“I had no time to prepare. Nothing!” In September 2019, Dominique Meyer was informed that he would be starting as General Director of the Teatro alla Scala that December, over a year ahead of schedule, following the unexpectedly early departure of his predecessor Alexander Pereira. It gave him six months in the unique position of being head of both La Scala and Vienna State Opera concurrently. Then, on February 21st, Italy had its first case of Covid-19: it can’t have been the start he was expecting. “Of course. But this is really the same for everyone in my business. I do not complain because it doesn’t help. Of course, there were difficult moments.”

Dominique Meyer
© Teatro alla Scala | Brescia e Amisano

Not the least of those was having to close “those two giants” within a few days of each other – but he admits to finding the problems interesting. The first priority was protecting the workforces. “Health is the most important thing, I think. The second was to secure their revenues. So now I’m specialised in how to manage those things in German and Italian. Here, for instance, we made a very good agreement with the unions.” The combination of government help and La Scala’s sponsorship revenues has enabled him to maintain salaries at 80% of their pre-Covid levels. The hardest part has been trying to find means of paying visiting soloists, whom he would not normally be permitted to pay when performances are cancelled.

In a normal year, he explains, La Scala’s budget would be €130 million, of which 35 million would be from ticket sales. In 2020, Covid blew a 30 million hole in ticket sales, but they were still able to break even. He counts himself fortunate: “Here, we were spoiled because our sponsors are very close to the theatre: nobody decided to retire. They have been very warm and positive, and every one has been trying to stay with us.”

Elena Stikhina as Salome, Teatro alla Scala, February 2021
© Teatro alla Scala | Brescia e Amisano

The Alsace-born Meyer is a veteran troubleshooter. In 1980, as a 25-year-old economics academic, he was hired by Jacques Delors into the French Ministry of Industry. He saw the CD revolution coming and told the government “‘If we don’t do anything, there will be no manufacturers of CDs in France and jobs are going to be destroyed.’ Four years later, we opened the second CD factory in the world and that still exists in Averton in the West of France.” Jack Lang, France’s celebrated Culture Minister, took note. Deciding that economics were increasingly important in culture, he recruited the young music-loving economist. “So I went there: my life was always a combination of economics and culture; I like that.”

Meyer clearly reveres Lang for his encyclopaedic knowledge of all forms of culture and for his willingness to trust young people to do a job. He spent the next years solving problems for him: renovating the finance systems in cinema, removing restrictions on Paris museums which had prevented them from staging major exhibitions. He is particularly proud of the founding in 1992 of Arte TV. “I was born in 1955, not long after the Second World War. Of course, our wish is that there wouldn’t be any more war between France and Germany, and we thought to create a common culture TV channel together.” Both Meyer and Lang were born in Alsace-Lorraine, the historical flashpoint of Franco-German conflict: his tone of voice leaves me in no doubt about the emotional importance of the project to him. His first brush with running an opera house was in 1989, when he was parachuted in to sort out the Paris Opera with its troubled building project: the Opéra Bastille. The building had to be opened in time for the bicentenary of the storming of the Bastille on 14th July 1789 and things were not going well.  “President Mitterrand had invited 34 colleagues. There was Thatcher, Mr. Bush and all these guys with security. It was an interesting job.”

Dominique Meyer
© Teatro alla Scala | Brescia e Amisano

Opéra Bastille opened on time, but Meyer left the job after only two years. “I thought I was too young and I also wanted to be in charge of the artistic part of an opera. My dream was to find a small opera house.” That dream came to fruition at Opéra de Lausanne, which he says was one of the best periods of his life – although one that ended soon when he couldn’t resist the chance to return to Paris to run his best loved venue, the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées.

Several jobs later, his plans for La Scala demonstrate his twin disciplines of arts and economics and his desire to advance young people. For fifteen years, he explains, the theatre has had a policy of proper competitive recruitment and this has paid dividends: “We have a fantastic crew with young people, they are very well educated and they are very good and open. So I thought that now, we have to find what La Scala should be when they will be in charge of the theatre and I want to create it with them.” Many processes are somewhat old fashioned, he says, and he insists on including younger employees in change management meetings. He is also interested in both technology and ecology: “I saw that every year, we consume 10 tonnes of paper. Can you imagine? Too many times, I have to sign the same paper three times in a row. I have more to sign here than in Vienna, which has three or four times more contracts.”

