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Just in: La Scala cancels premiere after dangerous set ‘almost killed the cast’

The premiere of A Dog’s Heart by Alexander Raskatov has been postponed from Wednesday to Saturday after a comedy of errors by the backstage crew left the set too dangerous to use. We have heard from several members of the cast and post their comments here anonymously. One said: ‘The technical department in this theatre showed complete incompetence, a lack of understanding and care.’  Another told us: ‘The whole house is a mess – incompetent make-up artists, hopeless wardrobe & we’re having mammoth fights with the finance dept to get paid.’

A third cast member has written a full account of the shambles, exclusively for Slipped Disc. Read it and wonder why La Scala is still considered a fully-functioning modern opera house. The author must remain, for the time being, anonymous.



The opera “A Dog’s Heart” by Alexander Raskatov is based on a book by Mikhail Bulgakov. Directed by Simon McBurney, this production premiered in Amsterdam and then opened at ENO a year later to universally rave reviews, so much so that Europe’s most famous house La Scala Milan decided to take it, in a continuing bid to shake off the reputation of being merely a museum of opera. The team was to be the same as Amsterdam with a few exceptions; so too the highly technical production values involving wonderful video projection, “Blind Summit” theatre company and a very sophisticated computer controlled wall.
The wall is like a character in the piece. It moves almost balletically up and down the set through all planes and vectors.  The production team was assured categorically that the computer system at La Scala was modern enough and that the technical team was up to speed with the demands of this dynamic show and that technical assistance from Amsterdam or ENO was unnecessary, “after all, this is La Scala”.
After three and a half weeks of studio rehearsals, the main stage rehearsals began. At first there were a myriad little problems backstage, mostly to do with communication; none of the cast is Italian, but later the team began to realise that little technical preparation had taken place. None of the stage music staff had the correct cues in their scores, none of the costume department knew where and when the quick-changes were to take place and crucially, none of the cues for the wall had been programmed into the system so none of the wonderful theatrical and technical wizardry actually happened.
It became obvious that La Scala were using McBurney’s stage rehearsals to do the technical work that is normally done in an empty theatre. Things started to get serious when, due to a  ”double” cue error the wall began to chew up the floor cloth and later loudly rip itself from it’s steel tracks, then a cable parted with a huge bang at which point the stage had to be abandoned and with it the piano dress rehearsal. The technical director casually gave assurances that everything would be repaired and be working for the next day.
At today’s dress rehearsal, errors became life-threatening when, with a huge noise, the same cable parted and a 25kilo weight came crashing down onto the stage only inches from two members of the company. All hell broke loose and the stage was again abandoned. The casting director then informed us that the premiere had to be cancelled because of technical difficulties. What was galling however was the attitude of the technical director who, as the performers left the stage, began to do the most bizarre parody of the performers saying, “Oh it’s all so dramatic. It’s all gone wrong because he (McBurney) is wearing a hat” and pretending to swoon. Absolutely amazing behavior.
Here are a few quotes from artistes and production team. I haven’t asked their permission so I won’t name them:
“We’re trying to do something that’s too difficult for this house”… “They’re simply incapable”… “When something goes wrong the first thing to happen is wild blame-dodging instead of problem solving”… “They have an out-dated work ethos from 50 years ago; three or four people to do the jobs of one”… “There are 380 artistes at La Scala and over a thousand administrators and ancillary staff”… “Are they totally shameless?”… “Is this a fxxxing professional house or what?” (that was me actually, delivered at full broadside volume). All this because of arrogance, insufficient preparation, incompetence and out-dated equipment.
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  1. Graf Nugent says:

    Yup, this tallies with what a cast member told me recently. In fact, pretty much everyone who comes to our theatre who has worked at La Scala says the same thing: that it’s a complete amateur joke which would be funny were it not so dangerous.

  2. Sounds like this work should included as part of the Gelb repertoire at the Met. (By the way, if Joe Volpe had been at La Scala, those guys would have done the job.)

  3. Not to minimize the seriousness of the situation, but it’s unlikely that the cast members are qualified to judge whether the errors were the fault of the stagehands, the designers, or the shop which fabricated the scenery.

    …Or, for that matter, of the management, which obviously did not budget enough prep time. If stagehands are denied the opportunity to learn how to operate the equipment for which they are responsible, it is hardly their fault if it doesn’t work correctly.

