I've sung at La Scala working there regularly since 1982 and have seen it go
through many changes not least the complete rebuild over 5 years from a hole
in the ground.
My longlasting friends, the permanent staff and crews have all been crucial to
a happy working atmosphere starting with Laurent the French! stage manager
...God knows how he has maintained his position there in the face of the Italian unions, La Mafia, Comorra and the general corruption inherant in the Italian
He and I speak French together instead of Italian, so that no one understands
what we are saying! and he once acutely observed that the "Machinistes"/
Machinisti, the men who work the ropes to change scenery (often ex sailors)
are the best judges of voices and know more about it than anyone else! In
newly built houses this work is now done by electricity, but based on the same premise as that which dictates that our costumes are NEVER made with a zip
but ALWAYS with hooks and eyes, the manual/human version is still considered
the most reliable.
The head Wigmaster (Capo Parucchi) Raffaele is the calmest man in the world,
as he has to be when he is making us up and we are sometimes feeling so
nervous. He has several assistants and once, well advised me on which type
of Venetian Blonde (I am dark brunette) would be the only one to suit me for a production in Paris. He was right too, and as I stood there in my dressing room
later among the 15 costumes for a new production, designers, dressers, wig
and make-up people, and director's and musical assistants, I asked a quiet man
in the corner if he needed something. "I have come Madame, from Rome to
measure your feet for a pair of sandals in the third Act," was his reply, and then proceeded to draw around my feet on a piece of paper, returning three weeks
later to Paris with the most exquisite sandals in the world!
(There are many fewer seamstresses and tailors in Milan than for instance in
Munich at the Bayerische Staatsoper where there are 24 in each department).
There were two places to eat in the old theatre at La Scala...La Mensa to which
you were guided by brilliant coloured stripes along the walls of the 8th floor,
and where a lady dished out fresh pasta at almost no cost to all the troops; and
then there was La Cambooza! a tiny kiosk just off the stage where you could
always get a quick fix Espresso, laced with grappa for the early morning crews
during the long rehearsals. We usually eat outside but during performance our
dressers attend us with trays in our dressing rooms, and inhabiting the panelled
first dressing room at La Scala, with it's battered bathroom, is a thought
provoking experience given all of my illustrious predecessors. The silence within
it was palpable.
The new dressing rooms are characterless, white painted and efficient in a
rather chilly way and lack all of the old atmosphere, as does the auditorium,
rebuilt precisely as it was in the 18th Century. Yet to someone who has sat
in the stalls for weeks, sometimes months on end, the new walls still need to
absorb our voices and the sounds of the orchestra for this theatre to feel truly authentic once more. The new stage has lost its notorious echo thank God! and
I had to know exactly where to stand on the old one in order to avoid the
reverb, and get maximum projection and clarity into the large auditorium. There
used to be a bizarre buzz which was set off during the Sitzprobe...the first
soloist and orchestral rehearsal where we don't move, but sing in front of the
curved iron curtain onstage (sometimes with loud hammering going on behind).
That buzz has gone too, and just as well since it was very off-putting as you
tried to aclimatise to the orchestral sound coming up from beneath your feet and
to the new acoustic in Sala after constant rehearsal in small rooms.
Orchestral stage rehearsals can be a nightmare with stage hands shouting
across you, to each other, from opposite wings...There are arguments and
fights, and at the same time the Maestro shouts at you from the pit, over the orchestra to which you are desperately trying to relate while actually singing
ahead of its sound. This is a necessary technique which we develop in order
that our sound, when it reaches the audience, is perfectly synchronised with
that of the orchestra. Each theatre requires new and different timing of this
particular ability, which is very different in each house. Oh....and we have to
listen to the Maestro Suggeritore..."suggester"....the all important prompt. He
cues us verbally perhaps 5 seconds AHEAD of the phrase that we are about to
sing. I sat with him once in his tiny cubby hole in the front centre stage, watching
as the chorus in front and above us sang the wonderful Hebrew Slaves in
Nabucco. There wasn't anywhere else to sit in the house and the stage manager
put me in there with Dante, where I studied both the stage and the television
monitor and watched a very old man in the front row weeping profusely to the
rear of Maestro Muti in the pit behind us. There are two seats in the prompt box
in a big house in Italy...one for the prompt, who is a completely qualified
conductor and the other for an assistant maestro whose task it is to cue
musically problematic moments onstage while the Maestro in the pit takes care
of the orchestra. This assistant can hold up the chorus or a soloist who might
have gone wrong, bring them in and correct all that is going on on the stage...
