Threats to the Future of La Scala Milano

La Scala

Yesterday, Italian Newspapers released articles discussing that factions of cultural government are threatening the continuation of La Scala and the Piccolo Teatro di Milano.

Di Cultura. Pisapia, senza modifiche gravi difficoltà per la Scala e per il Piccolo Teatro

Il Sindaco, chiederò audizione a Commissione Cultura Camera

( Milano, 27 settembre 2013 – “Ho sperato sino all’ultimo che il Senato modificasse il provvedimento che, se non sarà cambiato dalla Camera, provocherà una situazione di grave difficoltà per il futuro non solo della Scala, ma anche del Piccolo Teatro. Per questo condivido pienamente l’allarme dei sindacati”. 

Lo afferma il sindaco di Milano Giuliano Pisapia commentando l’approvazione del Dl Cultura al Senato. 

“Forse il Governo si e’ dimenticato che Milano nei prossimi due anni ospiterà appuntamenti fondamentali per l’intero paese come Expo 2015 e il semestre di Presidenza europea. Quel che e’ più grave e’ che le criticità del provvedimento erano state segnalate, ma non vi e’ stato alcun riscontro. Per questo chiederò subito un’audizione alla Commissione Cultura della Camera per evitare un grave danno a istituzioni che sono un eccellenza di Milano e di tutto il paese”. 

This situation is a rather grave one and bothered me to my fundamental core.  It seems that the Italian government is fine to keep their national sport, soccer (football), thriving but let’s just threaten what is likely the greatest artistic export Italy has ever known and the opera house that stands at the heart of that history: Il Teatro alla Scala.  Something is drastically wrong with this picture.  The mayor of Milano, Giuliano Pisapia, as quoted above, reminded the senate yesterday that Milano is going to host the Expo in 2015 and he is making a plea to the House of Cultural Commissions to evade a grand injustice to the institutions that have led Milan and the entire country to excellence in the arts.

stage of la scala

This history of La Scala is rich within the artistic climate of Italy and has been since its inception on the 3rd of August 1778 Originally known as the New Royal-Ducal Theatre alla Scala (Nuovo Regio Ducale Teatro alla Scala). The premiere performance was Antonio Salieri’s Europa Riconosciuta

Most of Italy’s greatest operatic artists, and many of the finest singers from around the world, have appeared at La Scala during the past 200 years. Today, the theatre is still recognised as one of the leading opera and ballet theatres in the world and is home to the La Scala Theatre Chorus, La Scala Theatre Ballet, and La Scala Theatre Orchestra. The theatre also has an associate school, known as the La Scala Theatre Academy (Italian: Accademia Teatro alla Scala), which offers professional training in music, dance, stage craft and stage management.

But, really….let’s close this house up.

La Scala’s season traditionally opens on 7 December, the feast day of Milan’s patron saint, Saint Ambrogio.  All performances must end before midnight, and long operas start earlier in the evening when necessary.  Within La Scala exists The Museo Teatrale della Scala  (La Scala Theatre Museum), accessible from the theatre’s foyer and a part of the house, contains a collection of paintings, drafts, statues, costumes, and other documents regarding La Scala’s and opera history in general. La Scala also hosts the Accademia d’Arti e Mestieri dello Spettacolo (Academy for the Performing Arts). Its goal is to train a new generation of young musicians, technical staff, and dancers (at the Scuola di Ballo del Teatro della Scala, one of the Academy’s divisions).

But who cares about history and schools for young musicians and dancers….let’s close this house up.

La Scala Interior

A fire destroyed the previous theatre, the Teatro Reggio Ducale on 25 February 1776, after a carnival gala. A group of ninety wealthy Milanese, who owned palchi (private boxes) in the theatre, wrote to Archduke Ferdinand of Austria -Este  asking for a new theatre and a provisional one to be used while completing the new one. The neo-classical architect Giuseppe Piermarinii produced an initial design but it was rejected by Count Firmian (the governor of the then Austrian Lombardy).

A second plan was accepted in 1776 by Empress Maria Theresa. The new theatre was built on the former location of the church of Santa Maria della Scala, from which the theatre gets its name. The church was deconsecrated and demolished, and over a period of two years the theatre was completed by Pietro Marliani, Pietro Nosetti and Antonio and Giuseppe Fe. The theatre had a total over 3,000 seats organized into 678 pit-stalls, arranged in six tiers of boxes above which is the ‘loggione’ or two galleries. Its stage is one of the largest in Italy (16.15m d x 20.4m w x 26m h).

