Is a New Law Good for Italian Opera Houses?

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TURIN—I came to Italy to walk in the footsteps of Giuseppe Verdi in the week of the bicentennial of his birth. In addition to attending four operas, about which you will hear in forthcoming articles, I went to his birthplace and the villa where he lived as well as the hotel in Milan where he died. I happily ate foods that nourished his soul and his genius.

A second goal of mine here has been to wonder what Verdi would make of the current state of opera in Italy and, for that matter, of Italy itself. It is a fraught topic, especially for someone such as myself who has visited, studied, lived and worked here extensively for 40 years and has loved this extraordinary place for even longer. 

The residual amount of culture and human knowledge in Italy is surely the richest and most complex of any nation in the world (only China likely comes close), but few Italians understand this because they are caught up in the daily struggles of modern life. The lessons and wisdom of antiquity, the Renaissance and many centuries of innovation are now obscured by pressures of globalization and integration into a world that seems to be passing Italy by, though not necessarily going in a better direction.

There are two big news stories in Italy right now. The first is the götterdämmerung in the wake of more than 15 years of Silvio Berlusconi at the head of government and using it to reward allies and supporters and engage in the undoing of adversaries. He so completely dominated the national imagination—don’t forget that he had three television channels of his own in addition to holding the reins of the three state channels of the RAI as well as owning newspapers, magazines, publishing houses and advertising agencies—that few opposing voices could be heard. 

Berlusconi seems to have finally been barred from government and is reviled now by many in his own right-leaning coalition for the damage he did. A new government headed by Prime Minister Enrico Letta is trying to put things right, but the challenges are huge and Italians are spiritually and emotionally exhausted. As a result of the Berlusconi era, poverty is on the rise. I know families who were in the middle class who have had to cut back in extreme ways. One friend, a father with two toddlers, told me, “We eat less now than we did a year ago” and he and his wife do all they can to shield their children from the harsh realities that surround them.

The image one always hears about is the Costa cruise ship that capsized off the island of Giglio in the winter of 2012 when its captain (think Berlusconi) allegedly made an unsafe maneuver. People died and Italian pride was deeply wounded. Last month, the ship was finally righted but it is water-logged, badly damaged and will now be cut up for scrap.

Under Berlusconi, culture too fell to pieces. Literally. Pompeii and other monuments of world culture are crumbling. The European Union, in a plan created in 2007, allotted more than 3 billion euros to safeguard many of these monuments in southern Italy with the proviso that the funds be returned to Brussels if they were not used by the end of 2013. Despite the great need, ineffectual management on the local level has meant that the monies have not been used. One-and-a-half-billion have already gone back to the EU and another two billion seem headed there now.

The second big news story (and there are countless smaller ones, many of which provoke anguish) is the ongoing tragedy of migrants from places affected by war (Syria, Somalia) and poverty trying to come across the Mediterranean in unsafe craft from Libya and Tunisia to Sicily, which will give them a toehold in the European Union. Sicilians, most of whom know first-hand from their family histories about poverty that leads people to risk everything to emigrate to another continent for a better life, have bravely and generously borne the burden of trying to save migrants drowning at sea by the hundreds. Those who do get ashore are provided food and medical care. Most Italians are remarkably generous and hospitable and this ongoing human tragedy resonates with most of the nation, apart from a faction of the political right known as the Northern League, a sort of Tea Party centered in Lombardy and Veneto.

The Teatro Regio di Torino (Attualità)

'Legge Valore Cultura'

In the midst of all of this trauma, you might ask where does opera come in? Sad to say, the corruption and venality in one part of the society and the great human suffering in most of it are all highly operatic and arouse emotions we would understand. Berlusconi would be Verdi’s Duke of Mantua, while the suffering masses summon memories of choruses from Nabucco and I Vespri Siciliani.

Massimo Bray, the new minister of culture, has proposed, and Parliament approved on October 3, a new law called the Legge Valore Cultura. One of its goals is to safeguard certain few irreplaceable monuments such as Pompeii. The second is to restructure boards, management and funding of top opera houses and orchestras. Essentially, the changes are that the size of boards would be diminished; the previous custom of having a city mayor on or heading a board would be eliminated; personnel could be streamlined so that people with legacy jobs who don’t do meaningful work can be eliminated. A fund of 75 million euros was created to provide loans to struggling theaters (such as Florence and Genoa) to be repaid within 30 years. A very controversial aspect of the law is that the minister of culture, and not boards of theaters, should be the one who selects the new general manager of a theater.

When I spoke to people here as well as in Milan and Verona, I found a mixed response to the new law. On the plus side, the removal of mayors means that it is possible to somewhat depoliticize how boards govern as there will not be a sense of obligation to the mayor. One manager told me he saw mayors “held hostage” by unions during contract negotiations and made concessions that were bad for a theater but good for re-election campaigns. A problem in Italy has been that when a mayor leaves office and is replaced by one from another party, an opera house becomes paralyzed until a new mayor presents his or her vision for the theater.

Some observers say that the reduction in board size will mean less potential for fundraising and, in addition, a reduced incentive for people to donate. In Italy, charitable contributions to the arts are not deductible from taxes. Companies that are well-run and have remained solvent in difficult times (Teatro Regio di Torino; La Scala; Teatro La Fenice; Accademia di Santa Cecilia) fear that government intervention in their operations will weaken them. They suggest that some of the rules of the law should apply only to companies who take loans from the emergency fund. One administrator in Milan said, “Why should La Scala and the other strong theaters be included in the ubiquitous sense of crisis when we are doing our jobs seriously and well?”

We New Yorkers can draw an important lesson from all of this. Italy is besieged in ways we cannot imagine. And yet they understand that culture is worth talking about and trying to save, even in fits and starts, through the actions of government. The new cultural law was passed only two days after the death of the New York City Opera. In our rich and often self-congratulatory city, our political gods and financial masters of the universe never cared enough to even try to create a plan to restructure and save the City Opera. They would call it “la forza del destino.” To which I would respond, “Va, pensiero.”

Photo of Berlusconi: FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP/Getty Images