Retired musicians enjoy ‘grand finale’ at Verdi home

1 / 3
Retired Italian pianist Raimondo Campisi came to Casa Verdi four years ago after living for 20 years on a boat in Beaulieu-sur-Mer in the south of France. (AFP)
2 / 3
Musical instruments adorn the Casa Verdi retirement home, ready to be played by around 60 retired musicians staying there. (AFP)
3 / 3
A music sheet for Otello lies on a piano inside Casa Verdi, a retirement home for musicians created in December 1899 by Italian opera composer Giuseppe Verdi. (AFP)
Updated 18 March 2019

Retired musicians enjoy ‘grand finale’ at Verdi home

  • ‘For me, music is everything, and I didn’t expect to find such a fantastic place’
  • Casa Verdi is run by the Giuseppe Verdi Foundation and has neither debts nor public funding

MILAN: Nearly 120 years after Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi called it his “most beautiful work,” aging 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.
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 favorite 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-negligible 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 marvelously 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 traveling 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.
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, 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 die.
“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.”


High-end rebrand makes life sweet for Japan’s ‘ice farmers’

Updated 18 August 2019

High-end rebrand makes life sweet for Japan’s ‘ice farmers’

  • Reinventing natural-made ice as a high-end artisanal product has helped revive the ice-farming trade
  • The blocks are sold to some of Tokyo’s high-end shaved ice shops as well as department stores

NIKKO, Japan: In a mountainous area north of Tokyo, a priest blows a conch shell as Yuichiro Yamamoto bows and thanks the nature gods for this year’s “good harvest”: natural ice.
Yamamoto is one of Japan’s few remaining “ice farmers,” eschewing the ease of refrigeration for open-air pools to create a product that is sold to high-end shaved ice shops in trendy Tokyo districts.
His trade had all but disappeared in recent decades, and the shaved ice or kakigori that is popular throughout Japan in summer had been produced with cheap machine-made ice.
But reinventing natural-made ice as a high-end artisanal product has helped revive the sector and save his firm.
“When I started making natural ice, I wondered how I should market it. I thought I needed to transform kakigori,” Yamamoto says at his ice-making field in the town of Nikko, north of Tokyo.
Yamamoto took over a traditional ice-making business 13 years ago in Nikko, where he also runs a leisure park.
At the time, shaved ice cost just ¥200 ($2) in the local area and Yamamoto, who was fascinated by traditional ice-making, knew he couldn’t make ends meet.
“My predecessor used to sell ice at the same price as the fridge-made one, which can be manufactured easily anytime throughout the year,” the 68-year-old says.
The situation made it “impossible” to compete he explains, as producing natural ice is labor intensive.
Instead he decided to transform cheap kakigori into a luxury dessert, made with his natural ice and high-grade fruit puree rather than artificially flavored syrup.
After months of research, he began producing his own small batches of artisanal kakigori.
“I put the price tag at ¥800 for a bowl of kakigori. I also priced the ice at ¥9,000 per case, which is six times more than my predecessor,” he says.
At first, there were days he threw away tons of ice because he could not find clients.
But one day buyers from the prestigious Mitsukoshi department store discovered his product, and began stocking it, turning around his fortunes.
Kakigori dates back to the Heian Period (794-1185) when aristocratic court culture flourished in the then-capital of Kyoto.
It was a rare delicacy reserved for the rich, with the ice naturally made and stored in mountainside holes covered with silver sheets.
It was only after 1883, when the first ice-making factory was built in Tokyo, that ordinary people could taste the dessert.
With the development of ice-making machines, the number of traditional ice makers dropped to fewer than 10 nationwide.
The story is one familiar to many traditional Japanese crafts and foodstuffs — with expensive and labor-intensive products losing ground as cheaper, machine-driven versions become available.
And making ice naturally is a grueling task.
The season begins in the autumn when workers prepare a swimming-pool-like pit by cultivating the soil and pouring in spring water.
Thin frozen initial layers are scraped away along with dirt and fallen leaves.
The ice-making begins in earnest in the winter, when water is poured in to freeze solid, but it must be carefully protected. Producers regularly scrape off snow that can slow the freezing process.
“I once spent 16 hours non-stop removing snow,” Yamamoto recalls.
And rain too can ruin the product, causing cracks that mean the whole batch has to be discarded.
“I check the weather forecast 10 times a day,” Yamamoto laughs.
Once the ice is 14 centimeters (5.5 inches) thick, which takes at least two weeks, workers begin cutting out rectangular blocks.
Each block, which weighs about 40 kilograms (88 pounds), is glided into an ice room filled with sawdust on a long bamboo slide.
The blocks are sold to some of Tokyo’s high-end shaved ice shops as well as department stores.
In the Yanaka district, more than 1,000 people queue up every day for a taste of kakigori made with natural ice produced by another ice-maker from Nikko.
Owner Koji Morinishi says the naturally made ice has a texture that is different from machine-made products.
“It feels very different when you shave it. It’s harder because it’s frozen over a long period of time,” explains Morinishi.
“It’s easier to shave really thin if the ice is hard. If not hard, it dissolves too quickly.”
Morinishi himself struggled when he first opened the kakigori shop, but has gradually built a cult following for his desserts topped with purees of mango, watermelon, peach or other fruit.
And Yamamoto’s firm has seen demand soar — he now harvests 160 tons a year and knows two new producers who have entered the market.
He says: “This business has become attractive and the ice makers are all busy.”