In big cities and small towns, opera houses draw locals and tourists whatever the season

December 18, 2020
The appeal of opera is so universal, opera-goers flock to theaters to enjoy performances in languages they might not understand. Soaring notes from the orchestra, elaborate staging, evocative scenery, booming chorus numbers, and, of course, amazing vocal ranges of the divas can transcend most any language barrier.

Many operas have been composed by Italians -- Verdi, Puccini and Rossini, to name three notables -- so, no surprise opera performances are especially popular in Italy. Even modest-size cities and towns boast opera theaters, and tickets to their season's offerings are eagerly snatched up. Talent isn't lacking -- walk down a street in Italy and it's not rare to hear, in some apartment, a soprano perfecting her trills or a violinist practicing for that evening's performance. Ravenna is the home for the Riccardo Muti Italian Opera Academy, run by the maestro himself.

La Scala theater in Milan is the prima donna of Italian opera venues. Its annual gala premiere on Dec. 7 is a glittering occasion for Italian politicians and VIPS from the worlds of entertainment and business to turn out to be seen but also to enjoy the arias of some of the opera world's great composers. Dec. 7 is an official city holiday in Milan, so work appointments can't be an excuse for the Milanese crowd to skip opening night if they can snag a ticket, be it front-row or the stratospheric top tier, a haunt for opera buffs.

This year, La Scala's management tried its hardest to keep the appointment, but the revered cultural tradition in Italy's financial and design capital was forced to bow to the logistics of the pandemic, and it was decided to close the event to the public.

Still, so cherished is La Scala's season opening on Italy's cultural calendar, that the musical event was then planned in the form of concert to be broadcast on national TV that evening. Even without a live audience, such is La Scala's fame that superstar tenors like Placido Domingo and Roberto Alagna were featured on the bill.

But wonderful opera productions can be enjoyed in many venues in Italy that happily mesh music-loving tourists' itineraries.

In a bid to raise its profile, Rome's Teatro dell'Opera several years ago engaged Muti, who had a long-storied tenure as La Scala's music director, as honorary lifetime conductor.

In Venice, La Fenice is that magical city's opera house. La Fenice is Italian for "the phoenix," and, like its namesake, the theater rose from the ashes, sort of. It was rebuilt much along the design of the 1792 original design after a 1996 fire.

If Neapolitans are known for bursting out in song, it's no surprise that that southern, waterfront city is abundantly proud of its opera house, San Carlo. Described as Europe's oldest still functioning opera theater, less than a decade ago it reinvigorated its cultural presence by inaugurating "Memus," a combination museum and historic archives hosted by the city's Royal Palace.

Not to be outshone on southern Italy's opera scene is Palermo's Teatro Massimo. When it was open to the public in 1897, it was considered the third-biggest opera theater in Europe, after those in Paris and Vienna. After a two-decades' long closure for restoration, Teatro Massimo re-opened in 1997, with Claudio Abbado conducting the Berliner Philarmoniker.

With Italy's generally mild summer climate, opera lovers can combine their passion with open-air performances. What could be more romantic than taking in an opera in the ancient arena of Verona, the city of Romeo and Juliet? Looking forward to summer 2021, Verona's Arena is promising several operas, featuring Muti and other conductors, and singers with star power like Jonas Kaufmann, the German tenor.

For more romance, one can take in an "opera under the stars" at Macerata, a small city inland from the Adriatic in the Marche regions. A particularly fun time to go is around Aug. 10, the fabled "night of the shooting stars." In the countryside outside of Macerata, look up to the night sky to try to catch a glimpse of shooting stars zipping by.

One outdoor summer performance in Rome is legendary. In 1990, when Italy hosted the soccer World Cup, Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras teamed up for one of opera's most memorable nights, with the trio of tenors performing in the ancient Baths of Caracalla. The archaeological site is a popular summer choice for opera lovers, tourists and Romans alike for its dramatic backdrop. Rome's Teatro dell'Opera offers a rich variety of performances in the enchanting setting amid the ruins.