Riccardo Muti saved me from the Gypsies.

We were in Milan, on an unusually warm day for February, walking to lunch on my first day at La Scala.

"Where is your overcoat?" he asked. "Walk along in just a sweater, and suddenly little people will surround you. Gypsies. They will cover you with a rolled-up newspaper." He shapes both hands around an imaginary paper and conducts them over me, a mesmerizing presto in 6/8 time. "They will then vanish, and so will your money, and your watch and anything else they can get. You be careful."

Sure enough, a few days later I was walking to rehearsal when, on a crowded street corner, with carabinieri watching, I was circled like a flame by a gang of young women -- human moths, carrying newspapers. They were swift, silent and sudden. "Via!" I yelled, hitting at them. They scattered. There was applause. I looked sharply over at the cops, who merely shrugged.

I wasn't so unnerved by the thought of having nearly lost my money and passport -- but the Gypsies would have gotten my pass to La Scala! It had been stamped just a few days before by the company's sovrintendente (the big boss), Carlo Fontana.

"You see, I told you," Muti laughed later. "Always have armor on when you walk in the world. The Gypsies may still get you, but they will have to work for what they get."

pera news had sent me to La Scala to cover the last two weeks of rehearsals and the first two performances of a new production of La Forza del Destino -- the first time La Scala has mounted the opera in twenty-one years. (The cast back then offered Montserrat Caballé, José Carreras, Piero Cappuccilli and Nicolai Ghiaurov.) But my real reason for being there was to try to discover the answer to some questions going around the music industry about La Scala. Once, the theater was considered one of the great opera centers of the world. Italian opera really lived there, under the guidance of the great old maestros: De Sabata, Serafin, Gavazzeni, Gui. Every singer dreamed of making a debut there; it was the Italian equivalent of playing the Palace. In recent years, though, La Scala's importance in a singer's career has declined. It has become a place many artists avoid, a company where chaos and mismanagement can make even the toughest, most ambitious soprano scramble to book a flight home.

At the center of much of the controversy surrounding La Scala's management is Riccardo Muti. Before coming to Milan to work on this article, I hadn't been sure about Muti. Already he was starting to win me over. I admitted as much to Elvio Giudici, a leading critic of La Musica and contributor to La Repubblica. "But of course," Giudici snapped, "Muti is buying you!" Then he hung up on me.

Giudici, who is also author of the exhaustive and brilliant L'Opera in CD e Video, a 1,200-page tome, has gone to La Scala every significant night since he was ten, when he heard "La Callas in the Visconti Traviata." After that phone call, I guessed I could count Giudici as a former friend. Only in opera would my coming to like and admire Maestro Muti have sounded the death knell for a number of friendships on two continents.

Who works at La Scala -- and what do they do?

Like all the big institutions in Italy, La Scala has a hierarchical structure and a feudal feel. "You see," says the owner of the hotel where I'm staying, "in Italy we are just learning about business and corporations. Everyone still thinks in terms of the family -- not just mamma and papa, but everybody with two drops of the same blood, the church, the unions and the Mafia. We have political parties. Today there are twenty-four, tomorrow there might be twenty-eight.

"You could start a party of foreign journalists who come to Milan to study La Scala. Just promise the unions in the South something. But the parties are just extensions of one of those other forces. And everyone belongs to more than one of those forces. Your family is most important. If they are devout Catholics, the church is important. But since everybody works, the union is just as important. The church uses the Mafia for money guidance and to fight communists, the Mafia courts the unions to get political power and jobs for its dependents. So you see it's a crazy circle, and we are dizzy all the time. Of course, I am talking about our Italian Mafia. Now we have five foreign Mafias: the Albanians kill, the Latinos sell drugs, the Russians run prostitutes and pornography, the Singhalese work -- how you say? -- off the books, the Gypsies beg and steal. They make their own arrangements with each other."

Three people are in official positions of power at La Scala. First is the sovrintendente, "Dottore" Carlo Fontana. Then there is Maestro Riccardo Muti, direttore musicale, followed by Maestro Paolo Arcà, direttore artistico. (Muti tells me it is Italian law that the artistic director of any theater must be a "maestro," a musician with credentials. Orchestras have been known to strike if they felt the artistic director was not a good enough musician -- whether he conducted or not.) Maestro Arcà arrived at La Scala in 1994. He is a prize-winning composer, particularly of operas. (His Il Carillon del Gesuita was recorded by Nuova Era.) He is the chief teacher of composition at the Milan Conservatory. Arcà is in his mid-forties and looks younger, with an easy, open-faced charm. I remark on his fresh, youthful appearance. "That's La Scala," Arcà smiles. "It either kills you or keeps you young."

As frequently seems to be the case in Italy, it is not always clear who does what or possesses what degree of actual, as opposed to titular, power. Though much fuss is made about introducing me to most of the people in the theater, there are some older men at the rehearsals who are never introduced but look forbidding. La Scala has, it seems, hundreds of offices; it's not unusual to pass a door and catch with peripheral vision someone behind a desk, glaring. Yet neither a thousand-dollar suit nor a desk is a guarantee of anything in Italy.

Fontana has a small army of underlings and associates but -- as he makes clear often -- no equals. Arcà works with Maestro Luca Targenti, the theater's casting director. Muti's associate in the hierarchy is Dottore Alberto Tirola. One dare not address any of these men without his title unless invited to do so.

The idea of three people in power seems very strange to me. "Of course it's strange -- it's Italy," agrees one long-time toiler in the chain gang of Italian arts administration. "Naturally, you must have someone who looks after the money, and naturally, you must have someone who makes artistic decisions. But La Scala, like a lot of our theaters, has three bosses officially, and an army of 'important' underlings, plus all the politicians who have wires in the theater. They belong to varying coalitions of parties defined by degrees of 'right' and 'left' that nobody outside of Italy would understand. And there are the theater Mafias, the unions, the big singers and their agents, the chorus and orchestra who sometimes organize against their own unions, the stage workers. There are the cliques with conflict of interest. They are paid by agents, the record companies, the unions, for information and influence. The result is paralysis -- no one really has to take responsibility for any decisions, and it's hard to blame anyone. And a strong personality like Muti can overrule any objection, even if it makes sense."

Muti the Hated, and the Decline of La Scala

Riccardo Muti is the world's most publicly detested conductor. In her book Cinderella and Company, Manuela Hoelterhoff calls him "the famously short maestro of fear." Yet Muti is extremely successful -- not to mention remarkably good-looking for a fifty-seven-year-old workaholic.

