Rocking the Cradle of Opera: Tough Times for Florence’s Maggio Musicale

Email a Friend

Ask Italophiles to name their favorite city and more than a few will cite Florence. It seems to exert considerable fascination for foreigners and garners respect among many Italians. Florence has made excellence and innovation its hallmark. Most people think of it as the cradle of the Italian Renaissance, the place where almost every great Italian writer and artist, including Dante, Petrarch, Giotto, Brunelleschi, Leonardo and Michelangelo, left ample evidence of their genius. 

Florence has superb wine, elegant fashions, unbeatable shopping, famous gelato, and is the setting of “Portrait of a Lady,” “A Room with a View,” and many more novels. It provided the inspiration for Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence” and, no doubt, other pieces of music.

The capital of Tuscany is also the birthplace of opera. A group called the Camerata Fiorentina, a collection of aesthetes, created a new art form in 1597: opera lirica, or lyric work. They reasoned that if they combined the ancient arts--poetry, music, dance, instrumental music, visual arts, stagecraft, costuming, etc.--they could produce something new. 

Like many new art forms, which take a while to develop, opera lirica was, at first, rudimentary and awkward. The pieces just did not fit together well. The first operas, such as Euridice by composer Jacopo Peri and librettist Ottavio Rinuccini, were too stiff and formal, more like ceremonies than vibrant theater. They tried to create a form of recitar cantando (“singing acting”) that was better as a concept than a reality.

It took the arrival of Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) from Cremona to ignite opera lirica. Using a libretto by Alessandro Striggio (1573-1630), Monteverdi composed the first opera that is still done with any frequency,  La favola di Orfeo (1607). What makes the tale of Orpheus so important is that Monteverdi composed music that evoked both the sound of the words and the meaning of the words. The sung music blended comfortably with the words for singers to deliver them, but the music in both the sung and instrumental parts communicated emotion relating to the story, something that Peri and others had not done well. In so doing, Monteverdi created the template for opera as we know it today.

Florentines did not fully embrace Monteverdi because he did not adhere to their theoretical principles. He and Striggio moved to Venice and made that city the operatic capital of the 17th century. Florence continued on its own and gradually produced operas that were more fluid and less formal.

In 1661, the Teatro della Pergola opened. Many kinds of performances took place there, including opera lirica. It went public in 1718 and is the theater with the longest continuous presentation of opera in the world. Some Mozart operas had their Italian premieres there. The world premieres of Donizetti’s Parisina (1833) and Verdi’s Macbeth (1847) also were given at the Pergola. Opera is still performed there for a couple of months each spring, but most of the year is devoted to spoken theater.

Italian opera has been nominated for UNESCO world heritage recognition, making it as important as Pompeii, the Coliseum in Rome and other edifices of Italian genius. And yet, as I have documented in other articles, opera in its nation of origin is beleaguered and, in the city of its birth, is threatened with near extinction. No matter how bad economic and political conditions are in Italy, this is intolerable.

Some explanation is necessary. Florence had a theater referred to as the Teatro Comunale that opened as an outdoor amphitheater in 1862. It got a roof two decades later. It was the chief venue for opera performances until it was bombed in 1944. It reopened in 1961. It is close to the Arno River and was severely damaged in the disastrous floods of 1966. The Teatro Comunale does not evoke the sense of history that opera houses in Milan, Venice, Bologna, Naples, and many small Italian theaters do. It is functional but not an ideal place for opera in the city of its birth. The Teatro della Pergola is too small and dated for ambitious modern opera production.

The story gets more complicated, as things in Italy do. In 1933, the Festival of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino was created to present contemporary operas and lesser-known work. It stood in contrast to the grand spectacles such as Aïda that had been staged in the ancient Roman arena in Verona since 1913. The Maggio Musicale was forward-looking and tied itself to Florence’s tradition of innovation. It attracted outstanding conductors, stage directors and singers whose work was admired by Florentines, Italians and Europeans who looked for something challenging and compelling. It was a May (maggio) festival that gradually expanded to include mid-April to mid-June. 

I have seen many excellent performances at the Maggio through the years. A production of Lohengrin by Pier Luigi Pizzi a while back remains the only one that brilliantly resolved all the dramaturgical challenges of Wagner’s wonderful but elusive opera. I will never forget a Simon Boccanegra conducted by Claudio Abbado with a radiant Karita Mattila as Amelia. Since 1985, Zubin Mehta has been principal conductor and has done an excellent job in a remarkable range of operas. Hearing him there makes me wonder why he is not invited more often to American opera houses.

Florentines often refer the Teatro Comunale as the Teatro del Maggio Musicale. They think of it, and other theaters (including the adjacent Piccolo Teatro and the Pergola), as venues for the springtime festival. Although opera had been presented in other months, it was not perceived as being as important or prestigious as what happened during the Maggio Musicale. This has been damaging to opera in Florence.

As mass tourism developed, visitors new to opera went to Verona, while we opera lovers went to Milan, Venice, Naples and, more recently, Turin and a few other cities. Florence made its tourist money on art museums along with its splendid shopping. The city erred, as tourism boomed, by not identifying itself as the birthplace of opera and emphasizing that as yet another reason to visit. I know many opera lovers who go to most major theaters of the world but have never seen an opera in Florence.

A Social Media Outcry

Recently, a Facebook group was created called “Noi che vogliamo che il teatro del Maggio Musicale non chiuda" (“We who want the theater of the Maggio Musicale not to close.”). In 2009, the spring festival reduced the number of operas presented from four to two. A long-planned new theater near the Comunale opened in 2011, even though it was not finished, for a couple of concert performances and promptly closed so work could be done to complete it. The Teatro Nuovo, as it is called, has never reopened.

In 1999, the Maggio was among the first theaters to try to fund itself not only on public monies but with private sponsors. Because Florentines and most Italians were not accustomed to that method, and tax law did not make such donations particularly advantageous, the shift in mentality came slowly. Lovers of Florence from other nations became more active sustainers. Much of this initiative and its success was due to the work of Carlo Arborio-Mella, the theater’s forward-looking director of development and external relations for more than two decades. He left the Maggio/Comunale a couple of years ago to create his own firm, CAM Arts Consulting, helping theaters elsewhere in Italy adjust to the post-Berlusconi (I hope!) era that treated Italian cultural heritage as disposable.

I contacted Arborio-Mella for an explanation of what has happened. He said,

“Florence has always had the pretension of having an opera theater worthy of major European capitals. Since the 1960s, it was assumed that the name of the Maggio and the mystique of Florence were sufficient to keep things solvent. Like most Italian theaters, the mayors have been on the opera board. In the case of Florence, he must be the head of the board. They often had political agendas, as did the general managers, and none took it upon themselves to control the number of employees or expenditures. Things got progressively more bloated and expensive just as ticket income and government support were declining. And the Maggio Festival had a short season. Only the most recent mayor, Matteo Renzi, and general manager Francesca Colombo, tried to face this problem with energy.”  

“To give concessions,” continued Arborio-Mella, “the unions and, one by one, the board (including, implicitly, the mayor) demanded Francesca’s head because it was deemed that it was she who could not close the budget deficit that had been growing for so many years.” 

In Italy’s current governmental crisis, Renzi has shown national ambitions and has not paid sufficient attention to local politics, including the state of opera in Florence. Now no one is really in charge. Factors dating back to the 1930s (especially the Maggio festival marginalizing a longer opera season) and compounded subsequently by bombings, floods, managerial inattention and political maneuvering, have at long last taken their toll. Opera in the city with the longest tradition of all may expire not with a crash but a whimper. Attention must be paid.