Europe

Italian cuts spark fight at the opera for La Scala

Scuffles have erupted outside Italy's famous La Scala opera house in Milan during a protest against proposed funding cuts to the arts and education.

Opera house workers from across Italy were rallying peacefully ahead of a protest speech by conductor Daniel Barenboim when trouble broke out.

Students clashed with police wielding truncheons and using teargas, and 14 officers suffered minor injuries.

The audience inside applauded Barenboim for his impassioned defence of culture.

Speaking before he raised the baton on a performance of Richard Wagner's The Walkyrie, the Israeli guest conductor appealed directly to President Giorgio Napolitano, sitting in the royal box, to use his constitutional powers to invoke protection of Italy's cultural assets.

"In the names of the colleagues who play, sing, dance and work, not only here but in all of the theatres, I am here to tell you at what point we are deeply worried for the future of culture in the country and in Europe," he said.

The theatre erupted in applause, with Mr Napolitano reportedly joining in.

'Not a luxury'

Hundreds of opera house workers from Genoa, Rome, Florence and elsewhere were protesting peacefully near La Scala as VIPs arrived for what was the social event of the Milanese season, the Associated Press news agency reports.

Image caption Ukrainian bass Vitalij Kowaljow sang the part of Wotan in the opera

Reporters for AFP news agency saw riot police charging at around 100 students who were among the crowd.

The students, some of them wearing motorcycle helmets, threw firecrackers and attempted to break through police cordons.

Students and academics are outraged over expected cuts of around 9bn euros (£8bn) and the proposed loss of 130,000 jobs in the education system.

Figures for cuts to the arts budget will not be revealed until later this month but opera house officials say the government plans to reduce La Scala's budget by 5m euros in 2010 and possibly twice that next year.

Up to 30% of La Scala's annual budget of 115m euros comes from the government, AP says.

Other Italian opera houses and cultural institutions also face significant budget cuts.

Speaking after Tuesday night's performance, Barenboim said he believed that the economic crisis had endangered all European cultural activity.

"Culture is not a luxury, it is not something only aesthetic, it is ethical," he said.

"Human ethics are expressed truly in culture, in music, in opera, in theatre. It is ridiculous to think you can resolve economic problems by cutting culture."

Economic Development Minister Paolo Romani, who was in the audience for the opera, said a compromise could still be found: "We hope with that we can find a remedy, even if there are many problems and the rigour that Europe asks of us is fundamental."

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