MILAN—Italy, opera's birthplace, is no stranger to drama.
But these days, all of the drama is off stage.
A clash of austerity politics and artistic passions has silenced opera houses across the nation in recent days, as musicians, dancers and singers protest new emergency measures aimed at making the 14 state-supported theaters more entrepreneurial and efficient.
What really is at stake, many observers say, is the quality of music in a country world renowned for its culture.
A lively debate has erupted in newspapers, blogs and the radio, on both the merits of the austerity decree issued Friday and the wildcat strikes that have canceled a La Scala premiere of "Das Rheingold," "Die Frau Ohne Schatten" in Florence, a symphonic concert in Venice, the premiere of "The Barber of Seville" in Turin, among others.
Daniel Barenboim, the chief guest conductor at La Scala, said Wednesday that Italy's musical heritage deserves to be protected, along with La Scala's efforts in recent years to become more self-sustaining.
"These are things that, over the long and short term, will do huge damage to the quality of this theater and to the musical life of this country," Barenboim told reporters. "It is a very negative signal for Italy, speaking internationally, to make decisions that can have a negative impact on the musical life of the country."
Tensions boiled over after the government passed emergency measures Friday that limit compensation for the country's 5,500 theater workers and puts a moratorium on new hires. Unions immediately called wildcat strikes. Some theater directors made their displeasure known.
Culture Minister Sandro Bondi is to meet with unions on Thursday in an attempt to cool tempers. Bondi has lashed out against what he called unjustified protests this week.
"The love that I hold for our culture is exactly why I want to save, in particular, our opera houses from failing," Bondi said.
But it is not just the workers who object.
The managing director of Turin's Teatro Reggio issued a statement from Shanghai calling the hiring moratorium "a deep injustice" toward workers who for years have made sacrifices and are now hoping to receive long-term contracts. He expressed hope that contracts recently agreed would be honored.
"La Scala cannot accept a decree that penalizes a theater and interferes with the capacity to manage," La Scala's general director Stephane Lissner declared.
Lissner has asked that La Scala be excluded from the decree.
La Scala, unlike most of Italy's opera houses, has significantly decreased its dependence on state funds in recent years -- one of the national government's long-stated goals. La Scala's euro115 million ($149 million)annual budget is 60 percent covered by ticket sales and private donations -- with just 40 percent coming from the state. The Milan landmark also has capital of euro105 million in cash and assets, including artwork.
"No other theater has this level of self-sufficiency" said La Scala spokesman Carlo Maria Cella.
But the real rub of the decree is that it limits secondary contracts between the individual opera houses and their workers, which act as a local differential on top of the national contract shared by all of the Italy's 5,500 music theater workers. The national contract awards the same pay to musicians at La Scala, which last year put on 290 concerts at home and another 47 abroad, and, say, Sicily's Catania, which put on closer to 40. Local contracts can account for 15 to 25 percent of salaries.
Ultimately, the decree penalizes well-run opera houses like La Scala, Turin's Teatro Reggio and Venice's La Fenice, said Elvio Giudici, a well-respected music critic from Famiglia Cristiana magazine. But he also said the strikes themselves are hurting the theaters -- and may turn off the public, too, if unions are perceived as only protecting worker privileges, and even some absurdities.
"For example, if a member of the chorus holds a sword, they get paid extra because it is tiring," Giudici said. "Or if they sing in a foreign language, there's extra compensation. Imagine if that were true in Great Britain?"