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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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