Friday, May 24, 2013


I’ve had the Decca pressing of Norma starring Cecilia Bartoli for more than a week now. I was going to write a review but when I started to do it something else emerged. The Widder has known Miss Bartoli for a long time and while she will manage a review, this is what showed up on the Computer Screen for this week.

The short lady, she looked like a very buxom teenager, smiled brilliantly at every person she met at the party in New York, full of patrons of the arts and taste makers. “How do you do?” She asked, in a lilting Italian accent, rather heavy but understandable, “I am a forty eight year old dwarf.” When people looked at her in shock, she said, “my press people have created me, I am from the circus. Here is my passport.” She held up her passport. The age reported there was twenty four. The name was Cecilia Bartoli. Seeing that she was creating something a sensation, she continued meeting people and giving details of her life as a middle aged dwarf. “Oh yes, they say at the circus, ‘you know, you are getting too old-a for the donkeys, but if you smile and bounce, you can say you are a Rossini mezzo.’” To a billionaire couple and a prissy critic she said, “to be a dwarf is perfect for Mozart-a, you know. He wrote only for little people with very small voices who use too much breath in their fioratura. In the circus they say, ‘Cecilia,.just a-smile and wear tight pants and wiggle and no one will notice your voice, and just think, you will never have to – how you say – somersault again.”

It wasn’t her first sensation in New York but it made quite an impression. Edgar Vincent, a wonderful man, who was her press agent, caught up with her, grabbed her with a big smile, took her into a corner and hissed, “they will think you are really crazy and some of them are dumb enough to believe you.” The young lady looked around the room, found a man who was fat but not too far gone – yet – it was my sad Siamese twin whose unpronounceable name can be found on this blog and she pointed, “he said I should do it!”

Edgar, who was very elegant, but could glide with the velocity of a perfectly aimed bullet, headed in my poor twin’s direction, steam coming out of his ears. Miss Bartoli had caught my twin’s eye, both were laughing hysterically. Mr. Vincent was not amused, and though slight of frame, he frog marched my poor brother out of the room with the iron grip of a Marine and, once free of witnesses, screamed at him.

I am not certain it was entirely my twin’s idea, though my twin and Miss Bartoli had spoken uproariously the day before of the circus, and what buxom but short young women might do there. Signora Bartoli, Miss Bartoli’s mother, had been privy to this discussion and appeared to laugh too; my twin, rather a dense sort, alas, didn’t catch the warning glances shooting from her eyes.

This had all come up because Miss XXY, a rival mezzo who was certainly getting excellent reviews and had had (after years of trying) some real successes was also in New York and was telling everybody that this fraud, Cecilia Bartoli, was a forty eight year old dwarf some power mongers who didn’t especially care for Miss XXY, or at least, didn’t care enough to represent her, had dug up from somewhere to fool summer addled New Yorkers, always easy to take in when it came to the arts and if stuck in town, anxious for a sensation. The dwarf’s reclamé was the product of public relations and art politics. Miss XXY, not realizing that my twin knew Miss Bartoli and indeed, her family, had sung her scena for him, inventing some pretty astounding details about the nomadic life of circus dwarfs, mezzos who aspirated coloratura, who had small voices and didn’t trill well.

Though warned not to share this with Miss Bartoli, my twin couldn’t help himself. La Signora wasn’t sure who they were talking about. “Don’t you remember?” Asked Miss Bartoli, “she was my cover in Cosi at Aix. She’s the one who offered me a hundred dollars to get sick the last performance.” “Ah si, si, ricordo,” nodded Signora, “disgraziata!” She spat. Signora Bartoli had indeed had a career as a promising young soprano in the last years of the Second World War and, with her husband, had persisted until it was clear they couldn’t earn enough as soloists to support their children. “Only a fool offers money,” Signora Bartoli had opined that day, “she should have pushed you down stairs.” “Mama!” cried Miss Bartoli. “Don’t worry,” had said Signora Bartoli eyeing her full figured daughter, “you would have bounced and she would have lost face! If you can’t kill someone how do you expect to sing?”

Miss Bartoli had a fairy tale story, which also didn’t endear her to colleagues who had labored much longer in the fields of sorrow and disappointment before getting what breaks they got. Her career had begun like theirs. She’d become an exceptional musician and attended the Academy of Santa Cecilia. “It helped me with the piano and harmony, as for the voice, it was one lesson a week with someone who didn’t know what they were talking about.” Bartoli had learned most of her technique from her mother, from general common sense principals and then from trial and error. She did begin to get engagements, but they were small, sporadic and low paying. As usual in careers, important people would say they were impressed but never be in touch again. The Bartolis were poor and she needed to earn at least enough to support herself and help out at home. She was going no where. She wrangled an audition with Christopher Raeburn, one of the great record producers of Decca, he was very impressed and agreed to try and arrange an aria recital. But in the meanwhile, no one was hiring her or worse, even willing to hear her.

(ghost written by the wonder worker, Jack Mastroianni)

Raeburn, in desperation, turned to an old friend of his, the smartest and hardest working American manager, Jack Mastroianni. Jack was then at CAA under the legendary monster Ronald Wilford with a dangerous rival, the vicious phony, Matthew Epstein, who was closer to Wilford. Ironically, one of Jack’s clients was Marilyn Horne, the most famous coloratura mezzo in the world. He was on a quick visit to Europe and had very little time to meet an unknown who belonged to a category of singer who was a dime a dozen, a light Rossini mezzo. With Horne, he hardly needed someone else who sang some of her roles. Like all agents (managers are glorified agents) Jack had to pull his weight in terms of billings at CAA, one of the most prominent and ruthless classical music agencies in the world, from which agents were easily fired. His job was to sell artists for high fees. Who would hire this unknown in that world, or for all he knew, at all?

But on his last day in Europe, because Raeburn was a good friend, Jack went to Rome to hear Bartoli. He expected little. At her family’s apartment in the Monteverde section, she waited in terror. Her agent of record was the first Mrs. Pavarotti, Adua. She would later be dumped, but get most of the tenor’s money and holdings (he was broke when he died). Typical of agents who work with younger artists, Adua had, it seemed, hundreds of clients, and did very little for any of them. Cecilia knew Adua was a dead end; Jack might be her last chance. Raeburn, Mastroianni, Cecilia and her mother waited for the pianist, made small talk, and Jack began looking at his watch less and less discreetly. So, Cecilia played for herself and sang all kinds of things. Luckily, Jack adored her, loved the timbre of her voice, was impressed by the velocity and flair of her florid singing and felt any problems could be ironed out. Above all he recognized that rarest thing, charisma. When she began to sing, apparent impossibilities evaporated. After telling her that of course there could be no guarantees, and stardom was probably merely a dream, he agreed to represent her.

(the late great Edgar Vincent)

Jack knew he’d have to put himself on the line. He’d built up enormous good will; he was an honest broker and through his illustrious clients at CAA he knew everybody. But the problem with a new talent is finding a way to break him or her through the noise of all that’s going on, in a culture where classical singers were a very hard sell, and a brand name is apt to matter more than what that brand can deliver. He got Edgar Vincent a tape. Edgar loved what he heard. He’d been doing the impossible with classical artists – getting an increasingly small and recalcitrant press interested in covering them -- since the late thirties, knew everybody in the arts press and had an invaluable prestige.