"You just get younger looking," says Itzhak Perlman, when he comes backstage after a grueling Vienna Philharmonic concert at which Muti has led the Schumann Second and the Shostakovitch Fifth. "Oh, caro, no," says Muti, "it is all a trick. You know -- the hair dye." In a second, Muti becomes a hairdresser dumping a ton of polish on his head and wiping it in. "And then of course, there is the plastic surgery." Instantly, he shifts from hairdresser to surgeon, staring at his features in the dressing-room mirror, then pulling his face in forty different directions in thirty seconds. Everyone laughs except Perlman, who continues to peer at him.

am not La Scala," says Muti. "Carlo Fontana is the boss. He consults with me, of course. But the final decisions are his. Paolo Arcà is the artistic director. He consults with me, too. But he and his staff plan, and there are many details I don't know about -- just as there are many money problems and decisions that are not my business, and I don't want to know about them either."

Though Muti insists he does not run La Scala, everybody blames him anyway. The power-wife of a major player at La Scala puts it this way: "La Scala is Muti, Muti is La Scala. You cannot separate the two."

Muti's poisonous reputation extends far and wide in the music business. "La Scala was the most important theater in Europe for sheer éclat," says Merle Hubbard, an artist representative who began at the Met in the Rudolf Bing days and has managed Luciano Pavarotti, Renée Fleming, Carol Vaness and Lauren Flanigan, all of whom have had their innings at La Scala. "But now it's not run by artists, it's run by a syndicate. It's a closed shop. It's impossible to know who's in charge. It's not run for the art. There's power-mongering everywhere, artistic direction nowhere. There's a reason Luciano stopped singing there as soon as possible."

"The Met is far more important in making careers today," Hubbard continues. "The Met must reach out all the time. Joe Volpe has done a great marketing job and is available to answer for decisions. For that I applaud him. But La Scala? It's a lost cause."

"The house is always packed," says my former friend Giudici, "but it is empty of significance. It is a tourist trap, a fashion show, a salon -- not a place of art. The only successes recently have been The Florentine Straw Hat by Nino Rota, conducted by Bruno Campanella, whom the Rota family insisted on, and Khovanshchina, conducted by Valery Gergiev. Muti runs everything but is irrelevant."

A case can be built against Muti's taste and tactics. But his talent? At a thrilling New York Philharmonic concert of Ravel, Busoni and Brahms in January (at which the orchestra refused to bow, applauding the maestro instead), the stunning Vienna Philharmonic concerts in New York in March, the Forza orchestra rehearsals, his ear, insight and authority were remarkable.

t's hard to find an Italian critic who's willing to be both candid and specific. The atmosphere among those in the mainstream is cautious. One important critic I contacted would talk only in generalities: "Muti got my predecessor fired and has gotten a lot of us in trouble. After a bad review or two, we learn we'd better come 'round, or we'll be unemployed."

Can those allegations be proved? "Nothing can be proved in Italy, certainly nothing that happens at La Scala. I can't prove to you that they did Manon Lescaut there. I was in the theater, but I didn't notice a performance. Muti conducted -- so of course I gave it a respectful review." (Muti denied the charge of getting reviewers fired.)

Muti ascended the throne in 1986. One of the musicians who, out of "human kindness," tried to help with the transition, bristles at the suggestion that the rot set in at least a little while before Muti arrived. "Ma, no!" he yells deafeningly. "This Abbado -- I mean the giant, Claudio -- he not nice man, but he great visionary of the theater. La Scala now is a disaster. And there is one cause -- Muti, Muti, Muti. I work with him. I know. Basta."

Cautiously, I bring this point up with Muti. He is surprisingly sweet about it. "That is La Scala. They crucify you while you're here and canonize you later. Now, Maestro Abbado is a saint. I will be a saint too, once they do me in."

Hatred of the current La Scala, and of Muti, is far from muted. The angry feelings of malcontents are vented in the alternative press and in the second most feared place at La Scala -- the top gallery, or Loggione. The most feared place, of course, is the Sala Gialla.

In the Sala Gialla

The Sala Gialla, a windowless chamber in a corner of the second floor of La Scala, was where Toscanini rehearsed. After his time, the Board took it over. They still meet there. But Muti reclaimed it for his rehearsals. It's a long, forbidding room with a massive table in the center. On the walls are pictures of the wreckage of the house after the allied air raids during World War II. Above the grand piano at the far end is a huge, terrifying portrait of Arturo Toscanini. He glares down at everybody who enters the room.

"I call it the Muti diet," says Lauren Flanigan. "You get a contract at La Scala, and you expect to sing. You show up, and there are three other people cast in the same role. You lose a lot of weight obsessing about if and when he'll pick you." Flanigan remembers her experiences rehearsing the role of Abigaille in Nabucco for Muti. "There were four of us Abigailles. Three of us got to be friends. The fourth we called 'the nuclear Abigaille' -- we figured she was there in case the rest of us got killed in a nuclear holocaust, they'd have her. She was like a roach; she'd live through anything. So the scene is going on, and he points from one person to another with his glasses, and you have to be ready to get up and sing. If he catches you by surprise and you choke, he gestures to somebody else, and you think, 'I'll never get it now.' So I learned to push my way to the head of the table, so I could see the glasses coming in my direction. I came back thirty-one pounds lighter."

The Sala Gialla is where Cecilia Bartoli met Renée Fleming. They were rehearsing for a Don Giovanni in which Bartoli hoped to sing Zerlina, Fleming Donna Elvira. Bartoli, who can dish with the best, clams up at first but gets around to some morsels. "Muti's yellow room, it is like Scarpia's torture chamber," she says, finally. "Everybody is there, and he goes back and forth. My cover was always there. Muti keeps people in the dark. No one ever knows who will actually sing."

"Rehearsing was like having high-school sing-offs," adds Fleming -- "You sing it now, then you sing it.' That's trying!"

La Scala Itself

Though not everyone honors my "free passage" graciously, I am allowed to walk all over La Scala on my own. On my first day, Muti shows me various passageways, so I won't get lost. It doesn't help. You need a map and compass to negotiate your way around La Scala, and I get lost every single day and night I am there.

"These are our guards and our Gods," Muti says, pointing to the giant statues of Rossini, Verdi, Donizetti and Bellini in the beautiful lobby. He opens the gold-framed glass doors and guides me into the shadowy theater. "This is our church."

We both look in silence for ten minutes. He vanishes, and I sit in this space, trying not to feel overwhelmed by sentiment. There are the gorgeous gilded boxes, glinting down on the plush red seats. Up there is that amazing chandelier, and above it the ceiling, with its intricate patterns suspended by magic in thin air.

And then, the stage. Even with the curtain up and workmen on platforms and ladders, it is breathtaking. The rehearsal lights are unlike any I've seen elsewhere. Mysterious figures emerge, then sink into semidarkness. My eyes are tricked into seeing haunted poses, my ears into hearing fluttering sounds. There are only stagehands moving scenery.

The auditorium is merely fifty-three years old; the stage goes back much further. But time evaporates in here. An art form, maybe one that is vanishing, is made flesh, so to speak. One can reach out and almost touch opera.

