National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene

Ferrara acts as its own character in the Finzi-Contini Opera

By Sarah Jae Leiber

As we prepare to present Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie’s world-premiere opera adaptation of Giorgio Bassani’s The Garden of The Finzi-Continis, we thought you might appreciate some of the historical contexts that brought this story into existence. The Finzi-Contini family doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In fact, they exist in a very specifically situated time and place: Ferrara, Italy in the late 1930s, when the fascists first instituted racial laws excluding Jews and indigenous peoples from public life. 

Ferrara acts as its own character in the opera. A beautiful, ancient city with a long history, Ferrara was once the center of medieval Italian Jewish life — home to 2,000 Jews out of a total population of 30,000. 

Jews began leaving Ferrara in 1597 when the Catholic Church took control of the city from the comparatively Jewish-friendly Duke Alfonso D’Este following his death. A Jewish ghetto was established in the city in 1627 and existed until Jewish emancipation in 1859. Mass persecution and ghettoization weren’t enough to defeat Ferrara’s Jews; it wasn’t until Mussolini’s race laws that Ferrarese Jewish life finally ground to a halt. 

Today, Ferrara’s Jewish population has dwindled to just 80 people, a direct result of centuries of oppression and dehumanization that compounded in deportation and murder during the Holocaust. Out of a total population of 44,500, 7,700 Italian Jews were killed. 200 of those Jews came from Ferrara

Modern Ferrara is proud of its Jewish history. Visitors today can walk the very streets and visit the very landmarks described in Bassani’s story, including the city’s massive Jewish cemetery — which is totally void of headstones, because the headstones were stolen and repurposed during the Inquisition in the 18th century. 

Ferrara is both a time capsule and a physical warning of what happens when oppression crosses the line to total dehumanization. Nowhere is that more represented than at the Museum of Italian Judaism and the Shoah, which opened in 2017 and aims, in part, to revitalize the area’s long connection to Jewish history.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis tells the controversial story of the Finzi-Contini family, aristocratic Ferrarese Jews who believed the fascists would pass them by on their quest to exterminate and homogenize. The book was controversial because the real Finzi-Contini family felt Bassani had not portrayed them fairly; the 1970 film adaptation was controversial because Bassani felt director Vittorio De Sica had not conveyed his story accurately. This new opera adaptation is based on Bassani’s novel and focuses our 21st-century eyes on this distinguished product of its time. 

Ferrara may be long past its Jewish golden age, but telling its story over and over again ensures that history won’t disappear.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis will be presented January 27 – February 6, 2022

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Special thanks to Janet Simmonds of for the photography.

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