Technology at work: Marc Anthony Messina on La Scala' s design equipmen t
The old adage "Never look a gift horse in the mouth'' is the new byword for Milan's famed and highly subsidised La Scala opera house.

The theatre, one of the world's most renowned "opera temples'', is inching into the world of computer-created stage sets and stage management, starting this season, thanks to a hefty hardware and software package donated by IBM. The donation was arrangedby Milan's First Families Association and the Friends of La Scala.The price of the new computer package, an IBM RISC/6000 workstation and two accompanying software packages - Professional Cadam and Alias - is 100m lire or £40,000. This compr ises roughly £24,000 for the workstation and £16,000 for the software packages, according to Diego Terenghi, the IBM Italia engineer in charge of the project.

La Scala's stage production manager, Angelo Sala, says the Alias program will enable the opera house to create the kind of sets and images seen in such films as Jurassic Park, while computer-aided design will make possible the blueprints needed to build them in La Scala's workshops.

The big question is what will become of La Scala's think-tank staff of 20-plus stage set designers and one computer. And again, how La Scala's staff of stage set craftsmen, members of some of the world's toughest trade unions, will react to a computer system that tells them how many nails to use and how long the job will take.

The donation was handed to La Scala on a silver platter by IBM's Italian subsidiary through its cultural philanthropy arm based in Milan. The duty of Fondazione IBM Italia is to keep the IBM name and image in the forefront of Italian minds, despite the multinational's faltering sales worldwide, by financing selected eye-catching Italian cultural endeavours.

Dragging the huge and tradition-bound Italian-style opera house organisation into the high-technology world will require skilful coaxing and wheedling. La Scala has a staff of 900, including a 400-strong stage crew.

"We are the largest opera stage set factory in Italy,'' says Mr Sala. "We make everything from the costumes, wigs and shoes to furniture, sculptures and the countless other accessories and props used on an opera stage. Because of our immense production capacity, we are a leading supplier of stage settings to other Italian opera houses.

"The computer will be a big help to us in preparing the stage sets we rent or loan to smaller opera houses. We will be able to put their stage dimensions and quirks into our computer workstation and tailor the stage sets to their needs in advance.''

La Scala has already used the computer to work out the stage sets for Die Walkure, the Wagnerian opera which opened its 1994-95 season last week.

Why does the system require a powerful workstation rather than just a basic desktop PC?

"There are just too many colours involved in making up stage sets,'' Mr Sala says. "A workstation can handle the millions of calculations needed for this type of work.''

La Scala has become a big business without an adequate technological infrastructure. "The way they produced stage sets was fine 30 years ago,'' says Mr Terenghi. "The old way of doing things - starting with hand-drawn designs followed up by small-scale models, followed by hand-crafted full-scale stage sets is too costly, time-consuming and inefficient. The computer can produce all of these visually on the screen, then produce the drawings, which are sent to the workshop.

"Then again, in the `good old days', before the 1960s, everything they made remained in-house. Now that La Scala productions tour the world, what they build today has to be suitable for touring to Tokyo or anywhere else. This can only be done with the aid of intelligently used computer technology,.''

Outsiders view the developments at La Scala with scepticism. "They've given La Scala the crown jewels when a pair of plastic ear-rings would have been more than sufficient,'' says a production manager in the business. "Today, international opera touring means moving the set and the director. The rest of the dinosaur is left behind.

"Covent Garden gets along with far less than half the staff of La Scala, and is far more efficient. Opera production in any important UK opera house can be staged and removed in 24 hours. To do the same thing at La Scala can take a week.''