Friday, October 28, 2005

The crisis of opera in Italy

Via the zoo of r.m.o comes this Independent article on the funding crisis of Italian opera-houses.
The culture minister, Rocco Buttiglione, has warned of the possible "death of opera" as the nation's 13 deeply indebted opera houses try to find ways to survive a 30 per cent cut in government subsidies, announced in the new budget.
Buttiglione, who has previously threatened to resign over these cuts, seems to take a realistic line:
But politicians and administrators agree that the crisis facing the Italian opera is "desperate," in Mr Buttiglione's words. He warned the opera houses: "None of them can hope that, whatever happens, someone will bale [sic] them out. Any of them could go bust, none is exempt from doing their accounts. All of them are dramatically in debt."
The cuts -- from a subsidy of €496 million to about €332m within three years -- are part of the larger effort to fit the traditionally free-spending and free-inflating Italian government into the fiscal and monetary straitjacket of the Eurozone. The companies themselves, however, may be particularly alluring targets.
[W]hile many companies continue to stage superb productions, managers are political appointees. Back offices are swollen with friends and relatives.
Prime Minister Berlusconi himself singled out La Scala:
"One thousand people work at La Scala," he claimed of Italy's best-known opera house, "when 400 would be plenty."
This is, of course, controversial. Less so, perhaps, is the decline in public interest:
This highlights an even more fundamental problem - that the Italian public appears to have fallen out of love with "la lirica" (the opera). A generation ago, the goings-on at La Scala were of intense interest to everyone in Milan. Any Italian taxi driver could hum the most famous arias, and Maria Callas and Giuseppe di Stefano were the celebrities of their day.
But today, thanks to pop music and the Berlusconi-peddled TV diet of soaps, quiz shows and old American movies, Verdi and Puccini have gone out of style. The opera has become the diversion of the rich, the old and the corporate as much as anywhere else - perhaps even more so, given the failure of Italian opera houses to make a pitch for the patronage of their country's youth.
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I don't pretend to understand either Italian politics or its art-administrative offshoot (though reading this article helped). But two things are evident.

First, the amount is fairly small. €164 million of a €400 billion budget is less than .05%. A sufficiently vocal or significant constituency interested in reversing the cuts may well succeed (as CPB saved itself from the axe here).

Second, a budget win, if the houses achieve it, may give only short reprieve. That the cuts have been proposed at all show opera's current distance from the Italian public. A system of direct public subsidy isolates a house from accountability to the greater or smaller public, but not permanently; at some point the houses and the public will come into alignment. If, for example, Italians continue to grow indifferent to opera, will there be any constituency for saving it the next time cuts are proposed? But lack of smaller-scale accountability means it'll take pure luck for the houses to nurse a public more sympathetic to their art (or an art more sympathetic to their public).

Ultimately, none but the Taliban can undo the flowering of choice in a country -- the new leisure options blamed on Berlusconi above. Unless the world falls, live opera must find its market niche (and I think, as I've said, it'll likely do so, in a way not unlike organic local produce or artisanal cheese: the essential complement to a baseline of commodity farming or free-floating digital music). The 1999 profile linked above showed a La Scala adapting to such realities, seeking private funding from corporations and the like. Such a financial shift is by its nature a step towards more accountability, as unhappy corporate donors can walk away rather more easily than a government.

Whether or not the post-Muti La Scala is still on such a path, the only long-term solution for it and its sister houses may be for their government to turn public arts support more to the American model, where the bulk of the (substantial) government arts subsidy is in tax provisions that amplify and encourage private support. Accountability would very much be a reality, if still an imperfect one (donors are not audiences, though the two are related). The problem here, of course, is that we end up with just the cultural institutions we deserve... But that's bound to happen in the end anyway.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.