It is quite obvious that, in politics, if you win the elections you gain the right to pick the managers of governmental agencies and, where the system allows, the judges (in fact I am sure that all Opera Chic's liberal friends will indeed agree that President Obama, having won the election, has definitely the right to pick, for example, the judges he sees fit for the federal bench without having to consult the opposition).
And it is also quite obvious that, the way the Italian system is set up, opera houses can not and will not survive without massive injections of government (ie, taxpayers) cash, more than 200 million dollars a year for 14 major opera houses. A sad fact that makes the government's political influence in calling the shots at opera houses a difficult fact of life one has to accept -- the government pays the bills (with the taxpayers money), the government calls the shots.
This is as obvious as it is inescapable. It's the proverbial elephant in the parterre.
Having made this clear, Opera Chic is nevertheless surprised to see the quite brazen way political pressure has been exerted for months on Opera di Roma General Manager Francesco Ernani by the current Rome municipal administration. No one denies that the current Mayor has the juice to force Ernani out of office, if he wants to do so. Mayor Alemanno (who heads a center right coalition that replaced the center-left coalitions that under two popular former Mayors -- Rutelli and Veltroni -- ran the city over the past decade) obviously could. But the fact that Mr. Ernani simply doesn't enjoy adequate political support under the current administration doesn't change many undeniable facts.
Now, even discounting the opinion of Rome newspaper Il Tempo, that today writes that Mr. Ernani is a "gentlemanly General Manager", "irreproachable", who "constantly operated for the benefit of the theater": even discounting Corriere della Sera's mention, in today's paper, of Ernani's "virtuous accounting practices" and of the strange timing for what the august paper calls a "off with his head", given that the 2009 season is according to Corriere the "stagione del rilancio", "the season of the relaunch"; even discounting quite wide, bipartisan support for Mr. Ernani among the theater's unions, one simply needs to leaf through the 2009 season program (18 operas over 111 nights, 18 ballets over 101 nights) to find many gems that make the GM's artistic record, frankly, quite difficult to attack.
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Opera di Roma has just begun a four-year collaboration with Riccardo Muti -- last December's Otello and the upcoming Gluck's Iphigénie en Aulide, for starters; Antonio Pappano -- Accademia di Santa Cecilia's, aka Italy's best orchestra, Music Director -- was close to sealing a collaboration with the theater, too, creating the sort of Muti-Pappano team that always eluded la Scala during Muti's long reign there. When it comes to directors (and sets and costume designers and coreographers) the season shows a beautiful balance between (box-office safe) tradition and (riskier) modernity and flaunts names like Peter Greenaway, Robert Carsen, Yannis Kokkos, Luc Bondy, Anish Kapoor, Pierre Audi, Bob Wilson, Dimitri Bertman, La Fura dels Baus, Franco Zeffirelli -- a guarantee of tradition and innovation. The music? From Traviata and Tannhauser to Debussy, Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre, to Goran Bregovic -- so much for artistic paralysis. Jakob Lenz by Wolfgang Rihm? It's part of the program, too. Oh, do you like Kaija Saariaho instead? She's part of the symphony program, the same way Mahler is.
Mr. Ernani's 38-year career in Italian opera administration -- from Arena di Verona to La Scala (as Secretary General) to Teatro Comunale di Firenze, to Opera di Roma where he was nominated GM in 1999 -- speaks for itself. His commitment to young emerging singers -- recently, he gave big chances to Vittorio Grigolo and Myrtò Papatanasiu and many others -- and his (quite unique, among Italian opera house top administrators) understanding that the more popular blogs are indeed quite widely read -- not just by audiences but by journalists, agencies, and quite often read by the artists themselves -- are other factors that indicate how Opera di Roma is losing a manager who "gets" many things. Who, above all, understands the difficult balance between less popular works and box office receipts.
Since the artistic record of Ernani's tenure (together with former Artistic Director Paolo Trombetta and new AD Nicola Sani) remains difficult to attack, the Mayor himself has indicated today that the reasons for Ernani's removal are financial -- that the theater needs deep, deep cuts now that the central government has severely streamlined the so-called FUS, the fund that's still the main source of income for Italian opera houses. GM Ernani had been already working with the unions to try and slim down expenditures for the 2009 season -- he indeed acknowledged many times the inevitability of financial austerity for the foreseeable future and was working toward that goal.
Others have less politely hinted that, simply, Mr. Ernani is not Mr. Alemanno's man, has already enjoyed a ten-year term, and at this point loyalty trumps everything else -- hence a political loyalist will be on his way to Mr. Ernani's post.
The latter point remains, at the moment, simple speculation. But if the Mayor's plan is to name a new politically friendly GM who'll simply, reflexively, cancel the most challenging parts of the 2009 program -- farewell to Rihm, Saariaho, Ligeti, etc -- in the name of that elusive box-office success, Opera di Roma's prestige and its artistic achievement will be tragically compromised. You can only have so many on-the-cheap Pagliaccis and Bohèmes with recycled sets and past-their-prime singers in a single season. More than anywhere else, in a city that prides herself of the Città Eterna -- "eternal city" -- moniker you need opera house managers who understand that, sometimes, a hard-hitting, merciless, minimalist "Wozzeck" in memory of Rome's victims of the Shoah is just the right thing to do, regardless of box office prospects. Because that's what makes your opera house relevant, and great, and a source of pride for all involved.