Italian opera: the fat lady goes on a diet

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ROME, Italy — A slender woman with an angry demeanor dons a tutu and marches through the center of Rome. The ballerina, Silvia Cuomo, has traveled from Florence to the Eternal City to protest a recent law that promises to cut state funds for opera houses across Italy.

“After years of mismanagement, it’s unfair that they take it out on us workers” said Cuomo, as she helped fellow artists pin a banner outside the Ministry of Culture.

More than 5,000 artists have come out in the streets opposing the budget cuts by defying opening nights and refusing to go on stage.

Italy’s 14 lyrical institutions, some centuries-old opera houses showcasing the country’s most important symphonic orchestras and ballets, received more than 240 million euros last year from government. However, most of them failed to make a profit from their costly performances.

Last year, Rome’s Opera House lost 6.3 million euros and Florence’s Maggio Fiorentino lost 2.4 million euros.

Milan’s La Scala Theater — one of the most prestigious opera houses in Europe, and considered a baptism of fire in the opera world — struggled to break even.

For a sector that has contributed so much to Italy’s image — think Giacomo Puccini, Vincenzo Bellini, Gioachino Rossini and Giuseppe Verdi — the numbers are not encouraging. Now the Ministry of Culture has received a government order to clamp the flow of money.

“Opera was born in Italy,” said Cuomo, who has been dancing professionally for 21 years, “and with this law, Italy is not going to look good internationally.”

Lyric singer Ivano Lecca, one of 86 choir members at St. Cecilia Academy in Rome, joined the protest. “They are punishing the workers, those who produce culture," Lecca said.

For months, Minister of Culture Sandro Bondi and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s trusted Budget Minister Giulio Tremonti, have been busy in a political minuet, trying to define the boundaries for cuts to Italy’s opera houses and theaters.

Bondi called the reform “a first step towards a more efficient management of such important cultural institutions.” However, the proposed 25 percent cut in the budget has stirred an avalanche of protests throughout the country, prompting entire orchestras and choirs to go on strike at premieres and other important opera events.

“With the money saved from our salaries,” said Luca Troiano, a dancer at the Opera Theater in Rome, “the government will revamp theaters to import opera productions from Eastern Europe, because they are cheaper."

In Milan, strikes forced La Scala to cancel Gounod’s "Faust." In Rome, Opera Theater singers mutinied the premier of Puccini’s "Manon" and instead took to the streets. Standing in front of the Ministry of Culture, they chanted against Bondi while carrying portraits of the great maestros who made opera a cornerstone of western culture — Puccini, Bellini and Verdi, as well as Mozart, Wagner and Beethoven, among others.

This could be the first time that the high-culture arts community will be forced to carry their own weight. By implementing a principle of meritocracy, the Ministry of Culture has promised more funds to art directors who show efficiency in the next year.

The law has both senate and parliament majority, but hasn’t yet been enforced because of the opposition’s efforts to push for last minute amendments.

While political negotiations unravel in parliament, a few worried directors have gone solo to rescue their own theaters. La Scala and Opera Theater made sure the law was amended to guarantee prestigious theaters more state funds if needed. The Rome Academy of St. Cecilia, the most ancient music institution in the city, had a new paragraph added to the original bill to maintain the right to choose their own director.

A climate of anxiety looms over thousands of Italian artists who have lost trust in their management and know that they can’t rely on their audience, either. In the country that gave birth to opera singing, ticket sales have been on a downturn for many years.

“The real tragedy is that politicians talk and talk, but you never see them at the theater,” said St. Cecilia singer Ivano Lecca.

Once the new law is enforced, opera houses will have 18 months to reduce their annual budgets or turn to private sponsors.