Where are Italy’s Opera Singers? Part III

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As I discussed in the previous two posts, there are very fine Italian singers performing in their home country and abroad. But I fear that the connective thread that is this great tradition is badly, perhaps irreparably, frayed. In discussing this with friends and colleagues, numerous reasons have come forth. I know I will step on certain toes in my analysis, but it must be done.

By some estimates, Italy (estimated population 60.6 million) has 40 percent of the world’s cultural patrimony. This term usually implies works of art, architecture and historic buildings of value. Like it or not, the Republic of Italy finds itself the custodian of much of world heritage. It has had a mixed record in this regard. Thousands of works have perished due to neglect but hundreds of thousands of these treasures are in museums and private collections where they are admirably conserved. Italians are among the world’s finest preservers and restorers of items from the past.

We must remember that the Italian Republic is only 150 years old even though civilization on the peninsula goes back thousands of years. Before that, things of value were looked after by the nobles, the wealthy or the Church. When Italy became a State -- lo Stato -- it took ownership and responsibility for many of these treasures. In 1929, the Lateran Treaties separated the powers of Church and State and, we would infer, responsibilities for maintenance of treasures that belong to one or the other. Believe me, the connection and complicity of religious institutions and the Italian government is as thick and complex as ever. Just like the USA!

Even though Italy had a remarkable economic boom in the era since World War II, it still does not have the funds to maintain all of its treasures. This is why museums charge admission and, to many people’s chagrin, some churches charge you to visit. The Church has vast wealth and a fashion-conscious pope. I do not want to get into a discussion about how the Catholic Church should spend its money or how vows of poverty contrast with dazzling wealth. Suffice it to say that the cost of conserving the art and architecture the Church has fostered is daunting.

Up to now, I have been speaking of tangible things. We can place a value on a sculpture or a castle. This topic is more complicated when it comes something that is, in effect, intangible until it is made real. That is the case with opera. We can hold a score of Norma and sing from it, but it is not an opera until it has been given a production in a theater with singers, instrumentalists, conductor, stage director, scenery, costumes, lighting and an audience.

Somehow, in the post-war era, Italians understood that their culture in all of its variety and brilliance was something to be admired and preserved. The expectation was that the State would see to this. But this has changed in recent years. When Italy became part of the European Union, it benefited economically but saw a diluting of its culture. Younger Italians sought to emulate the lifestyles and youth culture of other nations, turning their backs on the heritage that the rest of Europe and much of the world revered about Italy.

How Italy Abandoned its Culture

Then, in 1994, Silvio Berlusconi became prime minister. He was Italy’s richest man, having made his fortune as a media baron with a very low standard of taste. As head of state, he not only controlled his three TV networks but took the reins of the RAI, the three Italian state TV and radio networks that had a tradition of outstanding programming in addition to some cheesy entertainment. Italians could see operas, concerts, plays, debates, news and classic films. Much of this programming had little or no commercial interruptions. Advertising came in blocks between the programs and Italians looked forward to watching these as a separate program called Carosello.

Berlusconi’s networks sought to imitate foreign, especially American, commercial programming. He had talk shows, so-called “reality television,” with scantily clad women who became more talked-about than women with brains and talent. The status of women has tumbled in Berlusconi’s Italy and there is more focus on cosmetic surgery and looks than professional and intellectual achievement. In the coming days the annual Miss Italy competition will take place over three nights on RAI. The presentation and concept are so demeaning that it makes the Miss America competition (now consigned on one night on cable) seem almost intellectual.

When Berlusconi became head of state, the values and commercialism of his networks infected the three RAI channels. It would be unthinkable in most countries to allow the head of state to control six of the seven television networks. And yet Italians have enabled this hegemony. Berlusconi also owns magazines, newspapers, publishing houses, and advertising agencies and seeks to stifle dissent of all kinds. Facebook in Italy has become one of the few forces of independent speech and Berlusconi has tried to silence that too. 

