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Who’s responsible for backstage mayhem at La Scala? Anyone?

The dress rehearsal of Raskatov’s A Dog’s Heart passed last night almost without untoward incident after a previous cancellation due to dangerous conditions. But the singers still feel edgy about the chaotic and goings-on around them. Very few singers dare to speak out. One of them has sent this vivid, anonymous account to Slipped Disc:



Dear Norman,

We managed finally to get through the whole of Raskatov’s opera in one go this evening – for the first time. I have no idea from my position whether various technical cues were correct, or how the performance looked and sounded out front.

From what little I saw this afternoon at a technical run, the primary Italian problem is ‘why do a job efficiently with 1 or 2 people, when you can make a right hash of it with 7 or 8?’ Unlike any other theatre in any country I’ve worked, there is no figurehead stage manager here. Where elsewhere there is one person on the desk with one score cueing everything, at La Scala lights, sound, set changes, extras cues & video are cued by five separate people with their own scores (so cues are difficult to get right or correct across the board) – and of course their own interpretation of exactly what, where and when! Then there’s one chap – friendly and helpful though he is – who’s a sort of tv compere, running around with a microphone in hand trying to bring some co-ordination to the whole. It really is a mess.

From what I actually do experience in the evening – it’s the makeup room which amazes. Akin to being in a chicken run, with constant loud Italian yakety-yak going on (no chance to be quiet and concentrate), the tv blaring in the corner showing the papal election results, someone dishing out a homemade tiramisu amongst the colleagues and when a soloist’s makeup is finished, into the chair pops one of the ladies to fiddle with her own hair/makeup and try things out for her own beauty treatment!

Later in the evening they were all huddled round a magazine talking horoscopes. It could be a French & Saunders sketch, but no it’s the makeup department at La Scala! … and alas the makeup they do doesn’t compare with the quality one sees in Amsterdam, or at ENO or the Royal Opera.
I’m concentrating on getting my voice into shape, staying safe and trying to get paid – this last element’s also proving a comedy of errors … if you can’t ask for another form to fill out, then shift the file onto someone else.

On the whole it has been a disappointing and sad experience. Not what I might have expected or dreamed of for my La Scala debut.


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  1. Having made my Scala debut in 1995 as Tamino and then having gone back for more punishment since, I can completely relate to what this poor singer is saying. Sounds like not much has changed in 15+ years!

  2. But homemade tiramisu and loud yakety-yak in the most musical language…

    • Graf Nugent says:

      …is still a pain in the neck if you’re trying to prepare to go on stage.

      • …. is blatantly rude & inconsiderate of the people doing the makeup on someone who has to get their mind and body ready for a very demanding show!!!

        • … added to which, Italian is certainly not the most musical language, nor is any language, when it is yakety-yak in your ear at a time when you need some concentration and quiet. I have always found Italian and Spanish the worst languages when it comes to the loud yackety-yak at times when you least need it whizzing around you. The languages just become ugly and unbearable. Italian is only really a musical language in conjunction with music!

  3. This doesn’t do much to dispel the image of Italians as a nation of lazy, disorganized and noisy buffoons.

  4. Sounds like the NHS ………..!!

  5. I have posted extensively on the other blog about this production, but here is a summary of my own experiences and views after 6 Productions there…….. I see the problems as stemming from hugely outdated working practices fiercely guarded by the highly complex union and political web that seems to paralyse any motivation for individual responsibilty and initiative, and whereas it’s logical to place the resonsibility for this on the collective management, they are constantly fighting a system which is so entrenched, that one has a paradoxical sympathy….it is like La Scala is a microcosmic representation of the problems associated with Italy in general both economically and politcally. I don’t really want ot get into politics or national stereotypes: many of the people there I love working with: individually they are passionate, warm and proud of their theatre and its great tradition. The orchestra, while occasionally stroppy (nothing unique in that…) play wonderfully. But everyone’s efforts is paralysed by the system within which they work, and apathy and a sense of “I’ll just keep my head down” eventually wears them down. The sight of a few people working backstage while being watched by many others has been a common sight when going onstage, be it rehearsal or performance, and while I have had a great rapport with a few of the hard workers in the crew, there have been many others who clearly could not care less……. One example of the “why do the job with 2 People when 8 will do” syndrome: At the very last rehearsal phase, suddenly the (very good) repetiteurs appear onstage to give entrance cues, a job normally done by the stage-management in any other opera theatre. Most of the stage management there cannot read a score, and the repetiteurs just read the cues from the premarked scores having no idea of the production as they were not present throughout the rehearsal period, which of course is not their job, so cannot be blamed when some of the written cues are actually wrong: I have often had to correct the cues myself from my own familiarity of the production aquired after weeks of rehearsing. A young and very intelligent stage manangement member was pleased to receive some basic score-reading lessons from me, and bemoaned the fact that she did not receive any training in that regard, because she was told it was not part of her job……..
    As a regular performer there, I have found a way to “go with the flow” (like getting into the make-up chair as early as possible, and saving the offered Tiramisu until after I have finished singing……;-) ) As I said, I love the people there, they are certainly not talentless and lazy (one does not have to delve deep into history to see their cultural and other achievements from their architecture and art to the Ferrraris!), but the sort of organizational structure needed in a modern theatre is just not their “forte”………..

