The Teatro alla Scala was founded, under the auspices of the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, to replace the Royal Ducal Theatre, which was destroyed by fire on 26 February 1776 and had until then been the home of opera in Milan. The cost of building the new theatre was borne by the owners of the boxes at the Ducal, in exchange for possession of the land on which stood the church of Santa Maria alla Scala (hence the name) and for renewed ownership of their boxes. Designed by the great neoclassical architect Giuseppe Piermarini, La Scala opened on 3 August 1778 with Antonio Salieri's opera L'Europa riconosciuta, to a libretto by Mattia Verazi.
With the advent of Rossini in 1812 (La pietra del paragone), the Teatro alla Scala was to become the appointed place of Italian opera seria: of its history dating back more than a century and of its subsequent tradition up till the present. The catalogue of Rossini's works performed until 1825 included: Il turco in Italia, La Cenerentola, Il barbiere di Siviglia, La donna del lago, Otello, Tancredi, Semiramide and Mosé. During that period the choreographies of Salvatore Viganò and of Carlo Blasis also widened the theatre's artistic supremacy to include ballet.
An exceptional new season of serious opera opened between 1822 and 1825, with Chiara e Serafina
by Gaetano Donizetti and Il pirata by Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835). The later operas of Donizetti performed at La Scala were (until 1850) Anna Bolena
, Lucrezia Borgia
, Torquato Tasso
, La fille du régiment
, La favorita, Linda di Chamonix
, Don Pasquale
, and Poliuto
. These were followed (until 1836) by Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi
, La sonnambula
, Beatrice di Tenda
and I puritani
In 1839 Oberto Conte di San Bonifacio inaugurated the cycle of operas by Giuseppe Verdi, the composer whose name is linked more than any other to the history of La Scala. After the dismal failure of Un giorno di regno, Nabucco was performed in 1842. It was the first, decisive triumph of Verdi's career. At the same time, the strong patriotic feelings stirred by Nabucco founded the "popularity" of opera seria and identified its image with the Scala.
Arturo Toscanini became the artistic director and introduced radical reform into the theatre, both in its organisational aspects and in its relations with the public. Toscanini, one of the greatest conductors of all time, took up Verdi's musical inheritance and launched a tradition of interpretation that continued uninterruptedly and was renewed during the twentieth century. It was he who reappraised and regularly performed at the Scala the works of Richard Wagner (hitherto only belatedly and inadequately recognised). He also firmly extended the Scala's orchestral repertoire to include symphonic music.
In 1948 maestro Guido Cantelli made his debut and established himself as one of the leading postwar conductors. Numerous opera performances productions (the Wagnerian cycle conducted in 1950 by Wilhelm Furtwängler, the Verdi repertoire by Victor De Sabata, etc), concerts (Herbert von Karajan, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Bruno Walter, etc), singers (Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Mario Del Monaco, etc), ballet performances (Margot Fonteyn, Serge Lifar, Maya Plissetskaya, Rudolf Nureyev), and productions (Luchino Visconti, Giorgio Strehler) belong not only to the history of the Scala, but to that of the history of musical theatre since the war.
In 1965 Claudio Abbado made his début at the Scala and in 1972 was named conductor of the Scala Orchestra. Until 1986 he directed among other works Il barbiere di Siviglia, Cenerentola, L'Italiana in Algeri by Rossini, Simon Boccanegra, Macbeth and Don Carlo by Verdi, the recent Al gran sole carico d'amore by Luigi Nono, and Pelléas et Mélisande by Claude Debussy. He also conducted numerous concerts. The chorus-master was Romano Gandolfi. In 1975 the ballet dancer Oriella Dorella debuted at La Scala. Among other contemporary composers, up till 1986 the Theatre continued to give works by Luciano Berio (La vera storia), Franco Donatoni (Atem) and Karlheinz Stockhausen (Samstag aus Licht).
In 1981 Riccardo Muti debuted at the Scala as an opera conductor (Mozart, Le nozze di Figaro). Giulio Bertola was appointed to direct the Chorus. In 1982 the Orchestra Filarmonica della Scala was established. In 1985 Alessandra Ferri made her debut at the Scala. In 1986 Riccardo Muti was appointed musical director. From 1989 to 1998 he reintroduced the best-loved works (Rigoletto, La traviata, Macbeth, La forza del destino) and numerous other titles by Verdi including Falstaff and Don Carlo.
In 1991 Roberto Gabbiani took over the directorship of the chorus. In 1997 La Scala was converted into a Foundation under private ownership, thus opening a decisive phase of modernisation.
On 7 December 2001 a new production of Otello, conducted by Muti, concluded the Verdi Year and, for the time being, performances at Piermarini’s original building in Piazza Scala. Major restoration and modernisation works of the Theatre began in January 2002.
On 19 January 2002 the new Teatro degli Arcimboldi, built in the former Pirelli-Bicocca industrial area, opened with La traviata, conducted by Muti, while on 23 May the Theatre Museum opened at Palazzo Busca. The Milan City Council approved the project by the architects Mario Botta and Elisabetta Fabbri for the restoration of the Scala Theatre. In September 2003 the Scala was again on tour in Tokyo. On 7 December 2004, with Antonio Salieri’s Europa riconosciuta conducted by Riccardo Muti, the restored Scala theatre reopened. The Scala Theatre Museum, newly designed by Pier Luigi Pizzi, also returned to Piermarini’s original building. In the spring of 2005, Riccardo Muti left the Theatre after having been its musical director for 19 years.
The 2005-2006 Season, dedicated to the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, was inaugurated by Idomeneo conducted by Daniel Harding. The 2006/07 season saw the return on 7 December of an opera by Verdi, Aida, conducted by Riccardo Chailly, and the launch of the Celebrations for the 50th Anniversary of Arturo Toscanini’s Death. On 7 December 2007 the 2007/08 season opened with Tristan und Isolde conducted by Daniel Barenboim. The opera marked the beginning of a closer collaboration between the Teatro alla Scala and the Israeli-Argentinian Maestro.