A little storm was raised a few days ago by the distinguished Italian intellectual -technically, a literator- Guido Ceronetti, with an article which asked “What would be wrong, should we close the Scala theater?” Anathema! The fans of opera were furious: closing La Scala, the Milan supreme temple of the world opera! Mr Ceronetti was blaimed as the arch-traitor of the fatherland.
For several connoisseurs, opera is the top Italian claim to glory. It was born in Florence in the very last years of the 16th century. In 1637 the first opera house opened in Venice, then the growth of that art was phenomenally rapid. Plots were attractive, arias and melodies easily remembered, admissions cheap. So it’s well more than 400 years that international opera lovers look to Italy. However very soon the elitist tastes of the affluent society prevailed, so a witty Englishman of the past remarked that opera was one of the most magnificent and expensive diversions ever invented.
The clue of the abovesaid blasphemous article was in just two words, Opera vixit, a Latin way to say that opera is dead. According to Ceronetti, melodrama stopped being vital at mid-19th century. Even Giacomo Puccini, because he died nearer to us, in 1924, is barely suffered by our literator: but Puccini’s creations Boheme, Tosca, Manon Lescaut, Madame Butterfly, Gianni Schicchi, The Girl of the Golden West are judged by many the loveliest works of the entire lyrical history.
But of course, Ceronetti is right. In a totally different world the role and prestige of opera cannot stay the same. Today aficionados only go on being fascinated by the plots, heroes, dramas, prime donne, powerful baritones, other stars of ‘bel canto’. In our times of Internet and space adventures even cinema and television are struggling to stay afloat.
A more serious crime is charged on opera: it’s extremely expensive. Orchestras, choirs, singers, elaborate stage effects, complicated machines demand a lot of money. It’s true that premières such as the opening of the Scala attract very rich or very snobbish people, who are prepared to pay, say, $1,500 for a seat on those nights. But rich or snobbish people are not numerous enough, so traditionally the taxpayer subsidizes the operatic art. Mr Ceronetti is totally right in claiming that public money be denied to costly infatuations such as melodrama. Penniless lovers of opera do exist: but they are not entitled to luscious shows on public expense. Abandoned factories and off Broadway-type theaters are more than enough for a low cost mise en scène.
In circumstances when so many governments are heavily cutting even on programs as essential as schools and meals to poor children, financing lavish Scala shows is an offence. Ceronetti failed to argue that before one additional euro or dollar is given to the business of Traviata and The Barber of Seville a civilized society should provide a shelter to the homeless vagrant. Too many destitute persons sleep on street pavements, without bags or blankets, rightly around La Scala and near all the sumptuous operatic temples of the world. Practically every winter night in Milan one homeless is killed by freezing cold. This is the ultimate indictment against opera fans: paying for superfluousness has become a crime.