Daniel Barenboim appealed to Italy's president to protect the country's cultural institutions from planned budget cuts in unprecedented remarks from the orchestra pit before raising the baton on Richard Wagner's "Die Walkuere" for La Scala's gala season premiere Tuesday.
La Scala's exacting audience — filled for the season premiere with leading political, cultural and business figures — showered Barenboim, the singers and director Guy Cassiers with 14 minutes of applause and bouquets of flowers after the performance.
But ire over the government spending cuts, not only to cultural activities but also to higher education, spilled over into the piazza outside, where students clashed with police swinging clubs. Smoke bombs and tear gas were lobbed during the clash and police reported 14 officers suffered minor injuries.
Hundreds of opera house workers from Genoa, Rome, Florence and elsewhere protested peacefully nearby as VIPs arrived for the social event of the Milanese season.
Inside, Barenboim, who has the unofficial title of principal guest conductor of La Scala, appealed to President Giorgio Napolitano, sitting in the royal box, to invoke protection of Italy's cultural assets as called for in the country's constitution.
"For that title, and also in the names of the colleagues who play, sing, dance and work, not only here but in all of the theaters, I am here to tell you at what point we are deeply worried for the future of culture in the country and in Europe," Barenboim said, addressing the head of state, who was flanked by Milan's mayor.
The theater erupted in applause, with Napolitano joining in.
Opera house officials say the government plans to slash €5 million ($6.64 million) from La Scala's budget in 2010 and possibly twice that next year — part of large-scale cuts to the nation's cultural institutions that have threatened to bring down the curtain on several Italian opera houses. The actual cuts won't be known until later this month.
Economic Development Minister Paolo Romani, who was in the audience, said a compromise could still be found.
"We hope with that we can find a remedy, even if there are many problems and the rigor that Europe asks of us is fundamental," Romani said.
Union officials met Monday with La Scala's general director, Stephane Lissner, who has publicly opposed the cuts, especially to La Scala, which has significantly decreased its dependence on state funds in recent years.
La Scala's €115 million ($153.67 million) annual budget is 60 percent covered by ticket sales, private donations and other activity — with 25 to 30 percent coming from the national government in Rome and the balance from the city and province of Milan.
Lissner said the premiere of "Die Walkuere" represents "an important evening for the culture of this country."
Speaking to reporters after the performance, Barenboim said he believed that the economic crisis had endangered all European cultural activity, as governments sought easy cuts to try to bring their budgets under control.
"Culture is not a luxury. It is not something only aesthetic. It is ethical. Human ethics are expressed truly in culture, in music, in opera, in theater. It is ridiculous to think you can resolve economic problems by cutting culture," Barenboim said.
Cassiers' use of video, including the opening scene where Siegmund and Sieglinde discover each other, reportedly angered some of the singers who worried the character's emotions were being overshadowed.
But Cassiers said after the performance that reports of discord were exaggerated. In fact, mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier who sang the role of Sieglinde walked over during the curtain calls to bring Cassiers out on stage.
Cassiers said his goal is to bring all disciplines and technologies together on stage "to create a universe."
"The most important thing for me on stage is not the set, is not the light, is not the visuals. It's the singers. The singers are the guide ... to stimulate you, to get you as close as possible to the material Wagner offers," Cassiers said recently.
Lighting director Enrico Bagnoli, whose work often gave a sense of motion to the set, said he was surprised by how well the production was received.
"I always thought it wasn't a very technological show. We used the media of today to tell a story. I am happy that the public understood. This is a group that didn't want to create provocations. They wanted to do suggestive images to create a state of mind," Bagnoli said.
"Die Walkuere" stars some of the most famous Wagnerian singers, including soprano Nina Stemme as Bruennhilde and mezzo-soprano Meier in the soprano role of Sieglinde — both of whom received shouts of appreciation. New Zealand-born tenor Simon O'Neill appears as Siegmund and Ukrainian bass Vitalij Kowaljow as Wotan, while Ekaterina Gubanova sings the role of Fricka and John Tomlinson is Hunding.