None of these men was naïve; Cecilia could easily be dead in the water. She’d have to make it internationally, she hadn’t really clicked in Italy and never would, she didn’t have a power base, even a small one that could promote and pay her while they built on whatever exposure she got. She didn’t have any champions among celebrity conductors; they’d been hard to get to. Lacking means she hadn’t been able to fund trips to far flung auditions and Adua was best at getting her into what in America are called “cattle calls”, with dizzying numbers of other long shots heard by bored functionaries. By taking Bartoli on Vincent, but especially Mastroianni would be taking big personal risks. Jack was trusted because when he said someone could deliver he had been right. If he took a hit from Bartoli it would cost him.

But she did click internationally. Against the odds, the debut CD for Decca that Raeburn produced -- he forced it through by calling in favors -- sold very well and got great reviews. Cecilia had a tremendous gift for concerts, unlike most opera singers. And Jack knew that while it takes time to get opera houses to book a singer for a leading role, concerts can be much more easily and much more quickly set up. She had an irresistible personality, adored what she was doing, could learn music quickly, had a very sharp instinct for programming (helped by her mother) and in concert halls her voice didn’t seem slight; it was small but not insubstantial, she knew had to “grade” dynamics, so climactic passages rang out, soft passages were easily heard and blandishing, and she had an interesting and even profound grasp of what the words she was singing (always beautifully pronounced) meant.

She was also a great interview, with an infectious sense of humor, good linguistic ability and a tangible charm that came over in print, on TV. It’s not that there weren’t skeptics in those early days, or the occasional dismissive review. It’s that they didn’t matter. People who paid for their seats adored her. She had the one quality you can’t buy or fake: uniqueness. Horne had a bigger voice and a less hedged technique; Von Stade had a beautiful timbre and was irresistible. But Bartoli was Bartoli; no one thought she was imitating them or even influenced by them. And wonderful as those two were, Bartoli’s élan, even a touch of wildness, a willingness to risk, was in some senses a throw back to an earlier era of singers with huge personalities who were laws unto themselves. One could complain about the breathy coloratura, the trill might not happen but she was hard to dislike and impossible to ignore.

She became a big name very quickly, my twin wrote the first big interview with her in America, in Vanity Fair of all places – she’d been hugely lucky. But for a great career, luck has to keep happening, or ways have to be found to sustain and build on the early good impression. Many people fizzle quickly.


Some other memories of Miss Bartoli flash through my poor twin’s mind. The Barber of Seville in Houston, another big occasion, and Bartoli’s first stage appearance in America. Rosina’s entrance aria, “una voce poca fa” began well but then the supporting mezzo singing the servant Berta, in jail trustee uniform, strode on and began wiggling her very large body in time to the music, “guarding” her charge. The audience roared with laughter at her antics. Bartoli was drowned out and pushed off form by the unexpected laughter. The other singers, more stage wise than she, arranged their scenes with her so she was often in less light than they were; her face was hard to make out.

There were the usual congratulations afterwards but Jack suggested they all go to a huge amusement part near Houston the next day. On a dare, Miss Bartoli and my twin rode a nightmarish roller coaster. She had a good time. My twin threw up. But over barbeque, my twin, who had had a career in theater talked to Miss Bartoli about certain things. He suggested she tell the massive Berta that if she did that again during “una voce poco fa” Miss Bartoli would “get lost” during Berta’s short aria in the second act and wander on stage, look shocked and “forget” how to get off stage while the large comprimaria was singing. “Is this possible?” Asked Miss Bartoli.

So my twin who had been to an illustrious but vicious drama school recounted how a fellow student, an actress who went on to win Oscars and become world famous, had in a certain role pushed the adorable and tall Sigourney Weaver out of the way and shoved my massive twin into a chair and sat on him for a speech she intended to give so as to create a maximum frisson. It wasn’t the first time this beloved icon had kicked my twin, who had an unhappy habit of getting the giggles. (They threw out half the class; my twin, there as a playwright and to study music as far as possible, had been pressed into acting). In the first instance, Miss Weaver and my twin had been screamed at by the entire theater faculty in front of the whole school for being unprofessional and the icon praised for her genius.

As for the lighting issue, Jack was able to arrange for a short rehearsal where the light plot jumped from scene to scene involving Rosina, while my twin showed Cecilia where she could stand to maximize her visibility and how to tell she was in the right place both by eye and by the “feel” of the light on her face. “But when the others try to make me move?” She asked. My twin gave the obvious answer: “shove that person once, and he’ll never do it again.” She was wide eyed after this, but the next performance went much better.

My twin recognized something about Cecilia: she had enormous panache when she felt safe, as she had at that toney party in New York; but when uncertain, she seemed a shy, almost frightened little girl. As the youngest but most famous member of a cast of veterans she was automatically a target. Of course, my twin told her on another occasion when they discussed tactics, it’s always best to talk to people when there’s a problem, and singers know there are people whose permission they should get. BUT when that doesn’t go well and everything is on the line, sheer assertion must always be the answer. Many females have a hatchet man (sometimes it’s their husband) who does the threats (Victoria de los Angeles’ husband served this purpose but he took all her money, too, leaving her broke as her voice began to fade). Generally, my twin’s notion and indeed his experience had been that when they are terrified of you, you are likelier to get a readier cooperation and aren’t stuck with a middle man. But this “double nature” suggested to my twin the results of the tough, unhappy and at times brutal childhood Cecilia had had. This was only alluded to, and then occasionally and obliquely. Contrary to stereotype, Italians are very private and there is much that isn’t shared.

Other snap shots came to my twin. There was the party for Cecilia to which the joke later known as Mr. 9/11, Rudy Guliani, then mayor of New York was to come. It was raining out and she was very unhappy. My twin and Cecilia took a long walk in the rain. She cried bitterly. This was during The Marriage of Figaro at the Met, where she was singing Susanna. She had been attacked in an article in the New York Times.

Dr. Jonathan Miller, the director of record, had told the idiot, James Oestreich, that Cecilia had come late for rehearsals. But she and most of the cast had arrived early to be ready to work. Dr. Miller was late. Like all fools and frauds he had talked in an accent borrowed from the Queen of England but had done nothing. According to him, Miss Bartoli had been obstructive. But according to several members of the cast, they had gotten together in rehearsal and privately to work out scenes about which Dr. Miller had no ideas, with Cecilia a cheer leader. Dr. Miller also mocked Miss Bartoli for “insisting” on doing the substitute arias that Mozart had written for Susanna at some performances. But in reality, someone named James Levine had come up with the idea that it would be fun to alternate these arias at a few performances, Bartoli had gone along. Oestreich was too stupid, too ignorant about opera, too impressed with Her Royal Majesty’s accent to check any of the lies Dr. Miller had told. There were plenty of witnesses who would have gladly refuted him. By why should the highly paid Oestreich do his job? Why should the New York Times hire a smart person, rather than an idiot pig (recently laid off with a great package)? Bartoli was desperately hurt.

Well, my twin was puzzled again. He’d had been attacked in the Times and many other papers. He had gone into his profession knowing many people who had been viciously treated by inferior fools.  There’s nothing to be done about it; from somewhere has to come the hardness to salve whatever hurt results and go on. Cecilia, by then a big star, again seemed vulnerable. My twin pointed out that at least she was having a success with the audiences and that had to be her comfort.

