La Scala dancers, chorus members stage walk-out

The Guardian, Rome

Thu, Dec 20, 2012 - Page 6

In a country famous for industrial action, an unlikely group of Italian employees is proving even keener to down tools than train drivers, garbage collectors and car workers.

Ballet dancers and chorus members at La Scala in Milan have walked out over a series of protests described as surreal, causing the last-minute cancelation of the opening night of the theater’s ballet season yesterday.

The heavily unionized dancers are fighting the use in Romeo and Juliet of a stage with a 10o slope that they say gives them backache, while chorus members are refusing to obey the choreographer’s request that they move in time to the music.

“These performers are not machines,” said Giancarlo Albori, an official with the Italian General Confederation of Labor.

The behind-the-scenes drama started when 16 of the 74 chorus members were asked to climb up on stage and sing in costume.

“We are talking about 20 minutes during an hour-and-45-minute performance in which they needed to synchronize body movements with the dancers,” a spokesman for La Scala said.

The chorus demanded a 600 euro (US$795) bonus per performance for each of the 16, and 400 euros for the other singers, a request that was turned down, he said.

“They are on stage regularly in operas like Rigoletto and Lohengrin, as well as in some ballets, but they claimed it was not in their contract for ballets,” he said.

Albori said that going on stage also meant singing from memory, without a score.

“They were given no time for rehearsing,” he said.

The tilted stage, he added, was downright dangerous, a claim challenged by the theater’s spokesman who said it had already been used in a production in Paris.

The strike is the latest in a long line of such protests.

“This is the theater of the absurd,” Italian daily Corriere della Sera said on Tuesday. “Today there is a payment for leaning over. Next they will be asking extra for putting on a leotard.”

The strike comes as generous funding to Italy’s 14 opera houses is being reduced. La Scala is one of the few to break even, but it has lost 7 million euros in public subsidy this year thanks to austerity cuts.

“Is anyone looking at what is going on outside La Scala and feeling ashamed at these surreal events?” Corriere della Sera said.