The Teatro alla Scala workshops, first based in the sites of Bovisa, Pero, Abanella as well as in the Piermarini site, have been located since 20 February 2001 in the former industrial settlement of the Ansaldo steel plants in Milan.
This huge 20,000-square-metre facility is divided in three pavilions dedicated to the director Luchino Visconti, the stage designer Nicola Benois and the costume designer Luigi Sapelli (aka Caramba). Most of the handmade works for the production are carried out there – set design, sculpture, thermoforming, carpentry works, mechanics workshop, set assembly, costume workshop, costume design, laundry. The premises hold more than 60,000 stage costumes, and include practice rooms for the chorus and a stage area for direction rehearsals which perfectly corresponds to the Piermarini stage.
This heritage exists thanks to the daily work of more than 150 workers including joiners, blacksmiths, carpenters, set designers, scenography technicians, sculptors, dressmakers and costume designers who create the whole staging from a simple sketch.
Wishing to share this world of values, La Scala has decided to open the Scala Ansaldo Workshops to the public. Visitors can now embark on a journey through the backstage of the theatre and see the birth of a show at first hand.
Behind the Scenes
During performances at La Scala, the singers, players and directors commonly receive the applause. Behind the scenes, however, there are months of hard work even before a single rehearsal has taken place.
The artisans of the Ansaldo – La Scala’s workshops – work tirelessly to create sets, props and costumes in time for opening night. Formerly a steelworks, the site stretches over 20,000 m2, making it the biggest workshop of any theatre worldwide.
As productions became increasingly complex in the years following World War II, a larger workshop and storage spaces were drastically required. In 1989, the City Council acquired the Ansaldo, a sprawling former-industrial plant housed behind an imposing 1930s facade. La Scala moved in in 2001.
Today, visitors are immersed in an all-sensory wash of clashing metal, screeching saws and the smell of industrial paint, as welders, carpenters, costume designers and mechanics race against the clock to deliver sets.
If sets used to be made mainly on cloth, today in the stage design workshops, new materials are used more and more often. This transformation has allowed set designers to improve their technical knowledge and to create technologically complex elements.
In the Benois Pavilion, where painters with metre-long brushes create sweeping backdrops on canvases spread across the floor and sculptors carve polystyrene statues with brushes and files. Three head scenographers coordinate the hive of activity. Under their supervision, sets take two to three months to complete, with 3 or 4 worked on contemporaneously.
Set design, set building carpentry
If sets used to be made mainly on cloth, today in the stage design workshops, new materials are used more and more often. This transformation has allowed set designers to improve their technical knowledge and to create technologically complex elements. In 2015/2016 Season workshops are improving their commitment realizing nine new Opera productions and three new Ballet productions. Moreover the workshops will work on the adaptations of three Opera productions from other theatres and on the restoreof three repertory productions of Opera and Ballet
This is the department where the various set elements are made. The work preserves all the characteristics of ancient craftsmanship: each handmade piece has the characteristics of a prototype, of a unique product. These creations are made on a full scale drawing.
Besides the large statues, this department is in charge of all the surfaces that cover sets, rocks, bricks, trees and any type of architectural elements
Wardrobe – Costume Design – Costume Fitting
When the wardrobe was moved to the Ansaldo Worskshops, the worshop space increased by 300%, allowing a different work organisation. All the workers work next to the costume designer, from the design stage to the creation, going through the different working stages with handmade procedures. In one season, 800 to 1000 new costumes are made and almost 1500 from the warehouse are refashioned and made to correct measure.
In the Caramba pavilion — an Aladdin’s cave of sewing machines, irons, feathers and pearls — pattern makers, cutters, seamstresses, tailors, milliners and shoemakers toil. Dyers colour fabrics in large metal vats; costume makers layer dresses with multifarious fabrics.
60,000 costumes from 280 productions dating back to 1911 are stored in 1,400 wardrobes. Many are reused over and over again. Before every rehearsal, each garment is washed and rewashed. The laundry staff can get through 200 in a single day.
Each costume is washed during its passage from the warehouse to the wardrobe before being used on stage, and washed again after the last performance.
