Nationalist Italy is ousting foreign opera chiefs

Nationalist Italy is ousting foreign opera chiefs


norman lebrecht

May 07, 2023

Stéphane Lissner is closeted with lawyers this week, searching for ways to save his job as sovrintendente at Naples after the Meloni government passed a law requiring holders of such offices to retire at 70. Lissner turned 70 in January.

Dominique Meyer, French boss of La Scala, will turn 70 in two years’ time.

Alexander Pereira was recently forced out of Florence.

Italian opera is being turned towards xenophobia.


  • John Edwards says:

    What does this have to do with xenophobia? It’s explicitly to do with age

    • Chicagorat says:

      It has everything to do with xenophobia, but you have to follow Italian affairs more closely to see it. The Italian government is a neofascist and xenophobic government and it is acting to nationalize Italian theaters, supported by key allies in regional governments.

      First of all, the Governor of Regione Campania, De Luca, one of two most important stakeholders sitting on the Board of Teatro San Carlo (the other being the Mayor of Naples), had long since declared war on Lissner and wanted Muti to replace him, according to a Corriere interview: “We have a Superintendent who is not Italian”.

      Vittorio Sgarbi, Culture Undersecretary, leveraged the mediatic spotlight of the La Scala opening night this season to make programmatic xenophobic statements: “Enough foreigners” in Italian theaters, citing La Scala. He said he had “discussed the matter with Muti”.

      And what did the Italian Stallion say?

      Muti declared: “Too many foreigners in Italy, there has been an invasion in opera theaters”. “A servile attitude … to bend the knee to the foreigner”.

      He also was quick to kiss the ring of the neofascist government: “There are capable men of culture on the right […] the left has disappointed”

      ” … from dictatorships, wonderful shoots were born as a contrast …” (“dalle dittature sono nati germogli meravigliosi come contrasto”)

      He made his thoughts known regarding the matter of immigration, in general, here, with one of his most idiotic Latin quotes: ““Intrent securi qui quaerunt vivere puri”.

      I hope this helps clarify.

      There is a silver lining in all of this, Muti can now go back to San Carlo (he had been banned by Lissner) and spend more time there. Hopefully all his time. Muti and Naples deserve each other.

      • AD says:

        No. See my comment below. We can agree on the many shortcomings of the current government but this particular decision has nothing to do with xenophobia (or retiring age). As many Italian newspapers pointed out, this is a just a political move to get rid of one of the RAI (the italian public TV broadcast) CEO who was not particularly well regarded by members of the government following some issues during the last festival of Italian songs (Sanremo).

      • AD says:

        And by the way, De Luca (Regione Campania governor) is a member of the Democratic Party, hardly an ally of the current government as you suggest.
        Not because what you say is not true (I mean, the quotations from newspapers) , but it is put out of the context, including the usual Muti bashing (that has nothing to do with this situation. Or do you believe he is so powerful to enter any political decision in Italy?)
        The explanation of the current episode is much simpler (and I am not saying it is morally correct): any government, at least in Italy, tries to put his own men in charge of the strategic places, starting from communication/media/broadcasting. In this case they had to find a ‘creative’ way (in this case the forced retirement of Lissner) since they could not openly fire the RAI CEO (who is the ultimate target of all this).

      • carlo says:

        That is awful Latin.

      • Sue Sonata Form says:

        Woke fascism, Italian neo-fascism. They both add up to fascism. One is voted for, the other is not.

      • Novagerio says:

        Another typical Anti-Muti rant from the Rat, disguised as the voice of reason.

        Regarding il Professore Sgarbi, his rant was about Italian conservatories not producing and supporting enough local talents, since Music in Il Paese della Musica is more about San Remo than Monteverdi, Vivaldi, Corelli, Alibinoni, Scarlatti, Pergolesi, Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi, Puccini etc.
        It’s about the musical heritage and the national conscience towards it, it has nothing to do with racism or xenophobia.
        And Muti sees himself as the crusader of this lacking conscience.

    • David Jensen says:

      Lol. Oh, who will rid me of this meddlesome commenter?

  • samach says:

    The mandatory retirement age in France is 67, why should Italian opera houses become the retirement homes of French impressarios who are no longer employable in their own country?

    If France thinks it’s good social policy to free up jobs by age 67 to younger generations, Italy can’t do the same for 70 year olds?

    Frankly, both countries should institute a memory test and an auditory test to weed out people well before 67 or 70.

  • PG Vienna says:

    Can an Italian above 70 be an Opera Chief in Italy ? No, so this is not about xenophobia but about stopping some people to keep jobs for life due to their connections.

  • Cynical Bystander says:

    I suppose that if mandatory retirement at 70 was the rule at the MET that would be OK?

  • Brian Bell says:

    Let’s see, if Arturo Toscanini had come up against this edict, his retirement would have been demanded before his first concert with the NBC Symphony.

  • AD says:

    To my understanding (rather, that of an italian journalist/commentator), this has nothing to do with nationlity. The forced retirement of Lissner will free the position in order to put there Carlo Fuortes, removing him from RAI (after the polemics following the Festival di Sanremo). It’s just a game of moving chairs around to put friends in powerful positions and remove those considered ‘hostile’. Nothing new, actually.

  • Tim says:

    I assume the Prime Minister of Italy is also required to be Italian. Is that bit of nationalism another example of xenophobia? I personally don’t care who runs any given opera house, because opera is completely irrelevant where I live, but in a country like Italy the opera houses are significant cultural institutions that form part of the country’s national identity.

