Has the fat lady sung for Italian opera?

Curtains for La Scala? The culture minister, Rocco Buttiglione, has warned of the possible "death of opera" as the nation's 13 deeply indebted opera houses try to find ways to survive a 30 per cent cut in government subsidies, announced in the new budget.

"I recognise," he said in Milan, "that 13 opera houses are too many, but it is not possible to decide a priori to shut down any one of them. They are already in a condition in which, if in the middle-to-long term they do not restructure themselves, we will arrive at the death of opera in Italy."

All the government-supported arts are in crisis as a result of severe cuts mandated by Silvio Berlusconi's Finance Minister, Giulio Tremonti, and last week theatres, cinemas, concert halls and opera houses staged a one-day strike in protest.

But the opera, disproportionately dependent on state handouts and with drastically shrinking audiences, is in the most serious difficulty of all.

Almost half of Italy's arts budget - €496m (£336m) - goes to the opera. Mr Tremonti plans to reduce that by €164m a year over the next three years. Mr Berlusconi last week rubbed salt in the wound by claiming the opera's problems were of its own making.

"One thousand people work at La Scala," he claimed of Italy's best-known opera house, "when 400 would be plenty."

La Scala has staggered from one crisis to another since its gala reopening nearly a year ago. Its new superintendent, Frenchman Stéphane Lissner, said Mr Berlusconi had got his facts wrong. "The total number of staff is 800, and half that are artists."

Roberto Bolle, primo ballerino at La Scala, said Mr Berlusconi should have known better as his son-in-law Maurizio Vanadia, husband of Marina Berlusconi, was formerly a top dancer at La Scala.

But politicians and administrators agree that the crisis facing the Italian opera is "desperate," in Mr Buttiglione's words. He warned the opera houses: "None of them can hope that, whatever happens, someone will bale them out. Any of them could go bust, none is exempt from doing their accounts. All of them are dramatically in debt."

The basic problem, according to one inside source, is that while many companies continue to stage superb productions, managers are political appointees. Back offices are swollen with friends and relatives.

"Fifteen years ago, we had one public relations officer - now we have six," she said of her opera house. "We do wonderful productions but they are killed off after a fixed number of performances and never go abroad because there is no entrepreneurial talent at the top."

The source works at San Carlo, in the heart of Naples, a city with 24 per cent unemployment and the highest murder rate in Italy. "How can you expect the government to provide endless handouts," she said, "when your theatre is in the middle of a city that is dying of hunger? For years, opera houses have used the state like an ATM. Very few young people come to the opera, no effort is made to attract them."

This highlights an even more fundamental problem - that the Italian public appears to have fallen out of love with "la lirica" (the opera). A generation ago, the goings-on at La Scala were of intense interest to everyone in Milan. Any Italian taxi driver could hum the most famous arias, and Maria Callas and Giuseppe di Stefano were the celebrities of their day.

But today, thanks to pop music and the Berlusconi-peddled TV diet of soaps, quiz shows and old American movies, Verdi and Puccini have gone out of style. The opera has become the diversion of the rich, the old and the corporate as much as anywhere else - perhaps even more so, given the failure of Italian opera houses to make a pitch for the patronage of their country's youth.

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