She and my twin talked about death. Her older brother was dying horribly of cancer, leaving a family behind. She had spent an enormous amount of money trying to save him. He had encouraged her, taught her (he was a musician too) and been a protector of the family in some very hard times. She asked what music she might sing. My twin recommended Ich habe genug by Bach, a cantata of leave taking and hope in something better. They listened to the recording by Hans Hotter. And then had tried it at the piano – Cecilia had a reasonable command of German. She lasted only a few measures before fleeing.

There had been a few seconds of naked grief, but it was never mentioned again. Cecilia was older and becoming tougher. She was facing some career realities. Though she loved doing concerts, her taste was inclining more and more to the Baroque and Classical, not the expected repertoire and most thought not commercial. She didn’t feel all the Rossini roles suited her and she felt her voice was too small for some roles, her personality wrong for others. Of course, everyone suggested Carmen; Abbado wanted her to do the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos. But though she could function in German she didn’t feel comfortable about an entire role. She felt remote from Carmen. She hadn’t been that happy doing La Cenerentola at the Met; it had gone well but she felt as though her personality hadn’t had the impact for which she had hoped.

She loved the idea of doing La Traviata. When in the mood she would sing “Sempre libera” in key, sometimes with high E flat. One needed only to hear her try a few measures of “Addio dal passato” to understand what she could bring to the role. But by this time the furies had been unleashed on the Internet, in small publications and she was subject to vicious attack (not as pornographic as those launched on another gifted woman, Renee Fleming). “They would crucify me,” she said.

Pavarotti had gotten interested in her. They made records of the “Chiedi al’ aura” duet from L’Elisir d’amore and interestingly, the “Cherry Duet” from L’Amico Fritz. (I am not sure but think the Fritz duet never circulated). He wanted to do one of those operas, or perhaps something similar, at least in the recording studio. But again, she wasn’t sure she wouldn’t be exposing herself to maximum attack for minimal gain.

A conductor she liked very much, the great Nicholas Harnoncourt had become obsessed with doing Aida as it had been done at its world premiere in Egypt. Apparently there were big differences in the orchestration; the tuning had been verifiably low as well. He thought Bartoli should be his Aida. Certainly in a recording studio at the lower tuning, she could have done the role, bringing dusky erotic warmth, a Latinate quality that had largely disappeared from the world as fewer Italians emerged to sing these iconic roles. But Bartoli turned him down finally, and eventually he recorded the standard version with the vast Vienna Philharmonic and a very light voiced soprano as Aida (with the other singers typical for their roles).

In this frustrating period, Bartoli began to move away from the conventional model of representation. She was less interested in playing ball with a powerful manager and she got tougher as a negotiator. Few of the big Italian conductors had been willing to help her when she needed some promotion, and she was icily unsentimental about affronting them. She was capable of outmaneuvering commanders of the baton in pressured situations -- to protect herself, she said -- but to stick it them as well. In general she grew much less trusting; she wasn’t exactly paranoid but she knew that in the business there are plenty of people who will give you a big hug with a knife hidden in one hand, happy to plunge it in your back as they kissed you on both cheeks.

After about 2001 much would change; she would go her own way, facing prophecies of disaster. She reinvented herself; tours of Baroque arias with a period ensemble looked like sure losers but concerts sold out and CDs were improbable classical best sellers. She sang murderously difficult music, much of it unheard for centuries. She displayed a huge range and sometimes incredible velocity. Her use of “aspiration” in florid music (audible breaths) was complained of, though it was more evident sometimes than others. On the Internet and sometimes in print she was attacked mostly by ignorant fools who never detected the fake outs of their idols and simply made up calumnies. But the excitement, even hysteria she could create in audiences hardened her to what was unfair, and she also made peace with the technique she had developed and its limits. To witness these concerts live was thrilling, and she never failed to deliver her own sense of excitement in and love of this old music. She had done a lot of the scholarly work herself, discovering scores, looking at ornaments as written down by star singers or their pupils. She loved working as an equal with the small group of musicians (though she was also the boss!).

She became more courageous about approaching roles that had been usurped by high sopranos noting that Maria Malibran, the legendary if short lived icon of the bel canto era had apparently been what we’d call a mezzo soprano (a term that only gradually came into use) and had sung all the high roles including Amina in Bellini’s Sonnambula and Norma. She studied Malibran’s scores and read everything she could find that described her sound – dark and complex. She also studied the scores of another great prima donna, Giudetta Pasta, the creator of Norma, who also had had apparently a dark, low set voice. The rigid conventions of the late 20th century with assumptions made by people who didn’t take these operas seriously anyway appeared arguable at least, and very likely, wrong. There were always the idiots who didn’t read music, knew nothing of history, lacked any artistic sophistication, the opera fools, queens with mother problems who had cathected to "Zinka", always sharp, a joke in florid music, ignorant of the deeper meanings of the text and terrible at pronouncing it or to their own myth of the strange Maria Callas, locked into the gross distortions of these operas, cut and rearranged, as they were given in the fifties and sixties. This had nothing to do with Norma or La Sonnambula or indeed, much of anything, but the psychosis was accepted as a badge of honor. A great critic like the late Charles Rosen could shock a reader by seeing and describing the genius in Bellini, who had after all been a huge influence on many of the “great” composers of his own time and even later, ranging from Chopin to Richard Wagner (“long, long, long melodies such as no one before had written".). But the moronic reviewers who should have been janitors or killed at birth, school of Oestreich repeated stale, ignorant clichés.


Bartoli had grown from that high spirited, sometimes uncertain girl to a mature artist who felt called to rediscover these and other operas, easily dismissed, always distorted and she decided to do it through scholarship, hard work, will and risk.

This ambition too was seen as foolish, even delusional. But two experiences of Bartoli suggested that maybe she could pull it off.

One was the Fiordaligi she sang in Zurich in 2000. Her performances of this difficult, long and wide ranging role were astonishing. The house is small and she made it the basis for most of her stage performances. In the Cosi fan tutte, conducted by Harnoncourt she had sung the role with abandon, emotional fullness, musical insight and a kind of profundity. Her voice sounded beautiful live and she had no trouble with the extremes of the role. She had the humor for the opera seria send up of Come scoglio in act one; but in act two, the more difficult Per pieta was sung with endless longing, need, a desire to be loved that was devastating. Fiordaligi’s dilemma, perhaps not entirely serious, self contradictory, became for that aria as she sang it, the dilemma of all humans who long for love but can’t understand where to find it, how to achieve it. The audience wouldn’t breathe during her performance, and then would erupt in an explosion – not only of enthusiasm for her – but of shared understanding.

But perhaps more relevant to Norma was a performance I saw in London in the late 90’s of Amina’s opening scene from La Sonnambula. She hoped to sing the opera and it was to be mounted for her at the Met. The tenor was to be Ramon Vargas. She knew it was a big risk but she was willing to take it. But Vargas had a terrible personal tragedy and withdrew. The Met cast an unknown tenor who Bartoli had never heard and she withdrew, perhaps forever from staged opera in America.

The London “Sovra al sen” conducted by Neville Marriner had been a test. It was a revelation. I have a CD made live and it is on You tube; it remains breathtaking. 

