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Retired musicians enjoy 'grand finale' at Verdi home

Céline CORNU
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Retired and often destitute musicians play out their days at Casa Verdi, a retirement home in Milan set up by Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi

Retired and often destitute musicians play out their days at Casa Verdi, a retirement home in Milan set up by Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi (AFP Photo/Miguel MEDINA)

Milan (AFP) - Nearly 120 years after Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi called it his "most beautiful work", ageing musicians still play out their days at his Casa Verdi retirement home.

Piano music resonates down the corridors of the sumptuous Milan palazzo, while a singer performs in the vast main room for dozens of pensioners, who were once professional musicians themselves.

With around 60 residents who have all dedicated their lives to music, the sound of music in one form or another is everywhere.

"This place is paradise," says Marisa Terzi, 79, who arrived four months ago.

"For me, music is everything, and I didn't expect to find such a fantastic place."

"It's everything but a rest home! It's a holiday home," she laughs.

"Time flies... in the morning there's a pianist, and everyone comes to listen, even those in wheelchairs.

"We all sing together, it's so beautiful, and then there are concerts all afternoon."

Terzi, a singer and composer, moved in because she says she had "no more family".

"I'm lucky, because I really feel at home here," she adds.

Romanian-born musicologist Bissy Roman, 94, is also happy to be in a place where residents can play music themselves, enjoy listening to others play it and are surrounded by fellow musicians.

"There came a time when I felt like I was all alone in the world, I didn't have anyone anymore, and the Casa Verdi was the last solution: dying with music in my heart and near my musician companions," she said, having lived in Russia, France and the United States during her long life.

- 'A real miracle' -

Verdi, who composed operas such as "Aida" and "La traviata", was himself elderly when he decided at the end of the 19th century to create a "rest home" in what was then the countryside outside Milan.

The neoclassical palazzo, designed by Camillo Boito, the brother of one of Verdi's favourite libretto writers, was built to allow impoverished musicians to live out their days in dignity.

According to his own wishes, the Casa Verdi only opened in 1902, a year after the composer died aged 87.

Almost 120 years later, the home is run by the Giuseppe Verdi Foundation and has neither debts nor public funding, which is "a real miracle", said the home's president Roberto Ruozi.

Residents make a monthly contribution based on their means.

However this amount always comes to "less than a fifth of the running costs", with the lion's share covered by income from past investments, Ruozi said.

"Verdi left the rights to his royalties to Casa Verdi, which was for 60 years a non-negligeable sum, part of which was invested" in 120 apartments that are today rented out, he added.

The home has also received donations, such as one of about six million euros ($6.8 million) from the daughter of Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, which are subsequently invested.

"We get room and board, there's medical help. We're looked after marvellously and we have everything: rooms to play the piano, a concert hall...," said pianist Raimondo Campisi, 71.

He came here four years ago after living for 20 years on a boat in Beaulieu-sur-Mer in the south of France. He spent his career travelling the world playing the piano.

Besides retirees, the Casa is also home to around 15 music students, some from Milan's renowned La Scala Academy, as part of a project to connect different generations started in 1999.

- Generations -

Just like her fellow musicians from Italy, Japan or South Korea, 30-year-old soprano Marika Spadafino appreciates the mix.

"I speak a lot with the pensioners, they listen to me sing, give me tips," said the southern Italian native.

"They know how to share their experiences. For me, coming from a family where no one played music, it's really important.

"And when things don't go well, they know how to console you and give you the strength to go on," said Spadafino.

Nevertheless, passions can run high at times among the group of musicians.

"Put 60 artists living together, oh la la, you can just imagine!" said Campisi.

The Casa Verdi has a waiting list of around 10 people, who will have to bide their time for a spot until a current resident dies.

"I hope I'll be here a little longer," said Terzi. "But we all know that we'll die here, so we're always ready."