It is safe to say that no where else has opera touched the lives and the values of a population more than that of Italy, and that of Milan in particular.
In most societies, opera stands apart, our own included. More often than not imported, it is on a remote pedestal, isolated as high art, or at least high entertainment.
But for Italian audiences, opera has always conveyed far more than music alone. There is an enormous freight of national aspiration and idealism that, in the Italian tradition, has had few other outlets.
These factors will come together this week at the Teatro alla Scala, as the world's most famous opera house celebrates its 200th birthday.
La Scala is not the world's oldest opera house. It is not the world's largest. It is not the world's busiest. But it is indisputably the world's most historic.
As armies and oppressors came and went over the past 200 years across Northern Italy, La Scale became, as much as any institution, a symbol of libertarian values, as Italy, the former collection of independent city states, battered by invasions and wars, evolved into the nation we know today. It is a sort of Italian Independence Hall.
La Scala even provided the nationalist movement's equivalent of "We Shall Overcome" with the chorus, "Va, pensiero" ("Fly, though, on golden wings"), sung by the enslaved Hebrews in Verdi's "Nabucco." The opera was premiered there in 1842, almost two decades before the eventual unification.
Throughout much of its modern history, Italy has been under varying degrees of censorship. With literary and journalistic channels under limits, the opera stages of the country that invented opera became protest channels, and not always such indirect ones. Even during periods of looser censorship the operatic literature of the middle and late 19th century contributed greatly to definition of national values for the people of a new nation.
It is with this tradition in mind that La Scala has chosen to inaugurate Wednesday night its 200th anniversary season with Verdi's "Don Carlo," a scathing portrait of the Spanish Hapsburgs, whose oppressive occupation of Milan drove it into a period of cultural and economic stagnation that lasted for nearly two centuries.
The central character is Philip II (king of Spain from 1556 to 1598), who reigned at the height of the Counter-Reformation. Based on a play by Friedrich Schiller, the opera's central presence is the Inquisition, and most specifically the blind, 90-year old Grand Inquisitor. The dramatic high point comes when the King brings in the Inquisitor to ask if the King's son must die for betraying him. The chilling answer is that not only must the son die, but that if the king had not summoned the Inquisitor at that time the King himself would have been arraigned before the Inquisition the following day.
Needless to say, the Hapsburgs were long gone from Lombardy before such a work could be staged. Written for the Paris Opera in 1867, it reached La Scala the following year.
"Don Carlo" is also appropriate for a bicentenary because of its multitude of starring roles. For the occasion, La Scale has found the required stars: Carreras, Ghiarov, Freni, Obratzova and Cappuccilli. All but Obratzova visited here last year with La Scala, and she came with the Bolshol. Claudio Abbado will conduct.
The new production will probably be televised a month later, with some cast changes, and be made available for worldwide distribution.
Even if La Scala were not a landmark in political history, its bicentenary would be an important milestone in musical history. As Washingtonians learned during La Scala's first American visit, production standards today are hardly inferior to the days of Verdi, Puccini, Boito, Toscanini, Caruso, De Sabata, Callas and Serafin. Chorus and orchestra are as good as any company's.
Until the late 19th century La Scala was basically a house for Italian works. Spurred on particularly by Toscanini, who was music director at the turn of the century and again during the '20s, Wagner, Mozart and Beethoven were allowed to take their proper places beside the Italian masters.
And even if La Scala were now choosing to rest on past laurels, consider this random selection of world premieres: Rossini's "La Gazza Ladra," Donizetti's "Lucrezia Borgia," Bellini's "Norma," Verdi's "Otello" and "Falstaff," Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" and "Turandot", Boito's "Mefistofele," Giordano's "Andrea Chenier," and Ponchielli's "La Gioconda." No other house can hold a candle to this record.
Nobody really knows why Milan, which unlike Venice or Naples or Florence could not boast a major composer in the days when Italian opera was developing, should build a theater that was to become the most famous house for opera in the world.
The first theater burned in 1776. A new house was built on the site of the church of the Santa Maria della Scala, thus the name. The building, largely as we know it today, opened on Aug. 3, 1778.
La Scala continued operation under the French occupation. Then the Hapsburgs (now the Austrians ones) returned and La Scala became a center of the long fight for an independent Italy. Independence, however, was not the end of Scala's political role. Under the Facists Toscanini would refuse to play the Facist anthem before performances. His reward for this, finally, was to be beaten up by Fascist goons and to exile himself in the United States.
Just as in American opera, television is playing an increasingly central role. Last year's opening night production of "Otello" was televised nationwide. And this Wednesday's "Don Carlo" was to have been televised, with rights offered to systems around the world. But things went awry at the last minute because a German TV production company, Unitel, and conductor Herbert von Karajan invoked obligations of several of the stars to an upcoming TV production of their own.
Vittorio Boni, head of international relations for RAI, the state television networks, says the January broadcast is almost certain.