La Scala was completed in 1778, on the site where the church of Santa Maria della Scala once stood. The theater was run by a group of noble families, who hired impresarios to organize seasons, until 1815 -- the year La Scala began its ascendancy. As part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Milan and its primary theater enjoyed large subsidies. It became a showplace for the powerful Austrian government officials stationed in Milan. In 1859, when Italy was united (though how united the country actually became is a matter of serious and continuing debate), Milan's emerged as the jewel in the crown of Italian opera houses, even though the government was centered in Rome.

The Milan of 1839 was a paradoxical place that was typically Italian -- famous, but insulated and provincial. Many of the intellectual Milanese say the same thing about the city today. Regional antagonisms were inevitable. One reason Verdi was denied entry to the city's Conservatory was that he was a foreigner! Most Italians are still foreigners to the Milanese. Southern Italians are despised by the locals. They are called terroni, a word with nasty connotations. The idea is that the North (and Milan is the great city in the North) pays all the taxes squandered by the bums down South.

Claudio Abbado, Muti's predecessor, is from a great Milanese family -- an elegant, intellectual Northerner. Muti is from the far South. He was born in Puglia and raised in Naples. Arcà, whom Muti calls friend as well as colleague, is from Rome. Tirola has Neapolitan ancestors. Maestro Montanari, the "conductor of the stage," is Neapolitan through and through.

Muti invites me to a birthday party for Montanari, a long-time collaborator. Italians are more sensitive to accents and regionalisms than the English, and every bit as snobbish. Usually, my Italian accent inspires a lot of sniffing, if not confusion -- especially when I'm nervous. ("Please speak English," is asked of me often at La Scala.) I'm more relaxed chatting with them in this context, and suddenly they all stop. Muti takes a long time squinting at me and says, "Those vowels -- I notice -- Provincia di Chieti?"

"Well, Maestro, my paternal grandfather was from there." There is another silence. "Then you are one of us," cries Muti -- and my grandfather and I are toasted.

"Yes, I suppose we are terroni," says Muti. "But what does that word come from, after all? Terra -- the earth. Italy and art and all of us are of the earth, where else are we from? The great soil of Italy. If they think that is an insult they are maleducatevi -- ignoramuses."

Verdi gradually helped make La Scala a great house artistically on the international scene. In a sense, it was his Bayreuth. There he had his first big hit, Nabucco, and his worst failure, Un Giorno di Regno. His relations with La Scala were often strained. But the glorious world premieres of the revision of Simon Boccanegra, Otello and Falstaff carried immense prestige and glamour over into this century.

In 1897 came a "period of austerity," when subsidies were cut off. Those were crisis years. Eventually, a way was found to secure the house by obtaining more private funding and operating more like a corporation. Publisher Giulio Ricordi, along with composer, librettist and artistic propagandist Arrigo Boito, used La Scala to dominate art in Italy. They had help from the many wealthy and powerful families in Milan, such as the Visconti. Then as now, Milan was the business center of Italy. These powerful industrialists, politicians and intellectuals saw La Scala as their opera house.

While Puccini had as many flops as hits at the house, and La Fanciulla del West and Il Trittico had their premieres at the Met, La Scala was crucial to him and to all the other Italian opera composers of his time and later. It also helped establish the international viability of operas by Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss and Claude Debussy, most of these thanks to Arturo Toscanini, who had two terms running the house and was the first of a number of powerful conductors to have varying periods of control.

Toward the end of World War II, allied bombs hit the theater, destroying the auditorium. "We wish it had been the other way around," says Arcà, sighing. "If only your American bombs had hit the stage! Instead, they had to rebuild the auditorium. They kept the stage, which was absolutely undamaged. That was a disaster. Now we must rebuild the stage, which is too old-fashioned."

That means La Scala (as of today's planning) will close for "eighteen months" in 2001, so the stage can be entirely rebuilt. The company will have to relocate to another theater while this work is done.

"You do not need to raise your eyebrows at me," says Arcà, from his plush bench in the gorgeous lobby, where we are chatting while a rather desperate rehearsal grinds on in the theater. (Acoustically, La Scala is an iffy theater, but out here, it's all too easy to hear that destiny isn't smiling on this particular enterprise.) "After all, I am Italian. I know it can take twenty years to rebuild something here. But we must do it, and we will have to do it as quickly as possible!"

In the 1930s and '40s, the great conductor Victor De Sabata held sway at La Scala. After he became sick and lost interest in the early '50s, Antonio Ghiringhelli, an upper-class Milanese businessman/bureaucrat, took over. Though he feuded, Italian style, with all of them, Callas, Tebaldi, Visconti, the young Zeffirelli and a host of world-renowned singers had important seasons at the house. In the 1970s, Claudio Abbado made a significant artistic contribution with acclaimed Giorgio Strehler productions of Macbeth and Simon Boccanegra. Abbado also had access to a diminishing but impressive roster of artists including Mirella Freni, Shirley Verrett and Piero Cappuccilli.

In the last ten years, virtually no international stars have emerged from La Scala (though Roberto Alagna was a Muti discovery). Pavarotti, Freni, Scotto, Cossotto, Cappuccilli, Ghiaurov, Bruson, Bergonzi, among the currently active stars of an earlier La Scala era, are all over sixty; Simionato, Tebaldi, Corelli, Gencer, Stella, Di Stefano, Guelfi, Taddei are retired. Del Monaco is deceased. All of these were what the Italians call "creatures of La Scala" for longer or shorter periods of time.

Aside from Alagna, none of the big names in the international opera world under fifty owes anything to La Scala, and Muti is unique in being the only conductor to run the house and not produce international stars. "I know that," he says. "It is always in my thoughts. But give me names -- any names from anywhere in the world. We are doing the Verdi Centennial. I need names for Ballo, for Otello. You tell me, you tell Arcà, you tell Fontana. We will pick up the phone that second and try for them. Give me names!"

Cards on the Table

The most certain element in the La Scala Forza, besides Muti, is the acclaimed (though conservative) Argentinean régisseur, Hugo De Ana. He is in charge of everything visual -- sets, costumes, lighting, staging -- and will direct and edit the planned telecast. He did the same for the infamous Lucrezia Borgia in the summer of 1998 -- infamous because, during the first performance, Renée Fleming, singing the title role, was hooted, jeered, booed and finally verbally abused by a loud if not large segment of the audience.

It struck many as suspicious that Fleming was booed after she had had a well-publicized altercation with Muti over her inclusion in that ill-fated Don Giovanni. She also had difficulties over cadenzas with the conductor of the Lucrezia, Gianluigi Gelmetti, who fainted immediately following her first aria, returned after forty minutes to conduct the rest of the performance, fainted again and was rushed to the hospital.

