Waiting in the din of whispers, I gently stroke the velvet. I am distracted by the pantheon of strangers’ faces in the round. Some peeking out from behind balconies, others grimacing with restlessness. I see them appear and disappear, flickering like sputtering lamp lights. But the orchestra begins to play, and finally – silence. Tremors excitedly ripple through the curtain.
Carmen. Giselle. Turandot. Swan Lake. The sets change, the music crescendos. The audience croons, leaning forward, almost as if to reach out to touch the actors, singers, dancers. And what a thrill when the audience rises, frenzied, to give their standing ovation. Nureyev, Carla Fracci, Roberto Bolle. Almost mythological beings who have lived and breathed in this space without time: the Teatro alla Scala.
Today its doors – and curtain, like those of many other theaters throughout Italy, is closed. The musical shrine, with its neoclassical flourish, sits firmly planted in the piazza, atop the ashes of what once was the Church of Santa Maria alla Scala. The cultural crown jewel shimmers in the dark, alone, enveloped in the same darkness that grips the crowd just before Act I. Throngs of elegant opera-goers, carriages, taxis – all missing. Today is December 7, the official opening day of the season, and yet this year – nothing. A sight unseen since World War II.
Since its creation in 1778, La Scala has been respected as an institution – on an international scale, a nexus of encounters, a site of artistic excellence. Not just a stage for operas, it serves as a literary salon, a place for encounters of political and social significance. You never know who you might meet, by chance, from one showing to the next.
Of the most memorable encounters at La Scala are those with the 80 or so “theater masks.” They are the men and women who rush, undisturbed, through the aisles – who welcome you, take your ticket, usher you to your seat, and guarantee that all goes as planned. Their dark, suited silhouettes are punctuated by white gloves and shining badges. They are the eyes and ears of the theater; all-knowing, they bear witness to every sound, on-stage and off. They are the ones to help you remove your jacket as you rush in from the cold, the ones who hold the keys. If you arrive past showtime, theirs are the gazes you’ll fall under as you wait in the lobby.
If you arrive on time, on the other hand, your seat is secured. An usher takes you to the second row on the right – and wonder is restored. There you find yourself in the historic box seats, that, until 1920, were marked in the government’s land registry. Each had its respective owner – who had the creative liberty to decorate to his liking. The del Viceré box, for instance, is still painted and upholstered in the theater’s original palette: light blue and gold.
The theater was designed all’Italiana – conceptualized with care, to best amplify the sounds from the stage, and from the pit – as a symphony of ivory boxes with one window to the stage, and one to the aisles. But with its design came the possibility for mischief and secrets, too. Each Box is weighted in history, and to enter is to hear the whispers of the past. As legend has it, one particular audience member used dance from one column to another throughout performances, hiding behind each in the darkness. Box 13 is covered, floor-to-ceiling, with mirrors – and seems to serve precisely his purpose: to spy, undisturbed, on theater-goers. Box 16 belonged to Pietro Verri, founder of Il Caffè magazine; Box 14, which belonged to Count Luigi Renato Porro Lambertenghi and the Confalonieri family, was the site of many a suspect meeting between the likes of Silvio Pellico and Giovanni Berchet.
During Austrian rule the theater was cast under a new light: the grand Lumiera chandelier, made from Murano glass, dripping with crystals and lit from more than 400 oil lamps, was replaced – an electric light taking its place. The inspiration behind this change was not just stylistic, it was also practical. Under brighter light, it was easier to surveil theater-goers. Historically, theaters have been the site of revolution – a place for groups like the Carboneria in the 1800’s, and the student movement of 1968, to meet and organize under the cloak of darkness. Lift the theater’s dark, glamorous veil and you’ll uncover even more magic, where the shows come to together and come to life – in rehearsal rooms, dressing rooms, between the wings.
The theater has always been the site of a “collective rite.” Just as each of us has an identity that has been formed by interactions with others; we are strengthened and molded by otherness. The Ancient Greeks, in fact, thought the theater gave the gift of catharsis – by passing through a theater, you underwent the magical rite of purification, were liberated from your passions, ensconced in the play, where tragic mimesis peaks. The theater is all-encompassing; it is word and image, music and silence, the mind and body of society. Perhaps for this very reason, during a time when gathering places are off-limits, our thoughts wander to theaters, cold and empty; just like us, they lack buzz, passion, and dialogue. One can only hope that the whispers of the past still trickle out from each of La Scala’s boxes from time to time, keeping each other company as they mingle in the dark.
Translation by Anna Carolan