The End of Italian Opera: Will They Wait for the Fat Lady to Sing?

Opera
The opera houses that launched Verdi, Puccini and Rossini are going bust. Is there a future for an expensive art form in the age of austerity? BO'Kane/Alamy

Last month, staff at Catania’s opera house staged a funeral in suitably operatic fashion, carrying a coffin through the center of the packed auditorium. The performance wasn’t a dramatic staging idea: it was a funeral for the opera house itself.

That’s because this stunning house, where opera has been performed since the late 1800s, is in deep financial trouble. The Teatro Massimo Bellini – named after the Sicilian city’s most famous son, the bel canto opera composer Vincenzo Bellini – can’t afford to pay visiting artists or even its own musicians.

At a recent international opera competition, the orchestra went on strike between the semifinals and the finals, reportedly because its members hadn’t been paid for months.

And the Catania Opera is not alone. Florence’s Teatro del Maggio Musicale is seriously in the red, as are the opera houses in Rome, Bologna, Genoa, Parma, and Cagliari. In fact, reports Enrico Votio Del Refettiero, the influential writer who covers opera on the Luigi Boschi blog, only three Italian opera houses are currently able to pay their bills within two months: Milan’s La Scala in Milan, Venice’s La Fenice, and Turin’s Teatro Regio.

“Our opera house system is already shutting down," he said. “It’s gone, finished.”

There’s a simple reason behind the desperate financial plight of Italy’s opera houses: Italy’s economic crisis has forced the government to slash arts funding.

It used to be said that the opera isn’t over until the fat lady sings. But will Italy’s government wait that long?

In 2011, the latest year statistics are available, Italy spent 0.6 percent of GDP on recreation, culture, and religion, down from 0.9 percent in 2009. Germany spent 0.8 percent, Britain 0.4 percent, and France 1.4 percent, according to the EU’s statistical bureau, Eurostat.

Unlike American opera companies, which raise money from companies and individuals, Italian opera houses have always been supported by the state. Making their embarrassment worse, the temples to this peculiarly Italian art -- the standard opera repertory is Italian, Italy gave birth to Giuseppe Verdi,  Giacomo Puccini, Vincenzo Bellini, Gioachino Rossini, and Gaetano Donizetti, whose works provide the backbone of opera worldwide, and composers like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote most of their operas in Italian -- can’t even borrow to keep themselves open.

“They’ve been in financial trouble for a long time, but in the past they could simply go to the bank and get loans because the government would back it," explained Del Refettiero. “Now the banks’ supply of money has stopped.”

That has left opera managers unable to pay singers and musicians. Moreover, they haven’t got enough resources to plan future seasons, a lethal handicap in an industry where the talent is booked three to five years in advance. At the Cagliari opera house, performances are now announced just one month before they are staged. It’s hardly a way to build an audience.

And for the past couple of years, managers have taken more drastic measures still, cutting the numbers of performances and reducing salaries. Even so, several houses, including the Florence opera, now face the prospect of having to close. According to the international database Operabase.com, at 19.2 opera performances per million citizens, Italy now ranks 20th in the world, below poor countries like Bulgaria and Croatia. Austria tops the list with 149.8 performances per million.

“The crisis [in opera] is very serious," acknowledged Salvatore Nastasi, state secretary at the Culture Ministry in charge of opera funding. “You have to consider that in the past 20 years our opera houses have accumulated debts of $411 million (€300 million). But, he argued, Italian companies “are still world-class and that’s why the government continues to fund them."

It is extraordinary to think that opera lies in ruins in Italy, the country of its birth. Jacopo Peri, the 16th-century Roman composer who invented opera with his musical tale of the beautiful Daphne, would hardly recognize his country today, where managers squabble with labor unions while the very top singers stay away for fear of not being paid.

Neither would Claudio Monteverdi, the composer and priest who popularized opera with his masterpiece L’Orfeo in 1607 -- a work that is still performed today. And Italy’s masters of the genre – Verdi, Rossini, Puccini and the rest – would be shocked to find the bailiffs banging on Italian opera’s door. According to Operabase.com, six of the world’s 10 most performed operas are by Italian composers, but no Italian city ranks among the world’s Top 20 as measured by number of performances.

“Italy is the only country that won’t make itself available to the Met’s live HD broadcasts," Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera’s General Manager, told Newsweek. “The movie theaters there tell us there’s no market for it and we have to assume they’re right.”

With no international stars and no audience for opera even when relayed from the Met in a cozy cinema, a line from Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata, the world’s most-performed opera, comes to mind: ”Folly! Folly! All this is vain delirium!”

This is the worst crisis in the history of Italian opera, said Carlo Fuortes, commissioner of Bari’s Teatro Petruzzelli, who’s just been appointed superintendent of Rome’s Teatro dell’Opera, the major opera house in the capital that gave the world premiere of, among other operas, Pietro Masgani’s Cavalleria Rusticana. Fuortes’s tricky task is to save the venerable institution from bankruptcy.

“One has to remember that the economy of an opera house has been difficult from the very beginning,” he said. “It’s a very expensive genre, and in the first half of the 19th century, when Verdi, Rossini, Bellini, and Donizetti were flourishing, being the manager of an opera house was one of the riskiest things you could do. The managers often fled without paying the singers and musicians, and sometimes they committed suicide. Some even took to gambling to balance the books.”

