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Mario Merola (1934-2006)
Every nation has persons who are cultural icons; when they pass away, a light simply goes out in that nation. Even an entire age can be said to pass away with such a person—Tennyson in England and Verdi in Italy, for example. At a local level, there are persons who so embody a local culture that they become known nationally and, perhaps, internationally, such that a much wider public than just a city or region feels the loss. In Naples, playwright Eduardo de Filippo, singer Roberto Murolo, and the great comic Totò (Antonio de Curtis) were just such icons. Indeed, their popularity throughout Italy is the main reason that most Italians, rightly or wrongly, think that they speak at least some Neapolitan! (This, perhaps, in the same sense that most people in the United States think they know a little Yiddish because of the great popularity of Jewish comics in the US culture over the years. Even a Southern Baptist knows what "Oy, vey!" means.)
Yet, there is another level—a strictly local level—that provides a local culture with icons that they share with no one else. In Naples, Mario Merola was such a person. When he died in November 2006—though the event was but briefly noted elsewhere in Italy—the entire city of Naples simply stopped for a day or two. The greatest modern exponent of the characteristically Neapolitan musical drama known as the sceneggiata had died and that deserved a pause in the day's occupation. Forty-thousand persons jammed the square at the Carmine church at Piazza Mercato for his funeral.
Mario Merola was born poor, one of the Neapolitan underclass, and in the eyes of the thousands of Neapolitans who shared—and still share—that fate, he represented them well. He rejuvenated the sceneggiata in an age when such musical melodrama was widely viewed as overly sentimental and in a city where people would like to forget that the underclass is still very much entrenched even in this great new 21st century. Merola held various day jobs early in his career, including as a longshoreman at the port of Naples until one of his songs, Malu Figliu, was used successfully in a sceneggiata, moving him into the limelight. He was at the height of his popularity in the 1970s and 80s. He recorded approximately 40 CDs of sceneggiata music and has extensive credits in filmed versions of the dramas. He also toured abroad with a Neapolitan company to bring the sceneggiata to emigrant Italian communities elsewhere.
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