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Last Updated: Thursday, 27 October 2005, 09:00 GMT 10:00 UK
Italy facing opera funding crisis
By David Willey
BBC Rome Correspondent

Culture minister Rocco Buttiglione has threatened to resign if the Italian government does not cancel the 35% cuts it is proposing in funding for the performing arts in next year's budget.

Rocco Buttiglione
Rocco Buttiglione wants more money for the arts
"The resources available to my ministry are totally insufficient," he said.

"They'll have to find someone else. I cannot run the department with the money I have available.

"This is not only a battle for the opera and the struggling Italian film industry, but also for the theatre, for libraries and archives. We have to defend ourselves on a broad front," Mr Buttiglione said.

Curtailed programmes

Venice's prestigious film festival has had its budget slashed by two thirds.

Italy's 13 opera houses - many of them historic theatres such as La Scala in Milan, San Carlo in Naples and La Fenice in Venice - could be forced to curtail their programmes or even to close down.

They are heavily subsidised by the government and cannot hope to continue in business unless they find alternative funding either through commercial sponsorship or through money from the national lottery.

La Scala gets the lion's share of taxpayers' money - a hefty 25% of the total 464 million euro (320 million) state subsidy for the performing arts.

Earlier this month theatre and film industry workers all over Italy went on strike for a day forcing cinemas, concert halls and theatres to close.

Staffing criticism

They brought traffic in the centre of Rome to a standstill as they marched protesting noisily to Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's office.

Arts workers have been protesting at the cuts

Mr Berlusconi then annoyed opera workers by lambasting the country's opera house directors for employing too many people.

"La Scala employs a thousand people when 400 would be sufficient" he claimed, complaining that ballet dancers retire at 40 and then are kept on the payroll for another 20 years.

"Wrong", said Stephane Lissner, the new French director of the prestigious Milan opera house.

"The real number is 800 permanent staff and half of them are musicians, ballet dancers and members of the chorus.

"And the Prime Minister is seriously misinformed about the ballet considering that his son-in-law is a 42-year-old ballet dancer at La Scala."

In Florence, baritone Claudio Fantonio has been on hunger strike for a week in protest at the threat to his livelihood.

Drastic cuts

In Turin nine members of the chorus in the local opera house are doing the same, taking only sips of coffee to sustain them.

Culture, traditionally the Cinderella of government departments in Rome, despite Italy's rich artistic and cultural heritage, is getting short shrift in the 2006 budget now painfully making its way through parliament with drastic cuts being forced on practically every ministry.

The government has slashed expenditure to try to bring its annual deficit for 2006 down to the three and a half percent maximum of gross national product permitted under European Union rules.

Italy already has one of the biggest public debts in the world - the result of decades of failing to balance its national accounts.

Opera has also lost clout among the general public. What is on at La Scala used to be a matter of huge interest among all Milanese.

Now, with a diet of soaps, pop music and quiz shows pouring out on Mr Berlusconi's TV channels, Italy's great opera composers of the 19th and 20th centuries Verdi and Puccini are no longer flavour of the month.

The days when La Scala opera stars like Maria Callas and Giuseppe di Stefano were international celebrities have passed.

Going to the opera can also be extremely costly. A seat in the stalls at La Scala can cost up to 300 euros (200).

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