Music In Milan: A Night At The Opera

Milan prides itself on its diverse music scene, touching on old and modern genres alike. Whilst several Italian artists and popular songs are well-known abroad, it may seem that most international music is not quite as appreciated in the country. This is a misleading belief as Milan has seen a ‘cultural rebirth’ over the last few years, holding a leading position amongst European destinations. Milan is connected to the rest of the world and is constantly welcoming creative sparks. If you’re a live music fan planning to visit, Milan is the place to be.

And there is no better place to start than the opera. Translated as ‘product of work’, opera finds its home in Italy. I want to focus this Music March segment on this unique and complex musical and theatrical genre. Though I cannot provide an intensive course of lyrical Italian (which can be challenging even to native Italian opera fans), I do have some vital information to give you before you head to your night out!

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Grand interior (credit: architecturaldigest.com)

Verdi, Bellini, Puccini, Donizetti… the list of Italian opera composers is long. No wonder, when you consider that melodrama was born in this country even before the state of Italy itself. While opera rose to popularity in Rome and Venice, the Milanese Teatro alla Scala (founded in 1778) is often regarded as the most important opera theatre in Italy. The opening of the lyrical season, taking place on 7th December (the day dedicated to Saint Ambrose, the local patron saint) is one of the country’s most important and prestigious events and is regularly attended by many celebrities.

Traditionally, the theatre’s programme alternates between melodramas, ballets, and classical music concerts. This year’s lyrical season  – running from early March to late June – features Verdi’s La Traviata, Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Master-Singers of Nuremberg), Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie), Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Die Entführung aus dem Serail (Il Serraglio) and Puccini’s La Bohème.

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La Scala in the 19th century

While most of these operas were composed in Italian, Teatro alla Scala’s programme also features works in other languages, usually German or French. In operatic works, it was customary for the music and the lyrics to be written by different people, the composer often getting the most recognition. Each work’s language is typically related to the nationality of the ‘librettist’, the writer. This explains why several of the Austrian Mozart’s operas were written in Italian. In fact, Italy has given birth to many prominent libretto writers, such as Pietro Metastasio, Lorenzo Da Ponte and Arrigo Boito. The authors were often requested to work abroad, in places like Paris or Vienna, other major ‘opera capitals’. Sometimes, a libretto could be written prior to even being given the music!

Needless to say, opera has still got its own superstars, and the fact that most works are sung in Italian, German and French does not prevent international singers from becoming experts in their field. Since most opera works were written some centuries ago, even a fluent speaker may have a hard time understanding all of the lyrics, partly because the voices do not follow a natural intonation.

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A rare photo of Giuseppe Verdi in front of La Scala, Milan 1890.

Therefore, whether you know Italian well or not, every opera attendee is highly recommended to read a synopsis of the show beforehand. Unlike prose, it is best to have a good idea what the opera is about from the start, to avoid getting lost in the music, the arias, and the plot. There is no need to read the complete libretto beforehand as most opera theatres now provide LCD screens displaying the lyrics as they are sung onstage. Purists may frown upon this innovation but it has definitely made things simpler!

Language aside, opera is an intrinsically diverse genre, reflecting a range of traditions in both music and drama. Similarly to ballet, it tends to stick to tradition and strict formal rules with the director’s style often impacting the final performance. Furthermore, it is not unheard of for opera to be reinterpreted in more ‘experimental’ ways. After all, opera has recently lost part of its stereotypical aloofness, becoming more accessible and attracting a wider audience, even offering opera courses to amateurs. Nonetheless, we are still talking about the most elegant theatre in the capital of Italian fashion. As such, it is best to dress up for the occasion: few forms of art are as appearance-conscious as opera, and this is true both on-and off-stage.

One last thing – don’t forget to book your tickets! From locals to occasional visitors, every performance at Teatro alla Scala draws a wide audience, easily filling up all its 2030 seats. I recommend an advance booking at least one month prior to your arrival. You can make your reservation via the theatre’s official website, choosing the performance you want to attend and proceeding to the payment. Those who are planning a longer stay and/or are frequent attendees can opt for a season ticket, the price of which will vary according to the seat and the time of the year. Otherwise, you can buy your tickets in a selection of offices all across Italy. Don’t miss this unique opportunity to enjoy the Italian Opera!

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Inspired by the exterior of La Scala, my illustration of it