La Scala under fire for proposed funding from Saudi Arabia

By Associated Press |

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La Scala (Photo: Geoff Young, CC BY-NC 2.0, image cropped, via Flickr)

MILAN (AP) — Italy’s premier opera house, La Scala in Milan, is under fire over a proposal to grant a board seat to Saudi Arabia’s culture minister with the promise of 15 million euros ($16.8 million) in new funding.

The plan, which is to be voted on next week by La Scala’s board, has been harshly criticized by members of the governing League party as well as by former Premier Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, citing human rights issues in Saudi Arabia.

Milan Mayor Giuseppe Sala, who is chairman of the La Scala board, declined on Tuesday to say whether he favored the plan, saying he did not want to influence the board’s decision.

He said that the issues of Saudi sponsorship and the allocation of a board seat could be considered separately and that there was no pressure for the funds, since the opera house’s books are balanced.

La Scala’s general manager, Alexander Pereira, declined to comment on the controversy during a news conference called to announce a special concert commemorating the elevation to sainthood last year of Pope Paul VI. He cited the politicization of the discussion around the Saudi funds.

Pereira, an Austrian who previously was artistic director of the Salzburg festival and the Zurich Opera House, has brought millions of new private funding to the opera house since his arrival for the 2014-2015 season. He says private sponsorship is the only way for La Scala to maintain a high level of quality. His contract runs through 2020.

Pereira, in an interview last week with the Turin newspaper La Stampa, said he invited the Saudi culture minister, Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan Al Saud, to La Scala’s gala opening Dec. 7 and they discussed a possible partnership with La Scala before the curtain rose. Pereira said he extended the invitation at the suggestion of a Lombard culture official, who has since denied any role.

“The prince explained that his country is interested in a partnership with La Scala based on the model the Louvre has with Abu Dhabi,” Pereira said. He said he followed up with a visit to Saudi Arabia in January “and from there our project was born.”

He told La Stampa that the project would include 3 million euros a year over five years, plus plans to open a music and dance conservatory in Riyadh run by La Scala’s academy that would bring another 7 million euros for the academy over three years. Pereira said the conservatory would be open to both girls and boys, and would operate out of a former school for girls.

Periera acknowledged that Saudi Arabia has a poor human rights record, which has come under increased scrutiny since the killing of a Saudi journalist inside the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul last October and the case of a Saudi woman who used social media to aid her escape from alleged family abuse in January.

“But until we begin to actually do something to change the situation, the situation will never change. That 400 children of both sexes will receive a musical education seems to me a good thing,” Periera told La Stampa.

Colleen Barry for the Associated Press