  • Gennaro in Philadelphia says:

    Yikes! There is enough verbal gunfire in Italy to prevent me from traveling to Milano from the States in June to hear “Rusalka” at San Carlo. I hope the internal warfare does not turn into some sort of mass shooting like we have in the US!

    • AD says:

      Don’t worry. Come to Italy (by the way, Rusalka is scheduled at La Scala, not at San Carlo in Naples) and enjoy your stay. I am sure you will have a great time.

  • fierywoman says:

    Italian fascists in Italian opera houses have been removing non-Italians from their workplaces since the late ’80s. This is nothing new. I could tell you dozens of examples.

    • AD says:

      I have to admit that the current government is doing no favor for the reputation of Italians as seen from abroad, which is a shame really. But please do not generalize. And as explained already (too many times) this case has nothing to do with nationality. The situation would have been identical had the San Carlo superintendent been Italian.

  • Edoardo says:

    It has nothing to do with xenophobia….do not talk about thing you do not know….please…

    It is spoil system, so that somebody else can fill that place freeing another more important place at national tv….

    Pereira was ousted for his creative money management, not surely for nationalistic reasons….

  • william osborne says:

    When Mussolini ruled Italy, a law was passed stipulating that all members of Italian orchestras and all professors in the conservatories had to be Italian. Foreigners could only be given temporary contracts.

    After the war, these laws were left on the books and were still enforced. When Italy became part of the EU it was required by law to open employment to all EU members, but the tradition of excluding foreigners had become so rooted that EU law had little effect on the orchestras and conservatories. (Non-EU members, including Americans can still only get temp contracts.)

    This has led to Italy having one of the most parochial classical music communities in the world and the effects have been quite harmful. Pedagogical concepts became outdated; the quality of the orchestras fell below international standards; and Italian musicians became isolated and had few international contacts.

    In the meantime, Italian music students have circumvented some of the problems by attending international festivals outside Italy. And there are a few international festivals in Italy that have brought in new ideas. Italy is still in desperate need to solve these problems. Sadly, the current populist-nationalist government is reinforcing the worst aspects of the Italian music community’s ethnocentricity.

    • AD says:

      I have no time to check everything you say. I assume it is true. One thing, however is false

      “Non-EU members, including Americans can still only get temp contracts”.

      Since this seemed very strange I checked. There are a bunch of open positions in Italian orchestra at the moment, including RAI and Pomeriggi Musicali. They offer open ended contracts to non-EU citizens as well, the only condition being the possession of a residence permit, which I think is reasonable.

      • william osborne says:

        Open-ended means the contract can be for up to one year and can be indefinitely renewed at the administrations pleasure. A number of Americans worked that way for years. Many became Italians citizens and then got permanent contracts. When my wife played in the Teatro Regio, her non-permanent contract also meant she had no pension. EU members, by contrast, automatically obtain permanent contracts and all benefits after a probationary period.

        There are cases where the administration can decide to give non-EU members permanent contracts, but I’m not sure how easily it is done. When Abbie played in the Regio, a young woman in her 20s asked for trombone lessons. They got on very well and became friends. It later turned out that her husband was a high official in the communist party and that Torino at the time was ruled by the communists. Her husband said that if Abbie wanted the job permanently he could arrange it. Things can be flexible that way in Italy. Very different times back then.

      • william osborne says:

        There’s also a Catch-22 in your comment that non-EU members must have a residence permit to audition. The process is complex, takes time, and often doesn’t include a work permit. This would exclude almost all foreigners because most who would want to audition aren’t already living in Italy and have a residence permit.

        It could be that the laws concerning employment in orchestras and conservatories have changed, but I see little evidence of it in the personnel in the countries institutions. Documented updates welcomed since I would like to know if there have been changes.

        • AD says:

          Hi, thanks for the discussion, which is interesting. I don’t know if I used the righg word (open ended), probably not. The two notices I checked say ‘contratto a tempo indeterminato’ ie permanent. I was not aware of the difference between open ended and permanent, but in theory, at least on paper, there is no distinction on the kind of contract based on nationality.
          However, you are right that asking for a residence permit at the time of the audition is weird. It implies that one must already live in Italy (or probably in the EU) and prevents people who don’t live here to apply. I don’t know if this is an italian or EU law, and how things work in other countries. I can only imagine that as most orchestras are state funded, the same rule applis to all jobs in the public administration.

          • AD says:

            Just checked. It is the same for any public administration job since 2013. And, it seems to me that is is the same in the US

            “Under Executive Order 11935, only United States citizens and nationals (residents of American Samoa and Swains Island) may compete for, and be appointed to, competitive service jobs. With Office of Personnel Management approval, agencies are permitted to hire non-citizens when there are no qualified citizens available.”

            As said, (most) orchestras in Italy are state funded civil servant kind of jobs, so no surprise that some restrictions may apply.

  • Gianluigi says:

    Just waiting for Beatrice Venezi to have a major post…

  • Lachera says:

    Ridicolous. At present Italian sovrintendenti are forced to leave at 67. Chiarot in Florence could not have a second contract because he was too old, he retired anyway and they called Pereira that was much older than Chiarot but not Italian, so the rule did not apply. Italian was the only place where local appliants were at a disadvantage. Making non Italians retire at 70 is still giving them an advantage over Italians.