A Brief History of the La Scala Opera House

Known in Italian as Teatro alla Scala, the opera house in Milan -- an industrial city in Northern Italy often compared to Chicago -- is the Mecca of the art form for performers and opera lovers the world over. Aspiring singers who want to "make it" in the world of opera dream of performing on the stage of La Scala, much the same way musicians yearn to play at New York's Carnegie Hall.

The opera house opened in 1778, and its first production was an opera by renowned Baroque composer Antonio Salieri. La Scala was built to replace the Teatro Regio Ducal, which had burned to the ground several years earlier. The name of the theater is derived from the church of Santa Maria della Scala, which formerly stood on this site. After considerable wrangling over interior design elements, the building was configured with slightly more than 3,000 seats into 600-plus "pit stalls" on the main floor, six tiered balconies of private boxes on the side and rear walls, and two galleries above that. The leasing of these private boxes to wealthy individuals provided the bulk of the funds necessary to pay for construction. The galleries above the boxes, known as loggione, were standing-room-only affairs that provided inexpensive entry to the theater. Then as now, these gallery occupants could be merciless in expressing their displeasure if a singer or a production failed to meet their exacting standards. As recently as 2006, tenor Roberto Alagna was booed off the stage by the loggionistas during a performance of Verdi's Aida; his understudy was forced to replace him in the middle of the scene without being given a chance to change into costume.

Electric lights came to La Scala in 1883, and the auditorium underwent significant renovation in 1907. This remodeling reduced the number of seats to its present count of 2,800. Bombing by Allied planes during WWII caused considerable damage to the structure, but the edifice was rebuilt after the war and reopened with a memorial concert conducted by legendary maestro Arturo Toscanini. Another major renovation took place from January 2002 to November 2004, during which time opera productions were staged at another theater elsewhere in Milan. The backstage area was increased significantly to provide more storage space for sets, and an electronic libretto system was installed into the backs of every seat in the house, thereby giving members of the audience instantaneous translations of whatever was being sung onstage. By removing the heavy carpeting throughout the auditorium, experts discovered that La Scala's sound improved considerably.

Given the importance of opera in Italy and the high profile of its patrons, it is hardly surprising that a number of notable operas have had their premieres at La Scala. These include the first performances of many of Giuseppe Verdi's compositions, including Nabucco [1824], I Lombardi [1843], and Otello [1887]. This latter work, which many consider to be Verdi's finest, is often chosen to open each season, which typically begins on December 7. This date was selected because it is the feast day of Milan's patron saint, Saint Ambrose. Other famous operas that were first performed on the stage at La Scala include Il pirata and Norma by Vincenzo Bellini, Lucrezia Borgia and Maria Stuarda by Gaetano Donizetti, and Madama Butterfly and Turandot by Giacomo Puccini.

Music directors at La Scala have included Franco Faccio [1871-1889] (Verdi's favorite conductor), Claudio Abbado [1968-1986], and Riccardo Muti [1986-2005]. Muti was succeeded by Daniel Barenboim [2007-2014], who in turn was replaced by the current officeholder, Riccardo Chailly, in time for the 2015 season. Maestro Chailly's contract runs through 2022. A museum attached to the opera house is filled with paintings and statues that depict important moments in La Scala opera history, plus costumes and drafts of musical scores from many of the productions that have graced its stage down through the years.

A Brief History of New York's Metropolitan Opera

The largest classical musical organization in North America, and perhaps the most recognizable "brand" throughout the music world, the Metropolitan Opera Association of New York (The Met) is considered one of the top venues for opera on the planet. The company was founded in 1883 by some of the most prominent families of "new money" in New York City. These early patrons included such iconic names as Astor, Vanderbilt, and (J.P.) Morgan. Their wealth built the association's first opera house on 39th Street at Broadway, which gave its premiere performance on October 22, 1883. The production was Faust by Charles Gounod and starred Swedish soprano Christina Nilsson. Under the management of Charles Abbey, the company elected to sing everything in Italian for the first season, even operas composed originally in French and German. After suffering severe fiscal distress from the first season's cost overruns, for several years thereafter Abbey engaged a troupe of relatively inexpensive German singers to perform The Met's repertoire, although this time in German no matter the language of the original libretto.

Approaching the end of the 19th century, the Metropolitan Opera was already enjoying a reputation for showcasing the best opera singers of Europe. Continental stars such as Nellie Melba, Lilli Lehmann and Emma Calvé sang alongside the De Reszke brothers (Jean and Edouard), Mario Ancona, and Pol Plançon. Enrico Caruso made his house debut in 1903. By the time he died in 1921, he had sung more performances at the Met than at all other opera houses combined. This era also saw the rise of important American opera singers, and each wanted his or her voice heard on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. Early stars included Emma Eaves and Lillian Nordica, followed a bit later by Geraldine Farrar and Rosa Ponselle.

The Met enjoyed a lengthy string of impresarios as general managers, each putting his unique stamp on the repertoire the opera company produced and the singers who performed it. The years 1908-1935 saw the Metropolitan Opera run by Giulio Gatti-Casazza, a larger-than-life administrator whose skills at organization and ability to attract the top singers helped create what became known as the Met's "Silver Age." This era saw the rise of such luminaries as Laurence Tibbett, Beniamino Gigli, Lauritz Melchior, Maria Jeritza, and many more. Gatti-Casazza convinced both Gustav Mahler and Arturo Toscanini to sign lengthy conducting contracts with the organization.

