A Raucous Opening Night At La Scala

As Wagner's "Die Walkure" inaugurates the season at the world's most famous opera house, politics and culture and people clash in Milan

La Scala (via flickr)

By Alberto Mattioli

MILAN - This time, Daniel Barenboim picked up a microphone instead of a baton. The famous conductor, having come on stage to applause at the opening of La Scala opera season, took a bow and raised the microphone toward his mouth.

It was 5:09 p.m. Tuesday and outside the theater a protest raged, with scores of people demonstrating -- some clashing with police -- against planned cuts to the Italian culture sector. That's not unusual: the opening of La Scala is often marked by street demonstrations. But this time, the protest was inside the theater, too.

"Mr. President, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen: I'm very happy to conduct the (opening) performance at La Scala this year," Barenboim began. "On behalf of all my colleagues, but also on behalf of other theaters, I must tell you that we are profoundly worried over the future of culture in this country and in Europe."

The Argentine-born Israeli pianist and conductor went on to read from Article 9 of the Italian Constitution, which states that Italy is committed to supporting culture. When he finished reading, La Scala's pubblico burst into applause, with Italian President of the Republic Giorgio Napolitano and Milan Mayor Letizia Moratti joining in.

Barenboim turned straight around, and the orchestra launched into "Fratelli d'Italia," the Italian national anthem. In a room packed with glitterati, politicos and celebrities, the whole crowd stood up, clapped their hands, cheered. La Scala looked wonderful. It was one of those moments when being Italian doesn't feel so bad. Somebody shouted "Hail to the President!" Then silence fell upon the theater, and the stage was given to Wagner's "Die Walkure."

The opening of La Scala was almost as much a political event as a cultural one. The theater's artistic director, Stephane Lissner, lamented the fact Culture Minister Sandro Bondi was not present. Bondi, a Silvio Berlusconi confidante, has himself the target of accusations and protests amid the planned spending cuts and recent collapses at the ancient ruins of Pompeii. His RSVP said he had an important voting session to attend in parliament back in Rome.

Inside the theater and in the foyer, guests commented on Bondi's no-show, as well as on Barenboim's unusual act of protest. Still, "Die Walkure" was underway -- and it was a grand performance.

So, at the end of a peculiar opening, we discovered two things: First, the theater for once did what it used to do: spur debate, elicit discussion -- and this time, the topics were a little more significant than the usual chit-chat on who's wearing what. Secondly, amid the economic crisis, with confidence falling and politics failing and our institutions not looking too good, La Scala is one of the few certainties we have left. Questionable perhaps, but it is there. We know that on Dec. 7, the curtain will be raised.

"This country has a lot of thinking to do over what choices it wants to make in light of the difficult tests that lie ahead," said President Napolitano, as he talked to the artists and workers backstage. That this message should be shared in an opera theater is curious. But it is also very Italian.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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