    Designers cannot stand there with a lion tamer’s whip and force the shop to execute the designs correctly. The shop cannot force designers not to violate the laws of physics.

    Obviously, it’s *someone’s* fault, but the singers are unlikely to be in the position to know whose.

    • This production has been performed by the cast in other theatres where the technical running of the show worked as it was designed to. Also, some members of the cast have worked in Milan in other productions when similar problems have occurred…… Singers are not as stupid as people seem to think, and the fact that they are on the “front line” so to speak, more than qualifies them to come to their own conclusions……..

      • It has nothing to do with whether or not they’re stupid; it has everything to do with the level of their participation in the process. For example, in the many hundreds of production meetings (which are were these things are — or are supposed to be — coordinated) I’ve attended, not once has there been a singer, a dancer, an actor, or any other cast member in attendance…and nor should there be. It’s simply not their job; they have enough to do.

        The fact that the problems are recurring gives no insight into their cause. It’s not “stupid” not to know exactly who was responsible; it *is* stupid to make assumptions about it.

        • I repeat: the production had already been performed successfully in other theatres, so obviously has nothing to do with the set design or construction. The above narrative from the cast member makes no attempt to blame or ostracise an individual, but points clearly to outdated and inefficient work practices which has to be laid at the door of the collective management. In a decent theatre in Germany for example, separate technical rehearsal take place to sort these sort of things out, not busked during actual staging rehearsals……. and by the way, I worked as an electronics design engineer before my current career performing in major theatres including the one in question……. I really don’t need to have been present at planning meetings to work out what has gone on here……….

          • Was the equipment operated by the same technicians who had operated it in the other theatres? My bet is that it was not.

            Did management budget for sufficient training and trial runs? My bet is that they did not.

            …But go ahead and assume it was the technicians’ fault. As you’ve pointed out, you don’t require actual information before reaching your conclusions.

          • We seem to be debating at cross-purposes here…….. I have repeatedly maintained that I do not beleieve it was the “technicians fault”, but that the collective management hold that responsibilty, and I am not in the habit of making uninformed assumptions: I have had a very close association with the theatre over many years. And actually your first rhetorical question in the above post reinforces my previous points, that there was nothing wrong with the set design or construction merely in its implementation. And your second rhetorical question is actually in accord with what I and the author of the article have said. And if the technical management have already gone on record as to refusing technical assistance from theatres where the production had already been successfully performed, then that seems to back up both our arguments…. so I do not see why we appear to be disagreeing……….

    • Sabreena Faith Horvath says:

      Bitch, have a seat. In fact have an auditorium full of seats. Maybe the singers don’t know how certain tasks are executed, like how to program the cues, etc. However, they are well aware of professionalism. When people’s safety is put at risk and it is not taken seriously and even laughed at, that is beyond unprofessional and you know it. You don’t have to be adept at technical matters to know that parts of a set crashing down on people could be dangerous. So please spare me the, “it’s not the singer’s job” line and stop making this a story about the time a singer decided to make an assumption.

      Accidents happen and are forgivable. Deliberate negligence is not. Don’t get it twisted. #fallwaythefuckback

      • “Bitch, have a seat…However, they are well aware of professionalism.”

        …Which you appear not to be.


        • Sabreena Faith Horvath says:

          Yes, you got me, Jeffrey Salzburg. Calling out my lack of professional conduct on a blog. Like I said before, have an auditorium full of seats. You think you can make these sideways comments about singers when no one asked you and then try to act as though you’re just here to educate us? What, you’re telling me how to act on a blog? You’re giving me orders? What am I, a waiter? What, is this the restaurant I’m opening with Dennis Rodman and Webster?

  4. A singer who has performed on many different stages over many years will be able to differentiate places where “things go smoothly” from places where “things go wrong”. The observation of procedures that include the artists on stage will enable him to give a “qualified” opinion on such procedures. A spotlight crashing onto the stage a few inches from someone standing there (singer or stagehand…) is usually a sign for “things gone wrong”….
    For example: Simple procedures like a costume fitting take different shapes in different opera houses. A costume fitting in a well known french opera house saw me standing there between three ladies taking measure for about half an hour with short interruptions of cellphone calls to girlfriends commenting on the latest gossip while smoking a cigarette.
    A similar procedure at a famous New York Opera took about 7 minutes with one person taking measure while dictating the information to a second person; I was amazed to see how efficient an opera company can be.
    The level of dedication and professionalism of people working at an opera company is visible to singers already during the first days of rehearsals. And as they say “the fish stinks from the head”.