The Lucrezia scandal was the first thing Muti talked about when we met backstage at that New York Philharmonic concert two weeks before I left for Milan. "I was in the house for two days during Lucrezia," said Muti. "I admire Fleming, and the management of La Scala had talked to her about a number of bel canto projects in the coming years. I encouraged that. She will sing her recital the day after you arrive in Milan. That would not happen if I felt she did not belong in the theater.

"We have a difficult public," allows Muti about the Fleming incident. When he leads me to his office on my first day in town, we pass twelve huge photos of famous maestros who have conducted at the theater, among them Carlos Kleiber, Lorin Maazel, Claudio Abbado, Karl Böhm and Herbert von Karajan. "All have been booed," Muti remarks offhandedly, "except this one." He stops in front of a portrait of Guido Cantelli, who was appointed principal conductor at La Scala in 1957. "He was lucky. He died." (Cantelli was killed in a plane crash just after his appointment was announced.)

Forza will star the hot young Argentinean tenor José Cura. Another tenor, Ernesto Gavazzi, a company favorite, will sing Trabuco. It seems likely that mezzo Luciana D'Intino will sing Preziosilla. The rest of the cast for the upcoming first night, including the Leonora, is anybody's guess. Argentinean Ines Salazar and Hungarian Georgina Lukacs have been engaged for Leonora; Leo Nucci and Giorgio Zancanaro have been engaged for Don Carlo, Giacomo Prestia and Antonio Papi are two possible Guardianos. Either Alfonso Antoniozzi or Roberto de Candia might sing Melitone.

"You are the first outsider to be allowed to see this much," remarked Carlo Fontana, with big eyes and what is known in Italian as "intenzione," when he stamped my pass. "I am giving you two weeks' freedom of the theater. You can go anywhere and talk to anyone."

That very night, trying to get backstage to see Renée Fleming, who had just given a triumphant concert (but had nevertheless been booed by some malcontents), I was denied entry to the theater by two hostile and insulting doormen. Not eight hours after the major public power of the theater had stamped a "free passage," his employees were looking at it and laughing.

Several Italian critics assure me there were "fool the American" drills before I got there. I'm sure there was debate about letting me in. Perhaps some orders had gone out to be careful. But this is the theater. More to the point, it's Italy. Chaotic hysteria is routine, and there is no insurance against it.

During one very tense rehearsal in the theater, Fontana loudly laments my presence, clasping his hands and imploring God's mercy, just as my grandmother used to do. She had an excuse -- she was Neapolitan. Fontana is a Milanese aristocrat.

"Well, that's what Forza will do to you," remarks a small but formidable lady with high, jet-black hair and rather a ferocious cast about the eyes. She's been watching what Hollywood would call the "suits" -- Fontana and henchmen in Armani finery -- hovering around the "talent" -- Muti in a sweater and a funk. She nods toward the little group, where much eye-rolling and hand-clasping is going on. Maestro's voice is soft, but his eyes are drilling small, lethal holes into his associates.

The ageless lady cackles. She is retired Turkish diva Leyla Gencer, who runs La Scala's school (roughly analagous to the Met's Young Artist program) at Muti's invitation and comes to all the rehearsals. "How is your health?" she asks. I feel fine. "You won't for long," she says. "You will have a bad influenza before Forza is finished with you. We will all be desperately sick. Wait and mark my words! Now, while they mourn, let me sit with you and tell you about my Forzas!"

"Her" Forzas were fascinating. And about the influenza? She was right.

In the Sala Gialla (Part II)

Thanks to my insider's pass, I am set to attend a 10 a.m. rehearsal in the dreaded Sala Gialla. In any case, I'm advised by an American singer, "Don't worry about getting there on time -- it's Italy. The singers will arrive half an hour late, Muti will stroll in forty-five minutes later and drink coffee for ten minutes."

Muti is at the piano at 9:50. The small rest rooms next to the Sala are jammed with people warming up. Woe betide anyone who needs to use them for their intended purpose. Promptly at ten, everybody sits with a score around the table. I'm not sure who some of these people are. There is a handsome teenager who has grown a beard to look older. There is a very round young man with a ponytail -- maybe he's covering one of the small parts.

Muti himself plays every piano rehearsal. The head coach for the production (Massimilliano Bulo in this case) stands beside him making notes for individual coachings, though Muti plays those, too, when he has time. The atmosphere is tense. Today Ines Salazar, officially the first Leonora, will sing. She's been sick but also has shown signs of vocal distress unrelated to her ailment. She is a voluptuous, doe-eyed beauty with a face of great sweetness and a terrified air.

Georgina Lukacs, who was hired as her "cover," has sung most of the rehearsals. She's exhausted and rather grim. People are happy and hopeful about Salazar's presence. José Cura is in Paris, singing a long run of Carmens. "In the old days, we would not have tolerated this," says one of the artistic staff. "Cura doesn't really know this part. And this is La Scala. But he runs from here to there. Even Muti has to endure it."

Giacomo Prestia, the official first Guardiano, is sick. Leo Nucci, whom Muti wants to sing Don Carlo, is having a last-minute angioplasty -- today. Muti went to see him before he went under anaesthesia. No one knows whether he will be in the production. Luciana D'Intino and her second, Mariana Pentcheva, are sick. Both Melitones have a serious case of the flu. I keep thinking of Leyla Gencer's prediction.

Since Salazar is nervous, Muti asks everybody to wait outside while he works with her on her first aria. People pace. More mucus than tone can be heard from inside the Sala, even over the nervous warming up that has recommenced in the rest rooms.

When we are readmitted, Muti works through the inn scene. He is gentle with Salazar: "Is it O.K. if we try that again? I don't want to tire you. You don't need to sing out. I know you have a beautiful voice." With the others, he makes jokes. He loves to get up and imitate the characters walking -- a mixture of Monty Python's Ministry of Funny Walks and, when he wants to make a point, Charlie Chaplin. It's precisely observed but hilariously exaggerated.

Muti's piano playing is thrilling. He's one of those conductors who "orchestrate" at the piano, giving a clear sense of the sonority he will achieve in the pit, imitating certain instrumental combinations: "Here is the flute with the oboe -- use that color in your voice"; "Here is the bassoon -- let it lead you to the expression." The most intricate figurations roll out from his fingers, in tempo, with absolute precision and beautiful tone. Unlike most rehearsal players (even most conductors, when they deign to play) he is not a piano-basher but a virtuoso making music. Everything he does has an expressive purpose.

He's leading without seeming to do so -- but singers are singers. There's a lot of throat-clearing, daydreaming and watch-checking. They don't seem to absorb what he plays for them, even when he points out how hearing the orchestra clearly will help them project their voices.

He works intensely with Giorgio Zancanaro, who will double Nucci and may sing the first night. Zancanaro has recorded the role with Muti and sung it frequently. But he's forgotten it. Muti goes over and over various sections, just for rhythms and the right notes.

