Sour notes at La Scala put first night at risk

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La Scala has seen plenty of tantrums and industrial disputes, but none to rival this. With workers and management at each others' throats over every conceivable issue, from next year's pay round to future funding, the famous Milan opera house is being forced to contemplate the unthinkable: cancelling the opening night of its new season for the first time in its 200-year history.

The bad blood has been flowing abundantly in La Scala's rococo corridors in recent weeks, and four performances in a row of Lucia di Lammermoor have already bitten the dust.

The workers have passed a motion urging the dismissal of the general manager, Carlo Fontana, and, to their surprise, have found support from leading politicians, including the mayors of Milan and Venice.

The musical director, Riccardo Muti, has denounced the strikes as a mark of shame on the whole country and has accused the workers of plotting to destroy one of the cornerstones of Italian culture.

The atmosphere has grown so sour that artists and local politicians have begged the Prime Minister to intervene.

The cancellation of the opening night performance of Mozart's Magic Flute on 7 December would be a calamity not only for La Scala but for the Italian cultural world as a whole. The occasion is the high point of the Milan social calendar, attended by film stars, media celebrities and top industrialists.

It also falls on the feast day of Milan's patron, St Ambrose, a man remembered for patching up a fourth-century schism in the Church. It may take a prayer or two to the saint to avert La Scala's own schism.

The root of the problem is that the Milan opera house, and indeed opera houses throughout the country, are broke.

In 1993, the last year for which full figures are available, the State handed out 445bn lire (pounds 180m) in subsidies to the 13 main opera houses but got back only 55.1bn lire (pounds 22.3m) in box-office receipts. La Scala receives more than 10 per cent of the whole cake.

In a country desperate to cut its enormous public debt, this is no longer a tenable situation. Mr Fontana has tried to keep wage increases to a minimum, and has tried to go back on a long-standing commitment to boost La Scala's 700-plus workforce with another 108 members. He has also suggested that private sponsorship ought to replace at least some of the state funding.

These might seem reasonable proposals, but opera is not a reasonable art form in Italy. The show has to be lavish and wasteful with money, or else Italians will not recognise it as opera.

Budgets soar sky high for operas that may only be performed a handful of times; staff levels are extraordinarily high; costumes and sets are always made from scratch, and old productions, even acclaimed ones, are never revived.

The dispute is a struggle for the very soul of Italian opera. The unions argue that privatisation would force all but the most prestigious houses to scale back their costs so drastically that some might have to close. The veteran ballet dancer, Carla Fracci, argues that all would be fine if the star singers and dancers did not demand such exorbitant fees.

But with Italy battling to slash trillions of lire off public spending before its debts run out of control, perhaps the hard truth is that opera in its traditional form is a luxury the country can no longer afford.