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.

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