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.


  1. I made a plug for your blog here:

    I meant every word of it. I check this site religiously.

  2. Verbose?? VERBOSE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!??????????????? The Widder may be verbose but Albert Innaurato (The Widder's less fortunate Siamese twin) is NOT!!!

    Thanks Ivy, it's a great plug. For anyone reading me, here, I have to say is my favorite blog. I've known Ivy Lin since she started the best opera group ever, called Krakatoa-L on Yahoo, when she was just a girl (13 years ago!!!). It was fun and attracted great people -- Ivy will join me in remembering the Hecklers. Richard Rosa, Hermine Stover and a bunch of others. Well, that dissolved as we all do.

    But Ivy reviews ballet, movies and opera brilliantly, bravely (no bs about her) and with genuine insight. She's invaluable!!!!

    1. Thanks Emma! I haven't been able to blog as much as normal because of some disasters right now in my life, but I blog when I can. Thanks so much for the kind words. You should put more Opera News articles up -- I had not realized how cut the final print versions were.

  3. What a wonderful two parter. The version we read in Opera News was so cut that it made Muti look like the monster so many people say he is. This changes my opinion. I wish some promising singers were willing to take the time to learn from him, but the system is so against that, even though as we are more removed from the traditions and the world that sustained opera,what he does becomes more and more essential.

  4. Thanks for reading perfidia. This is not meant as a polemic. Muti has detractors, not all of whom are ax grinding crazies, and I don't think anyone is a saint, especially someone who sets out to make a great career, as he did from the first. But I do think he is a superb musician and his responses to the music are full of profound insights. Singing with him must have been frightening, but for those who could get over the intimidation there would have been a lot of stimulating even inspiring information from him. But now there are only a few with his immersion in what a given opera requires as music and as drama (Thielemann is one and is younger). But both Muti and Thielemannn actually grew up in the traditions of the rep they conduct most often and absorbed the best while being talented and intelligent enough to see what was cheap or silly. I wonder about those conductors who may really have talent but don't know the operas they conduct within the context in which they were written, or know much of anything about singing. Well, we'll see. Thanks again.