She had gone back to the autograph and she had projected her voice into a big hall. In recitative, slow section and contrasting fast section she had worked hard to project a young girl, on the eve of her marriage to the man she loves. Amina was a simple, almost childlike being, naïve, “romantic” and in that fast section ecstatic. In the slow “Sovra al sen” she had sung the way one might have played Chopin. Marriner followed her perfectly as she used an agogic (rhythmic) technique to bring the melody to life. Now, she would be slightly ahead of the beat, then, slightly behind; she used a perfectly judged but apparently spontaneous rubato – deliberately staying behind for this phrase and then, subtly catching up. She felt the shape of the melody fully. What sounds a very pretty tune usually, became exquisitely, shockingly, strangely beautiful; the eagerness, the sudden shyness, the touch of fear of a simple girl was all there in the way Bellini had lovingly shaped his melody on the words. It was an endless instant, opera itself, in the way an entire personality, endearing, vulnerable, at risk was exposed. Then, in the fast section there had been a wild abandon achieved without sacrificing the elegance the style requires. The shock of this music, apparently simple and to the opera lovers present surely over familiar, was something new, and the audience exploded at the end into an enormous, prolonged, stamping ovation. Bartoli had captured the magic of music that had once enchanted the world, and which had been something new, for Bellini was inventing romanticism, taking a risk, just as Cecilia Bartoli was.

Some years later she would make a complete recording of La Sonnambula and now she has recorded Norma. Next time the widder will consider those recordings. 

Friday, May 17, 2013



part one is below.

Piazza Guastalla, where Renata Tebaldi resided, is a short walk from La Scala. Like most upper-class apartment blocks in Italy, it's really a fortress, with a high iron fence and no indication of who lives where. Once the right building is found, there are no names on the buzzer. I contrive a way into the dark, elegant lobby, and a little old lady with a mean twinkle in her eye totters out, her finger on an alarm device. I tell her that Madame Tebaldi is expecting me. She looks me up and down doubtfully, then retreats into a cubicle without a word and locks the door behind her. After a moment, a panel is shoved aside, and directions are barked.

Ernestina Vigano, Tebaldi's longtime factotum (factota?), opens the door, and the poodle, New IV, the king of the household, welcomes me. Tebaldi appears with a Coke on ice, and we all settle down for a good dish session. “Renata” has to have been the sweetest person ever to be a world-famous opera singer. Or at least the sweetest Italian. Perhaps she had more obvious drive in her youth, and I’m sure she could be tough when that was necessary. Rudolf Bing famously said that she had “dimples of iron”. Yet, having seen her fairly often over a long time, I have a hard time remembering any cattiness or anger. She thought some people were silly, and others, pretentious, but she had a deep well of empathy in her. Empathy is not a quality that most performers, especially very famous ones, have. On this occasion she still was remarkably youthful, beautiful and very, very tall – for an Italian. She once told me that when she was young and would walk through Milan, people would stop and applaud. “Why are you applauding?” She would ask, this was before she was famous, “God bless your mother and father,” they would say, “you are so tall!”

This visit, Tebaldi has seemed rather sad, and I’ve heard she hasn’t been entirely well. She’s had tax problems and having been less canonized while still alive than say, Maria Callas, her royalties have fallen off, though in fact when they were both singing, Tebaldi was the bigger seller. On this occasion, Tebaldi tells a story of a recent visitor who brought CDs for her to sign, including one called "The Beautiful Voice." The beautiful voice in question belonged to another soprano. "Can you imagine?" Tebaldi says. "They wanted me to sign someone else's CD. I said 'Why?' 'Well, you too had a beautiful voice,' they said. “Perhaps I did. But it was my beautiful voice, not this beautiful voice. I think there might be a difference, no? I said, perhaps you should have this singer sign her own CD.” But her smile was irresistible, she really was more amused than affronted, and noticing my figure, she commanded, “you have to have some of Tina's biscuits!"

Tina, who has a bad hip, hobbles off to the kitchen. New IV rubs against me as Tebaldi asks, "Tell me, how is Carol?" Carol? "La Burnett. She teach me English. Not because she want to. But when I was singing so often in America I watched her television show over and over. That's how I learned to speak -- and to laugh. We are all ridiculous a lot of the time, no? She is great -- a great artist!" I later told Carol this story (she’s a close friend of a close friend) and she refused to believe me. She was not an opera obsessive but Tebaldi had been one of her favorites in opera. “That’s the worst part of this business,” Carol had said, “the people you could have met, and didn’t meet thinking they wouldn’t know who the hell you were!”

Tina is back, the biscuits are delicious, and we talk of the dead: Terence McEwen, the late London Records executive and Tebaldi's close friend. "I call him and call him, but you know, he asked me not to after a while. 'It is too painful, Renata,' he said. 'The old days, I can't bear to think of them. I don't even want to listen to music anymore.' "But you must, Terry,' I told him. 'You must listen to Mozart, to Bach, no voices' -- proof that people on earth matter and are more than things that will die. And we have a choice. We can regret the past, regret that it is past, or we can enjoy it. Oh, our times were so wonderful! They can comfort us. This little word, 'over,' does not mean the great things never happened. And that, too, proves we matter, just a little. But no - he would not be comforted."

We discuss Maestro Muti. Tebaldi and Tina cluck over the very choice of Forza. Tebaldi recalls her own Forza nightmare, in 1960, when Leonard Warren collapsed and died after singing the “Urna fatale” aria.

"I was in my dressing room, and the whole house shook. I thought there was an earthquake and went running. But no, he had fallen. The priest ran past me. And Richard [Tucker] was crying. It was so awful! That, too, is Forza. I have always prayed for him, that he was able to see the priest and have that comfort. But I am not sure, and I am sad for him. I never was happy singing that opera after that. But maybe Maestro [Muti] will make a difference in our Forza. In my time, we had the great conductors, but they had us, after all. Toscanini even said, 'I need your voice' - not just to me, to everyone. He said it to Pertile, to Merli, to La Favero, to Cesare [Siepi], who was so young- 'I need your voice. Verdi needs your voices.' Now there are no voices for these operas.”

"I would not go [to La Scala] for a time. They would applaud me more than the singers [onstage]. I didn't want that. It is their time. I want to hear cheering and excitement for somebody young.
Then I watched Maestro Muti rehearse, I saw his performances -- the Rigoletto, some Traviatas, the Macbeth. No, it was not what we had. But he did make the music vibrate and the soul shine. I love him, because music is his entire life. It was my entire life as well. It is not just the profession he is good at - he loves it. And I think that helps when they can't sing so well. I remember Maestro Mitropoulos -- a great man - conducted Forza with Mario [Del Monaco] and me, it was life on the stage; not, OK, I made some noise, now pay me.”

Tina remarks, “Didn’t he do it in Vienna, with la Stella? And then he died. Just fell over! Poverino!!!"
“Was it right after?” Asks Tebaldi. “Ma, no, I think it was later … a month? I am not sure…”
"Didn't La Stella start to have trouble after that?" wonders Tina, still focused on the Forza curse.
"No, I don't think so," says Tebaldi, "but maybe. She is a very distinguished artist. Maestro Muti gave me his recording of Verdi - that one about the Hun who kills everybody [Attila]. I think that was late for La Stella. He was a baby then. [The "pirate" recording is from 1970.] She is OK there.” She laughs. “You know, you don't have to be Greek to sing Verdi."

