Renovation work to bring Milan’s La Scala into the 21st century will soon be finished. With its grand opening due in December, Jonathan Futrell gets a sneak preview of its second act.

Opera, in full throttle and with a cast of thousands, has the power to invigorate the soul and ignite the senses like no other music. But in recent years a different sort of drama has engulfed La Scala – Milan’s famous opera house and venerated shrine to this high art. It is a tale more dramatic, divisive and emotionally charged than anything that has appeared beneath its gilded proscenium since the first curtain call in 1778.

In December 2001, La Scala, Milan’s “grand old lady” of opera, closed her doors for three years to begin a $67 million refurbishment and reconstruction. The intention was to bring the elegant 18th century opera house into the 21st century, and help it compete with those of New York and Paris.

It was health and safety that finally brought the curtain down on La Scala, when the city fire department refused to issue a safety certificate for the building. The annual opera season opened as usual on December 7, 2001, with Verdi’s Othello starring Placido Domingo, but after three weeks the old lady closed and productions were moved to a stunning new auditorium, Teatro degli Arcimboldi, in the north of the city. It was then that the arguments really began.

The traditionalists among the Milanese had always objected strongly to people meddling with their heritage, so when the mayor’s office unveiled bold plans by Swiss architect Mario Botta to increase backstage space by constructing a pair of towers to the rear of La Scala – several storeys taller than the opera house itself – it ignited a fire that has raged in the Italian media ever since.

Perhaps things would have blown over had not a television crew hired a helicopter to film what was actually happening to La Scala behind the scaffolding, tarpaulin and security blockage encircling it. The images of destruction provoked an adagio of despair, and preservationists attempted, and failed, to halt the work through the courts, while dancer Carla Fracci confessed to weeping when she saw the pictures. A spokesperson for POLIS, the environmental group committed to sympathetic urban renewal (a thorn in the municipality’s side throughout the renovations), said the mayor’s office had “destroyed” the heart of the opera world, while others rather insensitively described what they saw as Milan’s version of “Ground Zero”.

Yet for all this, you could argue that La Scala was born of controversy. After all, it was Maria Teresa of Austria, Milan’s ruler during the latter part of the 18th century, who set a precedent by decreeing that the church of Santa Maria della Scala be levelled and replaced with something to entertain Milanese nobility. Scroll forward to 2002, and while the off-stage drama began to unfold in the Italian media, the on-stage dramas went on as usual ? albeit in a temporary new home (see box on page 48).

It’s fair to say that the building looked bruised and battered during my recent tour. But with the reopening scheduled for December 7, 2004, the mayor’s office clearly felt confident enough at the progress to allow a select few to peek behind the scenes.

The first thing that struck me was how tiny the neo-classical La Scala is by the standards of modern opera houses. Compared with the battleship proportions of Opera Garnier and Opera Bastille in Paris, La Scala is diminutive and positively dainty, dwarfed by the nearby Galleria shopping mall. No wonder the sight of sledgehammers and bulldozers struck fear into Italian hearts; looking at the building, you sense that one punch too many and she’d simply implode.

Passing through the ornate lobby into the auditorium where the work is being overseen by architect Elisabeth Fabbri, we saw that the seats had been ripped out and the five tiers of cramped boxes facing the stage ? some privately owned by the fabulously wealthy ? had been stripped of their decoration.

Pairs of young Italian women wearing head-scarves, checked shirts and stout boots clambered over the scaffolding, painstakingly reapplying the gilding surrounding the tier boxes. As our group, consisting of opera journalists and Milanese technocrats, all of us in matching yellow hard hats, tripped over bags of cement, scaffolding poles and power cables in the gloomy half-light, deputy mayor Riccardo De Corato drew our attention to key aspects of the work.

The concrete floor had been raised during previous refurbishments and was discovered to be almost 18 inches higher than when La Scala first opened. The new floor would therefore be lowered and made of specially treated acoustic wood; elsewhere, beneath the thick pile carpet, whole sections of the “Venetian marble dust” flooring were either missing or cracked. Parts of this had already been repaired and only a detailed examination could detect any colour deviation between the old and the new. The biggest challenge was the “marmorini” marbling effect on the walls. Barely a single square metre of wall in the reception, corridors or stairs wasn’t damaged in some way and the work is slow and painstaking. Nevertheless, our guide insisted it would be finished by December.

The biggest single difference that the audience will see is the stage area, which has doubled in size to 1,600 square metres. The only other visible change – in addition to an obvious lick of paint – will be the mini LCD screens fitted to the backs of each seat to interpret the productions into several, as yet unspecified, European languages; this idea, borrowed from Teatro degli Arcimboldi, may enrage opera purists even more, who may argue that they would rather watch opera than read it.