Suicide may be a tad too radical for today’s managers, but those who preside over Italy’s shrinking opera houses could benefit from more accountability. Though government cuts have delivered a serious blow, many have been too profligate in the past. And by playing it safe with staid productions they’ve failed to grow their audiences.

Other European and North American rivals, by contrast, have branched out with multimedia initiatives, innovative productions, and social events for audiences. “Opera is a long-form art form and for most of us it’s usually in foreign languages," noted Gelb. “It’s the opposite of tweeting. You have to create productions that are so dazzling that people want to come. And you have to insert yourself into the public discussion and be part of the cultural fabric of the city, for example by collaborating with museums.”

Del Refettiero agrees. Incompetence, not money, is at the root of Italy’s operatic problems. “We spend less on culture than other [European Union] countries, but the main issue is that the money is poorly managed. Italy has kept appointing idiots as intendants [managers], and they’ve been going from opera house to opera house, losing money everywhere, just like prostitutes, who move to a new city before their customers get bored.”

Italian opera houses certainly have large permanent overheads. While cash-strapped houses elsewhere offer their musicians long-term freelance contracts, most Italian houses have them on payroll. In other words: musicians are paid however few the number of performances.

Musicians at smaller opera houses are being laid off or simply not getting paid and they face a frightening future. “We haven’t played since May 2013," said Rosaria Mastrosimone, a violist at the Teatro Vittorio Emanuele in Messina. “It’s a terrible situation. I take as much freelance work as I can find, but some of my colleagues have had to take jobs in supermarkets and others aren’t working at all.”

The key question, however, is whether the descendants of the boisterous crowds that gathered to enjoy Verdi and Puccini 100 years ago still value this amalgam of high melodrama and classical music. Has Italy ceased to be not just a top opera-producing country but also an opera-loving one?

Luisa Ciaramella, a 25-year-old student from Caserta near Naples, thinks so. “Young people are not very interested in this crisis," she said, and opera’s looming collapse has generated little furore outside of the avid followers of opera. Imagine the outcry if Italy’s restaurants or its fashion houses faced collective collapse.

But if one member of Italy’s trinity of food, fashion and opera vanishes, the other two also suddenly seem very pedestrian. “Italy is synonymous with beauty, but unfortunately we Italians don’t manage to understand that," said Simone Piazzola, a 28-year-old Italian baritone who’s enjoying a blossoming career at home and abroad.

Massimo Biscardi, a veteran artistic director of Italian opera companies who now serves as artistic consultant to Claudio Abbado’s Orchestra Mozart, calls Italy’s opera crisis an extension of the country’s moral crisis “where we don’t recognize the necessity of culture in life or in society.” Indeed, while silly TV shows attract far larger audiences than opera in any country, their success in Italy -- whose television is brim full of glossy quiz shows hosted by scantily clad bimbos -- seems more tragic than anywhere else: a country once steeped in Verdi appears to have fallen into the abyss.

Future historians may well conclude that ousted prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s real contribution to the fall of Italian opera took place not through his policies but through the tacky programs of his near-monopoly populist media empire, Mediaset.

“If the sacrifices continue, in 10 years we won’t see any Italian artists on our opera stages, and the conservatories in this country will have only teachers and no students," said Biscardi, which would be a loss to the rest of the world’s opera houses.

Yet some ingenious managers are bucking the trend. Fuortes managed to transform Bari’s crisis-plagued opera house that was even set on fire 22 years ago (locals suspect the Mafia) and put it back on its feet. In the past 18 months he has appointed a young new conductor and dramatically cut the number of musicians and technical staff.

Today the Petruzzelli employs only 180 staff, far fewer than other houses. Even so, ticket sales are up by half compared to 2011. Crucially, Fuortes has  balanced the budget. A new law, designed to make such restructuring easier, allows opera managers to dismiss up to half of their staff.

The steadiness of Italian opera’s audience figures is also an encouraging sign. Between 2010 and 2011, the latest year available, attendance only dropped by 1.1 percent, to 2.04 million, according to the country’s statistical agency, ISTAT. In the same period, visits to the movie theater dropped by seven percent. Salvatore Nastasi assured Newsweek that, in his opinion, no Italian opera house will have to close.

In Turin, the respected conductor Gianandrea Noseda has also performed a remarkable turnaround. When he arrived as music director six years ago, the Teatro Regio was just another second-tier opera house finding it hard to pay its bills. “Of course I’d have preferred to have an easier environment," he said. “But I’ve always thought of myself as a pioneer in a small way.”

Not that small. Together with the house’s manager, the energetic Noseda has cut salaries and altered contracts while raising musical standards. Using his international contacts he has taken this lesser-known orchestra on tours and he has cajoled international stars into performing in this unprepossessing venue set amid car plants in the north of Italy.

Of course, the international stars still have to get paid. The answer, said Noseda, is to use government money more prudently while securing more private funding. “It’s a very American approach, but we’ll never be like the U.S., where government money only covers something like 2 to 3 percent of an opera company’s budget," he said. “But if we have 50-50, we’ll definitely turn the corner.”

Enlisting the second member of Italy’s trinity, Noseda has teamed up with the the Turin-based restaurant chain EATaly, which serves upscale food during intermissions. “Italians are creative, so let’s not stop being creative,” he said. “We have to show the seductive side of opera, intrigue people, tell them that opera is sexy.”

If Italy manages to serve food, music and seduction in equal parts, there is surely a future yet for opera in Italy.

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