    • The singer is eminently qualified to know that something ahs gone wrong, but in most cases is phenomenally UNqualified to judge whose mistake caused the malfunction.

      Mind you, this sometimes does not stop them from doing so.

      There’s a difference between “designers” and “technicians”, and there’s a difference between the technicians who build the show and those who operate it. Given that these people often hold performers’ lives in their hands, it’s the wise performer who shows enough respect to learn, and appreciate, what those differences are.

      • My goodness, you really must think we are stupid…..OF COURSE there’s a difference between “designers” and “technicians”, as well as between the groups of the latter who build and operate the sets and machinery. And we DO have respect for professional people who take pride in doing their job well. And despite years of experience working in many different theatres, we relish the fact that our profession is a constant learning curve on so many different levels…….this is not about identifying who (an individual or individuals) but having enough experience and knowledge to see clearly that it is a system of work practice which should be revised…..

        • No problem. I’m happy to learn that all those people with whom I worked in New York were not really singers.

          Hint: Just because *you* know the difference doesn’t mean that all singers know the difference.

          • Of course not, but neither does being a singer disqualify one from being able to asess a situation like that, although to be fair, I am sure you didn’t mean it like that………. You’d be surprised how many opera directors (or should I say directors who turn to directing opera) cannot read a score……….

          • And yet again, whether well intentioned or not, there is almost as much discussion about what the singers have done wrong in this situation….

      • Sabreena Faith Horvath says:

        Nobody is challenging that, Jeffrey Salzburg. And just and FYI, separate technical rehearsals would have happened in EVERY theatre, not just in your “superior” German theaters. The fact that it did not happen at la Scala is a testament to the incompetence and LACK OF PROFESSIONALISM, which I previously referred to and remains the subject of this post. You choose to make this conversation about foul language, singers’ ignorance and almost everything BUT the original topic. I’m not sure exactly what insecurity this stems from, but we’ve all had enough. #SHUTIT

    • José Bergher says:

      Ze apfel does not pfal pfar pfrom ze tree.

  5. Annett Andriesen says:

    I am a member of the cast of A Dog’s Heart and still healthy and alive. there were technical problems and for that reason the general rehearsal was continued as a Sitzprobe/Italiano. no one was injured fortunately and the stage was not evacuated but cleared to make reparation works. It seems like Murphy’s Law. Technical problems, singers who are ill and cannot sing. This wonderful Raskatov production earns a good performance. the staging is briljant, made by Simon McBurney and is a great combination of various disciplines, mime, puppeteers, actors, video, singers/actors, choir and orchestra. It is obvious that this production is very demanding for the technical staff and equipment and we wish them Good luck. Come and see the show.

    • Thanks, Annett. Some of your fellow cast-members are more shaken and stirred, as you can read.

      • Annett Andriesen says:

        I like to create a balance in the information. These incidents or call it accidents may contribute towards awareness of responsability for people on stage, singers and all persons working on the stage. Annett Andriesen

  6. Again, after 20+ years of experience in the business (singer) and having sung at La Scala, I must say I am not surprised. The problems here are direct responsibility of some people in administration not doing their job (planning the required technical rehearsals and preparations with the technical director), and most of all, the technical director not doing his job!

    In response to Jeffrey E. Salzberg: this is an existing production, so it has nothing to do with designers or the Scala shop. The sets and costumes already exist. They already worked in two fine theaters, Amsterdam and ENO. I

    doubt the singers are saying it’s the stagehands’ fault, if the stagehands have not been prepped or had the required rehearsals to know what they’re supposed to be doing. That is the TECHNICAL DIRECTOR’S responsibility.

    Obviously, the technical director thinks everyone’s just being picky, and doesn’t realize this production is beyond his modest capabilities. It sounds like he is unwilling to take responsibility to tell the management (his administrators) that he’s not capable or miscalculated the complexity of the show, and/or the administration is not paying enough attention to highly-regarded professionals from outside who have been telling them that the technical director stinks. The idiot tech director should be fired immediately. But then, who do you get to prepare the rest of the show? Grrr. It’s so frustrating when one person’s idiocy and incompetence can ruin it for everyone. It really brings home how much of a collaborative art opera is – if one person isn’t willing to do his share, it can all come to a standstill. Such a shame.

