Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: The Grandmother of them all: the Teatro alla Scala

Teatro alla Scala
Teatro alla Scala

We mark the opening on August 3, 1778 – 242 years today – of the grandmother of all opera houses, the Teatro alla Scala, or simply “La Scala.” The inaugural performance was the premiere of Antonio Salieri’s opera Europa Riconosciuta, or “Europe Rewarded”. 

Professional baseball in a time of COVID
Professional baseball in a time of COVID

I trust we’re all aware that something being touted as “baseball season” has begun. Ordinarily, the return of professional baseball in the first week of April is a cause for celebration in my house, a seasonal marker as sure as the turning of the leaves in the fall and the true coming of spring, when the camellias bloom in mid-January (I know: if I didn’t live here I’d hate California too).

But baseball in the time of COVID is, frankly, absurd; with more and more players being tested positive (today it was an unspecified number of St. Louis Cardinals), it seems to me that it’s only a matter of time before this truncated season is shut down for good. (I’m writing this on Friday, July 31; for all I know, by Monday, August 3 the “season” will already be over.)

This sorry state of affairs calls for a necessary dose of nostalgic escapism.

A particular badge of honor is worn by those baseball aficionados who can claim to have visited and witnessed a game at every one of the thirty major league ballparks. For the non-baseball fan this might sound like an epic waste of time and money, but according to the travel website “No Small Plan”, such a trip “may be America’s favorite travel quest.” A Google search of “visit every major league ballpark” reveals scores of sites that cater to this quest, including those offering such valuable information as “Visit All Major League Baseball Stadiums for Under $1,000” (@ wander.com) and “How to visit all 30 MLB stadiums in 30 days” (@ slate.com).

As for personal accounts by those who have indeed visited all 30 stadiums (and, for that matter, other stadiums that no longer exist), well, the search pages go on and on with online stories of their trips. I have, I will confess, spent a foolish amount of time sampling these accounts, for two reasons. Reason one: nostalgic escapism. To quote the Beach Boys, “wouldn’t it be nice.” Reason two: I wanted to know what these intrepid baseball fans-slash-travelers considered to be their favorite ballparks, and why. Hands down, the favorites were, in no particular order, Wrigley Field (in Chicago, opened in 1914), Fenway Park (in Boston, built in 1912), old Yankee Stadium (located in da Bronx, NYC, opened in 1923 and shut down in 2008). The reason: the history embodied in each of these parks. 

Wrigley Field with people in the stands
Wrigley Field with people in the stands

History. Let’s just talk Babe Ruth, who along with Willie Mays is arguably the greatest to have ever played the game. From 1914 to 1919, Babe Ruth occupied the pitcher’s mound, played in the outfield and first base, and stood in the batter’s box at Fenway, where he was a member of the Boston Red Sox. Traded to the New York Yankees in 1920, old Yankee Stadium – which opened in 1923 – was known as “the house that Ruth built.” Wrigley Field, though a National League park, was the site of Ruth’s most famous at bat, when he presumably “called his shot”. It was October 1, 1932, game three of the World Series; top of the fifth inning. With two strikes on him, Ruth appeared to point to the center field stands. He hit the next pitch into those very center field seats. The Yankees won that game 7-5 and won the Series in a four-game sweep the following evening, on October 2. It was Ruth’s tenth, and final World Series. For our information, sixteen(!) future Hall of Famers participated in that series, on that field. Incredible.

Independence Hall, Philadelphia
Independence Hall, Philadelphia

History. Certain places embody history because of a momentous event that took place there. For example, growing up as I did in South Jersey, my elementary school took endless field trips to Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Not that any of us kids could appreciate what took place there in June, July, and August of 1776 (when the Declaration of Independence was debated, accepted, and signed), though I have returned as an adult and was, I’ll gladly admit, quite overcome with emotion. Likewise, I had a gig with the Dallas Symphony circa 2005. I was aimlessly wandering around downtown Dallas when I had a sense of déjà vu: suddenly everything looked very familiar. I looked up to my right and realized I was standing in front of the Texas School Book Depository (now known as the Dallas County Administration Building), looking up at the sixth-floor window from which Lee Harvey Oswald shot John F. Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connelly. Directly in front of me was Dealey Plaza, the grassy knoll, and the spot where Kennedy was mortally wounded. I felt as if I’d been sucker-punched in the chest by Mike Tyson, so powerful (and unexpected) was the realization of where I was. 

We could all reel off such places, hallowed ground where events of such magnitude occurred that we are emotionally dwarfed and humbled in their presence: the Gettysburg battlefield and Ford’s Theater; Omaha Beach in Normandy and the Somme in northern France; Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan; my list of such places goes on and on. 

Question: is it merely my imagination that makes me react this way, a bit of self-indulgent over-emotionalism? Or is there such a thing as communal memory, a sensibility that events of the past can imbue a place with spiritual significance in the present?

Flakey though it sounds, I do believe this to be so.

Like Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, and old Yankee Stadium (which was demolished in 2009/10 but the memory of which lingers on), there are certain places on this planet that have witnessed so much history that a visit is not just a “visit” but a pilgrimage. The Roman Forum and the entire cities of Paris, Venice and Florence; the cathedrals at Chartres, Cologne, Canterbury, and Westminster Abbey; the Tower of London; Dachau and Auschwitz-Birkenau; again, the list goes on and on. (I apologize upfront for the Eurocentric nature of this list; it’s a measure of my own limited experience and nothing more). 

Let us add, now, finally, to this list of pilgrimage-worthy sites opera houses.

