The view from the top


By Rod Webb

Opera in Italy involves more than music. ROD WEBB reports from Milan.

It's 8.15 on the morning of the second 1991 performance of La Scala's favourite opera, Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata. I have scored sixth place in the queue — la fila — for the 150 standing room tickets in the loggione, the highest galleries at each end of a "U" which abuts the stage of Italy's premier opera house.

My arrival is recorded by Vittorio, a young man who has never paid full price in all the times he's been to La Scala. He took charge of today's unofficial lista with much the same sense of honour as I imagine his ancestors became seconds in duels of yore. A middle-aged woman, known only as "La Signora di Brescia", had been the first to arrive, at 7.30. The retired gent behind me reminisced dreamily of the days when queues formed round the block for days before a Toscanini performance.

Vittorio says we must wait there for an 11 a.m. rollcall and return at intervals throughout the afternoon. At 5 p.m. the queue will form into the order on la lista, and tickets will go on sale at 7 p.m.

The list is full by 11. The atmosphere is exhilarating. For these people, opera is a part of life, not an occasional diversion. The fans who bestowed the titles of La Divina and La Stupenda upon Maria Callas and Joan Sutherland entered this theatre not through the front door, but through the same side entrance that faces us today.

At 3 p.m. an Australian back-packer pays $US50 to a young scalper to take his place in line. (Two nights earlier, I saw a scalper refuse $US300 for a ticket five minutes before curtain.) I'm invited to sign a framed mini-placard of tonight's program inscribed "From the loggionisti of La Scala to Tiziana Fabbricini", the soprano who will sing the leading part. Vittorio disappears briefly and returns brandishing Fabbricini's autograph.

He also receives an unexpected gift, presumably for maintaining la fila in a country not known for queuing: a ticket to enter through the front door. Vittorio is embarrassed, insisting he prefers the company of those who know and love opera. Besides, he's dressed for comfort, not for show. Perhaps he was there last December when animal liberationists sprayed furred first-nighters with tomato juice.

The moment arrives. Order remains until we've exchanged 5000 lire (about $A5) for the precious ticket and begun the final stampede up the stairs. The slower ones flatten themselves against the wall to avoid being crushed. Reaching the top, the regulars claim their favourite spots and ready themselves with binoculars and identical, well-worn, miniature copies of the opera's libretto, saved from 1990 performances of this same production or — who knows? — von Karajan's and Zeffirelli's 1964 version.

The official program catalogue — four times the cost of the tickets we've queued 11 hours for — contains the libretto and advertisements for champagne, haute couture, fast cars and Mozart chocolates. The young women next to me make do with a priceless pre-curtain oral synopsis from the one of their number who is a regular loggionista.

Riccardo Muti guides the orchestra through the exquisite prelude and ignores the annoying applause as the music enters the first act without pause. In perfect union, the loggionisti admonish the stalls clappers with a loud, derisory hiss. The opera's story, of a courtesan who betrays her lover for the sake of social acceptance, won't impress the loggionisti as much as the beautiful music.

At intermission, the word around me was that tenor Vincenzo La Scola could be a "piccolo Pavarotti", baritone Juan Pons is wonderful as usual, and it's far too soon to declare 29-year-old Fabbricini the new Callas promised by the publicists. In the opposite loggione, Vittorio was in animated conversation with his fellow enthusiasts, no doubt relieved at having avoided a brush with the polite company below. I suspect the feeling was mutual.

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