Rome opera house finds harmony with cost cuts and state cash

ROME (Reuters) - Rome’s opera house has brought down the curtain on years of losses and infighting and started breaking even after cutting costs, taking special state funds and reaching a peace deal with fractious employee unions.

The Teatro dell’Opera di Roma had racked up millions of euros of losses and sacked hundreds of orchestra and chorus members last year as Italy’s deepest post-war economic crisis choked funding for the arts.

Productions were canceled and the former honorary director, internationally renowned conductor Riccardo Muti, quit after months of strikes over conditions and staffing levels.

“Last year, the theater was seen as an emblem, a metaphor for an Italy that did not work, that was bogged down with problems,” general director Carlo Fuortes said at a news conference in the angular gray opera house in central Rome.

But it now expects to balance its 2014 accounts, despite continued cuts in ordinary state funding, partly thanks to a program masterminded by former culture minister Massimo Bray.

Under the Bray scheme, which pledged funds to theaters that presented a credible turnaround plan, the opera house received a 15 million euro chunk of funds in January, allowing it to pay performers, suppliers, and public authorities.

“With the January tranche, we have a serenity we haven’t had for a very long time,” Fuortes said.

A deal struck with unions should stave off the risk of more strikes until 2016, and box office takings from one-off and season tickets so far this year are almost triple what they were in the same period last year.

Fuortes said sales were unlikely to triple in each of the three coming quarters, but the Bray funds had definitively resolved many financial problems at the theater, which was now “working normally”.

The main opera house is preparing to open a production of “Aida” on April 23. The theater also stages concerts at the ruined baths of Caracalla, where Elton John and Bob Dylan are due to play this summer.

Editing by Alison Williams