  6. Enough of this italian bashing !

    I travel for 4 hours every couple of months to the Scala because the quality of their productions are outstanding.

    How many opening nights at the ROH were not even at the level of what a dress rehearsal should be since the rehearsal period is often quite insufficient (and also inefficient perhaps)? How many nights at the so efficient opera houses of Vienna or Munich where more like a bureaucratic nightmare than an artistic event : everything was perfectly organized but the delivered product was as dead as possible.

    This season the Scala is presenting 12 operas and only one – Aida – was previously shown in the theater ! As a matter of comparison there are only 6 new productions at the ROH. And they are managing this while also doing 2 full Ring cycles. And contrary to ROH there are no endless revivals of Traviatas and Tosca: this is a theater with serious artistic ambitions. Could they achieve all this if they where this dysfunctional ?

    6 months ago Lance Ryan and Nina Stemme were there for Siegfried, 3 months ago it was Jonas Kauffmann, Anja Harteros and Rene Pape for Lohengrin and now for The Flying Dutchman, Klaus Florian Vogt, Anja Kampe and … Bryn Terfel were singing. And Terfel stayed for a long time in Milano as he sung before in Falstaff. Are they all masochistic singers ? Only the Met can have such an artistic power !

    Yes, Italians are not British or Germans and they function only under pressure. And it’s true that they went from Roman efficiency to Italian inefficiency, but this is their way of doing things which can be quite unsettling for some. As your singer has vividly illustrated, it’s theather within the theater, and this is why despite the fact that they can drive us to the edge of madness I don’t know many people who dream of retiring in the UK or Germany while most of us have a particular fondness for an Italian region.

    Cecilia Bartoli has probably given the best definition : to live in Italy it’s difficult but to live without Italy is impossible.

  7. Marguerite Foxon says:

    no wonder their economy is such a mess!

    • Correction required – of all European countries, the Italian economy is in decent enough shape. They run a primary budget surplus; in other words, if they didn’t have to pay interest on past borrowings, their tax income would be sufficient for the desired outgoings. They do have an option to withdraw from the Euro, default, and “start over”, without any dramatic effect. Countries have done it before, and I’m sure will do it again.

  8. J Anthony Kaye says:

    A couple weeks back, I was in the fortunate position of sitting in the royal box at La Scala (sounds grand but it is where they put relatives of the performers) for the 1st night of Der fliegende Hollander. It was a musical treat as the cast was so strong and the orchestra and chorus played and sang really well.

    What really concerned me from the front of the house was two things. The incessant talking backstage in the 2nd act. This ruined the Senta Eric duet and the even more sublime Senta Dutchman duet. I did learn though that Juventus were playing that night which was the reason for the noise, so I was told. Do we allow TV’s backstage at the Garden?

    The second thing was the hugely undisciplined behaviour of the orchestra after the final chord. At least 20% of them left immediately, before the conductor came on stage. After the remaining 80% had stood, all but 5 left. When the conductor, a very accomplished performance by Hartmut Haenchen, came to take his in front of the curtain call, he looked down at the pit to raise the band, and like a tale of the Arabian Nights, they had disappeared.

    Why on earth cannot the Scala administration write a clause into the contract forbidding any orchestral player leaving the pit at the end until after the applause has ended? So disrespectful!

