Criticism on Fridays: The Slow Decay of Italian Opera

How One Old Decree Continues to Threaten Italian Opera after the Pandemic

By Polina Lyapustina
(Photo: Archive Teatro Alla Scala)

Every Friday, Polina Lyapustina delivers a short essay on some of the most sensitive topics in the industry with the intent of establishing a dialogue about the opera world and its future.

Back in 1996, the Italian government altered its approach to organizations representing priority national interests in the music sector. According to Legislative Decree #367, all institutions were to be transformed into private foundations. These novelties canceled government support for the opera houses and approved municipal funding in the amount not exceeding funds raised from private investors. It also allowed for the forcible liquidation of ineffective foundations and institutions if they could not raise enough funds.

Dura Lex, sed Lex. The law is harsh but it is the law. Although the changes for Italian culture in the 1990s were indeed serious, come to think of it, the withdrawal of direct state funding for opera houses does not seem like a death sentence. And when I read an open letter fiercely accusing the decree in the Italian “Musica” magazine a couple of months ago, I initially thought that bringing the Italian opera industry to a slightly more modern model could be not that tragic.

However, the embittered yet reasonable essay “Abbiamo distrutto l’opera lirica (We have destroyed the opera)” claimed that Legislative Decree #367 marked the beginning of consistent and quite predictable degradation of Italian operatic culture. 

And when in the last weeks, I found so much evidence of the failure of government support for performing arts all over the world, I couldn’t stop thinking about Italy, the country that has always been recognized in the world for its Opera. The nation, so badly affected by COVID-19 from the very beginning of the pandemic. What are the opera’s chances of survival in these circumstances?

In fact, Decree #367 brought many problems even before the pandemic. In Italy, where every small town has its own opera house, you find the biggest gap in the quality of the performances. But this gap is not due to a lack of performers’ talent, but the banal lack of funds, which practically means fewer coaches, fewer rehearsals, and no pursuit of excellence among low-paid musicians. Local theatres have not paid debts for years, but still function lest they be liquidated. 

And while La Scala, Teatro di San Carlo, La Fenice, Maggio Musicale, or Opera di Roma amaze the world audience with star performances, hundreds of smaller theatres slowly rot in their municipalities, irritating even the local audience. This public annoyance reduces ticket sales, and it deprives theaters of sponsorship contributions and therefore of municipal funding. No money — no quality — no money. A vicious and never-ending cycle.

And then, the pandemic hit the country. And live performances stopped, and there were not that many ideas about what to do. Only this fall, major theatres renewed their activity by hopping on the streaming train.

A total of 245 million euros was spent by the Italian government to support the performing arts, cinema, and audiovisual sector in 2020. In total. Yes, you read that right. Only a meager 245 million euros for all the theatres, opera houses, cinemas, production companies of all sorts, orchestras, studios, and freelance musicians. And this too is a consequence of the denial of state support, adopted many years ago. 

Preparing this material was the first time in my journalist practice when I saw such despair and destruction in this vibrant industry. And I haven’t yet come close to the worker’s level — where we always see most of the problems. 

For many small-town residents, the re-opening of their theatres is not apparent, and for some of them, it seems unnecessary. Several theatres furloughed their musicians and stage workers without pay since the first lockdown, and many of them found another job because no one really believes in resolving this situation. Other theatres keep the core staff on compensations coming from the municipality, but the most common description of these sums is “hardly enough for a couple of purchases in the supermarket.” Same phrases I hear from the freelance artists, who applied for aid from the government but found the paid amounts “just ridiculous.” They all pointed out the need to find a new daily job for this period, sometimes off-profile.

And all of this seems like the norm in the country, where the government clearly stated its position and responsibility to intangible art forms. 

Musicians who managed to build relationships with major theatres are in the safest positions right now. Ensembles receive their salaries and fees for the online performances. The contract singers who performed in the theatres before also have more chances of getting another role, since no auditions are being held right now. Of course, this leaves young singers behind. 

Today, we find the theatres in Italy, as well as musicians, either in complete and hopeless devastation or going through a new round of development. Major stages will surely withstand, having mastered new methods of international broadcasting, so poorly developed before. And the brightest stars will bring their talents to the audience there. 

And some may ask why we need to care about those who obviously won’t survive the storm. Particularly, when we see them accepting new lives and new jobs. The remarkable art of Italian Opera will live, so what’s the problem? 

I guess, the problem is that Italian opera might be if not better, then certainly larger than this “remarkable art.” This art form is a huge part of everyday Italian culture that took its place in every Italian mind — whether they like it or not. And so it lives over centuries. It came out from those poor theatres in small towns to take place in the minds of millions as a norm. And it became a professional life of many people of this country, probably of more people than anywhere else. And you will never know their names, yet these musicians of the provincial theatres are at the heart of Italian culture. 

And if in the future, we don’t have people who know every aria without actually liking it, and singers performing without posh sets and high fees, then we lost Italian Opera. Without all these seemingly minor components, neither great singers and interpreters nor composers and conductors will ever be born in this country again.

If not them, then what is Italian Opera?