An Operatic Pilgrimage

After fifty years as a music critic, I finally made it to La Scala. What was I missing? Everything

Norman Lebrecht

Access all arias: La Scala in Milan has lightened up (Wolfgang Moroder CC BY-SA 3.0)

It has taken me more than half a century of dedicated opera-going to get to the source of it all, and before I start making excuses let me say it was La Scala’s fault. That house made itself harder to get into than Hatton Garden’s jewellery vaults.

Back in the pre-email era, if you ever managed to get someone to answer the switchboard in Milan the response was invariably a blast of machine-gun Italian comprehensible only to a highly-trained Donizetti comprimario. And, if you were lucky enough to get put through to the press office, you met levels of self-importance and xenophobia rivalled only at Bayreuth. It took me a while to appreciate the anguish of press people who, passionate about art, worked as mediators between the irreconcilable forces of artistic vanity and democratic transparency. But I digress.

Back in the days of London peasoupers, my first opera house was Sadler’s Wells, cheap and cheerful on the number 19 bus route. Anyone turning up in fur coat or black tie got laughed off the top deck. The old Wells, before they redid it in Lottery-money steel and chrome, was a medieval bear-pit where singers stepped on stage at their own risk. English was sung with queenly precision. I saw The Marriage of Figaro twice before grasping it was a comedy, so fierce was its fundamentalist application of English elocution Everything at the Wells felt existential, an edginess that persists at its successor company, English National Opera.

Covent Garden I never warmed to. I went there a lot for ten years while researching its history and I came to love the Keynesian idea that world-class opera might regenerate the English economy. But there was not much to love in loadsamoney City types who turned the crush bar into an after-hours trading floor and board members who treated paying opera-goers with snooty condescension. I’ve had great nights at the Garden but I always feel I’m there under tolerance, or on probation.

Vienna I took to like a starlet to the casting couch. Although it is not the same edifice Gustav Mahler once ruled — that was shredded by Soviet bombs in 1945 — atmospherically it still is. Lorin Maazel, director in the early 1980s, told me he occupied Mahler’s room. The auditorium, empty at noon, reeked of beeswax and sulphur. The posh seats were as partisan as the standing places. The staff canteen served Czech cuisine. And the performances, often riotously unrehearsed with a deputy concertmaster stepping up to conduct, continued a tradition of Schlamperei — slovenly laxity — that Mahler himself had failed to expunge. I once attended six nights in a row and cannot remember a single outstanding feature.

But if the State Opera disappointed, there was always the Volksoper, the Theater an der Wien, the Kammeroper and a dozen fringe companies that popped up in dark cellars around the Ring. Vienna was my first opera heaven. You never forget the first.

Prague, my next immersion, was a shuttle between the Národní Divadlo and the Smetana (formerly German) Theatre, taking in 11 Bohuslav Martinů operas in a week, washed down by a couple of Dvořáks. The Národní was built with shillings and pence chipped in by common folk. It burned down before opening night. The citizens sent more shillings. Where else is opera more valued?

I will skip the rest of the travelogue, but down the years I have missed none of the great houses, from St Petersburg to San Francisco, Paris to Tel Aviv (where Placido Domingo got his first break), Bologna to Helsinki, and Bayreuth to the Met, where a Wagner night could seem endless when Jimmy Levine conducted Parsifal. Been there, done that. Everywhere, except the motherboard of the art, which is La Scala. So what was I missing? Everything.

Last summer, being nearby, I dropped an email to a new press chief, who made the necessary arrangements. La Scala has opened up to the world since Riccardo Chailly, who grew up in the house, returned as chief conductor. The new password is access-all-arias.

Dear readers, I don’t think I’ve been so excited about going to the opera since my first boyhood outing and I’m not going to spoil the memory by performing an act of music criticism. Instead, I will do something really useful and furnish you with a user’s guide to La Scala.

The first thing you need to know is the doors open exactly half an hour before performance. That’s the street doors. If you get there early and it’s raining, they won’t let you in.

People dress up, on the whole, and they bring the kids. There are lots of tourists in the house, but the Milanese middle classes set the tone. They lead the applause, and show you when to whistle disapproval (only rock fans whistle when pleased).

The ushers, of both sexes, are delightful. One prevented me from buying a programme, explaining that it was all in Italian and I’d be better off with a free cast sheet. There’s nothing else to buy.

Let me repeat that: you don’t go to La Scala to buy stuff. That includes interval drinks. Unless you purchased a ticket on arrival, you won’t be allowed into a queue for the bar. And even if you do have a ticket, you might not reach the bar in time. So here’s what you do: tell an usher you’re stepping outside for a smoke and make a dash down the street to the right where, 200 metres on the other side, you will find two of the finest gelato dispensaries on earth. Some cognoscenti can consume four flavours before the second act bells ring.

Back in your seat, prepare to suspend disbelief when the tension is broken by a noisy scene change that takes half an hour. The stagehands have not modernised since Verdi’s day. Take a selfie, talk to your neighbours. Inhale the history.

At the end, expect drama. Some divas spend more time rehearsing their curtsies than their arias. Kissing the stage floor is customary. On the fifth call, a boy of six or seven came running down the aisles, arms aloft, yelling “Bravi! Bravi!”
Straight out of Fellini. Only at La Scala.

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