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Opera, in full throttle and with a cast of thousands, has the power to invigorate the soul and ignite the senses like no other music. But in recent years a different sort of drama has engulfed La Scala--Milan's famous opera house and venerated shrine to this high art. It is a tale more dramatic, divisive and emotionally charged than anything that has appeared beneath its gilded proscenium since the first curtain call in 1778.
In December 2001, La Scala, Milan's 'grand old lady' of opera, closed her doors for three years to begin a $67 million refurbishment and reconstruction. The intention was to bring the elegant 18th century opera house into the 21st century, and help it compete with those of New York and Paris.
It was health and safety that finally brought the curtain down on La Scala, when the city fire department refused to issue a safety certificate o for the building. The annual opera season opened as usual on December 7,2001, with Verdi's Othello starring Placido Domingo, but after three weeks the old lady closed and productions were moved to a stunning new auditorium, Teatro degli Arcimboldi, in the north of the city. It was then that the arguments really began. The traditionalists among the Milanese had always objected strongly to people meddling with their heritage, so when the mayor's office unveiled bold plans by Swiss architect Mario Botta to increase backstage space by constructing a pair of towers to the rear of La Scala--several storeys taller than the opera house itself--it ignited a fire that has raged in the Italian media ever since.
Perhaps things would have blown over had not a television crew hired a helicopter to film what was actually happening to La Scala behind the scaffolding, tarpaulin and security blockage encircling it. The images of destruction provoked an adagio of despair, and preservationists attempted, and failed, to halt the work through the courts, while dancer Carla Fracci confessed to weeping when she saw the pictures. A spokesperson for POLIS, the environmental group committed to sympathetic urban renewal (a thorn in the municipality's side throughout the renovations), said the …