The greatest personalities
The extraordinary history of La Scala Theatre, with its more than two centuries of legendary triumphs and sometimes epic downfalls, was created by men and women who were just as extraordinary. Composers, singers, orchestra conductors, ballerinas, librettists and impresarios have all spent within these walls some of the most important moments of their often adventurous, but always hard-working, committed and passionate lives. Here we offer you a tour through images and recollections of some of these unforgettable personalities.
The eight room (The museum was inaugurated in 1913)Teatro Alla Scala
Our journey through the discovery of the personalities who made La Scala's history begins with the contralto Giuseppina Grassini, who became famous not only for her undisputed vocal talents but also for her great beauty.
This miniature was amongst the most prized items put to auction in Paris by Giulio Sambon, which supplied the Museum with its original collection.
It was reproduced on the cover of the Museum’s first guidebook in 1913.
Grassini, seen here as Paër’s "Dido" in a portrait by Ferdinando Quaglia commissioned by Napoleon, was a singer greatly admired across Europe, and lover of both Napoleon and Wellington (after Napoleon’s defeat). The composer Nicola Zingarelli wrote the part of Juliet in his opera Giulietta e Romeo for her voice, while Domenico Cimarosa has dedicated to her the role of Horatia in Gli Orazi e i Curiazi, staged at the Fenice in Venice.
Portrait of the singer Giuseppina Grassini (1773-1850) by Ferdinando Quaglia (1780-1853)Teatro Alla Scala
Giuseppina Grassini was the teacher of another protagonist of our history: Giuditta Pasta. She played the lead role on that difficult evening in 1831 that saw the premiere of the opera Norma by the Sicilian composer Vincenzo Bellini. The performance was a complete disaster due to illness on the part of the performer but also because of the influence of a group opposed to the composer. The opera later went on to be a success and is today amongst the most important operas of the first half of the nineteenth century.
The singer was in fact a mezzo soprano. According to reports she had a tendency to sing flat on high notes. Because of this Bellini was obliged to lower by a whole-tone the pitch of the renowned aria “Casta diva” from Norma, in order to bring it into line with her vocal abilities.
Portrait of the singer Giuditta Pasta (1797-1865) (1831/1835) by François Gérard (1770-1873)Teatro Alla Scala
Giuditta Pasta sang also in the première of La sonnambula, Bellini’s other masterpiece at the Teatro Carcano. A lady of character, Giuditta Pasta was also patriotic. In a painting by Serangeli housed in the museum, the singer is seen holding the score for Rossini’s Tancredi open at the page of the famous aria “Di tanti palpiti”.
Portrait of the singer Giuditta Pasta (1797-1865) (1816/1817) by Gioacchino Serangeli (1768-1852)Teatro Alla Scala
Another great singer of Belcanto (beginning of 19th cenury) was Isabella Angela Colbran, (Madrid, 2 February 1785 - Castenaso, Bologna, 7 October 1845). The German painter Heinrich Schmidt in a portraits her wearing a costume for Mayr’s opera Saffo. At the time she was already known for her exceptional voice and beauty and her debut at La Scala in the role of Saffo launched her career in 1808. After that she dominated Italian theatre, particularly as she was protected by the Napoleonic court and by impresario Barbaja who would introduce her to Rossini. The author Stendhal, who did not think much of the singer, had to admit that she was “an imposing beauty...with great features which, against the light, seem irresistible, a magnificent figure, fiery eyes like a Circassian, a forest of hair of the most beautiful jet black, and finally, an instinct for tragedy.
This lady...as soon as she appears in public, her forehead adorned with a diadem, inspires in everybody an involuntary respect...”.
She became Rossini’s first wife and he wrote serious operas for her in the latter part of his career.