After that sly dig at Madame Callas and another story or two, Tina returns to Forza. "I think the curse of Forza haunted La Stella after that. La Stella and Franco [Corelli] had that fight, and I think also she and Pippo [Di Stefano] fought."

“Ma Tina! That is the curse of tenors, not of Forza. It is different kind of curse. You just breathe garlic on them when they have to sing a high note, and the curse go away. You can put the olive oil in the water and everything else the witches do, and Forza will still get you.”

The old stories are told - how men used to come to Tebaldi's dressing rooms all over the world with diamond rings, wanting to marry her; how audiences wouldn't leave her concerts. "But that is justice," says Tina, "because you were from God." She turns to me. "I was about to marry. But just before, I went with Renata to South America. When we came back, she said she would sing at my wedding. But no, I said, 'I will stay with you.' And Renata said, 'But you will be lonely, you will not have a family.' And I said, 'I will have your voice, and I will help you bring God's beauty to the whole world.' I am old now, and sometimes I have been lonely, and I have been sick, but I have never once regretted it."

Tebaldi cuddles New IV and shakes her head at me. "They say I was the voice of an angel - that Toscanini said that. He didn't. He said at that section in Verdi's Requiem I had to sound like an angel, and maybe with God's help I could. But it's true I had the sound, and it moved people. I worked hard, although I never had real lessons for years the way they do today. I think today they have all these lessons, and then they forget what they are taught. I would have remembered. Or maybe not, who knows? But my voice, it was from God. I felt that. Sometimes He sang through me.” But she shook her head. “We all say that, I think. I am sure if you go and see any of the old singers here in Milan they will say that. And what if it is true, some way? You know, God makes us pay for His gifts. I have paid Him a lot. I have paid and paid with my life. I praise Him. But sometimes, I pray, please, I would like to stop paying. Because that's what life is at my age, paying God for what He gave you. And my bill is walking in the graveyard. Not only are my friends buried there, but my enemies -- and, you know, I miss them. Oh, they said I hated Maria. Well, I didn’t like that those snakes that breed in the theater chose her at Scala, and laughed that they had driven me out into the cold.” Tina’s face has become hard and her eyes are wide with anger. Tebaldi glances at her and continues. “But they simply drove me into the warmth of the Metropolitan, so it was OK. And I pray for Maria; she was not bad. There are many who say she this nasty, this hard woman. She was not. I meet her I think the day she arrive here in Italy or maybe a few days later, and you know --- and look, your coke will be warm and you need more biscuits, I will get them, Tina.” Tebaldi adds ice, coca-cola and cookies to my portion and settles down. “Well, those old times, and we chatter … but I will tell you, I felt very cold when I meet her. You know? Verona, and the summer, and the heat and I felt cold. It is strange, but I thought, whatever her fate as a singer, and none of us knew who would succeed, we were that young, but whatever her destiny, there will be more sadness than anyone should suffer. I think that was – the word is premonition? Well, in suffering as she did, sadly, she was not the only one and she is remembered so well. I can tell so many stories about the forgotten great ones, such a terrible fate in this world. But forgotten or still famous they are in the graveyard. You know, I am afraid opera is buried there, too."

Going into the company dress rehearsal, to which all the workers at La Scala can invite their families, I pass Leyla Gencer. She is standing outside the stage door dressed entirely in black, with her black hair piled very high, watching everybody go in. I recall her prediction as she pats me affectionately.
"You are getting sicker," she says sweetly.
"I have a fever and aches and pains."
"We all do, and it will get worse. Look at them all go in. It's like they are going into a funeral. Povero Maestro, how he is suffering. The corpse is Verdi's. He takes that personally. It would be better if he were like all the other conductors today. Take the fee, cash the check quickly and get out of town. But he suffers. And tonight, watch out. It will be like the French Revolution." She makes the sign against the evil eye.

Inside, Muti is suffering through an audition that somebody has ambushed him with. No one on the staff knows how this has happened. But Muti lets the poor singer, who is dying of nerves, go on and on. In the pit, somebody is playing Bellini as if it were "Chopsticks" and still hitting the wrong notes. The only sign Muti gives is to shield his eyes, like an Indian brave in an old Western, and peer into the pit. He is wonderful to the singer.

"He will make a good shoemaker," one of the staff says of the auditioner. He is enraged at whoever got around every bit of security and broke union rules to get this singer onstage and somebody not on staff into the pit to play the piano. All of that could cause a walk-out by the theater security, the theater maintenance people, the orchestra and everybody else for good measure, since striking in sympathy is a national pastime in Italy. That strikes me as rather an extreme reaction to the poor man who has just sweated off twenty pounds, as well as his sense of pitch. "Don't you understand?” The staff member hisses at me. “He is on the set of Forza. What if he has the evil eye?"

Muti looks terrible. "I went to my brother's for comfort. But I paced all day. I am sorry, but this is very unhappy." He runs off to his office. Paolo Arca explains to me that besides the company guests, about 1,000 students are expected. They have come to some other rehearsals in the theater, and different groups will be at all the dress rehearsals. "This is new here," Arca allows. "We reach out. We had a million of them come last year. Everyone talks them through every stage of the opera. This year, Simionato told them all about Forza and even sang a little Preziosilla. They loved her. They asked her if she rapped. 'Sure,' she said, 'and she rapped one of the big boys on the back of the head.'"

Unfortunately, Muti has just closed the rehearsal. He wants every door locked and security at every entrance. (There are about a hundred everybody knows of, and probably a thousand all told. Muti knows them all and has ordered guards everywhere.) But there is a problem. The students have already been bused in and are outside in the piazza. Though it's opera, and it's an easy bet none of them really wanted to come, this is Italy. Any reason to riot is seized on avidly, and Arca is worried. That is what Gencer meant about the French Revolution.

Suddenly there are noises in the pit. We run down. The orchestra is striking. They have just got word that Muti has closed the rehearsal to their families and friends. There is no fury like that of an orchestra that feels dissed. Here, the rage is boiling over. Maestro Arca runs into the pit to see if he can calm them. Muti is in his office, being reasoned with by Carlo Fontana. The shadowy old men are hovering in an alcove, looking ready for insurgency. We hear the students chanting outside.

A man somehow connected to Giorgio Zancanaro runs in, in total panic. "I must see Maestro," he cries on his way down the aisle. I tell him Muti is in his office, but I would bet this is not the best time to interrupt. "Don't you understand? This is about his death!"

By now security is at all the entrances, and this poor man can't get backstage. For once, my pass from Dottor Fontana works, and they let me lead him back, though I am becoming rather frightened at all the noise and running around; the chorus, milling about wondering whether to strike in sympathy with the orchestra, blocks our path for a moment.

The man runs headlong into Muti's office. That is a very unwise thing to do. Muti is there with Alberto Triola, confronting Dottor Fontana and a factotum of his. Fontana is sweating profusely. They are all purple except Muti, who is deathly white and whose eyes have devoured his face. Dottor Triola is hanging on to him.

"Zancanaro is gone!" cries the man. Well, that is at least a conversation stopper. In this instance, I think it stopped a capital crime.

Nucci is back in the hospital. As part of his treatment, he has had to have a painful injection in the muscle of his leg. He must spend the night in the hospital, and it's not clear whether he will be able to sing the remaining dress rehearsals -- or the opening. Zancanaro, singing another engagement, was alerted and sped to Milan this afternoon. Unfortunately, he plowed into another car. He may be dead.

