Listening to Tuscany’s Most Famous Musical Sons

Tuscany. Land of food and wine. Balsamic vinegar. And world class composers, conductors, and singers. The musical aspect of Tuscany was a sheer delight for this former musician, when I took the Overseas Adventure Travel trip to Italy, Tuscany and Umbria: Italy’s Rustic Heartland. The native sons we learned about from Tuscany were Luciano Pavarotti, Giacomo Puccini, Giuseppe Verdi, and Arturo Toscanini.

 Luciano Pavarotti’s voice was a force of nature to me, so I definitely wanted to seek out as much as I could of these musical influences, with much of what he sang in his opera performances written by composers from the region. A traveler does not need to be an opera aficionado to enjoy this aspect of the trip, since they were all part of optional activities.

I had one day in Bologna before the pre-trip started. I had arranged through my trip leader in advance to see the one thing in the area that wasn’t part of our itinerary, but which interested me greatly from a cultural standpoint: Modena, Italy, the former home of Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007), the great Italian tenor. He was in fact, one of the most acclaimed and beloved tenors of all time.

The Pavarotti house is located 8 miles from central Modena, situated in the country, and about 45 minutes from Bologna. The house was astonishing for me to experience. Of the three native sons of Tuscany whose musical homes I visited, his was the best. He’d amassed over 500 awards in his life, only some of which were on display including some of his Grammys, his Emmys, gold and platinum records, his Kennedy Center honor, and more, from all over the world. Having completely appreciated the documentary Pavarotti, walking through his former home and seeing his awards was that much more meaningful. His home wasn’t a museum in the typical sense; it was a home of love, where this force of nature not only had a child, but later died in his bedroom of cancer at age 71. At one point, I turned off the audio tape, and just enjoyed the photos of him and so many other musicians, performers, and heads of State he had met. He eventually teamed up with rock musician and humanitarian Bono to perform for humanitarian causes. And of course, his time with the Three Tenors, brought Opera to the masses. I was able ot listen to his incredible voice singing both operatic and modern popular music as part of the visit. In the museum, as in life, his voice and its impact seemed to be everywhere.

After we finished the self-guided tour of the house, we went to the town of Modena, famous for its Balsamic vinegar (which we had at lunch in the square in town and enjoyed more of on the trip), as well as for having the top-rated restaurant in the world with the full three Michelin stars awarded the chef. Dinner there is by lottery only, with tickets reserved a year in advance if you want to spend $600 on dinner at Osteria Francescana. The food is curated and cooked by chef Massimo Bottura, We did not have time to walk by, but we stopped inside a local market which was a foodie delight by itself. Modena is also known for the Ferrari and Lamborghini industrial plants. Not counting lunch and paying half for the private van, the day cost 90 Euro for the van (180 if going solo), and 10 Euro for the entrance to the Pavarotti home, 8 Euro for seniors.  

During the pre-trip, which included three night stays each in Bologna and Parma, we were treated to more of the region’s musical influences. While Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) had an influence that could be felt in a musical performance we later heard, we never had an opportunity to see any place he lived. However, we did visit a farmhouse on the pre-trip (now a Michelin one star restaurant) in an area outside Parma off the Po River.  Verdi had once lived in nearby in Busseto. Descendants of the family now run a museum and restaurant that specializes in culatello ham; their ancestors were once sharecroppers for Verdi’s family.

The second musical house we visited (and first for the base trip) was that of Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) in Lucca. He had composed several of the operas Pavarotti sang, including the one Pavarotti made so famous, Nessun doma from the opera Turandot (1924).  He also composed La boheme (1896), Tosca (1900), and Madame Butterfly (1904).  

The visit to the house was free and included various memorabilia, such as his performance clothing and sheet music. It wasn’t as interesting as the Pavarotti house, but there was a movie which preceded our entrance which provided information on the man himself and details on his personal life. His sisters inherited the house, and he later bought it from them. The family took it over after his death and turned it into the museum of his life that it is today. We were treated to an opera in Lucca one night for 20 Euros which was inside a beautiful cathedral. It included arias by both Puccini and Verdi. According to the program, they alternated programs, performing only Puccini arias on other nights.. But whether one is into opera or not, it was a wonderful hour of music, and brought to light cultural influences of the region. Tuscany is about more than food and wine. It is one of the areas in the world that has grown world class talent over the years, inspirational to each other. I honestly thought that the interior of the cathedral was all the more rich and beautiful because of the duets, vocal solos, and piano interlude solos we heard that night.

The last house we visited that was also one of the native sons of Tuscany was that of the world-renowned conductor born in Parma, Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957). I grew up listening ot his music, as my parents frequently had his records playing. I was completely unaware of his influence as a conductor, how beloved he was by the Italians, and how the Italians practically shut down Milan to bury him, He had originally aligned himself with the fascists prior to World War Two and even tried to run for office. We learned as we toured his former home that when he learned what Fascism really meant, he refused to perform for Mussolini, left Italy, and ultimately became a friend of the fledgling state of Israel. He started the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra, which is now the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, and even had his own show here in the United States on NBC once he moved to New York. So, the memorabilia in his house were fascinating for me because much of his history was so current in my life.

The cultural and musical components of this trip were completely unexpected but added to my joy in travel. Exploring the musical heritage of a country or region always adds that much more depth to my knowledge a traveler. I always feel forever changed after having walked in the footsteps of great artists and musicians.

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