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From The International New York Times' Center stage: Teatro alla Scala

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From The International New York Times' Center stage: Teatro alla Scala
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Looking to the future: How do opera houses, festivals and orchestras maintain tradition while moving their art forms forward, build and educate new audiences, and take advantage of technical innovations in communications and stagecraft?

“Center stage: Teatro alla Scala” was produced by the T Brand Studio international department and did not involve the International New York Times reporting or editorial departments. It was sponsored by Rolex. Text by CLAUDIA FLISI and SHIRLEY APTHORP.

Leader’s vision

Great music for new generations

Alexander Pereira wakes up every morning with 50 things he wants to accomplish that day. This bodes for a certain degree of frustration when they can’t all be achieved, but the general manager of La Scala is undeterred: ‘‘I always feel I have too much energy,’’ he says.

Pereira was appointed to his current position in June 2014. He had previously served as artistic director of the Salzburg Festival, and before that spent more than two decades as artistic director of the Zurich Opera.

His reputation as an innovative manager was confirmed immediately. Pereira instituted a new program for children’s opera, introduced low-cost tickets to draw an untapped audience of opera lovers, initiated a Puccini cycle and developed programming to explore composers of Italian verismo, the ‘‘realistic’’ style of opera that emerged in the late 19th century, as well as non-Italian composers who have not been well represented at La Scala up till now.

‘‘From the beginning I went in the direction in which I wanted to go,’’ says Pereira. ‘‘I did what I thought was in good faith for La Scala.’’

Children’s opera proved a success. At first, 20,000 tickets were offered to the community for shortened versions of kid-friendly operas like ‘‘Cinderella,’’ and they sold out immediately. The current ticket total is 40,000, and it too is almost entirely sold out. After each performance, the singers and musicians mingle with the audience for more than an hour.

‘‘It was so new for this theater that you had to implement it to prove that it works,’’ says Pereira, noting that the Milanese have ‘‘absorbed this program like a sponge. They gave me the feeling that there is a wonderful framework here for new ideas.’’

Alexander Pereira, general manager of La Scala.
Credit: Brescia Amisano

Pereira encountered more reluctance when he introduced a program for low-cost tickets, but implementation again showed the wisdom of his proposal. A ‘‘Turandot’’ performance at half price sold out in two and a half hours. What is significant is that there is no cannibalization of La Scala regulars, he points out. Attendees tend to be people living outside Milan who have never been to the opera house and want to go at least once in their lifetime.

‘‘We may have created the basis for a new audience,’’ says Pereira. He had introduced a similar program in Zurich, and wound up attracting new attendees.

The general manager and his team are planning 15 operas and seven ballets per season, including eight productions to be developed in-house. The programming breakdown calls for roughly one-third new productions, one-third from La Scala’s archives and one-third co-productions new to the Milan audience.

Pereira would like to maintain a balance of 50-50 between Italian and non-Italian operas, and intends to do this by increasing the number of new co-productions. He will focus the new in-house productions on the periods of verismo and bel canto. Right now, he says, there is only one bel canto opera, ‘‘Elisir d’amore,’’ in La Scala’s repertoire. There is only one Donizetti, one Mascagni and no Bellini at all. Other Italian composers such as Umberto Giordano, Francesco Cilea and Amilcare Ponchielli are also unrepresented.

‘‘I think by augmenting the number of new productions per year, we have to concentrate on these two periods,’’ says Pereira. ‘‘La Scala has to concentrate on a very important part of its opera patrimony. That is why half the operas should be Italian operas. This is not a provincial perspective. La Scala has to show its heritage in Italian opera, including that of the early 19th and 20th centuries.’’

The new productions will include at least one commissioned work per year. ‘‘You can drive yourself crazy with a theme, so we try not to do that,’’ admits Pereira. ‘‘We chose a composer carefully and discuss the project, but don’t give a specific theme.’’

The future opera calendar will also include French, German and Russian works that are not well represented. Pereira does not want to be specific because so much depends on the availability of specific performers for specific dates, but he points out that no Schubert opera has been performed at La Scala. Carl Maria von Weber, Alexander Zemlinsky and Franz Schreker are other composers who warrant attention, in his view.

Pereira views the future of opera optimistically. ‘‘If you agree with me that our civilization needs to preserve some of our great artistic achievements in history for coming generations, and we talk about music, I have an obligation to keep these great masterworks in production. If we succeed, we really have something to convey to new generations.’’

