The Relief Cycle

Last fall, when the Naples police were mopping up blood from the cobblestones near Piazza Plebiscito after a fatal Camorra shoot-out, the orchestra at the nearby Teatro di San Carlo opera house was preoccupied with another violent scene: the battle in Leonard Bernstein's "Candide." Given the violence outside, those inside the San Carlo had reason to believe it would be a good season; in the house's 270-year history, trouble in the streets has often translated into better attendance. So far, the San Carlo has sold nearly 84 percent of its season tickets for this year--some for as much as €800--making it one of the best-attended seasons in recent memory. "In times like these, this opera house has always been a wonderful escape," says Gioacchino Lanza Tomasi, director of the Teatro di San Carlo. "Naples is a difficult, if not desperate, community to entertain."

But escalating violence is not the only reason Naples's opera house is full. Despite budget cuts that have plagued all of Italy's art institutions, the San Carlo has managed to stage innovative programs that lure longtime devotees as well as young newcomers--unlike its chief rival, Milan's La Scala, which tends toward big, old-fashioned shows that are fed as much by tourists as by locals. More than half of La Scala's ticket sales are by the day, while the San Carlo's are primarily by season. Last year the San Carlo staged four Mozart operas, including "The Magic Flute" and "Cosi Fan Tutte," which tend to appeal to a younger audience, and shied away from the more traditional staples like "Aida." And last week the San Carlo, the oldest working opera house in Europe, presented the Ex Novo Ensemble's rendition of Claudio Ambrosini's titillating sex opera, "Il Canto Della Pelle," or "Sex Unlimited." It may have made some elderly audience members blush, but they didn't applaud any less enthusiastically at the end. "When the old ladies start saying 'It's the theater of old times,' that's a problem," Tomasi says. "I'm trying to reach those people who are bored with traditional opera."

That's a far cry from La Scala's approach. Recovering from the staggering €61 million renovation that closed the theater for two years--and from the hostile dismissal of controversial conductor Riccardo Muti in 2005--the house is still trying to find its footing. Tenor Roberto Alagna recently walked off the stage after the audience booed his opening aria in Franco Zeffirelli's "Aida." And the house recently threatened to cancel a production of Bernstein's "Candide" that called for performers to wear masks of George W. Bush, Tony Blair and Silvio Berlusconi until director Robert Carsen rewrote it to be more "suitable for the Milanese audience." When La Scala does try something new, as it did by sprinkling 200 kilograms of gold dust on the stage for the premiere of Aida last month, it falls flat; local opera critics likened the attempt to a "department store Christmas display."

Meanwhile, anything goes for the Naples crowd. The opera house's directors have paired artistic masterpieces with some performances--like Modigliani's "Nudo Disteso" with the "Sex Unlimited" concert--to showcase works of art. And Tomasi is working hard to bring back forgotten masterpieces of the opera buffa, or comedic opera, which was originally performed in the first half of the 18th century to make opera more accessible to commoners. Unlike the opera seria, which appealed to the aristocracy, the opera buffa was performed in Neapolitan dialect, and focused on the everyday problems of servants and commoners. Now Tomasi plans on scheduling as many as a third of all performances in the opera buffa style.

The San Carlo is also working on a string of new initiatives, including enhancing its partnership with La Scala. In October 2007, the San Carlo Theater will perform "Socrate Immaginario" at La Scala as part of a plan to strengthen Italian opera as a whole--not to mention add a Neapolitan spark to its stuffier repertoire. And Tomasi hopes that the San Carlo can one day build another stage, or take over a nearby property, to increase the house's seasonal offerings.

But it all depends on funding. As a private, nonprofit foundation, the house relies heavily on government subsidies. Years of cultural cutbacks during the Berlusconi era pushed many of Italy's finest cultural gems into financial straits, and the San Carlo--despite high attendance--has had its budget cut by €7 million a year for the last half decade. "The situation is dire," says Naples Mayor Rosa Russo Iervolino, who last week asked Rome for more money. "We're talking about significant historical cultural heritage here."

To many Neapolitans, that heritage has always been the best antidote to violence and hardship. One of the house's best seasons was just after World War II, when much of the city was smoldering--including the opera house, which was quickly repaired by the Allied troops so as not to miss a season. In the 19th century, productions carried on even when Mount Vesuvius erupted no fewer than eight times. In fact, since the San Carlo opened in 1737, the only time it has ever shut down was between 1872 and 1874, when the financial situation became desperate.

Rosaria Bersani, 72, has been coming to the opera house since she was a girl, and is delighted to see such strong interest again. "There are younger faces now," she said recently, waiting in the rain for a concert. "This is so much part of our culture. To be Neapolitan is to know the opera, to feel the music, to understand the tragedies on the stage as in real life." Or, better yet, instead of real life.