Drama at the world's greatest opera house

Next Tuesday, a new artistic director takes charge at Milan's world-famous opera house. It is an appointment that follows months of political rows and noisy tantrums, as Peter Popham reports
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Under the dome of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the world's first shopping mall, lined with branches of Gucci, Camicie St George, and Church's Shoes, the sign says "Choose and vote for your bench for Milan." Behind wooden walls, a dozen prototype park benches produced by top design firms have been installed; elegantly dressed citizens crowd around them, taking turns to lounge on each. Milan, the capital city of design, purrs smoothly ahead into the beckoning, comfortable future.

Under the dome of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, the world's first shopping mall, lined with branches of Gucci, Camicie St George, and Church's Shoes, the sign says "Choose and vote for your bench for Milan." Behind wooden walls, a dozen prototype park benches produced by top design firms have been installed; elegantly dressed citizens crowd around them, taking turns to lounge on each. Milan, the capital city of design, purrs smoothly ahead into the beckoning, comfortable future.

But a few steps away, another legendary Milanese institution appears to be teetering on the brink of disaster. For more than 225 years, Il Teatro alla Scala, known all over the world simply as La Scala, has been the city's pride and joy, its permanent claim to cultural importance. But after months of acrimony and embarrassment, violent outbursts and upheavals, La Scala has instead become a symbol of how easily such claims can come unstuck.

"The world's greatest opera house," as it still likes to be regarded, has since the start of the year lost its general manager, its legendary musical director Riccardo Muti, the general manager's replacement and a member of the board who once played piano on cruise ships, accompanying a little-known crooner called Silvio Berlusconi.

La Scala has seen the first night of every opera in the repertory cancelled and two new productions scrapped because of industrial action by its orchestra. It has seen the orchestra inform its conductor that it was unable to work with him, and the conductor return the compliment. In a ballot involving all the theatre's employees, 700 voted for Muti to be discharged and only three for him to be retained.

Another Italian of comparable stature, the film and opera director Franco Zeffirelli, then poured oil on the fire by characterising Muti as "drunk with himself, drugged by his own art and his own personal vanity; he can only talk about himself, he has become a caricature of a conductor". Zeffirelli described La Scala's programme under Muti's direction - which features a 42-year-old production of La Bohème by Zeffirelli himself - as "one horrendous production after another: constipated, anal, with no explosion of vitality on stage".

La Scala has long been a symbol of Italy's peculiarly fruitful relationship with opera. The world's best operas were written by Italians in Italian, and sung by wonderful Italian tenors and sopranos under the direction of tempestuous Italian geniuses such as Toscanini in the magnificent opera houses that adorned every Italian city of any importance. And the greatest and the most famous of them all was La Scala.

Opera was the art of the upper classes, of course - but in Italy and only in Italy it was also the art of the whole country. Mention a Verdi opera to your taxi driver and you would very likely get a snatch of an aria for your trouble. From the laundry-strung tenements of Naples to the canals of Venice, la lirica ("opera" in Italian) was the people's art, the people's pride. It was one of the few things that made Italians feel as if they all belonged to the same nation. That was then, of course. When it all began to wrong is a matter of dispute, but there is no doubt that La Scala, and most other Italian opera houses, have quietly been slipping in esteem during the past century as the attention of the operatic muse was drawn elsewhere. Italian composers stopped writing brilliant operas before the Second World War; more and more the Italian opera houses appeared shrines of a dead art.

Elsewhere, the stormy German repertoire of Wagner and Strauss might drive all before it. But Italian opera lovers couldn't bring themselves to like all that noisy, portentous, over-long stuff. They liked their opera Italian, with tunes that were singable in the bath and staging that was faithful, in a straightforward way, to the time and place where the opera was supposed to be set.

So the great heartland of la lirica became little by little something of a charming backwater, living on its legends; and then, at La Scala of all places, in the past few months, a backwater that was no longer charming at all but a place of flaming tempers and flying mud and slamming doors; the mise-en-scène of a far more tempestuous and ill-humoured sort of show than the Italians had any taste for. How has it come to this? Only six months ago, everything seemed to be going so well for La Scala, thanks to Silvio Berlusconi. The media billionaire came to power in 2001 with a reputation, in the salotti buoni, the high-bourgeois salons of Milan, as a chancer and a philistine whose idea of culture was probably himself singing the golden hits of the San Remo song festival, with Fedele Confalonieri, his cruise ship accompanist (who has been a member of his inner clique ever since), tinkling away beside him on the upright.

Berlusconi and his Milanese ally, Gabriele Albertini, mayor of the city and chairman of La Scala's board of governors, set about nailing that canard by chucking the one thing he knew all about, tons of money, at this culture thing.

La Scala, originally built by the Duke of Savoy in 1778 as a way to get the hordes of opera-lovers off his ducal property, had been quietly deteriorating for decades. In August 1943 it was almost destroyed by an RAF incendiary bomb. The reconstruction was hasty and cheap: the rubble of the stage was covered in concrete and carpet, for example, and the wooden stage laid on top of that. As a result, the hall's acoustics were notoriously capricious; the stars competed for the few sweet spots on the stage from which a voice rang out through the theatre in full strength and purity. Maria Callas, whose reputation was made at La Scala, had her own favourite spot, and perish any young upstart of a director foolish enough to try and shift her from it.