but when the chips are really down you obey the Pit, and woe betide you if the
Chief has got it wrong! We work entirely from our memories and never have to
rely on a conductor to bring us in. Callas was very shortsighted and before the
days of contact lenses she could hardly see the conductor forty feet out in
The monitors are vital in a big theatre because they enable us to move onstage
out of sightline of the conductor (who never likes us to do this). However it's
what the director wants, and sometimes theatricality demands it. I've sung with
my back to the audience and upside down on a 30 foot tower, anchored by my
feet... Lady Macbeth has to walk upstage on a raked (angled) floor, and off to a
pianissimo high D flat in retreat, and none of this would be possible without the monitors, so that we can remain glued to the conductor's beat 50 feet behind us. Sometimes we are helped by Maestri Sostituti in the wings who show us the
way, while they conduct us to the beat of the Maestro in the pit. When tourist flashbulbs go off in the auditorium I can suddenly see nothing at all and
sometimes all of the monitors fuse. You can be sacked for making a fault in
these situations and I have seen people removed and replaced overnight for
mispronounciation. (Please, PLEASE could someone get to work on the BBC3
and 4 pronounciation...it is very incorrect). We have to work and pay dearly to
perfect these things for years, and cannot get away with the slightest fault.....I
sing in Neapolitan and Venetian too.
There are no unions for soloists in Italy which means that we can rehearse for up
to 10 hours without a break. This doesn't apply of course to the technicians and orchestra for whom the strike is a very effective mechanism!
So one day during rehearsal I decided to fill in time practising my yoga and
found a quiet corner in the Sovrintendente's personal box. Stripping off to my
tights I toiled away on the floor and in a moment of boredom saw a box under a banquette. Hoping that it might be full of chocs, I fished it out .....to find that it
was the cover of a pornographic video. I sat there laughing so loudly that all the
staff from the door came running........"Susan, Whatever's the matter......?"
There are as yet in the new theatre, no rehearsal rooms for us singer's in which
to work. We used to have our final ensemble rehearsals with the conductor and
about 20 assorted Maestri, all seated around a boardroom table beneath a
fearsome photo of Toscanini in the Sala Gialla, a yellow damask-hung room with
an old upright piano in the corner, and no air conditioning even in high summer.
While the secretaries were immediately installed in great state in a succession
of new offices looking like a blank, bald hospital, we the singers now have
nowhere to practise in the new theatre at all, or to rehearse with piano or with
the Chef du Chant on a one to one basis, and the orchestra is billetted on the
10th floor above the stage, with a scramble for the lift and the prayer that you
won't be late in the pit! The Ballet are even further away.
All that remains to remind you of the old building is the Biedermeir gilded
furniture...very Rossini, and one or two of the original gilded and mirrored
Rococco boxes...the Palchi, with tiny anterooms where it was possible to carry
on a tryst or to Be Seen in public. These have survived all the bombs and
rebuilds....a testament to the Empress Maria Teresa of Austria who
commissioned the original theatre and ended up paying for it! The clever
Milanese aren't known as I Lombardi.....The Bankers, for nothing!
I've witnessed the results of breathtaking lack of care (or presence) from
expensive agents when for instance, during a chamber music recital the
magnificent American violinist had to come onto the front stage... a long walk
down several levels. He was on crutches while the pianist carried his fiddle. I
was sitting in the Intendant's box at the side of the stage with Laurent and the
piano tuner. I had seen this feat performed slowly and rather painfully many
times in New York but never of course in Milan where the Italians didn't know
what to expect. They applauded necessarily at great length before the trio
began. Laurent said to me "But why did no one tell us what would be needed?"
I have no idea" I said, and asked for some water and coffee to be brought to
the performers......who didn't speak Italian.
Things have changed since the days of the all powerful and controlling Maestro Riccardo Muti, who would keep 3 different and expensive casts ready to perform
at his whim, and sometimes not decide who would sing that day until 2 hours
before the performance. This could be nerve-wracking. I once rehearsed for
several months and was kept in readiness without being allowed to sing, while
the Soprano who was also hired was "Fischiata" or whistled, and shouted at
from the audience..... "Vai a Casa", "Go Home", during one performance.
Muti would leave the orchestra in rehearsal to go to the back of the auditorium
and check the balance, giving me a stroke around the neck as he passed! I was putting on weight, getting ready to sing for six hours a day with 150 musicians
in the pit, and yet not being allowed to, and sitting about with a build up of
unused adrenalin......."Don't worry about what happens" was Laurent's sterling advice! "Just be ready...jump up and sing when he decides!" and one Sunday
morning, with no preparation whatsoever I walked into a completely full house
at 9.30 am with live TV and radio, to sing an unscheduled orchestral rehearsal,
off the cuff.
On the night that I returned to sing on that stage at La Scala, having had a
serious operation and within the advised recuperation period, I stood there
and sang very well indeed and thanked the onstage Gods for their help. It is
I think, the greatest auditorium in the world. On no other stage do you look
at six ranks of boxes all the way round to your outstretched arms in an immense, mutual embrace, and up to the Gods where there is still standing room.
Afterwards, having signed all of the autographs I went home on my own knowing
that no one at all knew what had happened in the interim few months........not
even my agent. I'd spent Christmas there alone, resting up, keeping quiet and preparing for the next performance.
In front of La Scala, beneath the statue of Leonardo da Vinci at the heart of Milan, there are 100 roses planted.
They each carry my name.