Practice rooms for the Chours
The Visconti Pavilion hosts two practice rooms for the chorus and one stage area, identical in size to the theatre’s. Set elements can be installed on the stage and volumes can be simulated, which allows directors to set up the first movements.
Conducting rehearsals at the Ansaldo relieves pressure on La Scala’s stage, also allowing singers to become familiar with sets and props even before moving to the theatre. What’s more, directors can nip off between rehearsals to check how construction is progressing.
Venues for special events
In the heart of the Scala Ansaldo Workshops, a new, 1,000 square-metre multi-purpose space offers companies the opportunity to organise events, video conferences, congresses and presentations. This special location ensures the success of your event and is situated in the productive heart of the Teatro alla Scala. Every event can be tailored to the needs of the company: in cooperation with theatre staff, special guided tours can be organised, as well as chamber music and singing concerts with the students of the Academy and the customisation of books and audio products.
To do an Aida
Building sets in pieces measuring 200 x 40cm allows for easy transportation and reassemblage at La Scala. But getting them there is sometimes an immense task. Franco Zeffirelli’s 2006 season-opening production of Aida, for example, featured towering columns, a colossal pharaonic bust, an intricately-carved Gate of Thebes and no less than 400 costumes.
30 lorries were required to transfer the staging. Ever since then, Ansaldo staff have referred to grueling, large-scale projects as “to do an Aida”.
Thousands of sets for La Scala productions still in the repertoire are stored at the former workshops in Bovisa. A further 100 for productions that have been decommissioned are warehoused at an alternative site in Pero.
Members of the public can see the Ansaldo’s artisans in action on guided tours. A guided tour to discover the backstage of every performance of the Teatro alla Scala. This service is available upon booking and is run by specialised guides in cooperation with the heads of the workshop departments. The journey goes through all the Pavilions, ending in Pavilion 36 where it is occasionally possible to organise concerts, conferences and exhibitions.
There are also further opportunities to visit. In 2016, the exhibition “Luca Ronconi-Il laboratorio delle idee” showcased material documenting all twenty-four of the great director’s often mind-bendingly fantastical La Scala productions.
Curated by Margherita Palli, Ronconi’s former set designer, it featured sketches, photos, documents and scenic objects that brought the director’s fantastical worlds to life.
Teatro alla Scala
La Scala is an opera house in Milan, Italy. The theatre was inaugurated on 3 August 1778 and was originally known as the Nuovo Regio Ducale Teatro alla Scala (New Royal-Ducal Theatre alla Scala). The premiere performance was Antonio Salieri’s Europa riconosciuta.
Most of Italy’s greatest operatic artists, and many of the finest singers from around the world, have appeared at La Scala. The theatre is regarded as one of the leading opera and ballet theatres in the world and is home to the La Scala Theatre Chorus, La Scala Theatre Ballet and La Scala Theatre Orchestra. The theatre also has an associate school, known as the La Scala Theatre Academy (Italian: Accademia Teatro alla Scala), which offers professional training in music, dance, stage craft and stage management.
La Scala Theatre was founded in 1778 and soon became the home of the great Italian composers: Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini are just some of the musicians who presented the premieres of their operas here.
In the 20th century the prestige of La Scala was assured by great conductors. After Toscanini, masters such as Victor de Sabata, Gianandrea Gavazzeni, Claudio Abbado, Riccardo Muti, Daniel Barenboim and today Riccardo Chailly preserve and enrich the tradition. The Scala stage has seen the stars of Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi, Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo shine on, followed today by Anna Netrebko, Diana Damrau, Juan Diego Florez and Francesco Meli.
At La Scala, Carla Fracci and Rudolf Nureev, Alessandra Ferri and Roberto Bolle danced. La Scala’s productions were conceived by stage directors such as Giorgio Strehler and Luca Ronconi, Bob Wilson and Robert Carsen, while designers such as Yves Saint Laurent, Gianni Versace, Karl Lagerfeld and Giorgio Armani designed the costumes.
La Scala’s opening season is the world’s most famous opera night, broadcast to all continents and celebrated by a festival that fills the streets of Milan for weeks. La Scala’s tours have touched five continents and are the most effective ambassador of Italian culture in the world. Today La Scala is waiting to resume its activities: in 2019 it welcomed an audience of over 400,000.