Italy’s La Scala opera house rejects £13 million Saudi funding deal after human rights outcry
Italy’s famed La Scala opera house has voted to reject a deal in which Saudi Arabia would have donated €15 million (£12.8 million) over five years in return for obtaining a place on the board for its culture minister.
Critics had argued that one of the country’s most venerable cultural institutions should not take cash from a repressive regime responsible for human rights abuses and which is accused of the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last year.
The board of La Scala voted on Monday to return €3.1 million – the first tranche of the money that was to be provided by Riyadh.
The funds had been placed in an escrow account but would now be returned, said Giuseppe Sala, the centre-Left mayor of Milan, who chairs the board of La Scala.
"We have unanimously decided to return the money," said Mr Sala. "Right now, going down this road is not possible.
“This was a business that was handled badly. There was great confusion and that is the responsibility of everyone."
There had been calls for the resignation of the opera house’s Austrian general manager and artistic director, Alexander Pereira, who brokered the proposed deal.
But the mayor said that he would keep his job until his contract expires next year.
Mr Pereira, formerly artistic director of the Salzburg festival and the Zurich Opera House, has brought millions in private funding to the opera house since his arrival for the 2014-2015 season.
It is the only way for La Scala, Italy’s leading opera house, to maintain a high level of artistic output, he has said.
The deal had included plans to open a music and dance conservatory in Riyadh, managed by La Scala’s academy.
The putative deal had been opposed by Matteo Salvini, deputy prime minister and leader of the nationalist, anti-immigration League party.
He said the opera house should remain “free and independent” and should not be tied to the Saudis.
Offers of largesse from other countries would be a different matter.
“If the Swiss want to invest in La Scala, we would not have a problem,” he said.
The decision to reject the Saudi money was welcomed by Forza Italia, Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-Right party, which had also been critical of the deal.
“The cultural heritage of La Scala should be known around the world but not at the expense of imposing conditions as a result of funding issues,” said the party’s Mariastella Gelmini, a former education minister.
“The right choice was made by giving back the money and ensuring that the opera house remains strongly anchored in Italy, dependent on Italian money.”
La Scala, which remains the focus of Milan’s social and cultural elite, was founded under the auspices of the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria and opened in 1778.
It has hosted works by many of the greats of Italian opera, from Gioachino Rossini to Arturo Toscanini, but is most closely associated with Giuseppe Verdi.