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Last Updated: Saturday, 17 July, 2004, 01:12 GMT 02:12 UK
Restoring the glory to La Scala

By David Willey
BBC News correspondent in Milan

La Scala
Opera lovers in Milan were up in arms over the rebuilding

The largest stage in Europe - home to practically every major composer, opera star and orchestral conductor of the last two centuries - is still a gaping hole.

The three year refurbishment of La Scala is nearing its end and the contractors plan to hand over the famous opera house, fit for rehearsals to begin, at the end of October.

Air conditioning, fire sprinklers and new security equipment are still being installed.

Dust is everywhere. The interior of the famous horseshoe shaped auditorium is shrouded in plastic sheeting as restorers touch up the gilt decorations and adjust the candelabra.

Plush covered handrails that have been stripped from the boxes lie ready to be carted away. Newly revealed Venetian marble floors from the original building are being buffed and polished.

Maestro upbeat

Sprouting from the dusty floor is the electrical wiring for small simultaneous translation screens which will eventually be mounted on each of the 1,800 seats, allowing opera lovers to follow the text of the libretto in English, French, German or Italian.

Against a background of hammering, drilling and sawing, Maestro Riccardo Muti, musical director of La Scala, is decidedly upbeat as he introduces the new season's programme at a backstage news conference.

La Scala renovations
The theatre first opened in the 18th Century
He insists he will never sacrifice quality for quantity at the new La Scala.

"During our first year we shall give 185 performances. That is a lot when you consider the high quality of each work that we present and the number of rehearsals.

"We are not like the Staatsoper in Vienna where they present a different opera every night often without adequate rehearsal. We still take care of our artistic product.

"But with the technical possibilities that we now have we shall increase quantity while maintaining quality. Our new stage machinery is the most modern in the world. Until last year we needed hours or one or two days to shift scenery. Now it can be done immediately. You just push a button and it is done."

Culture costs

The opera chosen to open the new La Scala in December 2004 was commissioned for the opening of the original theatre in 1778 by the Empress of Austria, Maria Theresa.

The Italian composer Antonio Salieri wrote an opera-ballet entitled Europa Riconosciuta (Europa Revealed). It includes several bravura arias of great brilliance.

The original score and libretto has been tracked down to a music library in Vienna where Salieri - a rival of Mozart - lived and worked. Some ballet music he composed in 1778 will also be performed for the gala opening night.

High culture means high prices. Tickets for the opening night gala are already being snapped up at $2,500 (1,300) for a seat in the stalls or a box.

Ridotto Gallerie
La Scala will reopen at the end of the year
But in an attempt to widen the audience for opera, ballet and music at the new La Scala, the theatre is also offering reasonably priced season tickets for a selection from the whole 2004/2005 season of 13 operas, nine ballets and twelve concerts.

Many of them are conducted by distinguished foreign guest conductors including Georges Pretre, Zubin Mehta, and Simon Rattle.

The brand new Arcimboldi theatre in an industrial suburb of Milan, built to enrich Milan's musical life during the three year closure of La Scala, will continue to share La Scala's musical repertoire.

Concessions for cheap tickets for performances at both venues will be offered to students and pensioners.

Financial shadow

La Scala is the second major Italian opera house to be completely refurbished during the opening years of the 21st century.

Venice's La Fenice was destroyed in a fire caused by an electrical short circuit in January 1996. It has been completely rebuilt and will also reopen for regular performances in December 2004.

The Venice theatre was officially reopened in December 2003 and has been undergoing acoustic and stage machinery tests since then.

La Scala will also close for a month in early 2005 but general administrator Carlo Fontana stressed that the December 2004 opening is no fake opening - stage technicians just have to get used to operating the sophisticated new stage machinery, he explained.

A financial shadow has fallen over the future of opera in Italy this week, however, with cuts in subsidies for the arts announced by the government in a mini-budget.

Carlo Fontana says La Scala may be forced to raise an extra 2m euros ($2.5m) from sponsors to balance its accounts in 2005.

La Scala's restoration drama
02 Jan 03 |  Europe


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