Fontana's factotum runs out of the room. He will speed-dial other theaters and agents to see who they can get. They've done this all week trying to find a Leonora. Among others, they've tried Michele Crider, who is at the Met in Trovatore, and Maria Guleghina, who is in Paris. Neither can make it.

"Of course not," I am told by someone at another opera house. "First of all, who wants to face a first-night audience at La Scala? Secondly, [the Scala people] never do anybody any favors, so everybody hates them. Why should a theater release somebody it needs to help La Scala? Besides, there are no A-level Verdi voices in the world, and only two or three B-levels. If you've got one of them, you hang on for dear life."

The door to Muti's office is closed. I am still wondering whether Zancanaro is dead, which doesn't seem to concern anybody else. I ask one of the weird old men hovering in the shadows what he knows. "He is in a cast from the neck down. I don't think it will harm his voice, but he won't be doing Forza here."

Wondering whether there will be a performance at all, I go back up the treacherous stairs. There is Maestro Muti, sitting alone on a wooden box. I decide it's not appropriate to ask about everything that has happened. "Would you like to go to the bowels of La Scala?" he asks. "I will be your Virgil." He leads me through hidden doors, and we are behind the stage. He stops beside two ancient columns. They are all that is left of the original church that stood on this spot. He kisses them. "They are really beautiful. And they have guarded us, I think, for all these years. Soon they will be gone." He sees his old buddy, Maestro Montanari, conductor of the stage, and we descend.

The stage was designed by Nicola Benois in 1937. He used the same plans that had been in effect for fifty years, updating them to the standard of that time. There are massive hydraulic lifts, where water is pumped through pipes to raise segments of the stage. There are seven segments that can be raised and lowered to create levels onstage or function as traps.

The huge stage crew has specialists who turn wheels at the end of each segment. These release and control the water to achieve the right height. Since this movement often happens during music, in a scene or during an interlude with the curtain open, these men are conducted. They watch Maestro Montanari, who gives Muti's beat and phrasing to the crew. They turn their wheels and the segments rise in time to the music. A wonderful man demonstrates how all this works, even though he is on break. "I love this theater. My father and his father worked here. And Maestro Muti is my maestro," he says, without any self-consciousness. I ask his name. "Just say I am a member of the backstage at La Scala. That is enough for me.'

Muti leads me further down into the viscera of La Scala's stage. Here is a gorgeous web of pipes: old-fashioned theater construction. I'm not sure bombs could have destroyed this. It is steel and iron, beautifully wrought, fitted and profoundly functional. "We can create entire worlds with all of this," says Muti. "Better worlds than the one outside. And, you know, only people can do it. Everything down here - all the levers, all the lifts, all the wires - they must be worked by hand. A person makes each little miracle happen. That is what art is. A heart beats, and everything beats to that heart. If the heart stops, the art stops. "Now I am told we must have a new theater. I am sure we must. This is so expensive, and we need too many men to do even simple things. So we will have a new stage, where a button can be pressed and presto! - it all happens without people. Is that progress, or is that death? I don't know."

There is something in the air down here. It's amazingly clear and clean, and there is a warm wrap-around of silence. It isn't eerie at all, it's theater. Muti sees me listening. "Ah, the ghosts," he smiles. "Our ghosts are very quiet. The new theater will bury them for good. I am not sure they are always well-behaved, our ghosts. Look at this Forza. But they are ours, and they love what we love.... Do you hear that?"

There is a little wisp of sound, and a small shadow seems to flit over us. A certain peace invades us. "I think that was [Aureliano] Pertile. He is around once in a while."

This ectoplasmic encounter awakes an old memory in Muti. "You know, when I was very young I conducted the Vienna Philharmonic for the first time. I was very scared, but I did it." Muti was right to be scared. I saw him, as a mature man and a famous conductor, dealing with the Vienna ensemble in New York. Though they love him and have signed contracts with him for years into the future, they are cold, fierce and perverse. The night Yehudi Menuhin died, they had a dust-up with Muti over a last-minute musical tribute. He thought getting through something on a wing and a prayer was less of an homage to Menuhin, whom he knew well, than giving a well-prepared performance of the scheduled but light-hearted Schubert Third Symphony. Muti stood his ground and won - sort of. The players glared at him with a killing hatred all through the Schubert. So I can just imagine the still adolescent-looking Italian twenty-four-year-old, standing in front of that group.

"Naturally, I said what every green conductor says to an orchestra," Muti continues with a self-mocking grin - "'Sing!' But all music-making is based on the mechanism of singing, which is breath through a phrase. So they asked me what I meant. I said, 'If you have time, please listen to a singer -- but this is probably a singer none of you know. His name was Pertile. You must listen to him in the Improvviso from Andrea Chenier, and then you will know what I mean by singing. There are many small sections there, and he realizes them all. He has every kind of color and intense emotion, but he makes it all into one long line, inevitable. One phrase is drawn into another with intense, sublime tension. That is singing."

Muti laughs. "Can you imagine a kid telling them that? Not somebody they knew of -- Callas, or one of their famous singers -- but an Italian, Pertile. And not our Verdi or their Wagner, but Giordano, of all people. I realized after I said it that I probably had killed my chances with them. But a little later a few of them were talking with me, and they said, 'Maestro, we like you. You are a great musician of course, but we have many of those. You are a little crazy, we have lots of those. But we listened to this Pertile. You were right. You knew what you were talking about. We don't have many of those."

Suddenly, there is a lot of screaming from above. Something is going on, and we are recalled to reality. "Ah, Maestro Pertile," says Muti to the air, "you have let me down this time. I have to go back to hell!"

Everything is apparently settled. The orchestra has compromised by protesting officially, rather than striking. Maestro (or someone) has compromised, because a small number of family members will be let in. The third baritone is in the wings, getting tips on the staging from a haggard De Ana. "That's a singer?" I ask of no one in particular. I've seen this decidedly scruffy, very shy young man around and thought maybe he was a janitor.

"Non preoccupatevi," snarls Fontana, "non ha i coglioni per La Scala. [Don’t worry he doesn’t have the balls for La Scala]".

Still and all, the chorus smiles at Muti; the orchestra does too, when he walks into the pit. He gives the downbeat for the start of the overture. The third trombonist throws up. Muti decides to keep going. The orchestra protests. One of their number is sick and can't be ignored. Muti runs to his dressing room, and the house lights come on as the orchestra moves away from the spewing trombonist.

The orchestra protest is settled when Maestro agrees to wait for the other third trombonist, who lives in the suburbs. The students in the boxes are having a lot of fun with spitballs. Their teachers discipline them Italian-style: they scream from far away and have no effect whatever.

Onstage, Lukacs, not yet in costume (has she sensed all this would happen?), is stomping around in thick Slavic boots, looking for nails. She is rather a frightening figure. A plumper, bigger-eyed creature is watching her: Ines Salazar. A penny for her thoughts. Jose Cura is also in the wings, coughing. He coughs louder than he sings. Whenever somebody in a suit comes near, his coughing grows Wagnerian. I am beginning to wonder if this dress rehearsal will happen.