"Now, Giorgio," he says at one point, "tell me, don't you make a lot of records?"

"But certainly, Maestro."

"But you don't like to listen to yourself?"

"No, Maestro, I am proud of my records."

"Except one, Giorgio."

"Well, maybe one or two, Maestro."

"I'm thinking of one in particular."

"I was hoarse at that one, Maestro."

"No, I mean our Forza!"

"Did we record Forza, Maestro?" There is a pause. "I think I lost that, Maestro. I will buy it today." Muti finds this hilarious, but Montanari, the maestro of the stage, rolls his eyes.

Muti works with everyone on the words and the precise expression of every moment. He is also looking for what American acting teachers and stage directors call the "arc" of the character. With Zancanaro, he tries to get at the unstable nature of Carlo -- a good-natured, clever storyteller, driven by a force he doesn't understand. In his effort to find out whether the strange person traveling with Trabuco is his sister, Carlo asks the peddler, "Who is that person -- personcina -- with you?"

"This strange word, Giorgio -- 'personcina' -- what do you think it means?" They discuss the word, which in context is a trap. "How would you trick somebody with a word, Giorgio?" Zancanaro has no idea.

"Well, Giorgio, you could say it like this" -- Muti demonstrates with a slightly poisonous charm. "Or you could try it like this." This time Muti smiles, but his eyes flash with anger. "Or perhaps you could see what happens when you throw the word out." He shrugs and gives a staccato reading.

Zancanaro sings it the same way every time.

Muti takes about an hour on the inn scene aria, "Son Pereda, son ricco d'onore." It's important to Muti that its three sections be full of different colors yet form a link. "Giorgio, this man tells the story. He's making it up as he goes along, it's loose, and he is having a good time. You can play with the rhythm." Muti sings it as though it were a funny Schubert song, full of quirky color.

Zancanaro tries.

After several times through, Muti moves on to the middle section. "Giorgio, listen to this." Muti plays the accompaniment with fury.

"Yes. Maestro."

"But do you understand, Giorgio? This is a version of the destiny theme, the melody that starts the overture." Muti plays it. "Now listen." Muti plays the accompaniment again. It's obvious -- when it's pointed out. "What does that mean to you, Giorgio?" Not much, it seems. "You see," explains Muti, "this man is trapped, as are all the characters. They can't help themselves. They are good people -- even this Carlo. He tells a story, it's fun, it's silly, then he is pulled the way the ocean pulls you into a violent storm. He forgets himself and becomes hate. Then all of a sudden -- Giorgio, are you listening?"

"Yes, Maestro."

"All of a sudden he is this charming person again, telling this funny story."

Again, Zancanaro sings it the same way.

Finally, Muti sings it. He starts with an easy smile and absolute charm, savoring the swinging rhythm. Then suddenly, when the destiny theme erupts, his eyes cloud over, his face becomes fixed, every word is a dagger, and the final phrase is a vicious thrust. Muti -- in character -- takes a short breath, laughs and shrugs, then returns to the jaunty tune, but this time, Carlo, as Muti sings him, can't quite lose the edge.

"You see, Giorgio, if you sing somewhat like that, you help the whole scene. That is the opera -- the strange world. No one is what he seems. It is like Pirandello -- where is the mask and where is the real person? You remember Pirandello, Giorgio? And the chorus and Preziosilla and Trabuco and even Leonora offstage, you make them richer, for they can respond to you."

Zancanaro sings it exactly as he did the first time through.

"Well," Muti says later, "you have to understand singers. He is worried about his voice; he wonders if he will sing the first night. He likes Nucci and is worried about him, but of course he would like to sing the first night himself. And today they all have permanent jet lag. He will take a plane or drive to go on for somebody who is sick in Vienna or Graz or Palermo between these rehearsals, if he can. He'll sleep in the car on the way back -- or not, if he can't find someone else to drive. And he will come to the rehearsals exhausted. And he is an old-timer. They learn it one way, and if you can get them to change two words, or add a color here and there, that is the most you expect."

Muti goes on to the convent scene. Everybody who can flees. Salazar runs out. There is a silence. She comes back in but clearly would rather be dead. Muti smiles at her and waves her closer. "Just try to feel it," he says. "You have a voice. But even if you are sick, if you feel and understand, that will help you sing." Once again he tries to get her to be Leonora. "Son giunta! Grazie, o Dio!" she yells.

"But, Ines, you didn't need to yell. If you believe in God, and this woman does, He is everywhere, right beside your mouth. And you are relieved. You have escaped your brother. "Son giunta -- grazie, o Dio!" He sings like someone abandoning terror, almost without voice. And he looks around.

Salazar really tries, but she can't seem to get it. "You know why I looked around, what I was looking for?" She doesn't. "But Ines, what is her next line? 'Estremo asil quest'è per me' -- this is my last refuge." Muti speaks to her in English and sometimes in Spanish. "I looked around for the cross, for the church, for death in life. You see, she would kill herself if she could. But she can't, because she believes. So here she can find peace -- pace. And what will she implore God for later? Pace."

But Salazar, understandably, wants to get into the aria proper, which is treacherous. Muti tries to help. "I will relax the rhythm for you," he promises. "Don't worry." When it comes to "Deh! non m'abbandonar," he says, "I will watch you and breathe with you. If you have a little trouble I will hurry and save you."

But Salazar gets tighter and tighter; by the end of the aria she is so frightened she has to run out of the room again. Muti takes her hands and kisses her cheek when she comes back. Then he sings and acts Melitone, since even the third cover is sick. The entire character is there in his voice and face while he sits at the piano. The expression in his eyes changes on every word, as the priest, who is supposed to be kind, sneers at the stranger in need, then catches on that there may be scandal ("Scomunicato siete?") but is too dumb to see he's talking to a woman. Once again Muti catches the strange juxtaposition in the opera -- it's funny and ugly.

The teenager with the beard stands up and sings. He is Antonio Papi, actually twenty-four, and is covering Guardiano. His is the first glorious voice I've heard during this trip to La Scala.

Muti tries to give Papi and Salazar what acting teachers call an "inner metaphor." "Do you hear the flute here, signora?" he asks, playing the trill under "È questo il porto." "Your soul must wait for that and when you hear the trill, your soul must vibrate to it -- you have found home, the blessing of God, light after the black night. Forget your voice. So you miss a note -- the flute is God's blessing."

"If she misses the note, forget the flute -- it'll be the loggione whistling," wisecracks Zancanaro. All the men laugh except Muti. Salazar runs out of the room again.

"I could have been rude to Zancanaro," Muti says to me during a break. "But it was too late. And look, by now she better realize they may whistle. She must still be able to feel her part and give meaning. They even whistled Tebaldi here. If she is too scared to lose herself in Leonora, then it will be the story of Ines, not The Force of Destiny. I think you know which one is more interesting."

