A few months ago, I was contacted by the BBC about an upcoming Peter Day’s World of Business episode, which was to take a look at opera funding. They could hardly do such a programme – which also goes out globally on the BBC World Service and is one of the broadcaster’s most popular podcasts – without visiting opera’s home, Italy. Which opera house was best to feature, they asked. I suggested Milan’s Teatro alla Scala for its economic success, or Rome Opera, which was brought to its knees by unsustainable debts in recent years and was on the verge of closing until Carlo Fuortes took over just before Christmas in 2013. They wisely chose the more dramatic Rome scenario. Even though Stéphane Lissner and Alexander Pereira’s streamlining and efficiency drives are to be applauded, it certainly doesn’t make for the dramatic headlines that Rome Opera has provoked over the last few years.
So veteran BBC journalist Peter Day, producer Penny Murphy and team packed their bags and headed for the capital to talk to Fuortes in his theatre.
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When I was appointed General Manager here – said Fuortes – I found four major problems. An enormous financial debt of about €32 million based on the deficit of the previous years. Second, a huge deficit for 2013 of about €13 million, a deep conflict between the Rome Opera Foundation and the trade unions and very low productivity with only about eighty performances a year.
Peter Day, open-mouthed, repeated the fact, incredulous that a fully staffed opera theatre could really be dark for so many days of the year. Eighty?
Astounding but, as in so many areas of Italian life where public money is involved – from Town Halls to transport to the RAI State Television – the situation is ‘strange, but true’. However, as Day points out, a crisis is often a good opportunity for change.
Fuortes had three main objectives: to obtain public money utilising an Italian law that allows long-term funding provided that rigorous conditions are met (€25 million to help write off debts), to cut the operating budget (€10 million less for 2014) and to increase the theatre’s productivity.
He managed to achieve this mainly by getting the unions in a strangle hold. After so many strikes, cancelled performances, and the risk of losing valuable sponsors because of disruption the situation was desperate, and Fuortes’ move came with the drastic announcement that there was no alternative but to sack the entire orchestra and chorus. The announced plan was to form a separate orchestra and chorus that would be paid per performance instead of continuing with the extravagant yearly contracts.
This daring decision convinced the unions to accept the new contracts and the decision to fire employees was cancelled.
Of course, we shall never know whether Fuortes and his Board actually believed that it could come to firing the 180 musicians or whether the threat would be enough.
Last autumn [I felt under pressure] because it was like a war, and all the national media were interested.
And not only… this English blog as well as Norman Lebrecht’s Slippedisc and others, quickly picked up on this extraordinary story. At least, extraordinary to non-Italian ears.
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Opera represents our country maybe more than anything else: it embodies perfectly Italy’s best and worst qualities. As an art form, opera means Italy and Italian culture… but opera has represented the worst of Italy and weaknesses in public places: low productivity, waste, privilege, excessive power of the trade unions…
Politicians have used cultural institutions for their own interests. If opera is a perfect metaphor for Italy, then if we can renew [how opera is run] in our theatre, then we can renew Italian society.
A bold statement, but boldness is what is needed in many sectors of Italian life just now.
By the way, Gramilano was also interviewed for the programme but, like so many brilliant cameo performances, his part finished up on the cutting room floor. However, as the same fate befell the Met’s General Director, Peter Gelb, he feels in good company. Gelb and Gramilano are obviously hoping that their performances will find their way into the director’s cut.
Opera is an expensive art form. It receives millions of pounds of public money. Can that be justified? Peter Day gets a range of operatic experiences – from top opera companies, to pub performers and a country house Summer festival. The first opera was performed 400 years ago in Italy; how does the future look?
Thursday 13 August at 02:05, 12:05, 21:05 – Saturday 15 August at 19:05 – Monday 17 August 00:32 GMT BBC WORLD SERVICE
Thursday 13 August at 8.30pm on BBC Radio 4 for listeners in the UK.
A Night at the Opera will be available indefinitely as a BBC Podcast.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.