Sense and Sustainability in the Opera House

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In my most recent article about the numerous rays of light I found among the storm clouds that hover over opera in Italy, I mentioned that 20 million visitors are expected at the Milan Expo that runs from May 1 to October 31, 2015. Based on interviews I conducted with officials from the fair and La Scala, I wrote that the opera house planned to do an opera performance on each of the 184 nights in that period. As it turns out, that is not quite the case. But the offering is diverse and worthy of an exposition in which the world is coming to Milan.

The day after my article was published, La Scala released its calendar for the 2014-2015 season, including all the details of the presentation season relating to the Expo. Every month will have a rich schedule of cultural offerings. Major orchestras from Austria, France, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Italy, the U.S. and Venezuela will perform. There will be a generous amount of dance and other cultural activities.

Solo performances by top singers are interspersed throughout, including Daniela Barcellona, Cecilia Bartoli, José Carreras, Diana Damrau, Edita Gruberová, Anja Harteros, René Pape and Ramón Vargas. There will be many nights of opera, including a repertory of eleven classic works and two new operas: the world premiere of CO2 by Giorgio Battistelli and the Italian premiere of Fin de Partie, György Kurtág's opera of Samuel Beckett’s 1957 play Endgame.

CO2 should be a highlight. This pièce d’occasion is a far cry from Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749), Verdi’s Messa da Requiem or Antony and Cleopatra, which Samuel Barber composed for the opening of the new Metropolitan Opera House in 1966. Battistelli’s new opera was inspired by the ideas and concerns of the Milan Expo 2015.

The description of CO2 is revealing. It says, in part, "Inspired by Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth, the performance imagines the nightmare scenario of the destruction of the world." The opera is set in the future on the terminally-ill earth, with the planet in its death throes while human beings remain indifferent or powerless in the face of this harsh reality. The production will be directed by Robert Carsen.

The Milan Expo 2015 is different from most world’s fairs (as they are called in the United States—the rest of the world calls them expositions). While many intend to be forward-looking in their introduction of new technology—I remember the prototypes of flying cars at the 1964 New York World's Fair—the Milan Expo is taking a different approach. It has asked the nearly 150 nations and 20 Italian regions (states) to address a single theme: "Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.” The issue here is not "foodiness" and all of the superficiality that concept entails, but the fact that the Earth consumes much more energy than it can cleanly, safely produce and there are a billion people who do not have enough food while another billion have too much.

These are crucial issues of survival that affect every one of the planet’s more than seven billion citizens or, as I think of them, stewards and guardians. I am hopeful that the opera CO2 (carbon dioxide) will in some way inform and inspire a fresh examination of this crisis the way only art can do. Lest you think this is the first opera on this topic, I invite you to take a few hours and watch a video of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. In my view, and not only mine, these four operas are about keeping the Earth in the balance and what happens when resources are plundered and the elements of air, water and soil are abused.

The questions of sustainability, which is the central organizing concept of the way we must live now if we are to survive, should be examined in the context of the opera houses that are the temples of what long-time readers of my column know I call Planet Opera.

Very early in the current century, La Scala made controversial changes that are proving to have been prescient and anchored in sustainability. A new theater, Teatro degli Arcimboldi, was created five miles (eight km) away in an abandoned tire factory. This 2,375-seat theater, slightly larger in seating capacity and both more modern and more casual than the opera house, became the place where La Scala performed for nearly three years while work was done in the old building. The stage house (the backstage area, wings, and support areas) was rebuilt and scenic shops and rehearsal spaces improved.   

The key lesson is that La Scala as a company never ceased to perform or have contact with its audience, unlike the New York City Opera while the New York State Theater was being rebuilt and renamed. This was one of several unsustainable decisions that doomed City Opera.

While the La Scala company was reported to be €61 million ($83 million) in the red by the time the old opera house reopened on December 7, 2004, planning had been done so that both theaters could present opera, dance and concerts at contained costs. La Scala quietly went from being a stagione house (presenting one opera production at a time, then the next, with many dark nights) to a repertory company. Not only does it have two stages, but the improved stage house meant that more than one opera could be done at a time in the old theater. Next February, for example, it will be possible to see AïdaLucio Silla and L’Incoronazione di Poppea on three consecutive nights, something that would have been inconceivable in Milan just a few years ago.

Other theaters and companies have gone through crises and, by making sustainability, quality and equitability fundamental pillars of renewal, they are flourishing. Examples include the Royal Opera House in London (in clover at the moment, doing classic repertory and many new works), the San Francisco Opera and—fingers crossed—the San Diego Opera, in which civic leaders, members of the company and the Opera’s subscriber base gathered to save the company, seems to have been reborn after the previous board chair and general manager said the company was dead and unsustainable. 

I don’t ever want to hear the head of any opera company say the art form is dying or dead. That simply is not true. Sense and sustainability as practiced by companies elsewhere is the underlying issue at the Metropolitan Opera that is not being addressed in public but one hopes is being discussed at the negotiating table. Other opera companies, including ones as glorious as the Met, have done this rationally by putting the health of the art form, the institution and the concerns of the public on the table along with contract demands. If they can do it, why can’t we?