Opera is expensive, he admits, but notes: ‘‘You don’t throw Mona Lisa in the garbage because the insurance costs are high. An excellent performance transmits energy to future generations.’’

Claudia Flisi

‘‘Turandot’’ was performed at La Scala in May. Here, Nina Stemme as Turandot at center stage; above her, Carlo Bosi as the emperor; and, on the right, Aleksandr Antonenko as Calaf.
Credit: Brescia Amisano

The art of the musician

Sharing tradition and enthusiasm

When you spend your life striving for excellence, there is something satisfying about meeting others who do the same. That is how Harald Krumpöck, managing director of the Vienna Philharmonic, feels about his orchestra’s partnership with La Scala in Milan.

‘‘The collaboration is very important for us,’’ says Krumpöck. ‘‘It’s not just one of the most famous houses in the world, it’s also absolutely unique. We feel particularly drawn to their combination of tradition and enthusiasm.’’

It is a combination that has played a crucial role in Krumpöck’s own life. He began to play the violin at the age of five and cannot remember a time when he did not aspire to become a member of his country’s flagship orchestra.

‘‘Even stronger than my desire to become a member of the Vienna Philharmonic was my enthusiasm for the music, for what we do,’’ he says. ‘‘And the longer I am involved with the great musical works that we perform, the stronger that becomes.’’

Harald Krumpöck, managing director of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
Credit: Lukas Beck

At La Scala, where the Vienna Philharmonic performs regularly, the fact that this enthusiasm is shared by the audience is palpable, says Krumpöck. ‘‘When the concert begins, you can feel their incredible concentration. They’re very critical, very emotional — and they can be amazingly passionate.’’

Tradition, such a crucial element of the way the Vienna Philharmonic plays, is also pivotal at La Scala. ‘‘The composer Gustav Mahler said, ‘Tradition is keeping the fire burning, not worshipping the ashes,’’’ Krumpöck says. ‘‘At La Scala, they live that in the most ideal sense.

‘‘The minute you set foot in the house you can feel the extraordinary history of the place. Throughout the backstage area you can see old posters. They look exactly the same as today’s posters, and you can find great names like Toscanini, Callas, di Stefano, Pavarotti…’’

La Scala’s ongoing connection with its own tradition is mirrored by that of the Vienna Philharmonic. Playing in the uniquely Viennese style of the orchestra is something as fundamental to its members as breathing, says Krumpöck.

‘‘We have all been striving for a certain way of playing since we were small,’’ he explains. ‘‘Perhaps it is connected to our language, perhaps to our folk music. We join the orchestra, we listen to how the others play, we learn. For us it’s the only way to play — it’s our language. Of course, we make an effort to foster it and to pass it on.’’

Tradition, as Mahler said, is not to be confused with stasis. ‘‘If you stand still, you might as well be going backward,’’ says Krumpöck. ‘‘We’re always striving for improvement, for perfection — and that is a kind of change.’’ This requires both enthusiasm and a passion for excellence, Krumpöck says.

This dedication to the highest of standards also requires a huge investment in hardware. An excellent musician requires an equally excellent instrument. Krumpöck plays a 1684 instrument made by Hieronymus Amati, a contemporary of the famous Stradivarius family, who also lived and worked in the legendary town of Cremona, some 100 kilometers, or 60 miles, northwest of Milan.

‘‘My Amati feels as if it plays itself,’’ says Krumpöck. ‘‘It doesn’t matter what you do, something beautiful emerges. Of course, you need to treat these instruments with incredible care. But we’ve been doing this our entire lives.’’

Krumpöck sees no contradiction between the historical traditions so carefully maintained in Vienna and Milan and his orchestra’s determination to stay abreast of new media.

‘‘Digital media already have an impact on all of us as listeners,’’ he says. ‘‘We will not close our eyes to this trend, and we’ll be present on the new media and platforms. All the same, it remains our goal to present our music in the best technical quality possible.

‘‘I also believe that the Internet and smartphones will develop digital formats that use much higher resolution than has been possible until now. We’ll see technically better formats evolve, even if it takes a few years.’’

But the orchestra’s goals, Krumpöck insists, like those of La Scala, will not change: ‘‘Our goals have stayed the same since the orchestra was founded — to perform the works of the great masters as well as possible. Our first members set it out in 1842 with the motto, ‘To do the best with the best possible abilities and in the best possible way.’ That’s our goal today, and it will always be our goal.’’

