La Scala’s on-stage productions are the tip of the iceberg of the enormous ‘behind the scenes’ forces in the laboratories where sets, costumes and props are created.
The company’s laboratories have been housed in various districts of Milan over the years, but now a €120 million scheme to bring the workshops together has been launched by Milan’s mayor.
The first building was constructed in the Bovisa district at the end of the 1940s and housed only the wardrobe, the carpentry and the costume and set warehouse. At that time, there were about fifteen seamstresses working in the wardrobe department and only five workers in carpentry, since the wooden parts of the sets were still very limited. Until the early 1950s, the set design department was located inside the theatre, in the spaces that were later used as rehearsal rooms for the ballet company.
After the bombing of the theatre in 1943, a complete reorganisation of the spaces was planned: the warehouses in Bovisa were expanded and in 1951 the first group of set designers began working in the new laboratories (at the time the sets were still mostly two-dimensional and pictorial), while the wardrobe was later moved inside the theatre.
In the 1970s, there were about seventy people working in the laboratories. The sets began to require increasingly three-dimensional elements made of varied materials, while the warehouse began to be insufficient and unsuitable for storing them since the sets became heavier and bulkier. Because of this, a large warehouse in Pero, just outside Milan, was made available to the theatre, and so all the parts built in the laboratories in Bovisa were brought to this new location to be set up.
However, the need to find a more functional solution and avoid continuous transportation of material, as well as reduce the inconvenience of managing staff that were spread across the different sites, led to the identification of a new location: the former industrial site of the Ansaldo steelworks in the Tortona district, which is owned by Milan. Since their opening in 2001, the 20,000 sq metres Laboratori Scala Ansaldo have become one of the largest theatrical ateliers in the world.
However, the solution of using the former Ansaldo does not fully meet the need for a single space where laboratories and warehouses can be brought together, as they are still located in different parts of the city, in buildings that require significant maintenance. So the City of Milan and the Teatro alla Scala Foundation have been looking to find a different location of a size suitable for housing the laboratory and storage equipment. The choice of where to locate the new site fell on the area of the former production plant of the Innocenti car manufacturer in Lambrate, in the east of the city, which was in operation from the 1930s until it was closed down in 1993 after a series of failed business plans.
Only a few buildings remain today and part of the vast area has already been transformed through the construction of residential buildings, commercial facilities, public spaces and Lambretta Park. The ‘Magnifica Fabbrica’ International Design Competition will search for the best project for the site and envisages the creation of the La Scala laboratories and warehouses and the expansion of the park.
The new cultural, artistic and production centre will be open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, optimising set storage, handling and transport methods, and bringing all the phases of the creative process into close proximity, from design to production. It will be characterised by an environmentally sustainable approach, focusing on innovative solutions that are resilient to climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The 310 metres long ‘Crystal Palace’ building (housing one of the car assembly lines) will be included in the winning project as a testimony of industrial archaeology. The park will also be designed to host shows and concerts to create interactivity between the local community and La Scala.
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.