Scandals at La Scala

The Teatro alla Scala in Milan is one of the world’s most prestigious opera houses. It first opened its doors on August 3, 1778, with a production of Salieri’s 2-act opera L’Europa riconosciuta, and has since become a hothouse for internationally acclaimed star-studded performances. La Scala has a reputation for being one of the most cut-throat and coveted stages in the world, and the formidable institution has had its fair share of scandal! Here are our Top 5 picks:


1)      War on Liszt

In March 1838, Liszt prepared an article on La Scala for one of the most widely read musical magazines in Europe, Paris’s Revue et gazette musicale. It was far from flattering. He wrote that La Scala was in a state of decadence, that he had never seen anything dirtier than the stairs, that the audience had a poor and mercantile artistic appreciation, and that the standards of performance and décor were lamentable. In short, “for Italians, opera is nothing but a concert in costume.” 

Portrait of Franz Liszt, by Henri Lehmann, 1839
Portrait of Franz Liszt, by Henri Lehmann, 1839

Naturally the Italians were outraged. The paper Il pirate declared a “war on Liszt,” whilst Il Corriere dei teatri worked itself into a frenzy —  this “talentless Hungarian masquerading as a Frenchman” had offended the whole of Milanese society. Liszt put on a charity concert in La Scala in December that same year, presumably to assuage any hard feelings, but the damage to the La Scala ego was done.

2)      Wagner versus Verdi 

Verdi and La Scala are practically inseparable. Many of his greatest operas, think Otello, Nabucco, and Falstaff, premiered there to great acclaim. Verdi was universally adored by the Italians, apart from one jealous contemporary by the name of Otto Nicolai, who once wrote: 

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“Verdi’s operas are really horrible … he scores like a fool … he must have the heart of a donkey and in my view he is a pitiful, despicable composer.” 

With Verdi so beloved of Italians far and wide, the launch of the 2012–2013 season saw a scandal brewing. 2013 marked not only Verdi’s 200th birthday but also that of another sacred heart of bel canto: Wagner. Only one of them could open the season, and La Scala went with Wagner’s Lohengrin. Scores of Italians were scandalized by the decision, amongst them the conductor Riccardo Chailly:

It is as if Bayreuth opened their Wagner season with La Traviata or Nabucco! Can you imagine the reactions? 

In Corriere della Sera, Italy’s most popular newspaper, Aldo Cazzullo got militant, denouncing La Scala’s decision as “a political, civic and cultural error in the difficult times facing Italy.”

3)      Disrespect to Mary

The most recent scandal occurred at the launch of the 2018-19 season, with a new production of Verdi’s Attila. Davide Livermore’s staging caused quite a disturbance, namely the scene in which a woman shatters a statue of the Virgin Mary on the ground. 

The Madonna in Sorrow, by Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato, 17th century
The Madonna in Sorrow, by Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato, 17th century

Giosuè Berbenni, the mayor of Cenate Sotto, described the scene as “gruesome and blasphemous,” and perhaps he was right to be offended, given La Scala’s pious beginnings. The original theater was built on the sacred site of the church of Santa Maria della Scala where a sick child was cured when its mother placed a statue of the Virgin Mary on the steps. The church was demolished in 1776 to make way for the new ducal theater, which became the Teatro alla Scala. 

4)      No more encores

Arturo Toscanini was named musical director of La Scala in 1898, aged just 31, and immediately preceeded impose a series of reforms. Women were forbidden to wear hats in the auditorium, rehearsals were to be conducted in darkness, scores were to be played through without cuts, and the traditional encore was banished. However unpopular these new rules were at the time, they soon became sacred. 

Arturo Toscanini conducting Verdi's La Forza del Destino
Arturo Toscanini conducting Verdi’s La Forza del Destino

The edict-turned-tradition has been broken only on occasion—notably in a 1996 production of Verdi’s Nabucco with Riccardo Muti allowing an encore of the slave chorus Va pensiero, and more recently in 2007 with Juan Diego Flórez’s controversial encore of “Ah, mes amis” from Donizetti’s La fille du régiment, complete with 9 high Cs. 

How’s that for meta?!—in this 2017 production at Verona’s world-famous Roman amphitheater, the Arena di Verona the dramatic tale of the Hebrew people fighting the Babylonian invaders of thier Temple in Jerusalem is transposed to mid-19th century Milan. The Milanese defend themselves against the Austrians in their own scared temple—La Scala!

5)     Beware the loggionisti

La Scala seats more than 3000 opera-goers for each performance, and the most critical opera fans congregate up in the gods, known in Italian as the “loggione”. These “loggionisti” can be jubilant or merciless towards the singers, bravo-ing and boo-ing at will. In 2006, tenor Roberto Alagna was whistled off the stage during a performance of Verdi’s Aida, never to return. In 1989, soprano Katia Ricciarelli cursed the restless La Scala audience during her performance in Luisa Miller. Not even Luciano Pavarotti could escape the whistles of the loggionisti: in 1992, his performance of Verdi’s Don Carlo was booed!

Luckily, the loggonisti were impressed with a recent star line-up


Since its inauguration in 1778, La Scala has cemented its status as an international opera house with a decidedly Italian personality. A night at La Scala in 2019 is a glimpse into all the glamour and passion of classical music—and it’s scandalously good… 

1 COMMENT

  1. As a young student of opera in Milano I attended many operas standing room only. Bought half price ticket from a clack member. He always checked to see if I was clapping. I attended Toscanini’s final concert and was almost trampled on my way up the steep steps to the galleria. I remember Maestro Metropolis using the first large, well lit, conductor’s stand. I studied with Maestro Giuseppe Pais. He had conducted a rehearsal just before the direct bomb hit the opera house. After that he did all of his coaching at home.

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