Pasquale Di Iorio has a regular gig playing accordion at Francoluigi's, an Italian restaurant in South Philadelphia. The 71-year-old native of the Abruzzo region of Italy grew up learning traditional Italian songs, such as "Va, pensiero" from "Nabucco," the Giuseppe Verdi opera. But customers rarely request it. 

"Not often, but they do," said Di Iorio, sitting on a small stage with his Electrovox accordion on his lap. "It's the opera buff -- they request it. The average people do not request. They want to hear Sinatra, you know, things like that. The standards. But I get requests sometimes."

"Va, pensiero" is a chorale number, usually performed by dozens of voices. On stage, those voices belong with Jews exiled from the ancient kingdom of Judah. With not much prodding, Di Iorio will tickle the keyboard until he remembers the chords, set a synth beat going from the Electrovox, and happily work his way through the four-minute number.

"'Fly away, golden thoughts.' That's what it means, which is gorgeous," said Di Iorio. "They do that with the big choir -- all the opera houses in New York and Milan, and La Scala. It's gorgeous, gorgeous music. The way I did it, maybe Giuseppe Verdi won't like it!"

When Opera Philadelphia stages the "Nabucco" as the Academy of Music, the 70-voice choir handily fills the three tiers of the Academy of Music.

"Nabucco" is a natural opener for Opera Philadelphia's 2013-2014 season: This is both the 200th anniversary of the birth of Verdi and the official Year of Italian Culture.

"Nabucco" debuted in 1842, when the Italian states were under Austrian rule, and not happy about it. Italy was not yet a united, independent country, and many subjects wanted to throw off the Austrians and become their own nation.

Ancient story with 19th century resonance

"Va, pensiero" (The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves) immediately gripped Verdi when he first read the libretto. While the story is set in ancient Babylon, concerning the struggle for freedom during King Nebuchadnezzar's reign in Babylon, Verdi felt resonance with the Italian struggle to overcome Austrian oppression. The song struck the heart of Italy.

"To present that text onstage, and have Italian people sitting in the audience, it was very easy for them to identify," said conductor Corrado Rovaris. "'O, my homeland, so beautiful, and so lost.' It was very easy to create the parallel between Hebrews and Italians under domination."

Thirty years after "Nabucco" was written, Italy successfully won its independence. Many credit "Va, pensiero" for inspiring Italians to unify as a nation. It is considered the unofficial national anthem. And the song was reportedly sung by bystanders during Verdi's funeral procession through the streets of Milan.

Opera Philadephia's staging of "Nabucco" plays with different eras. Several costumed actors portraying 19th century royal Austrians sit in the Academy of Music's private box seats. They occasionally interrupt the action on stage.

On Saturday evening, Opera Philadelphia will bring "Va, pensiero" to the people; the entire production of "Nabucco" will be screened, for free, on Independence Mall.

Listen to the story.