The concert was planned as an important milestone for the legendary Milan opera house. Not only was it a tribute to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of Arturo Toscanini, who was the company's chief conductor/music director from 1898-1908 and 1921-29, it was to mark the beginning of Daniel Barenboim's appointment as maestro scaligero, effectively principal guest conductor and La Scala's highest-ranking musician.
According to a report from the Italian news agency ANSA, the unions representing La Scala's back-of-the-house workers threatened to strike one week ago. Yet brinksmanship in contract negotiations is as much a tradition at La Scala as booing singers from the upper balcony — "I am always ready to negotiate," Giancarlo Albori of the union CGIL told ANSA last week, "If they [the house's management] want to do so, I am here; if they don't, there will be a strike" — and as late as this morning La Scala's website listed the concert as announced, doubtless in hopes of an 11th-hour accommodation.
ANSA's report observed that last week's warning of a strike followed a period of relative harmony in labor relations at La Scala — meaning that things have been quiet since the tumult in 2004-05 that led to the firing of then-superintendent Carlo Fontana and the rancorous departure of Riccardo Muti as the company's music director. Since the arrival of St_phane Lissner as the new superintendent, much of the previous animosity within the house seems to have dissipated and the number of performances has increased (to 273 in 2007, up by two-thirds over 2001).
The management of La Scala maintains that these are no ordinary labor negotiations, however. In a pointed, and rather pessimistic, statement issued this afternoon, the administration gratefully acknowledges the opera house's staff for the recent increase in productivity and explicitly expresses the wish to reward its employees financially for that increase. Yet management's freedom to negotiate a new labor contract is restricted by a 2005 change in Italian law; according to the statement, Lissner presented to the unions last night a proposal to increase compensation to La Scala's workforce while remaining within the law — and the offer was rejected. The statement ends by saying that no change in the situation is foreseen in the near term.
Tomorrow's one-day strike comes less a month before La Scala's annual season opening on December 7, one of the biggest events on Italy's social and media calendars. This year's opening night features Barenboim leading his first opera as the company's maestro, a new staging of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde by director Patrice Ch_reau starring Waltraud Meier, Ian Storey, Michelle DeYoung and Matti Salminen.
The labor situation at La Scala is not expected to affect next month's launch of the company's series of high-definition opera broadcasts in U.S. movie theaters.