Portrait of the singer Isabella Angela Colbran (1785-1845) (First half of XIX century) by Heinrich Schmidt (1740-1821)Teatro Alla Scala
Among the most remarkable works of the museum is the marble bust sculpted by Antonio Canova (1757-1822) depicting Nicola Tacchinardi (Livorno, 3 September 1772 - Florence, 14 March 1859), a cellist and tenor highly appreciated in the first half of the XIX century. He made the first appearance at Scala in 1805 in Edoardo e Carlotta by Farinelli. In this bust Tacchinardi, who was also an amateur painter and loved to study sculptural poses to inspire his posture on stage, was portrayed by his friend Antonio Canova as an opera seria singer. Among the tragic roles in which he collected more success we can remember Orazi e Curiazi by Cimarosa and Cesare nelle Gallie by Niccolini. Not mentioned in Canova's list of works, the statue could be part of one of the sixteen unfinished busts listed in the famous Canova biography written by Leopold Cicognara.
Bust of the singer Nicola Tacchinardi (1772/76-1859) (First half of XIX century) by Antonio Canova (1757-1822)Teatro Alla Scala
Another woman who influenced the development of La Scala was Maria Malibran (1808-1836).. The portrait by Luigi Pedrazzi hides a secret: the singer holds in hand some flowers, whose initials (camelia, acanto, rosa, luppolo, olea fragrans) formed the name "Carlo", who was her secret lover, the violinist Charles Auguste de Bériot.
Portrait of the singer Maria Malibran (1808-1836) by Luigi Pedrazzi (?-1841/43)Teatro Alla Scala
The Museum also preserves a statue of Malibran, by Abbondio Sangiorgio.
Malibran was the surname of her French husband, an elderly banker whom she left after a year when they became bankrupt. Her maiden name was García. Her father, Manuel, had been the first to play the role of the Count of Almaviva in the première of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia in 1816.
The Museum’s archive houses the contract by which the famous comic opera was commissioned at the Teatro di Torre Argentina in Rome.
Bust of the singer Maria Malibran (1808-1836) (1934/1936) by Abbondio Sangiorgio (1798-1879)Teatro Alla Scala
Amongst the greatest interpreters of lyric theatre of the nineteenth century was soprano Giulia Grisi, (Milan, 22nd May 1811 –Berlin, 29th November 1869), the sister of mezzo soprano Giuditta Grisi, cousin of ballerina Carlotta Grisi, and niece of Giuseppina Grassini. A whole family of artistic women!
After an unfortunate marriage to Count Gérard de Melcy, she married the famous singer Mario de Candia. Both Rossini and Bellini knew and admired her. At La Scala in 1831, Giulia was the first to play Adalgisa in Bellini’s Norma, alongside Giuditta Pasta in the lead role.
The Museum’s archive has the singer’s original passport.
Portrait of the singer Giulia Grisi (1811-1869) (First half of XIX century) by AnonymousTeatro Alla Scala
Giuseppe Verdi (Le Roncole, 10 October 1813 - Milan, 27 January 1901) was strictly linked to La Scala. Our theatre launched him as a newcomer and staged his late masterpieces as a world premiere.
Lodovico Pogliaghi portraited the composer in this bassorilievo in 1930.
Bassorilievo of Giuseppe Verdi by Lodovico PogliaghiTeatro Alla Scala
The entire Museum contains traces of the presence of Giuseppe Verdi including the portrait of the composer made by Francesco Torriani.
Portrait of the composer Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) (First half of XIX century) by TorrianiTeatro Alla Scala
If we talk about Verdi, we cannot fail to mention Giuseppina Strepponi. Appearing in this first performance of Nabucco in 1842, which launched the young Verdi in Europe, she became his muse, second wife and lifelong companion.
Portrait of the singer Giuseppina Strepponi (1815-1897), second wife of Giuseppe Verdi, 1842 by AnonymousTeatro Alla Scala
Another woman who was important in Verdi's life was Teresa Stolz, his favourite singer. She performed regularly at La Scala between 1865 and 1877. The role of Leonora in the second version of La forza del destino was created for her. She performed in the première of the 4 act version of
Don Carlos in italian. She was the first to play Aida in Italy (8th February 1872) and performed in the Messa da Requiem (2nd May 1874), both at La Scala, and took part to all the European performances of that great sacred work under the direction of Verdi himself.
