Many singers believe that the backstage chaos that caused this week’s postponement of A Dog’s Heart by Alexander Raskatov is symptomatic of a far deeper malaise that is crippling the world-famous opera house. Countertenor Christopher Robson, Kammersänger of the Bavarian State Opera, sent us this reaction to the state of affairs at La Scala.
I have followed posts 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 with an awareness that nothing ever goes smoothly in Italian theatre and that La Scala has 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 from singers, designers, directors, musicians, is most of the time all too depressing. The common factors linking the vast majority of the discussions are frustration and disappointment with an INSTITUTION that is a hotbed of political & financial power games, an institution that is sadly a reflection of a 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 refuses to acknowledge that its working practices when it comes to rehearsing, preparing and running the stage are completely outmoded, inefficient and frankly sometimes dangerous. These shortcomings are due to a Management that insists it knows best – not because it actually 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, 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 who say that singers are not really aware or knowledgeable of the ins and outs of technical preparation for a production, I would point out that actually most of us are, especially when it is a production that we have been involved with before. 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. 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 know what goes on behind the scenes. It 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 (from the bottom right up to the very top) blatantly ignore their responsibility to their artists/workers/public?
My own personal view regarding 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 (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), 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 it is time the gangrene was cut out.