Shirley Apthorp

Puccini cycle

A reappraisal of an Italian master

When the latest production of ‘‘Turandot’’ opened at La Scala on May 1, it was the 28th version of this world-renowned work to be performed at the Milan opera house. But some operas by Giacomo Puccini are underrepresented or presented in altered versions, or have never been heard at all.

Alexander Pereira, general manager of La Scala, says that Puccini merits greater consideration. His selection of Riccardo Chailly as principal conductor of La Scala last December coincides with this interest: Chailly is not only a native of Milan but also a world-respected scholar of Puccini. So it comes as no surprise that La Scala has embarked on a presentation of all Puccini’s works in coming years.

‘‘I am very much counting on Riccardo Chailly,’’ says Pereira. ‘‘I think he is the ideal man at the right time. He is concentrated on presenting the operas of Puccini and will have very new readings. We will try to give a new vision of how Puccini is to be presented.’’ Pereira and Chailly — along with other Puccini scholars — argue that Puccini’s importance as a composer spanning the 19th-century Italian tradition and 20th-century modernism has been undervalued. Unlike Verdi and Rossini, Pereira explains, Puccini continues to be seen by many as a sentimental composer, and his works are presented in versions not faithful to his original concept.

Riccardo Chailly, principal conductor at La Scala.
Credit: Brescia Amisano

His final opera, ‘‘Turandot,’’ has been called the last ‘‘popular’’ Italian opera and the first ‘‘modern’’ one. Puccini evokes Stravinsky, and the story itself encompasses both traditional and modern themes.

Puccini died in 1924 with the opera’s last scene unfinished, and the most commonly performed ending has been that written by Franco Alfano in 1926. For La Scala’s ‘‘Turandot’’ performed in May, the last scene is a version written by the Italian composer Luciano Berio that takes into account and accentuates Puccini’s modernist development. Chailly conducted the premiere of this version in 2002.

The Puccini opera to be presented in 2016, ‘‘La Fanciulla del West’’ (The Girl of the West), will be faithful to Puccini’s original score, not the version altered by Toscanini for its 1910 world premiere in New York.

‘‘Toscanini thickened the score considerably, due to the acoustics of the old Met Opera House,’’ explains Pereira. ‘‘To bring it back to Puccini’s original version is another aspect of this project.’’

The calendar for future operas in the cycle will depend on the availability of singers and directors, so it is premature to speculate on them now. Chailly has conducted important productions of ‘‘Madama Butterfly,’’ ‘‘Tosca,’’ ‘‘Il Trittico’’ and ‘‘La Bohème,’’ as well as ‘‘Turandot,’’ ‘‘La Fanciulla del West’’ and ‘‘Manon Lescaut.’’ Another in the offing is the original four-act version of ‘‘Edgar.’’

Presentation of Puccini’s work requires an examination of past performances, Pereira says: ‘‘You have to know them and you have to confront them. You need to have knowledge of tradition at every moment of musical history. Chailly will definitely keep those traditions that he finds right but he will challenge those that are definitely wrong.’’

Claudia Flisi

Puccini died in 1924, before being able to finish ‘‘Turandot.’’
Credit: Archivio Fotografico Teatro alla Scala

Behind the scenes

A makeup artist’s life in the theater

The world of theater is changing, and makeup artists are changing along with it. Tiziana Libardo, assistant head of makeup and hair at La Scala, has witnessed many of these changes in her 30 years with the opera house.

When she started in 1985, makeup was generally heavy and exaggerated; the eyes and mouths of opera singers were emphasized for the sake of spectators sitting far from the stage.

‘‘We always have to remember that the distance between the stage and the audience can be significant,’’ she says.

But the rules have changed because of technology — such as DVDs and broadcasts to television and cinemas. Makeup has become lighter and more natural.

‘‘We apply makeup that is more like television than theater, because the usual theatrical makeup doesn’t look good with the close-ups used on DVDs or TV,’’ she explains. She and her team are aware that today’s theater audience farthest from the stage has problems seeing with the appropriate clarity. ‘‘But we have to appeal to all the audiences of a production,’’ she adds.

An earlier technology — radio — is responsible for Libardo’s career path at La Scala. She had been studying to become a teacher in Lodi, a town southeast of Milan, when by chance she heard an interview on the radio. A makeup artist was talking about his work, and she was intrigued. She knew she didn’t want to become a teacher, so she went to Milan to look for a school to prepare her for this kind of work.