Eventually, it does. Lukacs wails more than ever. Cura cancels, and Licitra sings. When he comes on in the last act, someone has put gray powder in his long, flowing hair. In his monk's costume, he reminds me of the bearded lady from the circus. His appearance causes a riot among the young spectators. Various names are called out, but the consensus is that he looks like "Meat-a-loaf." Muti runs to his dressing room. The students are disciplined as before. Fontana and Arca simultaneously clasp their hands and implore God's mercy.

"Well, it's not the worst thing that has happened tonight," says Tebaldi. She's right. Though the baritone castrated or not isn't half bad, he and Licitra are poorly matched in their duets. Not only does Licitra drown him out, but the baritone keeps tripping on props, which throws Licitra off and confuses the clump of mimes who are everywhere onstage. He runs into a bunch of them, and, surprised, they all collapse in a very noisy un mime-like heap. "Good! They deserve it," screams Muti, who has taken repeated exception to the way they mug.

The Melitone who is well enough to walk has no voice, so Muti sings his part. Giacomo Prestia, the first Guardiano, forgets all his words, then loses his voice in the middle of the convent scene. Muti sings his part too, while Papi gets into costume.

Meanwhile, Licitra -- being Sicilian and a tenor - is ready to murder somebody. In fact, a number of men are screaming backstage. It doesn't seem wise to inquire just who is screaming what. But I suspect La Scala has made a lot of converts to opera; the students have had the time of their lives.

A few days later, the absolutely final dress rehearsal goes better, though Cura seems underprepared. Muti keeps changing his beat in the hopes of helping the tenor, but Cura seems disinclined to look in Muti's direction. Nucci has returned. Limping and in pain from the muscle injection, he does all his business and sings full out. Lukacs has actually begun to absorb Muti's coaching, and she achieves distinction here and there. D'Intino is quite a good Preziosilla. She and Nucci make sense of their parts, and the orchestra and chorus are wonderful. [And even Zancanaro has not been badly injured].

The atmosphere of the first night is ferocious. The "Sindacato Nazionale Autonomo Artisti Lirici" (SNAAL for short) is forcing incendiary leaflets into everyone's hand. They viciously attack De Ana for taking work from native Italians and not paying taxes in Italy, though he works prominently in the country. In the handout, a section is underlined: "If the best is not Italian, he may be hired. But De Ana is the worst. Not the best." Next, the "organo ufficiale degli artistici lirici" is thrust in one's pockets. This is a glossy small magazine full of "news stories." They all happen to be rabidly nationalistic and rather fascist in tone. On the back of the glossy is a full picture of Nello Santi; it is implied that he, not Muti, should be running La Scala. Inside, there is a huge picture of Italian tenor Lando Bartolini, who, says the glossy, should be singing all the major roles at La Scala. Italy, fumes the "organo," has been "colonized" by foreign orchestras -- piddling bands like the Vienna Philharmonic, thanks to Muti, and the Israel Philharmonic, thanks to Mehta, who isn't even Italian but "runs" Florence. Abbado has dared to bring the Berlin Philharmonic, and Sinopoli has had the nerve to make his career mainly abroad.

Quotes from famous people are taken out of context and mocked. Yet the concerns in the gazette are understandable to a degree. Declining subsidies have put many Italian artists out of work and endangered many theaters, orchestras and chamber societies. "The new system" looks to the writers of this gazette even more corrupt than the old one. "It was very bad in the old days, but it was alive. Now it is just as bad, and opera is dead," is a refrain in the paper.

Though it's hard to know how trustworthy the reporting is, there are some chilling stories of critics of this system (artists, conductors) finding themselves unemployable. The occasional story of deliberately set fires (some years ago in Bari), or suddenly cancelled performances because money has changed hands, carries conviction, offering too much detail to be laughed off.

Reading the pamphlets points up the prevalent hatred of foreigners. The accident of the American fighter jet that severed a ski-lift cable in 1998 is used as a symbol for the "internationalizing" of Italian art, which, in the eyes of these writers, has led to its demise. It's a position that could be argued, but the incendiary tone of the articles makes one wonder if the booing of Renee Fleming at 1998's Lucrezia Borgia was motivated by nationalism and frustration, and not a theater cabal.

Inside, La Scala looks different than it once did. The ushers (called mascherine) still have keys, but they wear a modified costume in place of the tights and frills of the past. There are girl ushers, prettier than the boys. There are also some older men; my memory from years past was of an army of corrupt cherubs.

I once had an enjoyable evening at a performance to which I did not have a ticket, thanks to a delightful "mascherino" who was studying to be a judge by day and running the "theater Mafia" (his term) by night. He had organized every level so that all the ushers did his bidding and met at a parking lot some distance away to share the booty of an evening's work. Naturally, these people wanted to see your money, not your ticket stub, and they rarely cared where you sat or what you did. The mascherine now are actually helpful in finding one's seat. Some of them will even hand you a program.

The climb to the loggione, all the way upstairs, is long. The top gallery has a bench around the curved back wall. Then there are steep banks of narrow seats. Some of these are numbered and sold at the box office. Some can be taken on a first-come, first-- served basis. There have been changes up here, too. Policemen, firemen and ushers patrol the area, looking sharply at suspected troublemakers.

It is jammed and very hot. The mix of people is broader than I remember. There are many Asians and Slavs. There are still some extremely elegant young fops with marcelled hair and canes, there are young blades with mustaches Verdi would have envied. There are also many older people of both sexes, who have stood or sat in this gallery for years, so there are feuds that date back to Callas and Tebaldi. And there's a consensus that nothing that happens in the house matters anymore. It’s no wonder that Muti has insisted there be no equivalent to the Loggione in the new theater.

La Scala staffers do not get tickets, so they stand up here. So do all the second-cast singers and covers. Ines Salazar, rejected by Muti to sing Leonora on opening night, is also here, bracing herself against the back wall.

Muti gets reasonable applause, and the orchestra sounds live and wonderful. But the voices don't carry well. Lukacs is whistled from the start. Cura is hooted and jeered (from all over the theater) at his entrance. There is no applause during the inn scene. But the hissing starts and grows during the convent scene. Muti looks around sharply, left, then right, and quells it. The act ends with a smattering of applause.

Between acts, the fights start -- generally over just how bad it was. "You don't know what you're talking about. This was the worst Forza in history, and, yes, I saw Cavalli scream, too. She screamed better."
"This tenor is horrible, a fraud."
Some people are howling Lukacs' name and cursing her. "Give her a chance," says one listener.
"No! It was supposed to be La Salazar, and she would have been better. This woman is a disgrace to La Scala."
Salazar has come and stood beside me for this conversation.
"La Salazar might have been just as bad," continues Lukacs' defender. "Anyway, she is sick. What were they to do?"
"La Salazar is not sick!" insists the protestor. "Muti only wants bad singers. He rented this truck, Lukacs. Salazar is wonderful!"
"You've never heard or seen her!"
"I am her fan!"
"Would you like me to introduce you?" I ask Salazar, aside. She runs out of the loggione.

D'Intino and Nucci get some applause in Act II. Cura is hooted after his aria. He shoots infuriated looks in the direction of the yellers. Muti starts up over the noise. It continues. He turns around on the podium and the audience is suddenly quiet. It's one thing to conduct the savage Vienna Philharmonic. It's quite another to conduct a hostile Italian audience. I am very impressed.

