Celebrated mezzo calls for ‘politicians’ to go after sacking of entire orchestra and chorus.

Italy has frequently been called the cradle of opera. But as nurseries go, it has frequently seen passions running at fever pitch while the artform has proved the most turbulent of children – especially in its homeland. Rome Opera is the latest company to fall victim to what has been seen as a mounting nationwide crisis – the result, some say, of years of mismanagement plus a chronic problem with on-going arts funding exacerbated by the sluggish European economy.

Last month the Rome Opera’s honorary music director Riccardo Muti quit following six years marred by artistic and political infighting, strikes – threatened and realised – and a slew of financial problems. Two weeks later, the current Intendant Carlo Fuortes and his board decided to sack the entire orchestra and chorus – almost 200 artists out of a staff of around 600. The move prompted the opposition Cultural Affairs Minister Dario Franceschini to call for Fuortes’ resignation. Now, it appears, celebrated mezzo soprano Cecilia Bartoli has weighed in with a forthright interview in Italy’s online news service ANSA.

“We must find a solution!” said Bartoli, a singer whose dazzling career was launched with a youthful Barber of Seville in Rome. Nowadays, though, she is more often resident in Salzburg where she directs the increasingly prestigious Easter Festival. “The solution is not to send home the chorus and orchestra while keeping the management. What are they going to do if there is no one left to manage?”

It was Muti’s departure that allegedly made sponsors nervous, prompting the subsequent bloodletting, but Fuortes maintains that, in a world where opera houses are increasingly turning to freelance staff, it was a necessary step. “It was a question of survival,” he explained to a gathering of international reporters in Rome. Fuortes was desperate to reduce the company’s reliance on a unionized labour force who had voted to take strike action following his latest restructuring scheme – a plan which would have seen singers and musicians required to work almost twice as many days per year (up to 240 from the current average of 125).  “It’s all about productivity,” he said. “It’s about half what it should be.”

Bartoli thinks Fuortes has his priorities all wrong. “You can’t let a Maestro like Muti go,” she said. “They should have done everything to keep him. For the orchestra and the theatre it was a great chance to have a teacher like Muti (for whom personally I have an enormous love). They must do everything to get him back.”

Those suggestions however are likely to fall on deaf ears at a company that has accumulated a debt of over 40 million euros and will be relying on the City of Rome and Central Government to bail it out. In fact, Massimo Cestaro, Secretary General of the Italian theatre workers’ union sees it as part of a cultural conspiracy. “The truth is that there has been a campaign to dismantle the principal cultural institutions of our country,” he believes.

Nevertheless, Bartoli sees the immediate solution in terms of finding and holding onto the right personel. “You shouldn’t send anyone home,” she said. “You must start with good people and not let politicians be in charge of artistic direction as has been the case in the past. The mismanagement problem in Rome has gone on for years but if La Scala has found a solution then one can be found for Rome.”

She goes on to echo the thoughts of the likes of the Royal Opera House’s Kasper Holten that the future of the artform lies in the hands and minds of the young. “There is a need to work in schools,” she says. “I dream of returning the music to the schools and taking the students to the theatre: young people, very young people, toddlers even. The music must start with them – that’s the difference between what happens abroad and in Italy.” Either way, she says “the theatre cannot be left to die – I hope it will rise again”.