Here it is, Milan’s legendary Teatro alla Scala, one of the world’s oldest (and newest) opera houses, first built in 1778, scene of the world premieres of operas by Rossini, Bellini, Verdi, Ponchielli, Boito, Puccini and many others. Some of the world’s greatest singers have performed here, like Maria Malibran in the 1830s and Maria Callas in the 1950s.
The Teatro alla Scala (often just called La Scala for short) was closed for three years, from the beginning of 2002 to the end of 2004, for a drastic rebuilding. The entire stage area — everything behind the proscenium arch — was torn down and replaced by a brand new state-of-the-art high-tech 21st century stage and backstage and stage-tower with all the latest machinery.
The auditorium was elaborately restored and repainted, but it retains its original 18th century shape and seating arrangement — except for the galleries at the very top, which have been expanded so La Scala now seats 2,105 people instead of only 1,800.
After restoration, the auditorium of La Scala is again just as beautiful and awe-inspiring and wonderful and gorgeous and fantastic (etc.) as it no doubt was in the 18th century. I’m sure a time traveler from the 1770s would love it, as do Milan’s legions of loyal opera goers to this day.
For us prosaic 21st century types, however, the archaic seating arrangements at La Scala do present a few slight practical problems — but of course no true opera lover is going to be deterred by little things like paying through the nose and not being able to see the stage, right?
Right. This is the one and only Teatro alla Scala, after all . . .
In one of my Strasbourg posts I noted that I had paid 46.80 Euros at the Strasbourg opera house for a seat with only a partial view of the stage.
At the time this struck me as being rather crass, but it turns out to have been good value for money compared to Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, where I paid 66.00 Euros for a seat with no view of the stage whatsoever. The only way I could see even part of the stage was to stand up and lean over, thus blocking the (limited) view of two other people behind me. So I only did this every five minutes or so, for a quick look.
Actually I was forewarned about this, because La Scala acknowledges the problem on their website.
“Dear members of the audience,” they write, “La Scala is a theatre with boxes in the style known as ‘Italian’, designed by the architect Piermarini in 1778 for Milan back then. It has a plan in straight horseshoe, that is, tapered to the proscenium – which is an extreme and rigorous evolution of the antique Greek theatre.”
They go on to say that an opera house like La Scala, “above all in the boxes”, requires an “active” participation on the part of the audience, and they mention a famous historical drawing showing people leaning out to see the stage.
“We therefore publish on our website a significant sample of the views from the boxes, so that everyone can know the dimension, the disposition and the spirit of a theatre built for the customs and habits of the late 18th century audience. To prepare oneself to an experience that is somehow also a travel in time.”
From the photos on their website you do get a hint of what awaits you, but only a hint, since the photos were taken when the house was empty, so in reality you see even less as soon as someone is sitting in front of you.
There were five people in my box. The Italian man had been to La Scala before and had booked a “seat” where he could stand the whole time and not block anybody else’s view. The French woman said she went to all the new productions at the Bastille opera house in Paris, where she never paid more than 20 Euros and always had a full view of the stage.
An elderly American couple had the two front seats of our box. They had paid 170 Euros each for their seats, plus various booking fees and agency markups, so that altogether the evening had cost them well over seven hundred U.S. dollars even though they could see only about a third of the stage.
The woman didn’t mind, because she slept through the whole performance anyway, but her husband was bitterly disappointed. He was a 75-year-old retired professor who had been dreaming all his life of seeing an opera at La Scala, and he was totally shattered by the reality of the place. Because of problems with his back he couldn’t even lean out over the edge to get a better view.
During the first intermission he complained bitterly to the ushers about this situation, and in the second intermission they told him that he and his wife could move down to the stalls (aka orchestra-level) where they had found two free seats.
So I got to sit in his 170-euro seat for the last third of the evening, which was a great improvement for me because I could actually see a fraction of the stage.
What I “saw” that evening was Il trittico, a collection of three short operas by Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924).
When I returned to Frankfurt people asked me if the Scala production of Il trittico was as good as the one at the Frankfurt Opera a few months before. Well, it wasn’t, but since I only saw snippets of the staging I can’t really comment in any great detail.
To understand the seating arrangements at La Scala and similar opera houses, keep in mind that in the 18th century the best seats in the house were not the ones where you could see the stage, but the ones where the rest of the audience could see you — if you chose to expose yourself to their view.
You have to imagine the common folks gazing up at the boxes and exclaiming to each other: “Look, the Countess X is in her box tonight! I saw her! She even smiled at me, sort of.” At least the Countess could get her kicks imagining that that’s what the common folks were saying.
My photos in this post are from 2008. I revised the text in 2018.
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