La Scala Takes a Big Step With a Small Audience

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After suffering through the coronavirus pandemic’s devastation and lockdowns in the Italian region of Lombardy, La Scala is making a comeback: It is opening its doors in Milan to a live audience — capped at 500 people, sitting in the balconies and loges — for the first time since October.

On Monday, the music director Riccardo Chailly leads the house orchestra and choir in a program of Wagner, Verdi, Purcell and more, featuring Lise Davidsen, a rising star soprano. On Tuesday evening, Riccardo Muti and the Vienna Philharmonic will be in Milan to perform works by Brahms, Mendelssohn and Schumann, commemorating the 75th anniversary of La Scala’s reopening after World War II, which featured a legendary concert under Arturo Toscanini.

Also coming up are streaming performances of a ballet program featuring work by eight choreographers (Saturday) and Rossini’s “L’italiana in Algeri” (May 25) in a revival of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s classic staging.

All this is taking place under the leadership of Dominique Meyer, who began his tenure as artistic director and chief executive of La Scala in March 2020 while wrapping up nearly a decade as general director of the Vienna State Opera.

La Scala had been lying low in recent months, presenting occasional performances for streaming while Mr. Meyer and his staff overhauled the infrastructure to become both more digitally advanced and more ecologically sustainable.

This year, the house’s budget decreased to an approved 86 million euros, about $104 million, from €133 million in 2019. But it has achieved a record high in private funding, recently bringing aboard the Armani Group and the supermarket chain Esselunga as new sponsors.

Meanwhile, the theater has proceeded with extensive construction plans. A high-rise building designed by the Swiss architect Mario Botta, budgeted at €17 million and scheduled to open in two years around the corner from La Scala, will include administrative offices and a rehearsal room that doubles as a recording studio. The theater is also expanding its academy into a university with its own campus, relocating its set and costume workshops, and modernizing its storage space; all those projects are expected to be complete in five years.

In addition, Mr. Meyer has been developing outreach plans. “I am probably in my last position,” Mr. Meyer, a 65-year-old native of France’s Alsace region, said in a video interview from his office in Milan. “I have 33 or 34 seasons behind me. Now is the time to invest my experience in this theater and work with the young generation of La Scala on the future of this house.”

The following conversation, conducted in German, has been translated, edited and condensed.

Is it a challenge to bring traditional houses like the Vienna State Opera and La Scala into the 21st century?

I don’t see it that way. The problem for many opera houses is that they can be quite self-referential. But people remain very faithful.

In Vienna, we installed a streaming system and tablets with subtitles. I was heavily criticized at the time. Now, one is happy to broadcast an opera every evening during this period.

This summer, we will install cameras not just in the auditorium but in the foyers because performances also take place there. I didn’t do this in Vienna and very much regretted it. We want to stream the whole program: operas, ballets and many concerts.

Tell us more about your first season at La Scala.

You can’t come to a house like La Scala and criticize everything. If you do, then you are the foreign body.

The first thing we had to do was a kind of screening or X-ray of the house. The second was to mobilize the young [employees].

It turned out that we had progress to make with regard to the administrative use of computers. After a year of Covid, I had, in fact, seen that some things don’t work — that bills or salaries were paid too late. And so these different problems made it possible to make reforms at a fast pace.

A crisis sometimes offers the opportunity to do things new and differently. We will have empty seats, and so I want to do something for families here, so that parents can bring their children to the front rows of the theater for €15.

Northern Italy was, of course, hit very hard during the first wave of the pandemic. Was it difficult to make the right decisions under those conditions?

Yes and no. I have a lot of understanding for politicians because I used to work for the French government. When one is at the steering wheel, it is not easy. So I understand when mistakes are made.

What I didn’t like is that everyone wanted to be better than their neighbor. And so a situation emerged where the rules are so different: There are not two countries where quarantine has the same duration.

The virus is the same, so why isn’t it possible to create a reasonable way of working together? Some people give themselves an air of importance because they have the best conditions. Later on, things will look different.


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