He wrote his Requiem, which had its premiere in 1874, but no operas, to the increasing anxiety of those close to him. A friend wrote to him in 1877: “Even if I attach no weight to the rumors that you’re at work on a new score (some say ‘Nero,’ others ‘Julius Caesar,’ others something else again) I hope that you have not terminated your career and that your genius will manifest itself with new creations.”
But Verdi, writing to another friend the following year, was resolute. Returning to the stage would inevitably cast him as a pale imitator of Wagner, at that time the sensation of Europe: “For what reason should I write? What would I succeed in doing? What would I gain by it? The results would be quite wretched.”
It was Giulio Ricordi, a young, cultured businessman who wrote operettas under a pseudonym as well as acute music criticism, who had seen the solution to Verdi’s drought: a new collaborator. Boito, a composer himself and an avatar of a cosmopolitan avant-garde, was not the most obvious pairing with Verdi, a pillar of Italian tradition nearly 30 years older. But Ricordi perceived deeper sympathies between them, and guided their collaboration over many rocky years.
He knew just how handle the skittish, sensitive Verdi: with an adroit combination of candor and flattery. “It would be supremely ingenuous to say to you that a new Verdi opera would not make us a fortune in the financial sense,” Ricordi wrote, but added that “this thought is a hundred times outweighed and, I must say, overshadowed by the immense, indescribable emotion I feel at the thought of a work that will make your name still more glorious.”
Ricordi was clearly betting on that fortune. One of the most fascinating items at the Morgan is the publisher’s summary book of contracts; the entry for “Otello” reveals an advance of 200,000 lire, the equivalent of over $1 million today, on top of the royalties that would pour in if the work were a success.
In 1884, the project was nearly derailed when Verdi read a newspaper account of a banquet in Naples at which Boito was said to have claimed that he took on “Otello” “almost against his will, but that, when he had finished it, he was sorry not to be able to set it to music himself.”