Rudolph Bing was another dynamic general manager, serving from 1950-1972. His modernization efforts eliminated many of the old practices that had cost the company dearly, such as the Met's regular weekly performances in Philadelphia. Under his direction, the first African-American opera singers were prominently featured in U.S. productions. Contralto Marian Anderson made her belated debut in 1955, paving the way for such future stars as Leontyne Price, Shirley Verrett, and George Shirley. If Gatti-Casazza's tenure was the Silver Age, then Bing's was certainly the Golden Age. The Met attracted singers like Joan Sutherland, Elisabeth Schwartzkopf, Carlo Bergonzi and Nicolai Gedda, singing a wide range of operas that included the revival of many bel canto works (by Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini) that had not been heard on the Met's stage for decades.

Joseph Volpe was the general manager from 1990 to 2006, the first to hold this post after having risen through the ranks of the organization from the position of set-building carpenter. He helped expand the opera company's international touring schedule and was also involved in offering more world premieres (4) and company premieres (22) than any previous director since Gatti-Casazza. Among the singers who came to prominence under Volpe's tenure were Renée Fleming, Angela Gheorghiu, Anna Netrebko, Ben Heppner, and Bryn Terfel.

In 2006, Peter Gelb assumed the role of general manager. Using his background as a former music executive with Sony International, he truly helped bring the Metropolitan Opera into the 21st century. His innovations included the scrapping of staid, outdated productions dating all the way back to the early 1970s in favor of fresh interpretations by some of the most exciting stage directors around. In the 1930s, Texaco had begun its sponsorship of Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts across North America. For many opera fans living far away from New York City, this was generally their sole opportunity to hear a world-class opera production. When Texaco chose to end this relationship in 2005, the luxury home building company known as Toll Brothers stepped in to Save the Met Broadcasts (a campaign headed by legendary soprano Beverly Sills) and continues to sponsor twenty-plus radio broadcasts every season. Gelb's greatest move, however, was the creation of "The Met in HD," a collaborative effort with Fathom Events to provide live streaming of Met operas via satellite to thousands of movie theaters around the world. During its first year, the 2006-07 season, the Met sold more than 300,000 tickets for its run of six operas. The eight performances during the 2007-08 season attracted nearly one million theatergoers. Most recently, the company has expanded its HD offerings to 11 or 12 cinecasts per season, including innovative stagings of operas rarely if ever performed on the Met's stage. Gelb has furthermore been a driving force in giving 20th century opera some much-appreciated exposure. In recent seasons, HD audiences have seen Nixon in China and Doctor Atomic [John Adams], The First Emperor [Tan Dun], Satyagraha [Philip Glass], The Nose [Dmitri Shostakovich], and Peter Grimes [Benjamin Britten].

Despite some contentious labor negotiations over the past few years, and a downturn in the economy in the 2008-09 time frame that saw patronage drop to its lowest funding levels in decades, today the Met continues to be the standard-bearer for high-quality opera in the Western Hemisphere. Fiscal challenges notwithstanding, New York's premier opera company can still boast of its ability to showcase the best singers in stunning productions of the world's most beloved operas.

Sport and Social Change

In America the North was covertly racist, but the South was overtly racist and segregated. George Wallace, then governor of Alabama in the '60's, made the statement, "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." In 1970 Sam "Bam" Cunningham of the USC football team raced past defenders of Alabama's famed Crimson Tide. Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant of Alabama congratulated Cunningham after the game. It has been said that Cunningham may have done more to integrate Alabama in 60 minutes than Martin Luther King Jr. did in 20 years.

The place that sport holds in social change was solidified on the gridiron that day.

Enter the University of Missouri 45 years later. What started with a hunger strike by a graduate student quickly escalated. The call went out for the resignation of the university president for his failure to properly address the racism that existed on campus. But it was not until the football team, including the coach, stood united, insisting they would neither practice nor play until the president resigned that the real social change took place. The president resigned and the chancellor stepped down. THAT is the power for social change that sport holds. When used correctly, the lessons learned on the field, court and all arenas of sport can transcend boundaries. Some may resent the power that sport holds even shunning it as a bunch of dumb jocks, but the reality is that sport has the power to change societies. Organizations such as Right To Play have used sport to teach children many lessons and to help form leaders with good moral and ethical ideals.

There are some athletes who claim they should not be viewed as role models, but the reality is they really are role models and have the responsibility to act appropriately. When athletes do things that are reprehensible, they must realize that there will be many who view the athletes' actions as a license to do the same thing. On the positive side when athletes set the standard for behavior high, others will follow.

Doing the right thing towards reducing racism and stereotypes not only means reducing the overt behaviors that people see but also eliminating the microaggressions that sometimes neither the person saying something nor the person on receiving end are aware. Telling a minority football player that, "Wow! You are really articulate" has the subtle assumption that just because he is a football player and a minority, he would somehow not be articulate. The subconscious effects of microaggressions are often worse than outward behaviors because they are covert and so often invisible to all parties, yet their effects are cumulative and lead to prejudice.

Discrimination of any kind is blight on all societies. Sport holds the unique position of being able to cross all boundaries and deliver a message. The University of Missouri football team delivered a strong and reverberating message that was heard loudly and clearly. It brought about a step in social change, albeit a small one. There is still much work to be done. Athletes alone cannot make all the changes, but the collective voice of sport is much more powerful than anyone previously believed. Just ask the former president of the University of Missouri.

© Copyright Yellen & Associates, Inc. 2015 All rights reserved

Dr. Yellen is a parent, former educator, and clinical & sports psychologist in private practice. He has appeared nationally television as well as giving commentary on local television and radio stations. He is the author of The Art of Perfect Parenting and Other Absurd Ideas, coauthor of Understanding the Learning Disabled Athlete and Social Facilitation in Action, and most recently the author of Love Shopping List, a partner to the Love Shopping List app. He can be reached at (818) 360-3078 or by e-mail at docyellen@yellenandassociates.com

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