Opening of Milan’s La Scala

Crowning the already-rich theatrical life of Italy’s most cosmopolitan city, La Scala confirmed Milan as the most important operatic center in Italy.

Summary of Event

Milan’s theatrical traditions ran through the court life of the Sforza dukes and the Habsburg archdukes (first Spanish, then Austrian). In 1598, the Salone Margherita Salone Margherita (Milan, Italy) was opened in the Ducal Palace. Though soon complemented by the adjacent Teatro Ducale, as well as smaller theaters, the Salone Margherita set the city’s highest performance standards through the seventeenth century. It also established structural patterns for theaters: They were to incorporate a hall in horseshoe shape with “stalls,” or movable seating, at the front and standing space behind. This floor area, or parterre, was surmounted by tiers of boxes rented or owned privately by noble families, seating them apart from the lesser orders. [kw]Opening of Milan’s La Scala (Aug. 3, 1778)
[kw]Scala, Opening of Milan’s La (Aug. 3, 1778)
[kw]La Scala, Opening of Milan’s (Aug. 3, 1778)
[kw]Milan’s La Scala, Opening of (Aug. 3, 1778)
La Scala, Milan
Opera houses
[g]Italy;Aug. 3, 1778: Opening of Milan’s La Scala[2350]
[c]Music;Aug. 3, 1778: Opening of Milan’s La Scala[2350]
[c]Theater;Aug. 3, 1778: Opening of Milan’s La Scala[2350]
Piermarini, Giuseppe
Salieri, Antonio

After it was damaged by fire, the Salone Margherita was enlarged and refurbished in 1699. Renamed the Regio Ducal Teatro Nuovo, Regio Ducal Teatro (Milan, Italy) it operated until its destruction by fire in 1708. Only in 1717 was it replaced, when a group of Milan’s noblemen agreed to build a new house out of their own money, on condition that they own the boxes and in effect control the theater. This structure was named the Regio Ducal Teatro (or Teatro Regio Ducale). Teatro Regio Ducale (Milan, Italy) For more than half a century, it was the most important opera house in Italy, presenting the best singers of the day in Italian operas by composers both Italian and Austrian. The young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus composed and directed three of his early operas for it in the consecutive years 1770-1772.

On February 24, 1776, the Regio Ducal Teatro was completely destroyed by fire. Pending a replacement, a temporary theater, the Teatro Interinale, was built on the grounds of an old palace of Duke Bernabò Visconti (1323-1385). The theater’s designer was Giuseppe Piermarini. Foligno-born, he had recently built the Palazzo Reale and other important structures in and around Milan, establishing himself in the process as the city’s dominant architect during the latter decades of the eighteenth century.

In the summer of 1776, the committee of box-holders of the old Regio Ducal Teatro received authorization to build a proper, permanent replacement. Piermarini was again to be the architect, Architecture;La Scala and leading painters were assigned the decoration. Its location was the site of a derelict and decommissioned church neighboring the old Visconti gardens, at the beginning of the narrow but important street, the Contrada del Giardino—now the major Via Manzoni. The church had been known as Santa Maria della Scala, from its fourteenth century patron, Beatrice della Scala, daughter of the Scaliger (or della Scala) family of Verona, who had married Bernabò Visconti. The new building thus became known as the Regio Ducal Teatro alla Scala (the name refers to the old church, rather than to any “stair,” or scala, as might be supposed).

As designed by Piermarini, the building had a neoclassical facade, which it still maintains. A spacious lounge and foyers, now removed, allowed places for the gambling and refreshment concessions. Those antechambers gave access to the house, whose hall was only slightly deeper than the ample stage. Up until 1907, there was no pit for the orchestra. Instead, the seventy-member ensemble played on the same level as the parterre audience. On the parterre, movable chairs provided the forward stalls, leaving standing room behind. (Fixed seating was installed only in 1891.)

The theater’s horseshoe held five tiers of boxes for the social elite. There were 36 boxes in each of the first three tiers (plus the Royal Box) and 39 boxes in each of the other two tiers (added to 8 boxes on the stage itself, removed only in 1921), for a total of 194 boxes. Above all that was a gallery, or balcony, for paying ticket-holders. Each box had an antechamber and wardrobe, and in a nearby kitchen servants could prepare food for the box patrons. The theater’s construction had been financed by the sale of the boxes: They were officially owned by the box-holders, for whom, as a body, the theater was an investment. The total seating capacity of twenty-five hundred made La Scala (as it was soon commonly called) one of the larger theaters in Europe at the time.

For the opening on the evening of August 3, 1778, the inaugural opera was provided by the court composer of Habsburg Vienna, the then-illustrious Italian-born master, Antonio Saleri. His L’Europa riconosciuta
Europa riconosciuta, L’ (Saleri) (Europa recognized) called for all sorts of spectacular effects, intended to show off the house’s advanced stage mechanisms and facilities. In accord with Milanese taste and established theatrical practice, two ballets were performed between the acts, with music also by Salieri.

Barely a year after La Scala opened, it was given a partner, the Teatro della Cannobiana, Teatro della Cannobiana, Milan
Cannobiana, Teatro della, Milan named for its location adjacent to a school built in the sixteenth century by Paolo Cannobio. The Cannobiana was also designed by Piermarini and was inaugurated on August 21, 1779, with the performance of another opera by Salieri.