  7. Speaking as a professional programmer for such systems and therefore having a high level of empathy for automation issues, especially in the heat of production, I would be very interested to know if the show cues had an acceptable level of cue validation before they were run with performers onstage….

    • That’s my point, exactly. It’s very possible that the technicians were not allowed, by management, sufficient time to test, troubleshoot, and rehearse before singers were on theset. To assume that the fault is theirs is to make an assumption based on insufficient data.

      • But Mr. Salzberg: nobody involved in our little debate, or the author of the above article has actually made that assumption. And it has already been pointed out that unlike most opera theatres, no seperate adequate technical rehearsals in the absence of the performers had taken place.( So Ak’s point is totally valid….) I am told by insiders that not only was the software for the the system made available to the theatre months before rehearsals started, but that they were advised that their computer system was possibly not up to the job, and were offered help and advice on the matter which they declined. Of course you can’t blame the back-stage crew for that. Also, the article points out other working practices which contributed to the general mayhem which I too have experienced there: for example the practice of entrusting stage cues to music staff at a very late stage in the rehearsal process. They have not been involved in the earlier rehearsal process (not their fault…) and often deliver wrong cues because the scores have been incorrectly marked (also not their fault….) In Opera houses outside Italy this is entrusted to stage-management who are trained not only in their own job skills (and have been involved in the whole rehearsal process) but can also read music scores and thus there is no need for further delegation with the potential for confusion and error at such a late stage in the proceedings.
        As alluded to in my previous comments, it is not an attack or assignment of blame on indiviuals, but a challenge to the outmoded and inefficient working practices which sadly is endemic in Italian houses, as much as I love the people there with whom I have had the privilege of working for many years……..

        • “after a comedy of errors by the backstage crew left the set too dangerous to use”

          That quote indicates that that somebody certainly *has* made such an assumption.

          • Errors nonetheless…… Responsibility for the errors is something else….. which brings us back to management and working practices……

      • But it is the fault of the stagehands if they have not had enough time to test run everything to allow actors or singers onstage. Safety first. If they are afraid they will lose their jobs so they let this kind of thing happen is one of the many good points about union representation

        • No. The stagehands have no control over whether singers are allowed on stage. That’s also management.

          • I am very pleased to agree with you on that one, Mr. Salzberg! In fact, beneath the banter I think we agree on many points……. What I would like to add though, is that although the stage-crew cannot be blamed for the organisational and technical failings, there are quite a few stagehands there who could not care less about what goes on, ( not all of course…..) which tends to blunt one’s sympathy for them……… Again, working practices come into it…… There is wasteful over-staffing, and a fair amount of job protectionism going on….. not really an incentive for anyone to take pride in their work…..

  8. The phantom of the opera strikes again!

  9. I would just like to butt in and support my fellow singers, amongst others. I have been following posts on Networking sites by colleagues working at La Scala on and off over the last five years or so. Many of them go there looking forward to working in that most famous of Italian theatres, following in the footsteps of the great singers of the past, treading the boards of a stage that is to most of the rest of world the titular home of great Italian opera. Many of them go there with an awareness that nothing ever goes smoothly in the Italian theatre world and that La Scala is an Institution with a distinctly variable reputation artistically, technically, and politically. But they go in the hope that everything will work out and that the somewhat negative stories and rumours that abound in the community of artists that work there and in other houses in Italy will prove to be unfounded in their particular case. For some it proves to be a great experience and a real privilege to have worked there.

    Sadly, what I read on network sites and blogs from singers, designers, directors, musicians, is most of the time all too depressing. The common factors linking the vast majority of the discussions and moans are frustration and disappointment with an INSTITUTION that is a hotbed of political & financial power games, an institution that is sadly a reflection of an (ongoing) dysfunctional Italian society. It is tragic that a theatre such as La Scala should have a Management that, seemingly on all levels judging by comments I have read, refuses to accept help when it is needed and offered (as in this case) and refuses to aknowledge that its current and historical working practices when it comes to rehearsing, preparing and running the stage are completely outmoded, inefficient and frankly sometimes dangerous (again, as in this case). These shortcomings are due to a Management that insists it knows best – not because it actually really does know best, but more because it is too proud and blinkered to admit that there really are things fundamentally wrong with the way the house works and God forbid that anybody should imply or tell them straight out that they are incapable of doing their job.