Aleksandra Kurszak in a riveder le stelle
© Teatro alla Scala | Brescia e Amisano

He intends to replicate two programmes that he instituted in Vienna. The first is to establish an independent streaming system (today, La Scala’s performances are mainly broadcast via Italy’s national broadcaster RAI). “My successor [in Vienna, Bogdan Rosčić] is broadcasting every night one thing that I did, because we have made their 350 tapes, their treasure. So I want to do it here. The second is to modernise the subtitling system like I did in Vienna with eight languages. It’s about the same here, we have about 30% foreigners in the auditorium.” A third project is to digitise scores: “We send I don’t know how many scores to singers in the whole world. I know the singers: they don’t want to carry so much paper, they want to carry one tablet with the scores.” Backstage staff will also benefit from carrying around an electronic score which is immediately updated with any notes or changes. He has other sustainability issues to work on: electricity usage, changing the materials used for sets and costumes.

Dominique Meyer at a riveder le stelle, December 2020
© Teatro alla Scala | Brescia e Amisano

The modernisation of La Scala is what Meyer believes will be the most important part of his legacy. “I’m 65 and it’s probably my last job. Artistically, I have my ideas, but I know that once you leave, you leave maybe five, six very good productions. On top of that, I would like to leave a very modern opera house behind me.”

On that artistic side, Meyer’s first big challenge at La Scala came when it became clear that it wouldn’t be possible to go ahead with the new Lucia di Lammermoor on December 7th, the prima delle prime, traditionally one of Milan’s biggest social occasions. “I had a plan B. I met my colleagues here and said ‘look, let’s try to get the most important singers in the world.’ But I thought ‘what should they sing?’ Important arias are written to provoke applause, so if you don’t have an audience, that’s tricky. So I thought we have to invent a new, different type of show. Made for television, with a stage director and very modern pictures. And I was very happy because there was a very positive answer from all the singers.” His team put together the whole production in two weeks: the resulting show, named ...a riveder le stelle, was outstandingly successful, with top singers obviously giving their all for the cameras.

Rosa Feola in a riveder le stelle
© Teatro alla Scala | Brescia e Amisano

“I said to my crew, we don’t know what’s going to happen in the next month. But we are free to plan for the future. I don’t know when we will reopen, but the main idea is to be ready.” Planning for seasons from 2022 to 2025 is under way and for now, La Scala has settled into a holding pattern, courtesy of faithful support from the sponsors and a new contract with RAI for productions filmed without audience: one opera a month, one ballet and a few concerts. “Of course, it’s not easy because there are some rules about distance between players in the orchestra, so we have put a floor into the auditorium: it would just be too dangerous to put them in the pit.” Dealing with cancellations is another regular feature: Salome, which opened last Saturday, was due to be conducted by Zubin Mehta who became unavailable a week before the performance: Riccardo Chailly stepped into the breach.

The plan is to continue with the holding pattern until the summer, or until such time as they’re permitted to reopen the auditorium: at that point, they will add a number of performances of each piece. “We hope to be open more or less normally from September, because in the meantime, we hope that the vaccine will be ready for everyone.”

Like Nikolaus Bachler of Bayerische Staatsoper, Meyer’s first opera was Parsifal – but in very different circumstances, seeing it as an 18 year old student arriving in Paris. “That performance changed my life. I had a very bad seat, I couldn’t see more than three metres of the stage. I think I still have the pain in the neck. I couldn’t pay for the records, because Parsifal was a five record set, too expensive for a student. And it was the last performance, so I decided to see Figaro two weeks later. And so it started. I did not miss one single performance of the Paris Opera for years.”


The next opera stream at La Scala will be a Weill double bill on March 18th: Seven Deadly Sins and Mahagonny Songspiel - see details here