* 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.

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.

Hunting for opera seats after arriving in Milan is dicey, as popular performances sell out quickly. A better bet is to buy tickets on La Scala's Web site (see below) well in advance. They usually go on sale two months before the opening of a production. The season's schedule lists the dates they become available, so it's possible to plan ahead and hop on the Internet as soon as sales begin.

Tickets for both venues cost $15 to $215. Details: 011-39-02-72-003-744, www.teatroallascala.org. Your choices:

{scheck} La Scala. Antonio Salieri's "Europa Riconosciuta," the first opera performed at La Scala when it opened in 1778, will reopen the restored opera house in December and early January.

"Europa" sold out immediately, but it's still possible to buy seats from Web resellers. Select Italy (www.selectitaly.com) has tickets starting at $280 apiece. Tickets for the gala opening start at about $800.

The 2005 schedule includes Puccini's "La Boheme" in June and July; Gioacchino Rossini's "La Cenerentola," also in June and July; and Claude Debussy's "Pelleas et Melisande" in November.

{scheck} Arcimboldi. The company's temporary home may seem dauntingly far from other city nightlife, but shuttles whisk operagoers up and back from near the Duomo, the Gothic cathedral at the city's touristic epicenter. The shuttles, which cost $2.50 per round trip, depart between 75 minutes and one hour before the performance, leaving every five minutes. After the 20-minute ride, patrons usually have time to grab a panino at the theater's cafe or buy a drink at the long slender bar that runs the length of a balcony overlooking the foyer -- a perfect place to watch the crowd.

Upcoming performances include Richard Wagner's "Tannhauser" in February; George Frideric Handel's "Rinaldo" in April; Richard Strauss's "Elektra" in May; and Verdi's "Otello" in May and June.

* INFO: Milan Tourist Board, 011-39-02-72-524-301, www.milanoinfotourist.com. Italian Government Tourist Board, 212-245-5618, www.italiantourism.com. General info on operas: www.operaworld.com.

-- Seth Hamblin

After a three-year makeover, Milan's La Scala opera house will unveil its new look Dec.7.