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Eminent singer: La Scala must cut out the gangrene

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.

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  1. Well, taking the institution out of the hands of politically volatile arts bureaucrats and putting La Scala in to the hands of politically volatile city government bureaucrats is hardly a solution. Do we really want well-connected government appointees to decide La Scala would be a fine addition to their resumes? It actually CAN get worse than this situation.
    However,based on my nearly first-hand experience, I agree whole heartedly that La Scala is dysfunctional and broken and in need of house cleaning. It serves as a cautionary tale of how bad corrupt management paired with union-induced paralysis can cripple such an amazing institution.

  2. Bravo Chris.!…This needs saying and indeed shouting from the rooftops until someone hears and takes note. We all have our own stories of brushes with death on stage, my own at the Netherlands Opera when an iron curtain fell within inches of my head at the end of Schonberg’s Die Gluckliche Hand, because the director had changed the position of the curtain since the previous rehearsal, but neither he nor any of his minions had had the sense or courtesy to tell me, the sole protagonist on stage. From that moment on I assumed that everyone on stage in every theatre I set foot in was either incompetent, stupid or drunk. How glad I am not to be part of it any more.!

  3. Mr Robson,

    You are a brave man indeed, saying what everyone thinks. The current cast of Dutchman has had similar problems, the opening of the Romeo & Juliet ballet 3 months ago was cancelled because of ridiculous demands by chorus and corps… the list is endless. Singers and other visiting artists know other realities, while many of the permanent staff at La Scala live blissfully in a mollycoddled world which unfortunately reflects much of the Italian attitude to work where the State is involved. It will change, it must change, and hopefully in my lifetime!

    I will be there to cheer you all on, if and when it gets before a public. In bocca al lupo!

  4. Elektra Winter says:

    Mr. Robson and Readers,

    Finally , finally someone who speaks the truth. Could not have been said more eloquently.The Title of (La Scala ) could be easily substituted for almost any theater in the business spanning from Europe,North America and the new markets around the globe. These, being run by ego driven thugs who really believe they are the new founding Fathers or Sisterssssssss of the Opera world of today. Their ideal self absorbed paths make themselves out to be the “powers that be”.

    Singers, after all, are the new plastic of the business “toss and pic up the new and improved one” from Agents who are Slaves to the Opera House “powers that be” who feed them.

    All who sit under the incompetent house managements are only the “yes men and women” who have been brain washed to only fallow and not dare to think for themselves. They live in fear with the singers to be tossed and replaced with new and improved cheaper versions of themselves eagerly climbing to casting office manager positions via the assistant, to the assistant, of the assistant, stage directors or once upon a time ticket collectors /stage extras /opera critics / Dramaturgs. God forbid they open their mouths about anything, especially concerning safety or the well being of ART or Artists. If they do, then they will be surly out with the next bin.

    Audiences have had enough, many theaters play to unsold houses.These houses slowly being substituted by HD cinema, DVD and TV. Opera houses mic singers because no one has the know how to build sets which support voices over laud orchestras who mostly don’t care because they are usually lead by Conductors who are equally self obsessed or who don’t even know how to conduct. Stage directors insist on classically trained singers to jump, skip and be slaves to their foolish therapy sessions disguised as “concept” which usually get mounted on sets which reek of danger.

    Their is rarely craft or know how and everyone is busy blaming everyone but themselves. I hope, more forums will be developed to inspire a movement to get rid of the cancer which is rapidly killing the
    ART of Opera.

    Am sad to have to be so brutal.

  5. Adrianna 81 says:

    Thank you for your article. It reflected the objectivity one would expect from a journalist, and revealed also the passion of an artist who simply cares about the business surrounding his art, and the passion of many would-be opera attendees disgusted with the devolution in current opera productions. Corruption and mediocrity that survives only because it can hide behind those who produce the product- the musical, technical, and theatrical artists has touched all of us. The burden of doing our jobs with excellence is not about what we bring to the table, but how well we can serve dinner with the knives flying, or falling on us as the floor shift!. Government subsidy and laws protecting civil service are the insurance of leeches who enjoy political favor of bureaucracies that require no accountability for quality or fiscal integrity. One should remember that Impressarios of the past had to live from what they presented. Retro could work!

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