This article, from today's Wall Street Jounal, may interest some on the
Want Maestro to Go
In Milan, Backstage Rancor
Pits La Scala Orchestra
Against Longtime Leader
By GABRIEL KAHN and KRISTINE M. CRANE
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
March 18, 2005
At Teatro alla Scala in Milan, the opera world's most sacred
temple, one of the leading conductors of our time is being
booed off stage. By his own musicians.
This year was supposed to mark La Scala's return to its
traditional home in the heart of Milan after a three-year
restoration. Instead, the season has already suffered
cancellations, and the glorious 18-year career of its famed
conductor, Riccardo Muti, could well end on a sour note.
Mr. Muti, 63 years old, is refusing to perform with La Scala's
musicians. Even if he relented, it's unlikely the music would
be pretty. There is so much bad blood, says Sandro Malatesta,
a 35-year-veteran La Scala trumpet player, that playing
together again with the maestro "is pretty much impossible.
It would take a miracle."
Backstage tensions at La Scala have been simmering for years.
They boiled over last month when the theater's board of
directors finally removed Mr. Muti's longtime nemesis, Carlo
Fontana, the superintendent who runs the opera house's finances.
Mr. Fontana was replaced with a Muti loyalist, Mauro Meli,
who was unpopular with the musicians.
"Meli is Muti's bag carrier," says Mr. Malatesta. "We don't
need a bag carrier at La Scala."
On Wednesday, La Scala's nearly 800 musicians, singers,
carpenters and janitors chanted "Dimissioni! Dimissioni!"
("Resign! Resign!") in the theater as they voted overwhelmingly
for Mr. Muti to step down from his conductor's podium. Mr.
Muti got only two votes of support. There were three
Last night, a marathon emergency board meeting decided to
call for a formal set of negotiations between La Scala's
employees, management and the board to find a solution to
The orchestra has been on strike since Feb. 22, the theater's
recently dismissed superintendent is suing the mayor for
slander, and the Italian Senate has been hearing testimony
from musicians and managers in an effort to figure out what
started all the discord.
Mr. Fontana, who had struggled to keep the theater's grandiose
budget within limits, had wanted to introduce more popular
pieces into La Scala's repertoire in order to broaden the
appeal and attract more young fans. To help fill seats, he
had even wanted the Broadway musical "Cats" to be performed
at La Scala's temporary home. For the purist Mr. Muti, this
was operatic heresy.
Messrs. Muti and Meli declined requests for comment, said a
La Scala spokesman.
Behind the theatrics at La Scala are conflicts that animate
many artistic disputes: a brilliant but autocratic maestro
who has little regard for those who disagree with his artistic
choices. Mr. Muti is hardly the first conductor to clash
with his orchestra. In 2002, Charles Dutoit, the renowned
artistic director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, resigned
after the orchestra's union, in a statement, accused him of
treating them like "battered spouses."
No one in Milan is calling into question Mr. Muti's reputation
as one of the world's pre-eminent conductors. He led the
celebrated Philadelphia Orchestra from 1980-1992. But he is
hardly the easiest man to work with. Last fall, he pulled
out of a Royal Opera production of Verdi's "La Forza del
Destino" a month before the curtain was to go up at Covent
Garden in London. His gripe: Royal Opera set designers had
tinkered with the backdrop to make it fit on stage. "We are
totally perplexed by Maestro Muti's last-minute decision,"
the Royal Opera said in a statement after the incident.
As director of La Scala, he resisted for years displaying
subtitles of the libretti, something that had become commonplace
at other world-class opera companies, such as New York's
Metropolitan. Small subtitle screens were finally installed
on seatbacks last year, after the theater's remodeling.
He also refused to conduct Italy's national anthem before a
production of Beethoven's "Fidelio," even though the presence
of the president of the republic made it a necessity of
protocol. Mr. Muti said publicly he was afraid it might
throw off the musicians during the performance.
"No one can say that under Muti, La Scala hasn't flourished
musically," says Carlo Maria Cella, an opera critic for Milan
daily Il Giorno, who has known Mr. Muti for years and who
is a great fan of the conductor's. But he says the maestro's
style invites discord. "His character, in private, is very
pleasant and open. But when he is dealing with a theater
administration, he can't stand anything that isn't decided
personally by him. The choice of singers, musicians,
Mr. Cella fears that after more than 18 years at La Scala,
Mr. Muti's tenure might be coming to an end. "He has a
sacrosanct vision of opera culture. He is suspicious of
anything that tries to win a broader public. His rapport
with the orchestra is horrible. For several years now, the
orchestra wanted change. It didn't share his traditional
For years, winning a broader public was never a concern at
La Scala. Its core audience was made up of die-hard opera
buffs. La Scala's prestige was so intertwined with that of
glamorous Milan that the city made sure the bomb-damaged
theater was the first building to be rebuilt after World War
To this day, the opening-night guest list at La Scala reads
like the social register of Italy, with industrialists,
politicians and celebrities in attendance. Opening night
also became a magnet for protests, especially from anti-fur
activists. In 1998, Roman socialite Marina Ripa di Meana
showed up topless, with an anti-fur slogan spray-painted in
green across her breasts.
But those protests ended at La Scala's doorstep. Inside, few
questioned the often bold artistic choices of the maestro,
On March 8, Mr. Muti "broke the silence" in a lengthy letter
in the Milan daily Corriere della Sera, his only comment so
far on the controversy. He dismissed the many accusations
that he insisted on dominating all artistic decisions at the
"I have not imposed anything," he wrote. His attempts to
bring about a management change, he added, were part of an
effort to help the company "find its lost harmony, resolve
widespread internal discord." He also said he had turned down
offers from the New York Philharmonic and the Bayerisches
Rundfunk, two of the world's top orchestras, in order to
dedicate himself to La Scala.
Mr. Fontana, the sacked superintendent, says in an interview
that Mr. Muti had already lost the faith of the players.
"In the history of La Scala, the orchestra has never before
tried to sack a conductor," he says. "This is an open revolt."
Mr. Muti has his supporters, particularly among the theater's
board of directors and its financiers. Michele Perini,
president of the powerful local industrialists association,
and a founding member of a foundation that funds a large chunk
of the theater's budget, called the orchestra's call for Mr.
Muti to resign "indecent."
"I don't think in any company in the world, the workers get
to choose their own boss. I hope that the orchestra realize
that they are not there by divine right," says Mr. Perini,
who has been attending performances for 30 years. "Muti is
the one who grew La Scala."
On Mr. Fontana's watch, Mr. Perini adds, La Scala's budget
came unhinged and it expects to have a deficit of more than
$21 million for the most recently completed season. "If
Fontana had been the CEO of my company I would have already
sent him packing," he says. Mr. Fontana says the budget
woes are a result of a recent reduction in state funds. The
state still contributes nearly $54 million a year to keep La
The noise hasn't died down in Milan. The Italian Senate is
holding hearings in an effort to get to the root of the
dispute. Mr. Fontana and Mr. Malatesta, the trumpet player,
have both been called as witnesses.
Mayor Albertini has indicated that a likely solution will be
to put the theater under the direction of a government-appointed
administrator who would have broad powers. Bring it on, say
union leaders. "La Scala was around long before Riccardo
Muti, and it will be here long after he is gone," says union
organizer Domenico Dentoni.