|Opera downsizes as Italy's divas go on hunger strike - Singers and staff take drastic action in protest at budget cuts|
Barbara McMahon in Rome
Sunday November 13, 2005, The Observer
Opera lovers in Italy this season may notice something different about the performers. Many of them are looking distinctly svelte after going on hunger strike to protest about proposed cuts to the country's arts budget. Living on only water, fruit juice and coffee, singers' weights have shrunk.
Barbara Vignudelli, a soprano at the famed La Scala opera house in Milan, has had no solid food for two weeks. 'I feel OK, but I'm dreaming of a mortadella sandwich,' she said. 'I'm doing this to try to shame our politicians. We have one of the most important cultural heritages in the world - it will be a disaster for Italy if these cuts are implemented.'
Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's coalition government has proposed a 35 per cent cut to state funding for the arts - from €464 million to €300m - in the 2006 budget as part of financial measures aimed at reducing Italy's annual deficit, which is above levels permitted by the EU.
The proposal has caused outrage. Critics say it could force Italy's 13 opera houses to cut performances and that some of the smaller historic theatres, heavily dependent on government subsidies, may have to close.
Prestigious events like the Venice Film Festival would be in danger, along with thousands of jobs. Last month cinemas and theatres across Italy staged a one-day strike in protest at the plans, with the film industry association Anica calling the funding crisis 'an attack on citizens' fundamental right to culture'.
Culture minister Rocco Buttiglione has threatened to resign over the matter, while opera singers and others in Italy's theatrical world came up with the idea of hunger strikes. Some people have gone on rotational one-day strikes, while others such as Vignudelli starved themselves for two weeks. She is also angry that Berlusconi claims La Scala employs too many people.
Vignudelli has lost 13lb. 'I am a person who is healthy and takes care of herself, so to do this is difficult,' she said. 'But it shows how strongly I feel.'
Soprano Manola Colangeli from the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma has just endured a 10-day fast and has lost 12lbs. 'It was difficult, especially when I walked past the bar in the theatre every day and smelled coffee,' she says. 'I've stopped now because I was getting really weak and it affects the voice.'
Baritone Claudio Fantoni, who sings in the chorus of Florence's Maggio Musicale, lived on three cappuccinos a day for two weeks. He believes the funding crisis is politically motivated ahead of April's national elections. 'I think the government is ready to sacrifice the performing arts sector because it is not strategic for electoral purposes,' he said.
In Turin nine members of the local opera have been drinking only coffee and employees of opera houses in Bologna and Catania have also joined in the protest. Other participants in the rotational fasting include orchestral musicians and conductors, presidents of theatres and the artistic directors of many of Italy's cultural associations.
The proposed cuts to arts funding are part of an €11.5 billion budget reform now making its way through the Italian parliament. A decision will be known by the end of the year.