Drama & Glamour

Emiro del Qatar attending La Prima in 2007, From the collection of: Teatro Alla Scala
aka "The Prima"
No opera event possesses the grandeur, allure and sheer drama of the opening night of La Scala’s season, aka “The Prima”. Fur-clad megastars, doyens of the arts world and political dignitaries glide past police guards in plumed helmets and jostling camera crews. Meanwhile, protestors in Piazza della Scala rage against austerity measures, government policies and animal testing. During the build up to Italy’s premiere cultural event, the anticipation is typically immense. 
La Traviata opening night, 2013, From the collection of: Teatro Alla Scala

Exploration of the opera to be presented and speculation around who will attend keep newspapers occupied for weeks. And now, thanks to a programme of events taking place annually all over Milan, the one-time symbol of prestige has become a citywide carnival for all.

Poster - opening night 7 December 1951, From the collection of: Teatro Alla Scala
The “Prima” is born
In 1951, Victor de Sabata changed the date of La Scala’s opening night from 26th to 7th December, the day of the Milan’s patron saint. That year, Verdi’s I vespri siciliani featuring Maria Callas was performed.
I Vespri Siciliani, From the collection of: Teatro Alla Scala

The Greek soprano returned for an opening night performance of I vespri 19 years later. This time, however, she had come to hear Renata Scotto, her successor in the role of Elena.

I Vespri Siciliani, From the collection of: Teatro Alla Scala

That year, the Prima hit the front page of the Corriere della Sera for the first time. In less than a decade, the event had become the most important fixture in Italy’s cultural calendar.

Carolina di Monaco e il marito Casiraghi, La Carmen opening night 1984t dicembre, From the collection of: Teatro Alla Scala
Battle of the stylists
La Scala’s audiences are usually well dressed, but rarely better than at the Prima, a dinner-attire event. In 1954, a commission of stylists awarded a luxury garment to the most fashionable lady. The prize went to Contessa Dompé, for her 700,000-lire “India Misteriosa” dress.
Audience at La Prima opening night 1951, From the collection of: Teatro Alla Scala

Following the event, Prima outfits, ranging from the sumptuous to the zany, are typically talk of the town. In 1956, numerous women wore turquoise gowns designed by Curiel. An 18-year-old became the first audience member to don a miniskirt at La Scala in 1966. The following year, long-haired gentlemen sported Byronic cloaks.

Tristan Und Isolde, From the collection of: Teatro Alla Scala

After the show, guests are traditionally treated to a lavish feast. Following the opening performance of Patrice Chéreau’s 2007 production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde conducted by Daniel Barenboim, Milan’s Palazzo Reale was transformed into a castle for 850 diners.

Le Silfidi/concerto Dell'albatro/nozze - Le Nozze Di Aurora, From the collection of: Teatro Alla Scala
Champagne socialists
In 1972, La Scala’s socialist superintendent Paolo Grassi -- a man who kept a picture of Bertolt Brecht and a letter written by Antonio Gramsci from prison on his desk -- raised the price of Prima tickets from 60,000 to 91,600 lire. “This allows our theatre to create 15 performances at accessible prices,” Grassi said. Defending his decision not to relax the formal dress code, he said “In communist countries nobody dreams of presenting themselves in a pullover. The dark suit is a sign of respect for those that toil in the theatre”.
President Sergio Mattarella, 2019, From the collection of: Teatro Alla Scala
Deck the theatre
On opening night, the theatre, like the guests, is handsomely clad. In 1956, 6,000 pink carnations were hung from boxes. Three years later, that number had risen to 14,000. In 1960, to mark the approaching centenary of the union of the Kingdom of Italy, 16,000 flowers were adorned with tricolour ribbons. There were no flowers in 1966: instead, the budget was donated to victims of the devastating Venice floods.
Decoration of the central box, From the collection of: Teatro Alla Scala
The central box
It is customary for Italy’s President or Prime Minister, or even both, to occupy the Central Box, often accompanied by an entourage of ministers. Foreign dignitaries offer an additional veneer of prestige. For Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in 2007, Angela Merkel was the guest of honour.Occasionally, however, heads of state prefer to muck in with the rest. In 1955, President Giovanni Gronchi and his cohort eschewed the Central Box for seats elsewhere in the auditorium. President Sandro Pertini repeated the gesture in 1979. His designated place in the stalls was seat 18F.
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton at Un Ballo in Maschera, From the collection of: Teatro Alla Scala
Laying down the law
Will they come or will the not? Precisely which celebrities have secured tickets is often the subject of intense scrutiny. In 1960, Aristotle Onassis, Callas’s lover and one of the richest men in the world, turned up with music lovers Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier III of Monaco. Josephine Baker was present in 1971. Giorgio Armani and Sophia Loren attended in 2004. But, irrespective of fame, few are exempt from La Scala’s notoriously stringent rules regarding punctuality. Occasional exceptions are made. When, in 1972, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton arrived 10 minutes after the show had started, they were swarmed by paparazzi. Superintendent Paolo Grassi was furious. “Signora Taylor must learn that at La Scala one arrives punctually, because we are not a theatre of the provinces,” he said.
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton at Un Ballo in Maschera, From the collection of: Teatro Alla Scala
Eggs at furs
Passionate protestors that gather in Piazza della Scala make a stark contrast with the all round spectacle. In 1965, activists in the theatre’s loggione, organised by the baritone Giuseppe Zecchillo, released a shower of leaflets protesting against the interference of the disproportionate influence of theatre agencies in the world of opera. The Prima has had a strong political flavour ever since. In 1968, Prima tranquility was threatened by the wave of student protests then sweeping through Europe. Panicked, the theatre's management announced “evening dress will not be required”. Many guests stayed at home; others provocatively dusted off their tail coats. “Sickle and hammer, the bourgeoisie to the gallows,” cried the demonstrators, launching eggs at furs. More violent scenes followed in 1976, when 11 protestors were wounded in clashes with police.
Concerto Orchestra Sinfonica Rai Di Milano - Sinfonia N.6 In Si Min. Op.74 (patetica), From the collection of: Teatro Alla Scala
A citywide celebration
Milan’s most exclusive cultural event has gradually been opened up to a much broader audience. In 1976, public broadcaster Rai transmitted the Prima on live television for the first time, a tradition that continues today. In 2008, Superintendent Stephané Lissner opened the dress rehearsal exclusively to under 30-year-olds, now another annual tradition. In 2010, the first “Prima Diffusa” took place. With workshops, audio loops at Metro stations, exhibitions and maxi-screens relaying the performance live in over 30 locations, each December Prima fever now infuses every pore of the city. 
Credits: Story

Curated by James Imam and the Teatro alla Scala

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not represent the views of the institutions whose collections include the featured works or of Google Arts & Culture.
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