La Scala general manager Stephane Lissner's first goal when he arrived at the renowned opera house in 2005 was to balance the budget, which he did that year and every year since. This year could be different, he warned Tuesday.
Lissner expects a drop in both public and private contributions will hurt the balance sheet, even as it increases attendance and the number of performances.
"It will be difficult to balance the budget in 2012," Lissner told foreign reporters. "We are facing a moment of great difficulty."
Despite the crisis, the number of subscriptions increased 7 percent this season to 17,400, and in another sign of success, the Milan opera house hit its all-time record box office for a single performance: euro281,154 ($365,584) for "Death in Venice" on March 19. The nightly box office usually runs around euro250,000, depending on the performance.
La Scala will stage 253 performances this year, including 21 on tour, up from around 180 total in 2004.
While Lissner has welcomed signs of support from the new government of Premier Mario Monti, he bemoans a relative lack of state support for Italian cultural institutions, compared with other European countries, emphasizing La Scala's role as a public theater and the importance of such outlets, especially in times of crisis.
"The more things are difficult, and the more they go badly, the more the public wants to go to the cinema and to the theater," Lissner said. "They don't only need a distraction. They need above all to be together, under the same roof, in the same theater, to share something together."
La Scala's budget for 2012 is euro110 million ($150.8 million), down slightly from 2011. Of that, 40 percent comes from national, regional, provincial and city administrations combined, and 60 percent from private donors, ticket sales and sponsorships.
Lissner compared that with the Paris Opera, which he said received more than 60 percent state support, and the Vienna State Opera, which is around 55 percent state-funded.
Lissner took it as "a strong signal of support" the fact that both the head of state, President Giorgio Napolitano, and the head of government, Premier Monti, attended the gala premiere of La Scala on Dec. 7, the first time both of the nation's top officials attended La Scala's opening night in some 15 years.
But he also said he hoped that support to cultural institutions will not be cut, and that the government will look upon culture as something as necessary "as health or research."
"It is difficult, but it would be wrong to sacrifice culture," Lissner said, then adding: "There is not much more to sacrifice."
When Lissner arrived from France, where among other things he had been directing the international opera festival in Aix-en-Provence, La Scala had closed the previous year with an euro8 million shortfall, and the management was in shambles following a very public dispute between his predecessor and the music director, Riccardo Muti, who left La Scala in acrimony over artistic and programming differences.
Lissner said he decided to be both general manager and artistic director to help the opera house transition out of the crisis, but the Anglo-Saxon world in particular questioned whether La Scala needed to have more balance in its management. Last fall, Lissner succeeded in persuading Daniel Barenboim to take the position of musical director, after five years as chief guest conductor, a sign of renewed stability at La Scala.
The orchestra at the end of 2005 had asked Lissner to persuade Barenboim to take the post after the Argentine-born conductor performed Beethoven's "Ninth Symphony," he recalled.
But Barenboim had too many commitments outside of Italy to accept, and Lissner said he had to wage battle to get Barenboim to conduct the gala opening of Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde" in 2008, another success.
"Maybe I am not very good. It took five years to convince Daniel Barenboim to become musical director, until the day he said yes instead of no," Lissner said. "Why? Because I think he truly discovered this theater, which grabs you, if you are a human being with an open heart and sensitivity."