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Inside Milan’s Casa Verdi, where musicians retire in harmony

When Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi in the late 1800s built a neo-Gothic mansion in Milan, he envisioned a bustling sanctuary for professional musicians who were not earning livable incomes. Since then, Casa Verdi has hosted 1,500 residents and become an exclusive retirement home for elderly players. Special Correspondent Christopher Livesay reports.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    It's said that "old soldiers never die, they just fade away." But what about old musicians? If they're lucky, they just keep on playing. That's in fact what's happening in Milan, Italy, at a retirement home built especially for musicians. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Chris Livesay has our story from a place where the music never stops.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    Meet Raimondo Campisi, a renowned pianist who's spent his life performing around the globe. At 70 years old, he's not playing inside a traditional concert hall. This is Casa Verdi – a retirement home for musicians in Milan, Italy.

    Its founder was none other than the 19th-century Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi. Blockbuster compositions such as La Traviata, Rigoletto, and Otello helped him amass a fortune he would use to build the Neo-Gothic mansion from the ground up, just before he died in 1901. His royalties would keep the lights on for decades more, providing food, lodging, and medical treatment for musicians who, as Verdi put it, were "not favored by fortune, or who, when they were young, did not possess the virtue of saving."

  • RAIMONDO CAMPISI, PIANIST:

    All I do is play piano and spend money. Thieves don't waste their time with me, because they won't find any money. Verdi had people like me in mind when he founded Casa Verdi.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    A pianist like her son, Campisi's mother was also a resident.

  • RAIMONDO CAMPISI:

    She passed away three years ago. When my mother lived here, I didn't know the place very well because I was always passing through. And I didn't know how great it was, with all these concerts and musicians.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY, Milan, Italy:

    Verdi called this retirement home the finest of his life's work. And walking through these halls, you start to understand why. It's impossible to go anywhere without hearing the sound of music.

    You also see musical references in every corner. In one room: Verdi's own piano. Door handles are modeled after lyres. And keyboard-inspired arches look like they could play a song. Every aesthetic detail tailor-made for a houseful of musicians, and painstakingly designed by Verdi. The maestro himself is here too: he's entombed in the courtyard.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    Today there are roughly 60 residents. Unlike in Verdi's day, they receive state pensions, and pay rent on a sliding scale, according to their means. The retirement home welcomes people of all nationalities and backgrounds. There's only one requirement: they must have been professional musicians. Successful applicants have access to ongoing concerts, music rooms, 15 pianos, harps, gramophones, and – perhaps most important – the company of their peers.

  • BISSY ROMAN, PIANIST:

    I have a good life because I have a lot of friends. My young people, old people, they are my friends. I love them. I think that they love me. I think so.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    Bissy Roman, now 93, says music literally kept her alive in Romania during World War II. Your town was occupied by the Nazis.

  • BISSY ROMAN:

    By the Nazis

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    And nevertheless, you were still able to play piano?

  • BISSY ROMAN:

    One of them came to us and said to my mother, "may I bring you some, a little sugar, a little coffee? Because your daughter plays so wonderful. We are all emotionally moved." We had something to eat, through my music.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    After the war, Roman went on to teach piano and vocal performance around the world, including for 12 years at New York University.

    And she's still surrounded by young musicians. Since 1993, the retirement home has also rented rooms to music students. The elderly get companionship, and the students say they get free lessons on music, and life.

  • LIVIA LANNO:

    It's amazing that we can do music with them. We can sing with the old people.

  • MARIKA SPADAFINO:

    You are walking, and, "oh you want to sing together," and "Yes, let's sing together!" "But do you know that song?," Yeah!"

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    Casa Verdi's existence hasn't always been guaranteed. Royalties from Verdi's 27 operas kept the home afloat until the 1950s. Then his music entered the public domain, becoming free to everyone. That left Casa Verdi without vital funding, says Roberto Ruozi, the president of the Verdi Foundation.

  • ROBERTO RUOZI:

    Fortunately the administrators of the house invested this money in — especially in apartments, buildings. Now we have more than 100 apartments that we rent to people. And with the rentals, we finance the house.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    Ruozi also credits major financial contributions over the decades from titans of classical music, such as Luciano Pavarotti, and the heirs of Arturo Toscanini.

  • ROBERTO RUOZI:

    It is really a miracle that Casa Verdi is still open and works very well, without any big problems, especially from the financial point of view.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    To date, Casa Verdi has hosted more than 1500 residents, and always has a waiting list.

  • CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY:

    What's your favorite thing about living here?

  • BISSY ROMAN:

    I feel protected. I feel that I am home with people like me who gave their life to music.

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