December 7 is St. Ambrogio (St. Ambrose) Day in Milan. He was so eloquent as bishop of Milan in the 4th century that bees were said to fly into his mouth, attracted by his honey tongue. This feast day of the city’s patron saint not only begins their annual Christmas market, it traditionally marks opening night of the winter opera season at the most prestigious opera house in the world, Teatro alla Scala.
The mother of Marie Antoinette, Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, was paramount in the building of La Scala in 1776. Austria ruled Milan at the time. The Santa Maria della Scala Church was originally on the site followed by Teatro Ducale, a theater destroyed in a fire. The La Scala, taking the name of the church, opened on August 3, 1778 with a sold-out performance of Antonio Salieri’s “Europa riconosciuta” (Europe recognized). Composer Salieri of the Verona region was a foremost figure in the development of late 18th century opera.
The La Scala has the largest stage in Europe, more than 2,800 seats arranged in six tiers of gilded box galleries and a gigantic chandelier. Seats include monitors so that the audience can follow the words in Italian, English and other languages. It hosts sumptuous and magnificent productions featuring the greatest operatic performers in the world. Giuseppe Verdi’s last opera, “Falstaff,” was performed in this theater. Virtually every great operatic composer, conductor and singer has performed at La Scala.
During WWII, La Scala was heavily damaged by bombing. It was rebuilt and reopened May 11, 1946 with the brilliant Arturo Toscanini conducting and the renowned soprano, Renata Tebaldi, on center stage. Again, Salieri’s “Europa riconosciuta” graced the stage.
Adjoining the theater is the Museo Teatrale with a fabulous collection of sets, costumes of past productions, portraits of conductors, and theatrical items dating back to Roman times. Also associated with the theater are a ballet company and school.
The stage of La Scala has hosted many of the world’s most famous and beautiful operas and ballets. Witnessing a performance here is surely something one could never forget.