The interior of Milan’s La Scala Theater, c. 1900.

(Library of Congress)


As with any Italian opera house, La Scala was the city’s social arena: Its leading citizens on display in their boxes, lording it over the lesser types in the stalls or galleries. Struggles over what classes of people might be admitted to what parts of the seating became a symbolic social issue by the mid-nineteenth century. Above all, the theater served the city of Milan, Italy’s metropolis of international importance. It immediately provided the setting for festivities marking important moments of the day, such as Napoleon Bonaparte’s Napoleon I
Napoleon I;La Scala, Milan arrival there in 1797 to replace the Austrian rulers, as well as his celebratory appearance there as Emperor Napoleon I in 1805. La Scala’s stage served the presentation of a variety of patriotic and politically motivated spectacles for decades, as political circumstances allowed.

In addition to its location, La Scala’s size and splendor certified it as the leading opera house in Italy. It was scarcely challenged by the Teatro San Carlo in Naples or Venice’s Teatro La Fenice, much less smaller houses in Rome. Its managers and impressarios over the decades aggressively sought the best singers and brand new works from the leading Italian composers of the day. The names in each category are a “who’s who” of musicians of the next two centuries. For La Scala, Gioacchino Rossini composed five of his operas, Gaetano Donizetti composed seven, Vincenzo Bellini composed three, Giuseppe Verdi composed ten, and Giacomo Puccini composed three—to name only the most eminent among Italian operatic composers. La Scala also led Italian opera houses in staging (sometimes even commissioning) operas by non-Italian composers, from Richard Wagner onward, through the twentieth century. One of the engines of Italian opera, it remains among the handful of leading opera houses in the world today.

Ownership of the theater varied. After 1806, the box-holders and patrons shared rights with alternating state and municipal involvement, plus commitments to successive impresarios. In 1897, with the end of municipal subsidies, an independent syndicate was formed, and it was reestablished in 1920, at both points with Arturo Toscanini as the key artistic figure. Today, the theater enjoys a balance of private ownership and public subsidies.

Inevitably, the house has undergone physical alterations. There were extensive renovations in 1830, while there were further efforts to enlarge the seating space. Electric lighting was installed in 1881, replacing gas light (which had previously replaced candles). Demolition of the houses opposite its facade enhanced its external situation. Across the newly created Piazza della Scala, the theater then faced the entrance to the subsequently built Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele II and, through that, stood on an axis with the great Duomo, stressing the more La Scala’s place in the heart of central Milan. Then it suffered terrible bomb damange on August 13, 1943, during World War II. Rebuilding it became the city’s first postwar priority, and it was reopened on May 11, 1948, with a concert conducted by Arturo Toscanini.

Further Reading

  • Arruga, Lorenzo. La Scala. Translated by Raymond Rosenthal. New York: Praeger, 1976. Though a “popular” work in coffee-table format, lavishly illustrated, this book traces the theater’s history and glories quite thoroughly.
  • Donnà, Mariangela. “Milan.” In The New Grove Dictionary of Opera, edited by Stanley Sadie. Vol. 3. New York: Grove, 1992. Thorough survey of the city’s history in lyric theater, with bibliography (most titles in Italian).
  • Ferrari, Luigi, et al. Duecento anni alla Scala, 1778-1978. Milan, Italy: Electa Editrice, 1978. A lavishly illustrated catalog to an exhibition covering all aspects of the theater’s history and traditions; text in Italian, but still easy to use.
  • Museo Teatrale alla Scala. La Scala Theatrical Museum Guide. Milan, Italy: La Scala, 1992. Nicely illustrated introduction to the theater and its richly stocked archives and collections.
  • Norwich, John Julius, ed. The Italians: History, Art, and the Genius of a People. New York: Abrams, 1983. Chapters by six distinguished scholars, including good coverage of the epoch and contexts of La Scala’s contributions.
  • Pistone, Danièle. Nineteenth-Century Italian Opera from Rossini to Puccini. Translated by E. Thomas Glasow. Portland, Oreg.: Amadeus Press, 1995. Discussion of the idiom for which La Scala was so crucial, somewhat more analytical than Weaver’s book below.
  • Rosselli, John. The Opera Industry in Italy from Cimarosa to Verdi: The Role of the Impresario. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984. A leading historian of Italian opera analyzes the operation of lyric theaters in the era that comprehends the early decades of La Scala’s history.
  • Rossi, Nick. Opera in Italy Today: A Guide. Portland, Oreg.: Amadeus Press, 1995. Systematic survey which includes a good section on La Scala’s history and status (pp. 84-103).
  • Weaver, William. The Golden Age of Italian Opera: From Rossini to Puccini. London: Thames & Hudson, 1980. Handsomely illustrated and attractively written, a survey of the literature in whose creation La Scala played so important a role.

Gay Produces the First Ballad Opera

Covent Garden Theatre Opens in London

First Performance of Gluck’s Orfeo and Euridice

First American Theater Opens in Philadelphia

First Performance of The Marriage of Figaro

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Eighteenth Century</i><br />

Christoph Gluck; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. [p]La Scala, Milan
Opera houses