    • A general orchestral evacuation happens even at the MET, usually after the conductor’s first bow. This has never bothered me. With some very well-received performances waiting for the applause to end would put the players at a severe disadvantage in getting a spot on a subway train home, compared to the audience members already crowding the Lincoln Center subway station. Often, much of the audience has left by the time the applause ceases, probably for the same reason. The often-superb MET orchestra, if they and the conductor have been doing well, are typically heralded with much applause before the beginning of the last act.


      • J Anthony Kaye says:

        Exactly. Usually after the conductors first bow. It seems at La Scala there is no requirement to stay until this point.

    • Yes, the backstage racket is unbelievable……just imagine being onstage while the orchestra is playing pp, and trying to pich a note with an in audible orchestra…….

    • This happens at ENO and ROH too, and never fails to wind me up and send me out in a bad mood, even after the most sublime few hours… I simply don’t understand it. The orchestra are there for some hours, and then want to dash off at the end rather than waiting thirty seconds, or a minute! Orchestral musicians seem to be the first to complain about being under-appreciated, yet when several thousand people are busy applauding, cheering, showing their appreciation… the players are waving dusters around, closing music, packing away, throwing their coats on, brazenly jostling for position to get out…
      When the lights go down after the last chord at Covent Garden, often the only thing you can see are a few yellow flags waving as the basses dust their fingerboards (and how that ROH horn player thinks no-one in the audience can see him checking his mobile ‘phone during performance I don’t know).

      I can think of no-one else in the performing arts who would behave with such disrespect. Actors and singers on stage don’t start getting undressed during the curtain calls, the technical staff remain on duty until the curtains and lights are done, the same musicians playing chamber music wouldn’t dream of putting on their coats and walking out during applause after a Beethoven string quartet… so why do they do it in the opera house? It’s like they don’t feel they’ve contributed anything, like they haven’t felt involved in the performance (which I’m sure isn’t true; and if it is, they could at least pretend).

      It is particularly excruciating when conductor – or other performers, take a bow and gesture to a pit empty save for a lone violinist with his coat on and open case on his knee, packing away. At least at the MET the players seem to wait until they’ve been given a ‘bow’ from the conductor.

  9. Nuno Ivo Cruz says:

    Rather disappointing revelations…yacking in the make-up room and the orchestra leaving at the end are petty annoyances. All mentions of artistic level praise the excelence of La Scala – as if that was needed. I have often witnessed this same kind of nervousness about petty organization details from northern european visiting conductors, but, strictly, never from the good ones. These are all about artistic results, connecting deeply with the commitment of the orchestra, choir and cast.

  10. What i read is pure rubbish..For many years Italy was the a sort of headlight concerning opera staging..I just remember how Giuseppe Verdi disagreed with the bad system at the Paris Opera because the too long periods of time to stage an opera, for a too involved burocratic system at that time (’800). I also remember how Arturo Toscanini with G. Gatti-Casazza (music director and his impresario in the MET in New York of the first decade XIX century) who complained the very bad situation after the german racket’s management (the german mafia), quite famous for their apparently “tidy” style …Reading the Toscanini’s words in some letters was, the situation might has been other: at their arrival, the Met was a real disaster!! (that was, unfortunately, the german product). Here i just read (a part some posts) complaints and some comparisons with other Operahouses, describing the Scala in Milan as a hell, reading that the Italians are lazy after the typical stereotype..(they don’t know that that mentality comes mostly from the South of Italy and that it is now also there at the Scala maybe for what the “trade union” (more or less influenced by the left-parties – ex-communist- allow to the worker in all public offices and bureau)… Well, i can understand that what i read (tv-sound behind the curtains etc..) and that is obviously regrettable and sad, but similar regrettable situations also happen in other apparently high-level Operahouses. But now i ask me: who is the Impresario at the Scala in these last years?? I’ve never heard about such problems in all past administrations of La Scala. So, maybe the Frenchman who is leading as the Chef-administrator could be guilty or am I mistaken? So please, i’d love to read more intellectual honesty on the next posts and NOT just hypocrisy opinions, useful to derogate, or bespatter the Italians. People who write such stupid things want to occult what real happens in their country by their Operahouses..and mabe are just envious of the Italian way-of-life and its ability to do such artistical things better than others. Kind regards. :)

  11. Is not difficult to understand who is him,
    in Italy we said :”non si sputa nel piatto dove mangi”

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