Still, when Salazar returns, he once again takes her hands and kisses her cheeks. He also sends everybody out but the round young man with the ponytail. Muti plays Alvaro's entrance, and this young fellow sings. Suddenly, an Italian tenor! His name is Salvatore Licitra (Cura's cover). Like Papi, he is someone Muti has found. Muti coaches him through every word and every phrase. "Don't let your voice slip back into your throat," he says. "Keep it forward. If you need a little time, I will wait for you. Don't start to bark." Licitra tries very hard and manages gorgeous phrases but makes mistakes. Muti is tender and infinitely patient.

When Zancanaro is allowed back into the room, Muti inspires Licitra into singing "Or muoio tranquillo" with a long, liquid, large-scale, melting line that is really Verdi and really thrilling.

ook," says Lauren Flanigan, "he is a great opera conductor. You have to be serious, and you have to work. But if he knows you mean it, he is with you every second. He breathes and sings with you. You know, while I studied him, he studied me. One day he said, 'California' -- that's what he called me after he'd asked me where I was from -- 'California, you can hold those notes a little more and take more time. It's in your voice, you can do it, and it will be great!' He saw things in me and potentials I didn't know were there."

"I don't know that anyone understands Muti entirely," says Bartoli, "but that is true of all great musicians, perhaps. He remembers everything you do. He has strong ideas, so he isn't always happy. But if you are on [the same wavelength] with him, he will help you be even better. He was at every rehearsal, even the staging ones, and he was always helping. And during the performance it was all in his eyes -- the score, the feeling and his love for the music. It is hard not to give everything."

Later, I tell Muti most professional coaches don't do what he does, let alone conductors. Talk about the diaphragm, the tongue, keeping the voice forward, helping with breath? Impossible, in today's opera. Who knows that stuff? Perhaps worse, who cares?

"I will make a bet with you," Muti offers. "If you answer my question correctly, I will take you to the Four Seasons for lunch. If you cannot answer, you must spend a day without asking me any questions at all." I agree.

"Who was Maria Carbone?"

I tell him in detail, all her records and appearances, including the first Otello with Fusati. "You don't win -- yet. I played for her for five years. Every day, I played for the singers she was teaching, and for those she was coaching and for her classes. There was nothing about voices she didn't know, and she taught me everything she knew. All the tricks and fakes -- they can be useful -- and all the muscles and what the tongue and the jaw do. And the exercises for them, and for the diaphragm. And how to sing on the words, to make the words your servants. They can even make your voice more beautiful. Next question. Who was Pertile?"

"The greatest purely Italian spinto tenor of the century."

"What record of his is the best?"

"The Improvviso from Chénier."

He stares at me. "Well, I hope you are hungry. I owe you two lunches."

The Forza Flu

"Io non amarlo? Tu ben sai s'io l'ami!"

This is the night of decision for Salazar. She is trying to sing Act I. But she can't manage any of the words clearly. "Sai" comes out as "soy," even when she repeats it for the third time.

"Ma! È sai! Non soy!" cries one of the power wives sitting in the theater. "Questo è La Scala. Non è una trattoria cinese!"

Muti stops after the act and talks intensely with his wife. He looks exhausted.

Cura has returned. So has Nucci. The tenor, in costume, marks. When he sings full voice, the throaty honking is alarming. He doesn't seem to know the role securely. The clarinet plays the solo to "La vita è inferno all'infelice" gloriously. Cura lets out his voice for the first and last time. He sings "I panteloni son troppo largo!" -- the pants are too big.

Muti freezes. The maestros around me hiss. "Tenore!" cries one and makes the sign against the evil eye. Hugo de Ana and his costumer run up to the stage over the bridge.

Muti starts again. Cura croons. Nucci, just out of the hospital, sings full out. When Cura falters and they have to take a section again, Muti asks Nucci not to sing. "No, Maestro, I will sing," he says. Cura mouths the words, Nucci sings full out.

The adjustments are made, and "Solenne in quest'ora" starts. The "wounded" Cura has been placed on strategically arranged pillows. Instead of singing, he starts tossing the pillows across the stage. Muti goes right on. In the "Sleale" duet, Cura tries his voice and cracks, so he just mouths the words.

The maestros around me are enraged, but Muti goes on. The camp scene is suddenly alive and stunning. There is wild energy. Muti sings Melitone's sermon from the pit (both Melitones are still sick) -- hilarious and scary too. Luciana D'Intino also sings and acts full out, as does Ernesto Gavazzi, the Trabuco.

Cura stands in the wings, fussing with his costume.

Muti whips the orchestra and chorus up until the theater is shaking. "Maestro is truly incalzato tonight," says Arcà to me. He means Muti is beside himself but putting it all in the music, and "Rataplan" is a fierce explosion. Those who usually yawn through rehearsals -- stagehands, tech people, covers -- cheer at the end of this.

Muti throws his baton down and runs to his dressing room. The "suits" run after him. That fantastic chandelier comes on, and the applause continues. Leading it is Renata Tebaldi, who has been to all the rehearsals in the theater. She is radiant. "Look at the chandelier and the ceiling," she says. "This is my cradle, my temple! And you know, I would not be too unhappy if it were my grave."

Tebaldi has been ailing. I've been told she has been profoundly depressed. Muti has asked her to teach at La Scala's school. She has refused. He also asked her to come to all his rehearsals. At first she hesitated. He went to her house, and after interminable cups of coffee, he persuaded her to come.

Nucci passes us. She congratulates him on singing full out. "I'm old," he laughs, sarcastically. "I need to sing at my age. The young people don't have to."

I gossip (like everybody else) about the two Leonoras: one screams, the other can't begin to pronounce. "Have you no pity?" demands Tebaldi. "That poor creature is terrified. Let's pray for her." But at the same instant, we look across the theater. There is Salazar, evidently on the brink of tears, in intense conversation with Leyla Gencer.

"Uh-oh," sighs Tebaldi, "I have a feeling we are in for the other one the rest of this rehearsal." Muti comes and kisses Tebaldi's hands and her cheeks. She hugs him and pats his back. "You remember when we had tenors?" he asks Tebaldi. "Tucker, for example. I begged him to come to Italy more. He sang Pagliacci with me. I was green, and he was so prepared, he taught me. But when I told him at rehearsal he could hold a high note, he stood up and said, 'Thank you, Maestro.'" He shakes his head. "I will go back over the camp scene and to the end of the opera. Licitra will sing Alvaro, Cura will watch. Lukacs will sing Leonora."

Our attention is drawn to Gencer and Salazar. One assumes Gencer is trying to be comforting, but it's not a quality that emanates from her. "That poor girl," says Tebaldi.

"She gave a great audition two years ago, and I worked with her. It was a wonderful voice," says Muti.