My Music History Monday post for May 25, 2020 – entitled “If a Building Could Speak, this One Would Sing: The Vienna State Opera House” – celebrated the 151st anniversary of the opening of the Vienna Court/State Opera House. And here and now, we celebrate the most venerable of all existing opera houses, Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, also-known-as La Scala.

The Teatro alla Scala, looking from the stage towards the Royal Box at lower center
The Teatro alla Scala, looking from the stage towards the Royal Box at lower center

Some context, please. There is no modern equivalent to the eighteenth and nineteenth century public opera house. In a pre-electronic age, the opera house was that single location where almost anything could happen and be experienced, a virtual-reality facility that combined acting, singing, instrumental music, poetry, stage and costume design, and special effects into a whole a gazillion-and-one times greater than the sum of its parts. Opera was the movies, television, YouTube, HBO-Max, Hulu and Disney-Plus all rolled into one. The opera theaters where this magic took place were the most important cultural institutions cities could have, a locus of civic pride; truly, the cultural hearts of their communities, just as movie theaters were in the years before television. 

La Scala has been called “this glorious cradle of culture”, and really, who are we to argue with such an assessment? It’s not the oldest of the great opera houses; that honor goes to the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, which opened its doors in 1737. Before La Scala opened in 1778, San Carlo was the most important opera house in the world. However, since its opening, that honor must go to La Scala, which was seen more important premieres – by such composers as Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, Boito, Ponchielli, Puccini, and Stockhausen – than any other extant opera house in the world. 

Municipal necessity brought La Scala into being: Milan’s previous main opera house – the Teatro Regio Ducale (“Royal Ducal Theater”) – burned down on February 25, 1776. For the Milanese elite who owned boxes at the theater, boxes in which they socialized, ate, drank, gambled, mated, and on occasion used to actually watch the operas being performed below, the fire was a disaster of the first order. Some 90 of them wrote Archduke Ferdinand Karl of Austria-Este (the Austrian Habsburg’s controlled Milan’s region of Lombardy at the time), begging that a new opera theater be built post-haste. The Empress Maria Theresa herself signed off on the plans for a new theater later in 1776, and a gorgeous and sonically superb set of plans by the architect Giuseppe Piermarini (1734-1808) they were. (To this day, the locals refer to the opera house as “il Piermarini”.)

The fourteenth century church of Santa Maria alla Scala which was demolished to make way for the opera house, circa 1745
The fourteenth century church of Santa Maria alla Scala which was demolished to make way for the opera house, circa 1745

The site chosen for the new opera house (which was originally called Nuovo Regio Ducale Teatro alla Scala (“the New Royal Ducal Theater alla Scala”) put it smack-dab in the middle of the most important part of Milan, a short stroll from Milan’s massive Gothic cathedral, the Duomo of Milan. To make room for the opera house, a fourteenth century church called Santa Maria alla Scala had to be demolished. (The church had been named for the wife of the man who commissioned its construction; a woman named Beatrice Regina della Scala. Thus, the opera house was named for a church that had been named for a woman named “della Scala”.)

In a feat of contracting and construction magic that still stuns to this day, La Scala was up and running in under two years. The original layout featured some 3,000 seats, spread out among 678 so-called “pit-stalls” (what we today call “boxes”), arranged in six, horseshoe shaped tiers (see photos above). The theater was financed largely by the sales of these boxes – the equivalent of “luxury boxes” in modern stadiums and arenas – and were lavishly furnished by their owners. Above the boxes were, literally, the “cheap seats”: two galleries known collectively as the “loggione”. 

(Then as today, the denizens of La Scala’s loggione – known as the “loggionisti” – comprise some of the most knowledgeable, appreciative and brutal opera fans on the planet. If they like you, they will cheer everything you do. But if they don’t like you, the loggionisti have been known to end La Scala careers. Such a fate befell the French-born tenor Roberto Alagna (born 1963) on December 10, 2006.)

Roberto Alagna as Radamès
Roberto Alagna (born 1963) as Radamès; being a hunk did not save him from the loggionisti

Performing the role of Radamès in Verdi’s Aida, the loggionisti booed, catcalled and whistled at Alagna until he could take it no longer and simply walked off the stage, to be replaced by his understudy Antonello Palombi (who took to the stage dressed in jeans and a black shirt). Alagna left the production and has not sung at La Scala since. The fiasco will follow him to his grave.)

In its original configuration, and typical of its time, La Scala had no seats on the main floor. Spectators there had to stand, their views partially cut off by the orchestra, which sat on the front of the stage. The orchestra pit wasn’t created until years later and was lowered to its present depth in 1907, the year that the theater was remodeled to its present configuration of 1,987 seats.

The badly bomb-damaged La Scala circa 1943
The badly bomb-damaged La Scala circa 1943

That 1907 remodel was neither the theater’s first nor last; opera houses are big, expensive money pits with countless moving parts, which constantly have to be maintained and upgraded as technology demands. Severely damaged by bombing in 1943, the theater was rebuilt and reopened on May 11, 1946. It received yet another major renovation between 2002 and 2004.

La Scala today: as good – if not better – than new
La Scala today: as good – if not better – than new

A terrifically cool feature of the modern La Scala: instead of projecting supertitles over the stage as is typical in most opera houses, small video units have been installed in the seat backs – like the seat-back screens on an airplane – that allow patrons to choose a language should they want to follow subtitles.

La Scala is the real deal, a temple of operatic art. Knowing what has transpired there, knowing who has taken the stage there, truly, just being there is exciting whatever opera is performed. Like visiting Fenway Park or Wrigley Field for the first time, the actual game that is played is secondary to the thrill of simply being in a space with so much history. 

Happy 242nd birthday, you big, beautiful opera theater, you. May there be many, many more.

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