Italy, the country where opera was born around 1600, is home to more than 800 opera houses, many of which have been neglected. A combination of bad management and budget cuts under the Berlusconi government meant that opera houses were severely underfunded, resulting in musicians’ salaries being cut. In some cases, musicians weren’t paid for months on end; many protested and went on strike. By 2013, spending on Italy’s cultural heritage had dropped from €165 million in 2008 to €75 million.
Italian opera houses have always relied on state and regional grants, making them more dependent on the state than their counterparts in the UK, which benefit from more private investment. This is however not the case for La Scala in Milan, or Il Teatro Lirico in Turin, as in larger Italian cities, opera houses tend to receive more corporate sponsorship. Opera in smaller cities, such as Florence, has therefore been affected most severely by the cuts in government funding.
The 2013 Italian opera crisis was exasberated by the financial crisis, and only Milan’s La Scala, Teatro Regio, Turin and La Fenice, Venice were able to pay their bills on time. As a result opera became even less mainstream in the country of it’s birth.
So, how has Italy attempted to solve this crisis? Opera houses are now putting on more modern productions and technology, and social media is being used to show behind the scenes production, via live blogs. La Scala leads the way with translation screens in seats for non Italian speakers, in an attempt to make the art form more accessible.
In May, La Scala premiered ‘CO2’, a contemporary opera which aims to make us acknowledge our responsibility for the planet. It nicely coincided with Expo- Milan 2015, the theme of which was ‘feeding the planet, energy for life’. The opera featured quick scene changes and videos. It was well reviewed.
On a smaller scale, a crowd-funding campaign called ‘adopt a theatre’ has been established by a group of European singers, to raise money to help bring Italy’s opera houses back to life. So far, the campaign has has resulted in residents of Bevagna, Perugia donating €8,000 to relaunch the Francesco Torti opera theatre. The campaign is now being exported around the country.
Further measures being taken to increase revenues involve opera houses sharing their stages with cinemas and dancers. La Fenice in Venice is adapting its programme to suit the tastes of the huge numbers of tourists who visit the city.
With minimal government support, opera houses in Italy have taken steps to save themselves from collapse, management is being reorganised and as in the UK, modern audiences are being targeted. Opera in Italy may well flourish again, thanks to innovative ideas and initiatives being taken, however these are only first steps, and funding is still short. Perhaps the future of opera houses, particularly those in smaller cities, is not secure just yet.