    The power plays/games that go on in most theatres are obvious and inevitable when there are egos and personalities involved, and in the big theatres even more so. I have seen first hand how a technical director can easily shift the blame for a stage mishap to some other individual, passing the buck as conveniently as he passes water in a urinal. There is all too often a blank refusal on the part of Management to accept responsibility for their actions, in the main part because they feel their (often little) power base will be threatened if they are required to make changes in the way their department works or the structure of their workforce. They are frightened of admitting that they may have made a mistake in the fear that someone else may just come along and usurp their authority by actually showing how things could be better managed. Consequently there is a lack of will, a real lack of WILL to truly manage, innovate, excite, inspire, create, rock the boat a little. They prefer to keep some sort of stagnant status quo, blindly believing that their will (or lack of it) is more important than the good of the theatre and the people who work there.

    To those in the comments above who say that singers are not really aware or knowledgeable of the ins and outs of technical preparation for a production (both pre-production and during), I would just like to point out that actually most of us are, especially when it is a production that we have been involved with before. No, we don’t sit in on production meetings etc., but we are quickly and easily made aware of the discussions and problems that are addressed in such meetings. Most directors and designers like their singers/actors to be aware of what they will be dealing with when it comes to a new production, especially a production that might throw up all sorts of technical difficulties that will inevitably affect their participation. Working closely with a director or designer is not just about discussing character and music, but always being up to speed through comradely respect and informal discussion (often over lunch/dinner/after-rehearsal drink, or whatever) with what is going on technically as well as artistically. So most singers are well aware of what is going around them out of sight. Most of all, who is absent from rehearsals is a sure indicator as to what problems might arise once the whole thing moves on to stage. I remember my complete lack of surprise in some productions I have been involved in when stage rehearsals have ground to a halt because the (so-called, at the time) stage management were not up to speed with the production because they had only been to a couple of studio rehearsal run throughs. – (In passing, let me just say THANK GOD for the stage management system in the UK and most American opera companies, where the Stage Manager is exactly that – with complete authority during stage rehearsals, even over the music director – and the stage management team is at every rehearsal prior to stage rehearsals).

    So be aware, that we singers are ourselves very aware of what goes on behind the scenes,and that it ivariably affects how we behave. If we know that something is going to be/look second best or go wrong because someone is not doing their job properly, well it really will make a difference to how we rehearse, behave in rehearsals, sing in rehearsals, and sometimes how we perform for the public. Equally, if a singer goes to work in a house in a country where more often than not a contract is not worth the money it is written on, where the stage is over-populated with people (workers?) being paid to do not very much or nothing at all, where the Management are often too self obsessed to see where their duty lies, then it is no surprise that he/she comes away from such a house with a renewed resolve to be more demanding and egoistically difficult in the future. What would happen if most singers refused to accept their responsibility to do their job well in the same way that a lot of theatre/opera Managements (fron the bottom right up to the very top) blatantly ignore their responsibility to their artists/workers/public?

    My own personal view re La Scala Milan? The City of Milan should perhaps accept responsibility for an institution (Opera Company it isn’t, I believe!) that has gone to seed. Considering the millions of Euros that go into it, and the continual strife (like in this case, or ridiculous strikes, lazy work practices, second best ethics. etc which all cost and waste money that many argue could be better spent during such difficult times) that seems to encompass it, I believe the city should sack the management (all of them), and close the theatre while they put new managerial structures in place and rebuild/renegotiate their Union agreements. Right now, the so called home of Italian Opera seems to be rotten, and maybe it is time the gangrene was cut out.

  10. Gut gesagt Herr Kammersänger! Just to restore the balance Mr Salzberg, I have had many a fascinating conversation with an eminent lighting designer and learned a great deal about a subject I freely admit I previously knew little about, as my technical discipline was founded with audio/recording equipment. I have found that knowing more about the subject has helped me onstage in terms of using light, and being aware of the different techniques. I have great respect for your profession!

  11. Wow.

  12. Please dear god tell me the Ballet isn’t going to sh*t too.
    Although I wouldn’t mind Bolle moving permanently to the Royal Ballet to be dancing here in London full-time…
    But still, I really hope it hasn’t. Not that it’s the most impressive ballet company in the world, but the have some noteworthy dancers and guest dancers – namely Antonino Sutera, Roberto Bolle and Svetlana Zakharova.

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