So the new Berlusconi government decided to fling 60 million euros at La Scala with the idea of righting all those harum-scarum solutions and making it once again the best opera house in the world.

And so it came to pass. In the process the place was gutted. The left-wing opposition in Milan's town hall screamed that the government was wrecking the opera house, and tried until the last minute to get the refurbishment halted in the courts. But the place was only being gutted in the interests of giving the theatre an immense new fly floor, to accommodate modern productions, to allow a speedy change- over between shows, and a large new administration and rehearsal block. This gave the theatre a new profile: the building looked - if one glanced up at it on entering Piazza della Scala from the Galleria - as if the neo-classical roof had sprouted a multi-storey car park.

Inside, however, immense pains had been taken to restore the opera house to exactly as it was before the work started. The result, for even the crustiest advocate of the old days, was ravishingly beautiful. And thanks to a new sprung wooden stage resting on 12 layers of materials, ranging from marble dust to PVC, the acoustics of the theatre had been transformed. If Maria Callas came back to life, she could have sung from any spot on the stage with the same deliriously beautiful result.

After 19 years of labouring with a splendid but gently crumbling hall, the legendary musical director Riccardo Muti, now 64, at last had something worthy of his talents. But a mere five months after the gala reopening, Mr Muti was gone for good. What on earth went wrong? Behind the show of unity at the press preview that preceded the gala reopening, two factions within La Scala had been sharpening their knives for many months.

On one side was Muti, the stage Italian musical director, with his mane of uncannily gleaming jet- black hair, his temper tantrums, his acute awareness of his own genius - and, according to many, his choice of increasingly dull and obscure operas, his repellent effect on good singers (who increasingly trained and worked outside Italy), his loathing of modern staging ideas.

Muti was the darling of Albertini and the right.

On the other was the theatre's general manager and artistic director Carlo Fontana, popular with the theatre's workers. With the closure of La Scala for the refit, the company had moved to Teatro degli Arcimboldi, a modern theatre on the city's outskirts; at Fontana's insistence, and with the idea of improving its financial situation, it had also extended its repertoire to include fare well outside Muti's idea of what it was right and proper for La Scala to put on, including middlebrow foreign shows like West Side Story.

Fontana wanted to open La Scala up to a new audience uninterested in the classics of la lirica; Muti wanted his old theatre back, his old audience back, his old repertory back. In December he got the lot, and elected to reopen the place by staging the first opera ever performed there, Europa Riconosciuta by Salieri. It had never been performed again since - for excellent reasons. It was, his critics argued, a quintessential Muti choice: boring, and with no claims on the attention of a 21st-century audience.

But while the board congratulated themselves on La Scala's glittering return, the tension between the two factions in the theatre was coming to a head. On 24 February, La Scala fans were stunned to learn that general manager Fontana had been sacked. He was replaced by Mauro Meli, a protégé of Muti's who had been brought in as artistic director after an earlier crisis in 2003.

It had all the appearances of an internal coup, with the imperious Muti bouncing a compliant board of directors into defenestrating his only rival for power in the theatre. Now, with his pliant choice in the job of artistic director, Muti had carte blanche to bore the pants off what remained of Milan's opera cognoscenti until the last one turned the lights off.

The orchestra, however, decided it was not going to accept Fontana's sacking. First they demanded his reinstatement, then the sacking of Meli, his replacement. La Scala Philharmonic is one of Italy's finest orchestras, "the best opera orchestra in the world," according to Franco Zeffirelli, "the flesh and blood of La Scala and a very important part of the creative process. They are the crème de la crème and they expect to be treated as something more than just people on the payroll." Weeks after its glorious reopening, La Scala found itself at a crisis unparalleled in its history, with shows cancelled every other night and two new operas scrapped in their entirety.

Muti lashed out: he would no longer work with this insubordinate orchestra. "I believe that, at the moment," he wrote in a letter to them, "there are not the conditions for us to play music together." But the orchestra called the conductor's bluff. Six days later, at a mass meeting in the theatre attended by 700 employees, representing everyone from hat-check girls to flymen, they voted overwhelmingly for Muti to go.

"As to the role and behaviour of maestro Muti," said the final resolution, "the assembly ... asks the musical director to resign from his post." And on 3 April, to general amazement, Muti suddenly took his cue. "The theatrical show of hostility from people I have worked with for nearly 20 years has made it utterly impossible to continue our relationship," he declared in a statement, with an angry toss of his mane, "which has to be based on harmony and trust ..." Amen to that, breathed the orchestra.

Could La Scala survive without its cantankerous living legend? For a while it seemed an open question. Only a week later Fedele Confalonieiri, Berlusconi's buddy on the board, also took his leave. As La Scala earns huge sums in broadcasting rights from Berlusconi's company Mediaset, there was great alarm at his departure. Could this be the end for the theatre? Would the government and/or Berlusconi now pull the plug? That may still happen, but staff at the opera house are crossing their fingers that the worst is over. Next Tuesday, the theatre's new general manager and artistic director, Stephane Lissner, takes office.

He is the first non-Italianto run La Scala, and he comes trailing streams of glory from his work as director of the Théatre de la Madeleine in Paris and the Aix-en-Provence summer festival. Giancarlo Albori, of the theatre's union, said he believed the appointment was "the opening of a new chapter". And the new conductor? Nobody has a clue. If Lissner himself knows, he is making sure he is firmly established in the general manager's chair before making it public. Perhaps wisely.