An Evening At La Scala: Milan, Italy's, World-Famous Opera HouseMar 29, 2023 08:15PM ● By Story and photography by Lisa Ballard
By her name alone, you could probably assume my friend Carmen DeBello likes opera. I don’t. Give me classic rock or maybe classical symphony, but not opera. The soprano solos sound shrill. The acting seems stiff and forced. And I don’t understand Italian or German well enough to follow the weak plotlines. However, Carmen, who is half Austrian and half Italian, has opera in her DNA. Lucky for me.
“I’ve got tickets to La Scala!” she announced excitedly on a phone call prior to our trip to Milan, Italy. “Don’t worry. It’s Don Giovanni.” She was so happy about scoring tickets to this world-famous opera house that I couldn’t say no. Chalk it up to a cultural experience, like going to the Met in New York City.
Teatro alla Scala
La Scala is an abbreviated version of the theater’s official name, Teatro alla Scala. During the 18th century, operas were a gathering place for royalty and the business and cultural elite. In the early 1770s, after a fire destroyed Milan’s major theater called Teatro Regio Ducale, 90 prominent Milanese who had boxes there raised the money for La Scala, an elaborate replacement big enough to hold 3,000 people. (Today the theater seats 1,800.) It was constructed on the site of the Santa Maria alla Scala Church, hence the new theater’s name.
La Scala opened in 1778 with the premiere of Antonio Salieri’s Europa riconosciuta, and quickly earned a reputation as one of the premier opera houses in the world. Otello by Giuseppe Verdi (1887) and Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini (1904) are among the many renowned operas that have debuted on La Scala’s stage. Even I had heard of them! Interestingly, Verdi had a falling out with the theater and refused to allow his operas to be performed there, accusing the orchestra of changing his music. They eventually made up, which led to the premiere of Otello and Verdi’s last opera, Falstaff, at La Scala in 1893.
Top opera stars and musical maestros have yearned to perform at La Scala since it was built, but the crowd can be tough. For example, in 2006, tenor Roberto Alagna was booed off the stage during a performance of Aida. His understudy was forced to take the stage immediately and without time to put on a costume! With this audience irreverence in mind, I figured if the opera itself wasn’t entertaining, the people-watching would be, and I knew the story.
At the Opera
After an early dinner, Carmen and I headed to the theater for our evening with Don Giovanni, aka Don Juan, the notorious playboy whose womanizing eventually backfired on him. We entered the foyer of the theater, which was such a sea of smartly dressed opera-goers that it was hard stay close to Carmen. I grabbed the back of her blouse as she handed our tickets to an usher, who motioned for us to follow her.
We were soon in a wave of people heading up a stairwell. As we ascended past a couple of landings, the crowd thinned. Then we turned onto a landing ourselves and entered a curving hallway with door after door on our right. Several doors down, the usher pulled out a key and opened a door to a box which Italians call a loge (lodge).
At first, I was overwhelmed by red velvet and gold gilding. The box was small, lushly appointed, and tilting downhill to a railing with a direct view of the stage. There were six seats positioned in three rows, with cushy theater seats by the railing, low stools behind the seats, and taller stools in the back row. We had the middle stools. Stools? I worried how my bottom would handle a three-and-a-half-hour performance on a stool.
As the theater filled, I had a chance to look around. With the exception of what we call the orchestra section in the United States, the entire theater was composed of loges, at least six stories of them. They started by the stage on one side then made a big arc around the cavernous room to the other side. The place was huge! The stage, too, one of the largest in the world—60 feet deep, 70 feet wide, and 85 feet high. I had to admit, it was exciting to be there. Then the lights dimmed, the orchestra began to play, and 1,800 people fell silent.
The opera Don Giovanni was written in 1787 by the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. It’s one of the most widely performed music-theater productions of all time, perhaps because it’s both a comedy and a drama.
The first act opened at night, with a masked Don Giovanni trying to woo a noblewoman named Donna Anna in her bedroom. She chases him away, but the commotion awakens her father, who challenges Giovanni to a duel. Giovanni wins the duel, killing the father, and the rest of the opera follows Donna Anna’s wish to avenge her father’s death, along with Giovanni’s Casanovian antics.
Escaping from the scene of the duel, Giovanni finds another woman, Donna Elvira, crying over getting dumped by her lover. At first Giovanni thinks the woman is ripe for romance, then he realizes he’s the lover who shunned her and loses interest. He escapes again, this time by having his servant, Leporello, try to discourage Donna Elvira by listing all his sexual conquests, hundreds of them, though she still wants him for herself.
Next, Giovanni and Leporello happen upon the wedding of yet another woman, Zerlina, who Giovanni tries to entice away from her nuptials. Zerlina is tempted to go to Giovanni at first, but then returns to her groom. By the end of the act, Giovanni has all three women and two angry men—Donna Anna’s fiancé and Zerlina’s husband—chasing him for different reasons.
In the second act, Giovanni decides to seduce Elvira’s maid, so he switches clothes with Leporello. Now everyone who was chasing him from Act I mistakenly goes after Leporello. Eventually Leporello reveals his true identity to save his own skin. He joins his master in a cemetery, where a statue of Donna Anna’s father comes to life. Ultimately, the statue (ghost) appears at a grand dinner hosted by Don Giovanni asking him to change his womanizing ways, but Giovanni refuses and is consumed by flames (goes to hell).
When the curtain fell, I was on the edge of my stool, exhausted. I had laughed, cried, and covered my eyes in fear. The music and singing had at times made me happy, depressed, enraged, and calm. The performance was nothing short of magnificent. I had heard that opera can move one’s soul. After my evening at La Scala, I might need to see another one again soon.
An Evening at the Opera
Going to Milan, Italy? For more information and tickets to La Scala, go to teatroallascala.org/en/index.html.