The really controversial work is backstage and comprises the new cylindrical structure in Via Foliodrammatica, housing dressing rooms, storage and administration, and the so-called, much reviled “flytower” standing behind La Scala like a hi-tech windowless office block with a few post-modernist details.

“We’ve used 60,000 tons of concrete in here,” announced the deputy mayor. And it’s easy to see where. The backstage area is almost twice the size of front of house, a vast, cavernous black hole beneath yellow gantries and lifting gear. Where there had been a 7.5 metre pit for stage sets to be lowered in and out, the new pit is 17.5 metres deep and as wide and high as an aircraft hanger. Work here was held up for months while a solution to the rising water level was sought.

There are now, in effect, two entirely separate stages, supported by a bank of hydraulics and seven pontoons (like longer and wider rowing skiffs) that slide in and out beneath the stage. To the delight of La Scala’s technical director Franco Malgranti, they mean it will be possible to present two different productions in the same day. “And even a third if it is something relatively simple like a ballet,” he adds.

If everything goes according to schedule, the curtain goes up on December 7. That’s when maestro Riccardo Muti will bring La Scala full circle, reopening the opera house with Salieri’s Europa Riconosciuta ? the same opera performed on La Scala’s very first opening night in 1778.

Only then will the preservationists and purists be able to judge whether the icon of the opera world really has lost its heart. I suspect after a brief blaze of publicity they will get back to what the Milanese do best ? enjoying la dolce vita.

La Scala Theatre Museum


While the builders have been in La Scala, its museum has been moved, temporarily, a mile away to a three-storey town house on Corso Magenta, opposite the Convent di Santa Maria delle Grazie, where Leonardo da Vinci’s fresco,The Last Supper, is maintained at a constant temperature and humidity.

Among the glittering exhibits are costumes worn by Rudolf Nureyev and Carla Fracci, and formidable busts, including Caruso (looking every inch a Roman emperor) and the serenely beautiful marble statue of soprano Maria Malibran. There are paintings of Verdi and fascinating “angle views” and “multiplication scenes” by set designer Ferdinando Galli Bibiena.

But it’s the trivia that is most intriguing, particularly the 19th century opera glasses in a staggering array of designs, some disguised as miniature perfume bottles and others as jewelled pendants. Equally unmissable are thefin de siecle gramophones, some as big sideboards. My favourite was a 1912 contraption that resembles a tuba but is twice the size: the equivalent of about 3,000 iPods strapped together.

Museo Teatrale alla Scala, Palazzo Busca, Corso Magenta, 71. Open 9am?6pm daily. AdmissionE5.

One unforgettable night…

The Teatro degli Arcimboldi was La Scala’s temporary home for over two years. Situated on a former industrial wasteland, six miles to the north-east of La Scala, it opened on time and was hailed as a triumph. Yet in retrospect, choosing “Excelsior”, a little-known 19th century ballet that celebrates Italy’s technological triumphs through the ages, as part of the opening season was always going to tempt fate. The night I visited, it was a temptation too far.

At first sight, the new building was less like a large cinema or conference centre than I’d been led to believe, and more like a spaceship: one with a very luxurious interior of polished wood and bright red velvet seats and stalls. The lack of boxes was part of the egalitarian spirit the new theatre hoped to create, though judging by the beautifully elegant clothes of the theatre-goers, the Milanese weren’t yet ready to dress down for an evening at the opera. The theatre also had 500 more seats than La Scala, making it the second largest opera house in Europe after Paris’ Opera Bastille.

The most noticeable aspect of the theatre’s modernity, though, were the 50 large frosted glass panels attached to the walls on either side, glowing with hidden lights – though they also had something to do with state-of-the-art acoustics, we were told.

The evening began with a balletic recreation of how Italy had invented steam power and the telegraph. Meanwhile, unknown to us, in the auditorium, engineers were looking worriedly at one of the 200kg, 12ft by 6ft glass panels attached to the wall – and at the people sitting under it.

Twenty minutes after the interval, there was a disturbance behind us. We ignored it, thinking someone had been taken ill, or had finally baulked at the latest technological innovation attributed to someone of Italian descent. Then the noise increased, the lights went on and we could see people moving quickly away from an area close to the wall.

At first, it seemed linked to the action on the stage. Now motionless, 20 young children with blackened faces and afro wigs had just been celebrating the arrival of Italian colonial forces in their country. Perhaps a member of the audience had taken issue. Everyone stood up to see more, then there was an almighty crash. The panel had fallen, slamming down onto seats occupied only a few seconds earlier.

After one glance up at the remaining 99 panels, 50 on each side, still hanging above our heads, we, along with everyone else, made hastily for the nearest exit. In the foyer, people were calling for the blood of those in authority, I was told. And just as predictably, next morning, the passing of the buck began.

Tom Otley