Performance at Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Italy, 19th century
Performance at Teatro alla Scala in Milan, Italy, 19th century © Getty  /  De Agostini Picture Library

La Scala de Milan: a scandalous history…

The prestigious Italian institution, Teatre alla Scala in Milan opened in August 1778, has known countless scandals over the years. A look back at some of the biggest stories that shook this legendary theatre, both on and off stage.

The most recent scandal dates back to only a few months ago... For the launch of the 2018-19 season, on 7 December, the Teatro alla Scala in Milan staged a production of Verdi's opera Attila. However, the stage design caused quite a stir, namely the scene in which a woman throws a statue of the Virgin Mary to the ground. An Italian mayor even requested that the scene be removed from the production, signed Davide Livermore…

Verdi vs Wagner

This is not the first scandal to take place during the launch of a new season. In 2012, la Scala decided to stage Wagner's Lohengrin, for this grand and popular ceremony. The reason? 2013 marked the bicentennial anniversary of the birth of the German composer. However, that same year marked another bicentenary, that of Italian composer Verdi

The choice of staging Wagner offended a great many Italians, including the celebrated orchestral conductor Riccardo Muti who declared: "It is as if Bayreuth opened their Wagner season with La Traviata or Nabucco! Can you imagine the reactions?" The conductor Daniel Barenboim, however, was much more understanding: "What difference does it make opening the season with one or the other when we know that the works of both composers will be performed?" Indeed, la Scala had programmed that season eight works by Verdi in comparison with six by Wagner.

Alagna: one whistle and he's gone

Another scandalous season opening… On 10 December 2006, Verdi's opera Aida was performed at la Scala de Milan. Performing the role of Ramadès was the Franco-Italian tenor Roberto Alagna, a regular in this opera theatre. However, at the end of the first act, after having sung the air Celeste Aïda, whistling could be heard from the audience. The public at la Scala is known for being one of the most demanding in the world. Their negative reaction vexed the singer greatly, who ripped off his costume and walked off stage. 

Wearing nothing more than a shirt and a pair of jeans, Antonello Palombi replaced the tenor mere moments later, and was applauded for over ten minutes at the end of the performance. As for Roberto Alagna, he declared: "I have sung all over the world and I have had success everywhere, but the public tonight was surreal". The previous evening, the singer had declared to the Italian press his decision to never return to la Scala. Fuel added to the fire that burned hot that night, to the point that the singer's promise was kept even earlier than planned.  

Katia Ricciarelli: "May God curse you"

The Italian singer Katia Ricciarelli has also clashed not only with the Milanese public but also with the management of la Scala. In 1989, after several years away from the world famous stage in Milan, the singer returned to sing Verdi's Luisa Miller once again. During the premiere, before even singing her first note, whistling could be heard in the hall. A sonorous dissatisfaction aimed to criticise the singer's husband, the television presenter Pippo Baudo, close friend of Silvio Berlusconi…

During the second performance, several members of the public, no less hostile towards the singer, begin whistling yet again during the third act. To which Katia Ricciarelli answered softly, though loudly enough to be heard throughout the hall: "May God curse you". Furthermore, the singer was nowhere to be seen during the final applause. After these performances, the singer criticised the management's lack of support, but was unfortunately quickly replaced. 

Toscanini's reforms

Arturo Toscanini was named musical director of la Scala in 1898, at the age of 31. The Italian conductor instigated a series of reforms that later became sacred rules within the Milanese institution. His audacity, however, also created countless enemies, critical of this young conductor imposing new rules and traditions in the sacred temple of Italian music.

These laws imposed by the new director ranged from banning hats for women to creating a pit for the orchestra. The Teatro alla Scala was plunged into darkness during rehearsals, no cuts in the score were permitted, and the tradition of the encore was banished. 

What of the encore?

The ban of the encore was eventually lifted by Riccardo Muti on 7 December 1986. Muti was conducting Verdi's Nabucco for his first season at la Scala. Following the slave chorus Va pensiero, he took the liberty of allowing the final note to ring a little longer than usual. In his Mémoires he writes: "There was a silence, then a general cry arose from the public". 

Faced with such enthusiasm, the conductor hesitated: respect the sacred conventions established by Toscanini and risk offending the Italians, or respect the public screaming "encore"? Muti eventually opted for the second choice. "It was a magical moment. A triumphant evening to the very end," wrote the conductor. Muti repeated the encore in 2011, again at la Scala, for the 150th anniversary of the Italian state, speaking up to denounce the cultural budget cuts of in Italy.

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