"It is still a wonderful voice, Maestro," replies Tebaldi, "but she has done too many Toscas. She was a fine Donna Anna, and you know that is hard. But they must earn today, so they sing everything, and it is easy to growl and bark. That ruins your voice."

Gencer joins us and kisses and pats Muti. She kisses and pats me for good measure. "You are looking less well," she says. I admit I'm feeling unwell. "It will get worse," she says, "like the singing in this Forza."

"That girl needs to take six months off and breathe in the country air and not sing a note," says Tebaldi of Salazar, who looks very sad and vulnerable. "Then she needs to come back slowly, very slowly! No Toscas!"

"She needs to develop her falsetto!" says Gencer. "She needs to separate it from the rest of her voice and learn, so she always has the top. Then when she wants to use the chest, she can [do it] without the voice sounding like mud."

"That is her problem, Leyla," says Tebaldi. "The chest -- too high. This falsetto is a joke. A crutch!"

"It is how I made my career, Renata! I sing so many Forzas for so many years, I forget them. How many did you sing? I think you can remember."

Luckily, at this point, Arcà comes to get Muti. Gencer hurls herself in front of him and kisses and pats him. I get Antonio Papi and introduce him to Tebaldi. He is wide-eyed and kisses both her hands.

"You are wonderful," she says. "You are like the young Siepi."

Papi is almost crying. "I grew up listening to your records," he says. "I am very sorry I won't be able to sing with you."

She looks him up and down. "You know, I am very sorry not to be singing with you!" She throws her head back and her laugh resounds around the theater. He and I both see the irresistible and beautiful young woman she was. And we get a hint of that glorious voice.

Meanwhile, De Ana is sitting at the production desk, his head in his hands. "He saw me work with Lukacs, this afternoon. He knows!" he cries. He's talking about the staging rehearsals, which Muti watched like a hawk. De Ana will later be criticized for the singers' immobility. But at the rehearsal, De Ana was killing himself trying to get Lukacs to move and emote in the convent scene. He was literally running around the stage, begging her to do something -- anything. She just watched him, like an iceberg implacably heading for the Titanic.

"I just told Maestro, she is like steel," grouses De Ana. "And you know what he said? 'Good. She will need to be made of steel to survive this first night.'"

La Scala Itself (Part II)

The Metropolitan Opera does seven performances a week for thirty weeks. There were twenty-three operas in the repertory during the 1998-99 season. Some played six or seven times; some (Aida, La Bohème) twenty or more times. The stringent American musicians' unions strictly define "services." Every player is restricted to so many services per week before ruinously expensive overtime kicks in. Both rehearsals and performances count as "services." There are essentially two orchestras and two choruses at the Met.

La Scala does ten to twelve operas a year, over ten months. Each plays six to eight times, alternating with ballets. A few that can be cast are brought back for three or four performances in the late spring or mid-fall.

Every opera gets three to five weeks' preparation, usually starting in the middle of the run of the opera being performed. Early rehearsals are held in an old movie theater, across town. It is too small, so the director frequently has to work with only extras, or only the chorus women, or only the principals.

Muti has built an exceptional orchestra. "That's nonsense!" cries one of his many detractors. "The orchestra was great under Abbado." But most of the men who played under Abbado have retired. Muti has replaced them with young men and women, many of whom have won major international competitions. He has trained them himself with the help of some of the older musicians. The orchestra has an "Italian" sound -- especially noticeable in winds and brass. But they pay automatic attention to inner voices and harmonic structure, fairly unusual in opera-house orchestras.

Muti has built a very comfortable and modern series of large and small rooms for the orchestra. But the chorus rooms are small, there are no large rehearsal rooms in the theater, and the dressing rooms, even those of the stars, are cubbyholes. There is also no way to store sets. With no electrically driven lifts, everything is worked manually by the stage crew.

At the Met, huge sets can be erected on the basement elevator and lifted into place for an almost instantaneous scene change. The set already in place can be slid backward into a huge space, or sideways into other huge spaces. At La Scala, every change, no matter how elaborate and complex, is made by hand.

"That is a big problem for us," says Arcà. "We would like to do more performances of more operas. But we must close for at least two weeks between operas (except for concerts), because to load in and then do the technical rehearsals takes all day. We will always be a 'stagione' house; but we could ideally keep that level of preparation and alternate two operas with the ballet, not just one."

In today's world, the day-to-day management of the Met is a model for every opera house. Most governments are cutting back on subsidies and asking tougher questions about where the money goes. Europeans on the younger end of the "baby boom," who are now in positions of power, lack their parents' unquestioning belief in the importance of "the arts." How far these new leaders will go remains unknown, but the disaster at Covent Garden and the near ruin of Russia's larger arts institutions have sent a chill through the world of subsidized theaters.

The Met makes do on a budget with government grants of less than 1 percent. Though box-office revenue is very important, ticket prices have kept pace with Broadway and, except for a relatively few gala evenings a season, are less expensive than in many European houses. Sections of the house are carefully divided into price ranges, but $150 will get you a good seat at the Met on an average night. Tickets for those seats are available at the box office. Since the house holds 4,000 people, there are often tickets available even for heavily subscribed evenings; and the house gives a goodly number of "non-subscription" performances.

Tickets at La Scala cost about $250 -- if you can get one. It is widely accepted by everyone in Milan that "ordinary people" cannot get tickets. "Bagarini" (scalpers) are pretty much the only way. They are used mainly by tourists. The box-office workers at La Scala are deliberately unhelpful. "This is our temple," says one, rebuking me for bad language, as I scream at him for refusing to give me my ticket, though he is holding the envelope in his hand and I have shown him my passport and Fontana's free pass.

"Yes, rudeness is a sacred rite here," I reply. Which means I have to get someone in management to accompany me to the box office and soothe the manager's feelings. But I am made to pay for that every time I walk in. Every night at the box office is an adventure; at the second Forza, two mature, heavy-set men hurl themselves to the floor and beat it in fury.

The Met gets about 35 percent of its funding privately; the other 65 percent comes from box-office revenue and earned income. There is a huge endowment. There is a massive fund-raising department. Of course, they do direct marketing, calling people at home. La Scala does none of that, nor does any other Italian theater. But they will have to. And the man who will try to bring this change about is Dottore Carlo Fontana.

"There are two words you should know in relation to Fontana," says one of his detractors -- "Lottananza and buon salotto." The first refers to the system by which managers of arts institutions in Italy make their way up the ranks. It has its particularly Latin characteristics, but a similar club exists in all systems where there is heavy government subsidy. People (usually men) get into this system through political allies. Once they win their spurs, they are set for life. They move from one theater to another. They are basically bureaucrats committed to their own survival and that of the club they belong to. Much occurs in secret; alliances form and dissolve, and there is often little accountability. People have a way of "failing upward," so long as they can stay alive, regardless of competence or culpability, even despite radical political change.

