he was a pariah,” Finzi’s son, Bruno, told me.  After the composer died in Turin in 1945, hiding in a fleabag hotel under a false name to avoid roundups, his music was forgotten. His family tried for years to get Italian opera houses interested in it, only to be met with suspicion and resistance. Producing Finzi’s music posthumously would have implied admitting and publicizing that it had once been banned because of the racial laws, a part of the past with which Italy still has not properly reckoned. So the Finzis did what European Jews sometimes do when they feel voiceless: They turned to the U.S.

“It was much easier to talk with the Americans: We showed them the music, they loved it, produced a concert, it was a success, end of story,” Finzi’s grandson, also called Aldo, told me. Last December the composer’s music debuted at New York’s Carnegie Hall. “A friend in the classical music business told us it was the most prestigious theater in the world, and if we made it there we would have made it everywhere, which turned out to be true. … After Carnegie Hall, the attitude changed.” Spurred on by that institution’s prestige and the media buzz that the performance generated in Italy, Italian institutions went from ignoring Finzi for decades to featuring his music at three concerts so far this year. Finzi will finally get his Milan debut this fall, courtesy of the symphonic orchestra laVerdi.

Yet this is not just the story of a Jewish composer finally getting the recognition he deserves. It’s also the story of a country that still represses the memory of its racist past, a phenomenon that carries serious consequences for modern-day politics, especially at a time when the populist right wing is on the rise.

“When it comes down to the racial laws, Italy never fully reckoned with its responsibilities. Unlike what happened, for instance, in France [or Germany], no Italian head of State or government ever apologized for the persecution of Jews,” Guri Schwarz, a historian at the University of Genova, told me. Many Italians, he said, grew up with the distorted notion that the racial laws were not such a big deal, that Italy was “out of the shadow of the Shoah,” that the Holocaust was “a German thing.”

“It’s not that Italians didn’t learn about the persecution of Jews, but often they learned about it as if it where something that happened somewhere else,” said Schwarz. This lack of historic consciousness, he added, is the result of what he described as “the normalization of fascism,” a political process that began in the 1980s, when the Socialist party attempted an alliance with the post-fascist Movimento sociale, and continued with Silvio Berlusconi, who included self-described “former fascists” in his coalitions. “The message was, ‘We can include fascists [in mainstream politics], and we can do that because they weren’t really so bad.’”

This normalization of fascism and of its racially derisive language is now on display in Italian politics. This month, Italy became the first nation in Western Europe to be headed by a fully populist government. Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League, one of the two populist parties in the coalition, praised Mussolini’s regime in a recent radio interview, and has often used xenophobic language against asylum seekers. He attacked the Roma minority on Twitter, writing, “They aren’t happy if they don’t steal.” His fellow party member Attilio Fontana, the new governor of Lombardy, vowed in a separate radio interview to defend the “white race.” Their coalition partner, the Five-Star Movement, chose as spokesperson a man who had famously argued in a TV interview that Africans “smell different.”

The inadequacy of Italy’s historic consciousness isn’t necessarily what led to the rise of the right wing, “but it’s definitively what’s making it possible for them to use such overtly racist language without causing much uproar,” Jacopo Tondelli, who edits the political blog Gli Stati Generali, told me.

Nowadays, African immigrants, Muslims, and Roma are the primary targets of verbal racist attacks in Italy, but data shows that anti-Semitism is still widespread: One-fourth of Italians say they wouldn’t accept a Jew as a member of their family, according to a Pew Research Center survey released last month.

Ruben Jais, laVerdi’s conductor and one of Finzi’s earlier admirers, argued that it’s not unusual for a composer to fall into oblivion and then get rediscovered. “It’s something that just happens with classical music,” he told me. “Even Bach at a certain point fell out of fashion, until Mendelssohn rediscovered [him]. Gustav Mahler also fell into oblivion, after his work was banned in Europe because of the anti-Jewish laws, but since the 1970s he became popular again thanks to Leonard Bernstein.” Jais added that Finzi’s newfound popularity is part of a broader trend of rediscovery of early 20th-century composers.

And yet the climate described by the Finzi family suggests that Italy’s classical music scene chose to forget the composer in part because remembering him would have required grappling with uncomfortable truths. “When we initially talked [to people in the Italian music industry], the general attitude was one of reticence and condescension. People were like, ‘It’s not like we have to play his music just because he was Jewish and he was persecuted,’” Aldo Finzi, the grandson, told me. “Smaller theaters and isolated enthusiastic directors were interested, but a lot of people were afraid to take the risk.”

Now, Finzi has become difficult for music lovers to ignore. His popularity is spreading, with upcoming performances in Germany and Hungary. His music will also be returning to the U.S. later this year, with a concert at Boston’s Brandeis University and yet another one at the career-making Carnegie Hall.