La Scala's New Chief: 'Salzburg’s Leftovers' or a Fresh Start?

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When, on June 4, the announcement came that Alexander Pereira, the artistic director of the venerable Salzburg Festival, had been selected as the next sovrintendente (general manager) of Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, smartphones all over the music world commenced to vibrate ceaselessly. In the opera business, this was very big news. Pereira will replace Stéphane Lissner in 2015 when the Frenchman takes over the reins of the Paris Opera. When Lissner was selected to head La Scala in 2005, Pereira was thought to be the runner-up.

Almost since its beginnings in 1778, La Scala has held a magical sway over the Italian opera scene and, as often as not, has been one of four theaters (along with the Vienna State Opera, the Paris Opera and the Metropolitan) that have achieved the status of being the places where it is expected that the summit of opera achievement is to be found.

There are numerous other theaters, including those in Naples, Venice, Munich, Barcelona, London, St. Petersburg, Moscow, Buenos Aires and San Francisco, that are routinely able to inspire these sensations, but I think it is fair to say that when those syllables La-Sca-la are uttered, both the speaker and the listener pause for a moment of reverent reverie. This is the most important opera house in the nation that invented opera. It is also controversial because so many Italians feel a strong emotional investment in how it is run—would that a broad sector of the American populace felt that way about the Met!

The selection process attracted attention for reasons apart from the obvious. The La Scala board, whose president is always the mayor of Milan (currently Giuliano Pisapia), decided to throw open the job to anyone interested, and received 25 applicants. In addition, Pisapia had one official draw up a list of strong candidates, whether or not those persons sought the job.

Although Pereira was chosen unanimously, one of the other competitors was Sergio Escobar, former sovrintendente of the opera house in Bologna and now the head of the Piccolo Teatro di Milano, Italy’s foremost prose theater. Escobar issued a statement of congratulations to Pereira, calling him a “serious professional” with a solid record of achievement. He said that he hoped there would continue to be collaborations between La Scala and the Piccolo. Escobar is now a potential heir apparent to Pereira. 

From 1991 to 2012, Pereira had a successful tenure at the Zurich Opera. For much of that period he had a solid working relationship with the Milan-born conductor Daniele Gatti. Many observers think that Zurich, under Pereira, went from being a strong local company to an important international opera house. A couple of years ago he returned to his native Austria to become artistic director of the Salzburg Festival.

Pereira is not new to Milan. Early in his career he worked for Olivetti, a grand old firm that manufactured typewriters as stylish as they were useful (I have never been able to part with mine because it is a thing of beauty). Born in Vienna in 1947, Pereira will be 67 when he takes over La Scala. The official announcement stated that he would take a pay cut of “at least” 25 percent from Lissner’s salary, reported to be €350,000 ($458,000) and would not be provided with housing. This should not be a problem because Pereira already has an apartment within walking distance of La Scala that he shares with his young Brazilian wife, Daniela Weisser De Sosa, who studies fashion in the city. 

In this era of reduced government funding for the arts in Italy and a general economic crisis in the country, one of the requirements of the job was for a formidable fund-raiser, something at which most Italian arts administrators are not experienced. Pereira, in Zurich and Salzburg, showed an aptitude for this. When interviewed the other day by Italian television, he remarked that he would spend time learning before making important choices. “I must have the chance to be a sponge,” he said, “and then I will start to dream.” When asked how he will fund his dream projects, he responded, “When I have ideas I put them in a box and go to sponsors and try to enthusiastically convince them to support them.”

I sought the opinions from people close to the scene. The Milan-based American blogger known to her readers as Opera Chic commented: “With Lissner's vacancy, the Milanese old guard anticipated a city that could finally reclaim its laurel-entwined opera temple with an Italian intendant modeled on a golden age when Giorgio Strehler, Luchino Visconti and Callas stalked its halls."

Opera Chic noted that other candidates included Italian cultural heavyweights like Sergio Escobar and the left-leaning politician and businessman Francesco Micheli (founder/VP of the annual classical music festival MITO SettembreMusica). The latter publicly lamented the opera house's post-Lissner transformation (“They’re turning it into a tourist object,” he complained). “In the toss-up between La Scala dying a cultural death or a financial death, Pereira's weighty fundraising experience opaquely hinted at the theater's priorities," she concluded. "Hopefully, the Milanese can have their panettone and eat it, too.”

A music business professional from Milan did not mince words: 

“What can I tell you? The Milanese are their usual provincial selves and have taken Salzburg’s leftovers. Without a doubt he is a brilliant professional, but I am certain he did his best work in Zurich and now gets along as best he can. He will be 67 when he gets to La Scala (an age when people in France must retire) and is coming for the sole reason that he wants to be with his 25-year old companion. I find this choice of Pereira to be distressing, the fruit of a ruling class that clings to power, fueled by cocktails of vitamins and Viagra. This is true Berlusconi-ism.”

Graham Spicer, a long-time British resident of Milan who writes a cultural blog called Gramilano, wrote:

“Pereira? Well, superficial reactions were from photos (face of a businessman – a gray-haired Berlusconi) and the fact that he has that young girlfriend studying design (again Berlusconi, with thoughts of her designing future productions). However, given the present climate, a good business sense is certainly necessary, he already speaks Italian, knows the city and he has experience. I'm optimistic. I just hope we don't get landed with too many of those Germanic productions—I’m getting fed up with giant cubes and trench coats!”

All of these commenters make valid points. The economic realities are different from the past. But there is a legitimate concern that the particular heritage of this great theater might be diluted if it becomes increasingly internationalized, with productions that resemble—and are often co-productions—with other major theaters. The excellent Robert Carsen Falstaff and the forthcoming Patrice Chereau Elektra are shared by at least six theaters.

I think La Scala under Pereira would benefit from an Italian music director who can maintain and impart that special touch and feeling that is part of the birthright of those born in Italy who devote themselves to opera. It is necessary for italianità to be part of the team that points this theater toward the future while not cutting the thread with the glorious past. Four possibilities are (in alphabetical order) Paolo Carignani, Daniele Gatti, Fabio Luisi and Gianandrea Noseda. Three of them are Milanese by birth, with Luisi being from Genoa.  

Carignani was chief conductor at the Frankfurt Opera from 1997 to 2008, an era when it became a first-rate company (winner this year of the world’s best at the International Opera Awards). He is much in demand as a guest conductor in major opera houses.

Gatti, who worked with Pereira in Zurich, does Italian opera but has shown a strong affinity with German music. He conducted an excellent Parsifal at the Met last season and has lots of Wagner and Mahler among his upcoming engagements. He is scheduled to conduct La Traviata at La Scala on December 7, the opening night of the 2013-2014 season, and all eyes will be on him.

Luisi is now the general music director in Zurich, principal conductor of the Met, and known to La Scala audiences for his conducting of Verdi. His sure hand and thoroughness are much admired by musicians. Would he want to leave Zurich, where things run well and he will have the opportunity to make a major impact, for the rough-and-tumble of La Scala and Milan, where polemics and criticism are a constant?

Noseda is the only one of this group to have maintained a constant commitment to Italy, all the while having an international career that goes from strength to strength. His Teatro Regio in Turin is the only Italian house that produces as many operas each year as La Scala and they are of outstanding musical quality. He also has conducted Verdi at La Scala with great success.

Let us hope that Alexander Pereira dreams good dreams, finds the money to fund them, and has the ideal Italian musical partner to provide a secure and vibrant future for Teatro alla Scala.

Photo of La Scala by Fred Plotkin