Portrait of the singer Teresa Stolz (Second half of XIX century) by GariboldiTeatro Alla Scala
Another competent performer of Verdi's operas was Adelina Patti. He wrote of her: “When I heard her sing for the first time in London (she was then 18), I was astonished not only by her marvellous execution, but by some of the scenes in which she revealed herself to be a great actress”.
Portrait of Adelina Patti (1843-1919) by GariboldiTeatro Alla Scala
Another individual linked to Verdi was Francesco Tamagno, who was Otello during the first show of the opera in 1887. After the show, Verdi and Tamagno appeared on the balcony of the composer's room, at the Grand Hotel et de Milan, and the singer intoned some pieces of the opera.
Bust of the singer Francesco Tamagno (1851-1905) (1896/1896) by Gianbattista AlloatiTeatro Alla Scala
An important period of the Theatre's history is represented by Eleonora Duse (1858-1924), one of the greatest actress of all times. She was born in Vigevano, near Pavia, to actor parents from the Veneto region. She debuted at the age of five as Cosette in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Her life was spent travelling with the great acting companies of Italy, Europe and America.
Lover and performer of the works of poet, writer and playwright Gabriele d’Annunzio, she was able to delve deeply into the psychology of female roles with great efficacy.
Portrait of Eleonora Duse by Eduardo KaulbachTeatro Alla Scala
Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957), depicted by Arturo Rietti, came to La Scala in 1887 as a cellist for the première of Verdi’s Otello. Four years later he returned as conductor for four exciting concerts. Then in 1898, he was called in to open the season with Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnmberg.
In the first 30 years of the twentieth century, he made an absolutely serious mark on productions at La Scala and on the reorganisation of theatre life.
The legendary maestro, was a promoter in Italy not only of Italian opera, but also of Wagner and German symphonic works.
In 1946, after his voluntary exile to the US, he returned to post-war La Scala to popular acclaim, with a famous concert for the rebuilding of the theater after bombings had destroyed the roof.
Portrait of the conductor Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) (First half of XX century) by Arturo Rietti (1863-1943)Teatro Alla Scala
Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) is the heir to the great era of Italian opera. His link with Milan had always been strong, as he had studied at the Conservatoire there. He had three world premières at La Scala: Edgar, Madama Butterfly (without success) and Turandot (after his death). The Theatre had another disappointment in store for him. On 29th April 1924, a few months before his death, Toscanini refused him admittance to the dress rehearsal for Boito’s Nerone probably because of some prior criticism that had escaped him about his colleague's work, even though they were good friends and Toscanini had conducted four of his operas as world premières.
Portrait of the composer Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) (1906/1906) by Arturo Rietti (1863-1943)Teatro Alla Scala
Leyla Gencer (Istanbul 10th October 1928 - Milan 10th May 2008) was a Turkish who had the misfortune of making his debut in a historical period where artistic divas such as Renata Tebaldi and Maria Callas were blossoming. But despite being often relegated to the second cast or even to the role of "double without the right to act" (which meant being ready to replace the main singer but only in case of defection, such as at La Scala in 1958, year in which Gencer was ready to replace Maria Callas in Anna Bolena but did not sing a single play), she had an extraordinary career. Before Montserrat Caballé, Sutherland and Sills, she was the first promoter of the "Donizetti Renaissance" which allowed to rediscover works long forgotten and since then included in the repertoire of many theatres.
Portrait of the singer Leyla Gencer (XX century) by Giuseppe Del VecchioTeatro Alla Scala
Franco Corelli (Ancona, April 8, 1921 - Milan, October 29, 2003) was blessed with a voice of absolute importance and ranged in a repertoire that went from romantic production to Verismo. At La Scala he made his debut in 1954 in La vestale by Spontini next to Maria Callas, and in the following decade he was the interpreter of numerous works. He was the protagonist of historical productions, among which we must remember at least the resumption in modern times of Gli Ugonotti in 1962, conducted by Gianandrea Gavazzeni who, like other famous directors, he appreciated it and sought his collaboration.
