Grand Opera, Grand History and Grand Art Grace Milan

By Cook, Anne Z.; Haggerty, Steve | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 29, 1996 | Go to article overview

Grand Opera, Grand History and Grand Art Grace Milan


Cook, Anne Z., Haggerty, Steve, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


MILAN, Italy - Our last day in Milan, and La Scala was closed. Only the museum was open to visitors. "Come tomorrow," the guard ordered, officiously waving a forefinger. But the door between the museum and the world's most famous opera house stood open, the interior just a few steps away. The guard turned his back.

Was this an Italian invitation? We stepped noiselessly over the red-velvet ropes, dashed across the upper lobby and disappeared into the rabbit warren of narrow passageways that lead to the boxes. Fragments of music wafted up from below, the same passage played over and over.

Suddenly the head usher appeared, an imposing figure in a black military-style uniform wearing a shiny medallion on a chain. "Shhhh," he whispered, smiling sympathetically and pointing toward two seats in the last row. "You can listen to the music. But talking makes the maestro furious!"

And so we heard "Tosca" after all, conducted by Riccardo Muti.

When you're in Milan, do as the Milanese do. Find a table at a sidewalk cafe in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele and order a Campari and soda on ice. Sip it leisurely. Then cross the Piazza della Scala for a visit to La Scala and its museum and immerse yourself in the soap-opera world of music, Italian style.

Here, in 11 rooms on two floors are thousands of faded relics: composer Giuseppe Verdi's childhood piano, love letters tied in ribbons, a plaster cast of conductor Arturo Toscanini's hands, portraits of divas in feathers and silk, ink-stained scores, brocaded costumes and a wisp of Mozart's hair. The collection is testimony to long-spent spectacles and passions. But it's one that opera fans devour like yesterday's gossip.

Just talking about La Scala brings back the glow. Stan Beetham, a consultant to the Seattle opera who says he has seen more than 500 performances, will never forget the night at La Scala when soprano Joan Sutherland sang in "Semiramide" by Gioacchino Rossini.

"There was a spontaneous moment of passion on the stage - I've seen it happen every once in a while - a spark that ignited the audience and carried us from the ordinary to the sublime," Mr. Beetham says, still thrilled by the memory.

If the orchestra is in the pit when you come, rehearsing "Falstaff," "Norma," "La Traviata" or one of the other half-dozen operas the company stages each season, the theater will be closed. But when the musicians are through, walk through La Scala's upstairs lobby, past white marble columns and mirrored walls, the phantom haunts of soprano Maria Callas and tenor Enrico Caruso, Rossini and Verdi.

Beyond are the old theater's narrow hallways and low ceilings, where cramped stairwells spiral up to six glistening white balconies gilded in gold, curved tiers of boxes each with six chairs covered in wine-red silk. Lighted entirely by candles until 1883, the boxes were privately owned until 1921, when La Scala's newly appointed conductor, Toscanini, took charge. Now anyone can sit where the glitterati flashed their jewels.

Below is the stage, the vortex of this arcane world, where a host of colorful characters have made musical history since that first night in August 1778, when Antonio Salieri's "Recognition of Europe" was staged. Salieri's opera was never revived, but its title was prescient. Modern Milan, population 1.4 million, has burst its ancient city walls to become the industrial, financial and fashion capital of Italy.

A fast-paced lifestyle, gridlocked traffic and frequent smoggy days are the downside of progress. …

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