Building expenses were covered by the sale of palchi, which were lavishly decorated by their owners, impressing observers such as Stendhal.  La Scala (as it came to be known) soon became the preeminent meeting place for noble and wealthy Milanese people. In the tradition of the times, the platea (the main floor) had no chairs and spectators watched the shows standing up. The orchestra was in full sight, as the golfo mistico (orchestra pit) had not yet been built.

But again….why would anyone care?  Let’s just close it up.

La Scala in Verdi's time

La Scala in Verdi’s time

Above the boxes, La Scala has a gallery where the less wealthy can watch the performances, called the loggione. The loggione is typically crowded with the most critical opera aficionados, who can be ecstatic or merciless towards singers’ perceived successes or failures. La Scala’s loggione is considered a baptism of fire in the opera world, and fiascos are long remembered. (One recent incident occurred in 2006 when tenor Roberto Alagna was booed off the stage during a performance of Aida, forcing his understudy, Antonello Palombi, quickly to replace him mid-scene without time to change into a costume.) Of course, La Scala is not without scandal.  For me, the most outstanding of scandals took place in 1868 with the premiere of Boito’s Mefistofele, when the entire audience was so shocked by the presence of the devil and his “control” of the world that they ran out of the theatre screaming into the Piazza della Scala.

But…never mind….let’s close her up!

La Scala was originally illuminated with 84 oil lamps mounted on the palcoscenico and another thousand in the rest of theatre. To prevent the risks of fire, several rooms were filled with hundreds of water buckets. In time, oil lamps were replaced by gas lamps, these in turn were replaced by electric lights in 1883.

The original structure was renovated in 1907, when it was given its current layout with 2,800 seats. In 1943, during WWII, La Scala was severely damaged by bombing. It was rebuilt and reopened on 11 May 1946, with a memorable concert conducted by Arturo Toscanini—twice La Scala’s principal conductor and an associate of the composers Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini—with a soprano solo by Renata Tebaldi that created a sensation.

Toscanini Conducts

Arturo Toscanini


La Tebaldi at La Scala

La Scala hosted the prima (first production) of many famous operas, and had a special relationship with Verdi. For several years, however, Verdi did not allow his work to be played here, as some of his music had been modified (he said “corrupted”) by the orchestra. This dispute originated in a disagreement over the production of his Giovanna D’Arco in 1845; however the composer later conducted his Requiem there on 25 May 1874 and he announced in 1886 that La Scala would host the premiere of what was to become his penultimate opera, Otello. The premiere of his last opera, Falstaff was also given in the theatre.

Otello premiere

Falstaff Manifesto

Turandot Prima

In 1982, the Filarmonica della Scala was established, drawing its members from the larger pool of musicians that comprise the Orchestra della Scala.

But yeah….see ya later La Scala.


They Italians have no problem promoting soccer or sports, but it’s ok to throw out comments that suggest closing a theatre that stands historically at the helm of the greatest art Italy has exported.  I think the issue is that government officials are  coming to office younger and younger and like many Italians, they are obsessed with la Cultura Americana, which also placates to sports more than it does to Opera and other classical arts.  It has seemed that La Scala has always been a house that North American opera companies have looked  going because La Scala has always been there, like a father figure, showing them the way, and now that the main helm of opera is being threatened, what will happen here? Some people think opera and music is a dispensable art.  Is it?  How many films have you watched in complete silence?  How many children go to schools now and receive absolutely no music or arts education?  What are we creating, a society of robot-like and technologically savvy youngins who have no idea who Beethoven is or who Verdi is?

The very notion of closing La Scala, or even the very mention of it threatens so many things.  It’s the large rock that falls into a still pool…the ripples will continue to resound in areas that we can’t even imagine for years after.  It is my hope and I’m sure the hope of many that the Italian government will protect the institutions of art that bring so much joy and culture to the world.  If not, North American companies and other European houses, remain steadfast in your devotion to opera and the arts.  Do not follow suit.  A life with out art is darkness….a life without opera….unimaginable, at least for me.


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