Portrait of the singer Franco Corelli (XX century) by Pietro GubertiTeatro Alla Scala
Among the testimonies of the history of dance the museum preserves a portrait of Rudolf Nureyev (1938-93) by Attilio Melo. The great Russian ballet dancer who fled to the West débuted at La Scala on 9th October 1965 in Prokof’ev’s Romeo and Juliet. He returned the following year with Margot Fonteyn for the “pas de deux” from The Lady of the Camellias by Frederick Ashton. In 1970, the hard tempered artist clashed with the corps de ballet, who nevertheless had begun to adore him. He regularly performed in Giselle at La Scala. He danced with Luciana Savignano and Carla Fracci to choreography by Maurice Béjart. He was a regular during the 1970s, by popular request. In 1980, he famously staged his own Romeo and Juliet. In The Nutcracker, he danced two roles: Drosselmeyer and the Prince. Then came Don Quixote, La Sylphide and The Lesson.
Rudy the Tatar danced “until his final breath”, his extraordinary life prematurely cut short at the age of 54.
Portrait of Rudolf Nureyev (First half of XIX century) by Attilio MeloTeatro Alla Scala
Enrico Caruso (1873-1921) needs no caption or introduction. To everyone he is the tenor par
excellence, and certainly one of the greatest. His timbre was powerful, dark, of great beauty and dramatic force. His portrait in the museum is sculpted by Filippo Cifariello. The great singer did not perform at La Scala very often, singing once La bohème, once Boito’s Mefistofele and above all a triumphant L’elisir d’amore as well as Franchetti’s Germania.
He became extremely famous especially abroad, in particular in America. Not everyone is aware that the singer was one of the investors in 1911 who helped acquire Sambon’s legacy which made up the original core collection of the still in progress La Scala Theatre Museum.
Bust of the singer Enrico Caruso (1873-1921) by Filippo Cifariello (1865-1936)Teatro Alla Scala
Undisputed protagonist of La Scala scene was soprano Maria Callas (1923-77). She was an extraordinary artistic phenomenon well beyond the world of singing, opera and music itself. Her portrait is signed by Ulisse Sartini. This great Greek-American soprano, who became an Italian citizen, owes the building of her dramatic, musical and popular mystique mainly to La Scala.
Her career at the Milanese theatre lasted for 10 and a half years, from 1950 to 1961. From around 40 roles, 23 were at La Scala of which 6 were 7th December premières.
She had a voice full of Greek tragedy, all nerves and anxiety, made for divine roles like "Norma", or for ambitious, evil women like "Lady Macbeth" (Verdi) or witches like Cherubini’s "Medea".
She was queen of the downtrodden, seething with pain to the point of madness, able to produce thousands of shades and nuances. Empathy with the characters she portrayed led her to involve us in her own unhappiness, that internal pain so inexplicable in such a successful woman.
Portrait of the singer Maria Callas (1923-1977) by Ulisse Sartini (1943- )Teatro Alla Scala
The soprano Renata Tebaldi (1922-2004) is remembered as one the greatest lyrical performer of all time. She is considered a Verdi and Puccini specialist. She débuted in a 1946 concert at La Scala which had only just been rebuilt after suffering bomb damage. On that occasion, Toscanini apparently said: “Let the Heavens descend to me this voice of an angel”.
In the 1950s when La Scala seemed to prefer Maria Callas, Tebaldi received enthusiastic reviews everywhere, beginning with the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. The New York Metropolitan Opera became the main stage for her art, but she was in demand everywhere.
Reports point to a presumed rivalry between her and Maria Callas, which may have started during a joint tour of Brazil. Tebaldi told of being urged by fans to sing a few encores, but this was seen as a slight, given her colleague had wanted to sing those pieces. The two great lyrical singers denied any disagreement and besides, there was a reconciliation in 1968 when Callas openly praised the other during a performance.
Portrait of the singer Renata Tebaldi (1922-2004) (Second half of XX century) by Ulisse Sartini (1943)Teatro Alla Scala