Three years later, she had qualifications as a beautician, a makeup artist and a special-effects professional. She took on jobs at various theaters because she found that she loved the theater, and then, in 1985, La Scala called.

She began with a production of ‘‘Aida,’’ doing makeup for the chorus. ‘‘That early experience was invaluable,’’ she recalls. She was invited to learn the art of wig construction when the then-head of the laboratory at La Scala (where wigs are made) asked if she would like to substitute for an absent colleague. Libardo jumped at the opportunity: back then, there were no schools that taught wig construction and hairstyling for the stage. Today, La Scala has created an academy that teaches these arts, but she learned them the old-fashioned way, by working alongside an expert craftsperson in the field.

She gives an example of the inherent complexity of this art. The wig worn by Aida in La Scala’s latest production of the opera was made of wool, real hair and synthetic hair in a mélange of colors. The lighting in the scene was complex, the colors desired were difficult and the singer’s head was small. ‘‘Although the project was demanding,’’ she says, ‘‘the end result was satisfying.’’

For the premiere of ‘‘Turandot’’ in May, the major challenge was the makeup for Ping, Pang and Pong, three quasi-caricatural figures with elaborate wigs and exaggerated makeup.
Libardo was present for this performance, as she is for every performance, every evening the house is open. She still loves applying makeup to the singers if needed.

The irony of her career is that she has become a teacher as well — at La Scala’s school for makeup and hair styling. ‘‘I love the satisfaction in every single project,’’ she says. ‘‘I live this enthusiasm for the theater.’’

Claudia Flisi

Maestri collaboratori

Varied roles for assistant conductors

Long before movies offered up stereophonic sound effects, opera had found a way to do the same. Composers in the 18th and 19th centuries incorporated special effects into their works by writing music for backstage musicians that suggested church bells, cannons, thunderstorms, distant revelers or military processions. Someone has to conduct those musicians, who are often out of sight of the orchestra conductor, and that is where the ‘‘maestro collaboratore,’’ or assistant conductor, comes in.

Bruno Nicoli conducts the backstage musicians at La Scala, coordinating all the special effects that take place behind the curtain. He leads only a small number of musicians — usually, but not exclusively, brass — yet his work is trickier than it would seem.

The reason lies with physics: the sounds of the band backstage take longer to reach the audience because the musicians are 20 to 30 meters farther away.

Nicoli explains: ‘‘Sound has a speed of 340 meters a second, 34 meters in 1/10 of a second,’’ or about 370 yards a second. ‘‘In the music of a march, if I slow down the tempo by 1/10 of a second, the audience can detect that the music is off. So you have to direct in very slight anticipation of the orchestra so the public will hear it as being in complete coordination.’’

Bruno Nicoli, maestro collaboratore at La Scala.
Credit: Rudy Amisano

There is no direct career path to the role of stage music conductor. Piano study is always the starting point, however, because opera composers write this music for the piano. According to Nicoli, 19th-century composers wanted to leave final arrangements up to the musical director. ‘‘This was because opera houses varied in size,’’ he explains. ‘‘You might have a group of 30 backstage, or room for only seven or eight, and the musical arrangement would vary accordingly.’’

Maestri collaboratori may juggle a series of responsibilities. They serve as répétiteurs, rehearsing the singers; they cue lighting and scenery changes in time with the music; and prompt singers. At a small opera house, one person may handle all these tasks, but at La Scala, the work is divvied up among many maestri collaboratori.

Nicoli began working at La Scala in 1997, first as a pianist and assistant choirmaster, then as a répétiteur, as a prompter and rehearsals conductor and, for the past 10 years, as stage-music conductor.

‘‘La Scala gives me the opportunity to do things at a high level with famous conductors from whom one learns a great deal,’’ he says.

He also works as a freelance conductor and piano recitalist, and has made multiple appearances at the Puccini Festival of Torre del Lago as a guest conductor.

In the future, this multitalented maestro would like to revive more 19th-century Italian operas from the verismo tradition, including those of Riccardo Zandonai, Umberto Giordano and Pietro Mascagni.

This is not to say that he ignores Verdi; one of his long-term goals is to conduct Verdi, and one of the emotional high points of his career was playing the piano for a 100-plus chorus singing Verdi’s ‘‘Requiem.’’ ‘‘The power of that chorus was so powerful that it penetrated inside of you,’’ he recalls. ‘‘It was an emotion that only someone physically present can appreciate.’’

Claudia Flisi

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