The buon salotto is sort of the old boys' club of Italy. These are the wealthy, the intricately connected, the all-powerful.

"Fontana belongs to both. He was one of the best of that old school," says one of the young bloods at La Scala, who of course will not speak for attribution. "He worked miracles at Bologna. The question is, can he carry this theater into the future? It is an entirely different game. He doesn't know the rules."

"Yes," Fontana barks, when I relay the remark. "It is a new game, and I have invented the rules!" He really hasn't wanted to talk to me. I've gotten him to let me into his office by mentioning Sergio Escobar.

Escobar, I've been told, is Fontana's greatest enemy. Both were bloodied under the old regime at La Scala. Both were kicked out. Rumor has it that Fontana intrigued until Escobar had to leave; Fontana tells me it was he who was given the boot, while Escobar stayed on -- until axed by somebody else.

Escobar has been building his own empire; after stints in Genoa, Bologna and Rome, he has ended up in Milan, at the Piccolo Teatro. That is Italy's greatest prose theater, the one carried to enormous heights by the late Giorgio Strehler (Escobar's predecessor).

Muti is doing more and more work at the Piccolo Teatro. He will conduct a revival of Strehler's production of Così Fan Tutte there and also a new production of Nina, ossia Pazza per l'Amore, both in the fall. Naturally the word is that Escobar wants both Fontana's blood and his job.

I'm told everybody who really wants to can get tickets to La Scala. However, there are only 2,000 seats and only so many performances, most subscribed to by people who hang on for decades. Fontana has made it impossible to buy tickets at the box office without presenting verifiable ID. That has made it hard for bagarini, but of course not impossible. Nothing is impossible in Italy.

Fontana tried to change the way the cheapest seats were sold. They would sell only over the phone and you would need a credit card. This was meant as a way to stop claques (Fontana did away with the official theater claque years ago) and prevent people from paying Singhalese and Gypsies to stand in line for their tickets, then scalping them.

One of the anti-Fontana, anti-Muti pamphlets that show up every day at the theater contains a story that a delegation of conservatory and university students implored Muti to veto Fontana's plan. Most were too poor to have credit cards, and some even lacked phones. The new regulation was rescinded. To the pamphleteers, this proves Muti is gullible and Fontana merely a figurehead. There is no comment on this from La Scala officials, and it is not a good idea to mention the pamphlets to anybody at the theater in any circumstances whatsoever.

For a top-secret meeting of general managers from most of Europe's opera houses, hosted by La Scala in 1995, Fontana wrote an article (leaked to me by a disgruntled ex-employee), the first sentence of which read, "2001, opera addio." The article was titled "Poker d'Assi della Lirica" -- poker with aces on the opera stage. It's a reference to the end of Act II of La Fanciulla del West, when Minnie defeats her adversary with three aces. One assumes it was not lost on Dottore Fontana that she does so by cheating.

It was Fontana who pushed forward changes in funding methods. Now La Scala gets 60 percent of its budget through subsidy (10 percent from the city of Milan and the Province of Lombardy, 50 percent from the national government). The rest is raised privately. Ordinary citizens do not get a tax break on "charitable contributions." "But no Italian pays all his taxes anyway," the pizza parlor owner says. The current thinking is that it will never work. "If I were to give money to anyone publicly, I'd have to disclose all my income, and only a fool would do that," says another Italian "taxpayer."

However, under present regulations (due to change in 2001), corporations get a 33 percent break from contributions to arts institutions. Fontana told the newspapers two years ago that Giorgio Armani would give a certain number of millions every year for the next three years to support Italy's great art heritage. That was news to everybody, especially Armani. A secret delegate was sent to Fontana, who sent a secret delegate back. In the end, Armani gave the money, leading the way for other big Italian multi-nationals to donate to La Scala. (Many of the great names of Italian industry sit on the company's board of directors, and money-raising plans are supervised by a professor of economics who got his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania.)

His handling of Armani has been held against Fontana in some quarters. It sounds like good old-fashioned hustling to me. It's what people in the arts do all the time in America. But to his critics, Fontana lost face and made La Scala look needy.

In any case, the laws will change. Fontana obviously hopes the deduction will go up -- and it will, if the government stays to the right. A swing to the left may do away with it entirely. It also is expected that state subsidies will be reduced another 9 percent, bringing the split to 51 percent state, 49 percent private.

Fontana's newest initiative is to open the sound archives of La Scala to a major record company to release the treasures there in superb sound. This was also news to a lot of people. But Michael Fine of Deutsche Grammophon was interested. He brokered a contract and has been searching the archives. "Of course, a lot of things have been stolen, and others are in terrible sound. So we are talking to pirates." Fine is optimistic that some great performances never released will be found and put out. But according to most of the managers in America, Fontana has yet to secure all the rights from the singers in the first releases.

"If I don't give my rights away, Fontana will shame me," says one singer -- "as if I owe La Scala. I assure you, he doesn't work for free. I don't either." I bet this singer, and everyone else, will cave in, in the end.

"You may be right," says my informant, "but this is costing Fontana something in his public standing. If he himself threatened these people to get money, in secret, that would be o.k. But you can't do it in public. Anyway, Fontana is an old fool. He talks about marketing, but at least one wonderful project was vetoed by him because it had the 'evil eye.'"

I repeat the story to the "old fool" Fontana -- a very youthful and handsome fifty. "Look, I let them do La Forza del Destino," says Fontana. "If we get through it with most of our fingers and toes, and only a few pets and great-grandparents die, we will be doing very well. And we have just hired a marketing consultant. Now, despite what my enemies say, I work. Good day."


ALBERT INNAURATO is a playwright and writer on music.

Part II of this article will appear in the August issue of OPERA NEWS.

Photos: All photos © Lelli & Masotti 1999 except; © John Wilkes 1999 (title background, top of page); © A. Tamoni 1999 (Fontana); 32: Opera News Archives ("Tickets at La Scala" interior), © Silvia Lelli Masotti (ticket line); © Roberto Masotti (interior, woman leaning on railing)

OPERA NEWS, July 1999 Copyright © 1999 The Metropolitan Opera Guild, Inc.

Inside La Scala: Temple of Music or Temple of Doom?

There was a time when La Scala figured crucially
in the careers of most major opera singers.
Now, however, it is regarded by many as a mismanaged circus.
Albert Innaurato recently went to Milan to get the real story.


"Muti is La Scala. You cannot separate the two."

La Scala has a hierarchical structure and a feudal feel.

Carlo Fontana Paolo Arcà

He opens the gold-framed glass doors. "This is our church."

Tickets at La Scala cost about $250 -- if you can get one. Gencer: "Let me sit with you and tell you about my Forzas!" "The house is always packed, but it is empty of significance."