Luckily, Muti does a thrilling job with "Rataplan," which gets the night's first genuine, if modest, applause. Audience discontent mounts during a very long intermission. My guess is that some pressure is being placed on Cura to finish the performance -- after all, it is being taped by RAI. One reason for the police presence is the Fleming Lucrezia Borgia scandal. RAI was furious at the resulting broadcast, and they have told La Scala they will reconsider their broadcasting commitment if the tape is ruined by noises during the performance.

An old man I know by sight from other visits to La Scala comes over and chats with me. "What's the point?" the old-timer says. "Nowadays their anger is a ritual. You could hate Callas -- I did. I thought she was a fraud. But you could love her, too. She was that strong. And Corelli -- an idiot, but a tenor. And Stella - a screamer, but a personality. And Simionato! She was a wild personality, even as Preziosilla. Now all they do is go through the motions onstage. All these people arguing are going through the motions in the loggione. Oh, we carried on, but we came out of love. Now, it's a duty. And in five years?"

In Act III, Lukacs follows Muti's phrasing exactly and really isn't so bad. Cura walks through the act. Nucci continues to be the most vivid performer. At the end, there are three group calls -- no solos. The audience is calling for solos so they can massacre the artists one by one. Someone (Fontana, I am told) has forbidden solo calls. After the third bow, the iron curtain comes down, and the house lights come on.

The intermission grousing was nothing to the riot this provokes. Horrific screaming erupts all over the theater. The RAI broadcast booth is besieged by protesters. Muti has trampled on their right to express rage at this disgrace. Everybody on every level is yelling. Older, elegant people in the platea (the orchestra, in America) are yelling upward. Men and women are hanging out of the boxes, screaming downward or across. The disturbance is led by two men with immense voices, hanging out of a box on the left of the theater, who start yelling insults at Cura and Muti.
"Cura, come out and face us! Muti is a dictator, but you are worse, Cura - you are a coward!"
This is taken up as a mantra around the theater. But others start calling for it to stop. "Isn't it bad enough the performance was terrible?" belts an old lady with a huge voice from the platea.
"Muti has betrayed Italian art!" comes back. This gets some applause. But there is wild disagreement. "You can't blame him because there are no singers around today!" somebody yells. Names are shouted back. The friction builds into inchoate screams, fist-making and program-throwing. Though it seems everybody hated the performance, they fight over who is to blame. The major scapegoat is Cura, with Muti a close second and some people doing unkind imitations of Lukacs. The two men in the box, though, are the most insulting. At last, an old lady right in front of me has had enough.

"Shame on you!" she screams at these two men. She, too, has an immense voice. (Why aren't these people singing?)
"I bought my ticket, and I have a right to protest," comes the reply.
"You didn't buy your ticket," the nonna screams back. "You screwed an usher, and he took pity on you and let you in!"

Everyone in the loggione runs to the front, nearly pushing this old lady and me over the rail. Fights break out. The Asian contingent is huddled in a group, terrified. Policemen are everywhere, but they make no effort to stop anything. The old lady has thrown her opera glasses at the two men, one of whom hurls something back; it falls short, landing on the people in the platea. This raises a ferocious cry from below, leading people upstairs to spit over the side. After dutiful fist-shaking under open programs, the downstairs audience flees. Up above, fistfights have broken out. The old lady and several men who seem to be with her are climbing over people to get to the two loud men. One of the staff grabs me. "Maestro wants to see you.”
The catcalls, boos and insults continue as people leave the theater, and going downstairs is risky, because people are lashing out. Navigating the crowded hallway that leads backstage, we encounter people lined up at the coat check, shoving and fighting. They are not inclined to make way.

Backstage, Muti looks exhausted and ghostly pale. "I am sorry you had to see this," he says; for a moment, he seems on the brink of tears. "I tried to bring them a performance. We don't have the great singers anymore, but there is still music. I tried to bring them the music. It's there, and it works."

We can still hear the insults and things being thrown against the curtain, but the hysteria is dissipating. "Those two men doing all the screaming have a radio show," says Muti. "They call it 'Barcaccia.' One is a failed tenor. On their program, they lie about us all. They are the ringleaders. But the audience, they have no respect -- none for me or the theater or the orchestra and chorus, none for Verdi."

His police escort arrives. With them are several elderly British lords and ladies who are Muti's friends. They are all going to be hustled out one of the many secret exits, so they won't be accosted. "He is doing that because of his guests," someone explains. "Usually he goes out the stage exit and lets them insult him. It's part of his job."

Even Toscanini had a fiasco with Forza. The cast (Ester Mazzoleni, Pasquale Amato, Nazzareno de Angelis - now legends all) were booed, and so was he. He took it, then cancelled all the other performances. But such is not possible today. Muti will have to go through this again until the detractors have exhausted themselves and the subscribers -- who tend to like everything and doze a good deal - take over.

Is it possible to do a big, romantic opera like Forza without very good singers in all the roles -- people who feel this repertory in their very vocal cords and can convince us their souls have bonded with the music? This Forza has been meticulously prepared. The orchestra and chorus have performed brilliantly. Ensembles have been elegantly molded and are dead-on. Muti has related one tempo to another seamlessly, as only a great conductor can. But if Don Alvaro cannot make your hair stand on end when he curses God in the last act; if Leonora cannot break your heart with "La Vergine degli angeli"; if the "le minaccie" duet doesn't at least have violence and excitement, Forza doesn't work.

Perhaps this was not the very best cast that could be assembled today, given immense good luck and very deep pockets. But it would be hard to find a cast that would have been a great deal better. Cura is a star, after all. Is there anyone who sings Leonora compellingly today? Has there been anyone in the past ten years? Nucci, a solid professional, is getting on in years; where is the Verdi baritone with the big, juicy voice and personality to match? D'Intino is excellent, but a book you can buy at La Scala includes a picture of Simionato that seizes the imagination through looks alone. Seeing this demonic, sexy, wild Gypsy, you can almost hear her thrusting, vibrant tone. Prestia has a decent voice, but the profound dignity of Siepi, the rolling tones of Ghiaurov, the majesty of Christoff belong not merely to better basses but to a different species. [Remember this was written in 1999; the situation has not improved. Licitra, had he taken Muti’s advice and worked on music and technique might have become a great spinto, though death would have taken him anyway. Prestia and Papi really had talent but neither was able to get beyond a modest level. D’Intino, the most finished of these artists, was mature and would begin to slow down within a few years. Nucci, who despite a voice without the resonance of the iconic Italian baritones who emerged in the 1940’s, had a touch of greatness and amazingly has survived and still sings but even at this time he was an older man in the singing profession.]

As I return to the front of the house, there are still some fights going on. I go up to the great chandelier. It is really a lighting booth, and it commands an awe-inspiring view of the house. The first thing you notice is that the ceiling is a fraud - all the three-dimensional decorations are trompel'oeil. Theater, after all, is an illusion -- either magic or a sham.

I look down into the auditorium. The platea is almost empty. My eye is caught by a lonely figure limping out, leaning on the arm of an elegant woman. It is Tebaldi, all alone with her companion, inching slowly and painfully up the aisle. The house lights start to go out. Tebaldi turns momentarily, afraid she will lose her footing. Her companion holds her firmly. A flashlight is shined at her feet, and she pulls herself up and walks into its beam.

The light goes out. La Scala is dark.