Poor pay ends in discord at La Scala

ROME — Strike action at Milan’s La Scala could jeopardize the upcoming opening night gala at the famed opera house, where workers, musicians and their unions are on the warpath after months of stalled negotiations over pay conditions.

The La Scala Philharmonic went on strike on Friday, canceling a performance of Verdi’s “Requiem” conducted by Daniel Barenboim.

That highly-awaited concert, called off with apologies to ticket buyers, was supposed to cap a year of commemorations marking the 50th anniversary of the death of conductor Arturo Toscanini.

Now, if a deal between La Scala management and Italian unions representing its 800 employees — including 135 musicians and a 107-strong chorus — is not reached soon, its 2007/08 season-opener, the December 7 gala premiere of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” conducted by Barenboim, will also be cancelled. The La Scala gala is Italy’s biggest high-society event, attended by all its high and mighty, including the prime minister and the country’s president.

Italo culture czar Francesco Rutelli and Milan mayor Letizia Moratti have been scrambling to avert a crisis of such major proportions, along with La Scala general manager Stephane Lissner.

Musicians and stage hands say their pay has not been raised in seven years, the average salary for a musician in the La Scala Philharmonic now being Euros 2,300 ($3,300) per month, rising to Euros 3,000 ($4,384) per month for the orchestra’s senior members.

La Scala has said it has the resources to raise salaries thanks to a rise in box office receipts over the past seasons, which have seen the number of concerts grow from 164 in 2001 to 272 planned in 2007.

But Lissner, who has called the strike “unacceptable,” also said negotiations must be carried out with the government, since they are part of a larger nationwide agreement.

Meanwhile, the head of the city of Milan’s department for cultural affairs, Vittorio Sgarbi, has threatened to sue the unions for damages and proposed substituting the La Scala Philharmonic with the city’s other major ensemble, the Milan Symphony Orchestra.

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