Recently at La Scala in Milan, I've heard many people saying that they are not booking in advance anymore as there are always discounted tickets on the day of the performance. Pre-Covid, this only happened for the oddest of contemporary mixed bills – never for a ballet like Onegin. Yet apart from the performances starring pulling-power dancers Marianela Nuñez and Roberto Bolle, there were lots of tickets available on the day, and many went unsold.
The audiences are not coming back because they've lost the habit of going to the theatre after the lockdowns, I thought. Or maybe people are afraid of sitting in close proximity to others in a theatre for several hours as Covid infections start to rise again? Two recent events have opened my eyes.
La Scala's admirable La Scala in città initiative, which saw various groupings from the chorus, orchestra and ballet company perform in unusual and decentralised locations, had all La Scala's principal dancers and a small corps performing in a 5,000-seater stadium used mainly for basketball but it has also seen The Rolling Stones performing there. It was packed out and the tickets were all booked within hours of becoming available. This is a venue that many ballet lovers surely do not frequent, it is on an outer ring road heading towards the motorway, and the heaviest storm of the year was raging during the hour before the performance started causing traffic chaos, yet the drenched spectators were there (almost) on time and squeezed into much narrower seats than at the opera house. The secret of its success? It was free. All tickets for the La Scala in città project are free.
This week La Scala's ballet company performed a very generous programme of modern works and classics at the Arcimboldi Theatre, the venue built to house La Scala during major renovations to its theatre at the beginning of the millenium. It is the flagship of a new complex of housing and offices with occupies a former industrial area on the outskirt of the city, and now is home to the Bicocca University. The theatre has identical measurements to La Scala's stage but much better sightlines. La Scala's old tabs that form the background for legendary curtain calls with Callas and Corelli, Fracci and Nureyev, now hang there. The theatre was was probably just half full. Stalls tickets cost just over €100 (cheaper than at La Scala, but there was no orchestra and no guest dancers) and with negligible reductions for children under 14 and over-65s whose ticket cost a little under €100, so a family of four would have spent €400. Promotions with discounted tickets were introduced quickly and everyone on the press mailing list were offered a pair of free tickets for the opening night. I went to the third of the four performances, and people from the upper galleries were being shown to seats at the side of the stalls to revitalise the wasteland of the lower part of the house, much to the annoyance of those who had paid full whack. There were lots of angry glares.
So the problem is not Covid but cash. The Arcimboldi theatre is infinitely more comfortable than the Allianz Cloud sports arena, it's similarly difficult to find (but with much better parking availability) and offered a superior show (even though the novelty of the arena setting was great fun). Yet the punters kept away, and this is worrying. After empty theatres for Covid, now there are empty theatres for fear of not having enough money for basic living costs. And the soaring energy prices are not just frightening for households, but also for the theatres that need to heat their vast auditoriums — half empty or not. Yes, my ‘half full' attitude has become ‘half empty' while writing this. “Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy season,” to misquote Bette Davis.
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.