A theatre and classical music aficionado, I was excited to tour the La Scala Theatre in Milan, where operas and ballets were staged. Classical music concerts by two orchestras also took place there. A chorus called the theatre home, too. I bought my ticket for the tour online before traveling to Italy. I was not disappointed.
First, I gazed at the exterior. The neoclassical building emphasized functionality. It blended in with other buildings on La Scala Square. I had assumed the famous edifice would stand out with an exterior featuring much ornamentation. When the theatre was built, the square was nonexistent, and La Scala did not have a dominant location on the street. It was one of many buildings. Still, it looked elegant. I gazed at the decorated tympanum with bas relief and stucco adornment. I also saw half-columns and two sides of an interrupted balustrade along with decorated parapets.
Once inside, I had some free time before the tour so I walked through the Theatre Museum. I saw many busts of famous members of the opera ensemble, statues, paintings and musical instruments, such as a piano that Franz Liszt had played. There was a special costume exhibition there, too. I am afraid that I am not an expert at opera, so I was not able to recognize all the names of those represented in the museum. A legendary conductor that had worked magic at La Scala was Arturo Toscanini. He had put into place many reforms and had staged works by Richard Wagner, for instance.
Numerous operas by Verdi had been performed at La Scala, and Verdi had made a name for himself with Nabucco, staged at La Scala in 1842. Maria Callas had sung on that stage, her amazing voice filling the auditorium. Herbert von Karajan had conducted concerts at La Scala. I was familiar with his work. I had some of the concerts he had conducted in various places on CDs.
In 1965 Claudio Abbado made his debut. He conducted operas as well as concerts. Riccardo Muti first conducted there in 1981. From 1989 to 1998, he created productions of masterpieces such as Rigoletto, La Traviata and MacBeth.
Operas by Verdi, Giacomo Puccini, Amilcare Ponchielli, Vincenzo Bellini, Gioachino Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti and Karlheinz Stockhausen all had premiered at La Scala. The small museum was very intriguing and certainly a delight for opera lovers.
At the beginning of our tour, the guide told us about the history of the building. The city’s Teatro Regio Ducale burned down in 1776, and Milan needed a new theatre for operas. This edifice was constructed over the site of a demolished church called Santa Maria della Scala, from which the theatre got its name. The owners of the boxes at the destroyed Teatro Regio Ducale paid for the construction. It took two years to build.
Teatro alla Scala opened on August 3, 1778, staging Antonio Salieri’s opera Europa riconosciuta. The La Scale Theatre became an important meeting point for the upper class. At that time, there were no chairs on the main floor, so spectators had to stand during the performance. Also, there was no orchestra pit. Over 80 oil lamps provided light on the stage area while about 1,000 additional lamps were situated elsewhere in the building. Buckets full of water were stored in several rooms in case of a fire. Electric lighting was not installed until 1883. In the early days, the owners of the boxes decorated their spaces themselves, choosing various colors of wallpaper, for instance. In 1844, the boxes all were decorated in red. Today remnants of the original décor can be seen in some boxes. Some are adorned with ceiling frescoes or with mirrors and stucco ornamentation.
However, a casino was also located in the building during the initial seasons. There was a space in the theatre where much bartering took place. For example, people swapped horses. The voices in the foyer could be quite loud so that it was sometimes difficult to hear the performance.
Significant renovation took place in 1907. The seating area originally had 3,000 seats, but after reconstruction the number of seats decreased to 1,987. In 1938 movable bridges and levels were added to the stage, so it was easy to change sets immediately. The system was actually quite complex.
La Scala was badly damaged by bombs during World War II. The theatre was reconstructed and opened with much aplomb in May of 1946. More restoration work occurred between 2002 and 2004, and the ensembles had to perform elsewhere for those two years. Today the theater is divided into four sections of boxes and two galleries for a total of six levels. The backstage area was enlarged during that renovation. The new stage remains one of the biggest in Italy. (Looking at the stage, I was struck by how large and deep it was.) Architect Mario Botta had an electronic system installed next to seats so spectators could read the libretto in English, Italian or the original language of the production while watching the spectacle. This technological feature intrigued me.
In 2005 there were many problems with management. In 2006, during a performance of Aida, the audience was incessantly booing tenor Roberto Alagna. The actor left the stage and did not return. His understudy had to take up the role immediately. He didn’t even have time to put on a costume.
The interior style was neoclassical with gold and red colors dominating the seating area. Medallions and floral as well as animal motifs provided adornment inside. I was overwhelmed by La Scala’s beauty. We sat in the royal box for a short time and watched a rehearsal for Gioconda, which had had its premiere at La Scala centuries earlier. We weren’t allowed to remain there for long, but it was still one of the highlights of my visit to Milan.
Maybe next time I come to Milan I will be able to attend an opera or a classical concert at La Scala.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, editor and proofreader in Prague.