One of the many groups on Facebook advocates the return of cultural programming to prime time television. The rare opera or concert that is offered runs at two in the morning. Commenters correctly point out that once there was only one channel in Italy, RAI 1, and it presented an opera every Friday evening. Now, with seven public channels and many cable channels, there is almost no opera to be seen apart from a weekly telecast at 2:00 in the morning.

As television has become, in the past two decades, the foremost mirror and framer of values in Italy, there has been a tragic coarsening of the cultural climate. Young Italians, even those with an inclination to drink from the great national cultural well, find little on television to inspire them. A young Italian with a voice has almost no exposure to opera, no place to connect to this marvelous heritage. Some state money for opera (though not as much as Austria, Finland, France or Germany) came from the budget of the Fondo Unico per lo Spettacolo, which covered about a dozen theaters, including Turin, Milan, Venice, Trieste, Bologna, Florence, Genoa, Rome, Naples, Bari, Palermo and Cagliari. Berlusconi and his governments have cut back on these funds for opera houses.

Only a few theaters seem to have full seasons. La Scala, though full of internecine battles, still has an appeal for tourists and can manage to stay afloat in wealthy Milan. And yet it might only have 80 or 90 opera performances a year, compared to about 200 at the Met and even more in Vienna, Munich or Berlin. The Teatro Regio in Turin and the summer festival in Verona also are surviving, almost thriving, and other festivals (such as the Rossini and the Sferisterio in Le Marche) manage because of local support and belief in them. But Bologna, Genoa, Florence and Venice have all cut back. Trieste’s management is being very prudent and seems to spend every Euro sensibly. Naples and Palermo have their ups and downs according to who is managing the theaters and who is the mayor. But they keep their potential for greatness.

So Beautiful and Lost

But the prognosis for most opera companies in Italy is dire. The smaller theaters are dark most of the time, so that any Italian who wants to partake of opera must strategize and save to attend a performance in one of the few cities that still has them. Television and radio offer few models for culture. 

What all of this means is that the next generation of potential Italian opera singers has little exposure to opera. The received impression is that opera is old and out of date while being a showgirl or reality TV figure is the way to success. There is no prevailing belief in the greatness of Italian culture. Students read Ovid, Dante, Petrarch, Leopardi, Manzoni, D’Annunzio, Saba and Pavese under duress and most Italians read very little as adults. Italy has some of the lowest newspaper readership in Europe, despite having excellent print journalism that is mixed in with headlines about scandals.

Italy, I think, is not suited to globalization and its flattening effects but, rather, is the nation that has set the gold standard in so many endeavors because there was a respect for quality and achievement. I wish Italians would come to feel not only proud of their cultural heritage but actively protective of it and expert in it. To name a few achievements: architecture, agriculture, oenology, hand crafts of many types (metalworking, shoemaking, tailoring, sewing, embroidery, scenic design, working with marble) and opera. 

This country has so much it can teach the world but only if it continues to master these skills and not think that someone else -- state or Church -- for example, will take care of it. Italy, home of St. Francis of Assisi, was late to environmentalism because people may have kept their own plots of land beautiful and clean but there was no sense of the needs of the nation.

In the week of the 150th anniversary of the creation of the Italian republic last March, during a performance in Rome of the great patriotic opera Nabucco, Riccardo Muti admonished onorevoli (government officials, many of them self-important) in the audience about funds for culture being cut. This followed the singing of the famous “Va, pensiero” chorus about a country being “si bella e perduta” (so beautiful and lost). An audience member has cried “Viva Italia!” and there is a clamoring for an encore.

Before leading audience and chorus, he speaks extemporaneously, saying “Yes, viva Italia. But here we are at home so let us speak together. ‘Va pensiero,’ in the old days, was a political symbol. I am not a politician but I can say that if our culture continues to be killed, our Italy will be beautiful and lost.” And then he asked the audience to join the chorus to intone these words so dear to Verdi.

Photo credits: Silvio Berlusconi: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

Riccardo Muti: Michael Rayner/AFP/Getty