On stage in one of Italy’s great theaters
When you think about opera music and ballet in Italy, one theater inevitably comes to mind: La Scala. When I was little and wanted to become a ballerina, I dreamed of gliding gracefully across the stage. While at a young age I knew that La Scala represented the epitome of artistic excellence, it was only later that I learned the names of the artists who, over four centuries, had held audiences captive from the stage. From Giuseppina Grassini, a world famous opera singer and lover of Napoleon Bonaparte, and Carlotta Grisi, a ballet dancer known for the role of Giselle, to the iconic Maria Callas and the celebrated Rudolf Nureyev, La Scala has hosted generations of legendary performers.
The Teatro alla Scala was built on the ashes of Milan’s Ducal Theater after it was destroyed by fire. The famous neoclassical architect Giuseppe Piermarini was called in by Empress Maria Teresa of Austria to design the new theater. The grand stage boasted a curtain depicting Parnassus, the mythical Greek mountain and symbolic home of the muses, painted by Domenico Riccardi.
The Teatro Alla Scala opened in 1778 to the performance of Europa Revealed [Europa riconosciuta] by Antonio Salieri, the Italian composer who would eventually be eclipsed by the talent of Mozart. In the beginning, La Scala was not, as we might think today, a place where audiences watched performances in strict religious silence. Instead, La Scala was more of a social center, where people would go not only for a show, but also to enjoy food and conversation, perhaps dance, and even take their chances at betting games such as roulette.
La Scala has also hosted the debuts and launched the careers of some of Italy’s most famous musicians. Gioachino Rossini featured frequently on the program in the early years of the theater, with operatic pieces such as The Theiving Magpie [La gazza ladra] (1817). It was on La Scala’s stage in 1839 that Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi made his theatrical debut and then built lasting success with the premiere of the Nabucco in 1842.
Part of what makes La scala such an icon of the Italian theater world is the fact that it has faced many challenges in long history, but always overcome them with great success. The theater closed down briefly from 1897-1898 because in the face of great social change and mounting political pressure, the City of Milan withdrew its funding. When the theater reopened, sustained by private donations, its artistic direction was passed to the brilliant Arturo Toscanini who modernized staging techniques, such as lighting. Although Toscanini left La Scala in 1898, he returned once more to mark the theater’s triumphal reopening after its devastating bombardment during World War II.
Today, La Scala remains a vibrant center of Italy’s cultural life. When I go to see a show I know the lobby will always be crowded. While my prima ballerina dreams might be officially in the past, when I sit in the audience at La Scala and watch a dancer glide effortlessly, I live them again through the feet of Carla Fracci, Alessandra Ferri and all of the other famous ballerinas who have been on that stage.