MILAN — Daniel Barenboim appealed to Italy's president to protect the country's theaters from planned budget cuts in unprecedented remarks from the orchestra pit before raising the baton on "Die Walkuere" for La Scala's gala season premiere Tuesday.
As often is the case at Milan's famed opera house, some offstage drama was punctuating the musical performance.
Even before the opening notes were played, students and police clashed briefly in the square outside the theater. Youths, many of them wearing helmets, scuffled with police swinging clubs. Smoke bombs and tear gas were lobbed during the clash, and two police officers were treated at the scene for minor injuries.
Some students — who for months have been protesting university reforms and budget cuts throughout Italy — carried banners proclaiming solidarity with those protesting funding cuts in the culture world.
Hundreds of opera house workers from Genoa, Rome, Florence and elsewhere protested peacefully nearby as VIPs arrive 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 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 Dec. 20.
"This is an attack on the whole cultural world, not just La Scala," said Giancarlo Albori, a CGIL labor confederation official who helped organize the protests. "It is a tragedy for Italian culture."
Union officials met Tuesday 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 and private donations — with 25 to 30 percent coming from the national government in Rome and the balance from the city and province of Milan.
Barenboim said in recent remarks that "Die Walkuere" is for him the true center of Wagner's "Ring" cycle, though technically it is the second of the four operas, after "Das Rheingold," which Barenboim conducted at La Scala in May.
"Rheingold is a masterpiece, I don't want to be misunderstood" Barenboim said. "But Wagner with his complexity wrote naturally something that is more important than a simple introduction. It remains a great prologue."
The production has been staged by Belgian director Guy Cassiers, who has introduced video into the production, reportedly angering some of the singers. 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.
"Die Walkuere" stars some of the most famous Wagnerian singers, including soprano Nina Stemme as Bruennhilde and mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier in the soprano role of Sieglinde. New Zealand-born tenor Simon O'Neill appears as Siegmund and Ukrainian bass Vitalij Kowaljow as Wotan.