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Hitting a High Note in Milan

Sunday, November 21, 2004; Page P02

• WHAT: Music lovers soon can resume their pilgrimages to Milan's La Scala opera house, where "Madama Butterfly" flopped on its opening night in 1904 and Maria Callas sang her way to stardom in the 1950s.

• BACK STORY: For three years, La Scala was shrouded in plastic sheets, boards and scaffolding during renovation. The last time the opera house underwent major reconstruction was in 1946 after much of the auditorium were destroyed by an Allied bomb.

After a three-year makeover, Milan's La Scala opera house will unveil its new look Dec.7. (Stefano Rellandini/Reuters)

La Scala was built by Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, who ruled Milan in the 18th century. The church of Santa Maria alla Scala was demolished to make room for the theater, hence the opera's name -- more formally Teatro alla Scala. Many famous operas have had their premieres here, including Giuseppe Verdi's "Falstaff" and "Otello" and Giacomo Puccini's "Turandot."

In the meantime, opera buffs have bused to the drab outskirts of the city to see the company perform at the Arcimboldi, a modern hall built on the site of an old tire factory to serve as the opera's temporary home.

The reopening of La Scala will be celebrated on Dec. 7, the feast day of Milan's patron saint, Ambrose. But after 11 performances, the opera season will move back to the Arcimboldi to give technicians a chance to adjust La Scala's new stage machinery. Then, in the spring, the company will return to its traditional home for good.

• WHAT'S NEW: The restored opera house keeps much of its old look, with some modern tweaks. The tall, compact, horseshoe-shape arrangement of spectator boxes, lined in red velvet and fronted with gilded panels, still juts straight up from the orchestra seating. However, each seat back will have new electronic displays for subtitles.

The top levels still hold the cheap seats cherished by Milan's most demanding opera fanatics. The denizens of these upper tiers are legendary for their noisy cheers and hisses, which contrast with the polite behavior of the audience below.

To the horror of some Milanese preservationists, the backstage was demolished to enlarge the storage space for sets to a towering 17 stories and to replace the old set-changing machinery. This will allow the company to put on more productions and meet a growing demand for tickets.

On the outside, La Scala's neoclassical front remains the same, but farther back the building was expanded to make room for the new backstage.

• SEEING AN OPERA: Milan is Italy's fashion capital, and the opera can be a dressy affair. Opening nights draw plenty of men in perfectly cut suits and women shimmering with jewels, but dark sports coats and dresses will work as stand-ins, except at La Scala's Dec. 7 opening-night gala, where tuxedos and glamorous gowns will be the norm.

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© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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