This evening the curtain goes up at La Scala on the opera to open the season, Boris Godunov.
Ukrainians asked for the Russian opera to be replaced. Then the idea emerged that the opera could be seen as being anti-Putin – it was under Boris Godunov (who reigned from the end of the 16th century) that Russia's devastating Time of Troubles began.
That seems excessive to me – says Dominique Meyer, La Scala's CEO – Perhaps there are resonances with dictators, and whoever wants to find them will do so, but one can see similarities between Boris and Macbeth: they are power-hungry.
Boris develops three themes: the first is the vanity of power; the second is the vanity of conquests and is seen when the tsarevitch is studying geography because his father has told him that he will reign over those lands; and the third is the theme of usurpation and the remorse that grips a man who came to power after killing a child. The child is very present in this staging, he is Boris's nightmare, his guilt, the portent of his end. It is about Russia, and we see the great, long, eternal sadness of the Russian people.
When asked whether he was concerned about protests by Ukrainians, Meyer said,
Protests could happen, but I would tell them not to forget about what La Scala has done for Ukraine, starting with the concert to raise money for refugees. We are against cancel culture. Cancel culture is something worrying: if Otello is white in a production then you no longer understand the opera.
The first protest was at 7.30am today when a group called Ultima Generazione (a group of climate activists) organised five people to throw coloured paint over the entrance to the theatre.
The opening night of La Scala's opera season frequently attracts protests, in the 1990s it was the anti-fur groups, and last year, on 7 December 2021, the anti-vaxxers. Groups preparing to invade piazza della Scala this evening include those on the left protesting against the new far-right government represented by the new prime minister Giorgia Meloni, who will attend the performance, and the Cobas trade union that will stage an open-air candle-lit dinner (in contrast to the luxury banquets to be thrown after the curtain comes down) to highlight how ordinary people cannot afford to pay their soaring energy bills. Members of Milan's Ukrainian community will be there in protest against Russia's invasion of their country.
A planned protest by the theatre's unions, who wanted to read out a statement before the beginning of the opera about subsidy cuts in the arts sector, has been avoided, and now it will be submitted in individual letters to the politicians present in the theatre. And what a lot of politicians there will be. Aside from the Mayor of Milan and the president of the Lombardy region, there's Italy's prime minister, Meloni, the Italian president, Sergio Mattarella, and the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, as well as various government ministers.
Journalists from 14 countries will be present to watch not just the opera but also the audience where there will be Italy's top architects, designers, writers, cinema and theatre directors, actors, dancers, the directors of the major Italian art galleries, opera houses and theatres, as well as the artistic directors from many European opera houses: Alexander Neef from the Paris Opéra, Joan Matabosch of Teatro Real in Madrid, Elisabeth Sobotka who will take over at the Staatsoper in Berlin in 2024, Valenti Oviedo from the Teatre del Liceu in Barcellona, and Thomas Angyan from the Musikverein, will all be present. As so many invitees have accepted, apparently the seating arrangement has become a logistical nightmare and the royal box risks overbooking.
This glitzy opening night will be seen live on Italy's main RAI 1 television channel.
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.