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‘La Traviata in veils?’ Top Italy theater slammed for plan to add Saudi culture minister to board

‘La Traviata in veils?’ Top Italy theater slammed for plan to add Saudi culture minister to board
Milan’s prestigious La Scala opera house is under fire over negotiations to add none other than Saudi Arabia’s culture minister as a new board member, in a plan that was slammed as being financially motivated and “unscrupulous.”

The prospect of a member of the Saudi royal family sitting on the board of directors of one of Italy's top theaters has caused such a stir that it was brought up in parliament, with Maurizio Gasparri, a member of the Forza Italia party saying that it could tarnish the opera house’s image. “Our government also has the duty of defending the history and identity of La Scala,” he said. Gasparri also asked Italy’s Culture Minister Alberto Bonisoli to clarify the “assessment of the government” on the issue.

But Alexander Pereira, La Scala CEO and artistic director, says the decision to bring Badr bin Abdullah bin Mohammed bin Farhan Al Saud on board was a “great opportunity” for the theater – and that he had discussed the plan with both Milan’s mayor and Bonisoli, who has already met his Saudi counterpart.

Money or human rights?

It seems that the addition of Prince Badr is less about his rich cultural input, however, and more about the tempting appeal of reaching into the deep pockets of the House of Saud – regardless of concerns around Saudi human rights abuses. Indeed, even Pereira admitted that “such economic opportunities don’t come by every day.”

Badr is expected to bring €15 million to the theater over five years, paid by a Saudi individual or via a bank or private company. Pereira has been praised for adding new sponsors and improving the theater’s financial position since his appointment in 2014, but adding the Saudi culture minister to the board could prove a step too far, with critics slating the move and pointing to Riyadh’s dismal reputation when it comes to respecting human rights.

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Gasparri said that Italy should not be taking money from Riyadh, particularly given “recent dramatic events” and “troubling incidents” – a reference to the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in which Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been implicated.

‘Personal initiative’

The idea has not gone down well with some of the other board members, either. The Corriere della Sera newspaper quoted members saying Pereira’s negotiations were “unscrupulous” and a “very personal initiative.” The board members also said, in somewhat of an understatement, that Saudi Arabia “does not stand out for its democratic balances.”

Pereira claims that only one board member is actually against the move, which will be discussed for the third time at an extraordinary meeting on March 18.

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La Scala’s cooperation with Saudi Arabia won’t end there, however. Pereira is also planning to bring a concert version of Giuseppe Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’ opera to Riyadh, but there’s some confusion over how such a performance might work.

“Will we also see an interpretation of La Traviata in veils?” asked Federico Mollicone, a member of the parliamentary committee on culture, referring to the fact that Saudi women are required to wear a veil covering their faces in public.

La Scala is also expected to manage a new music and dance conservatory which is due to open in Riyadh in September. Pereira said that creating an academy in a country which previously has not offered musical education and where dance was banned would have “important value for Italy,” noting that it is a project France also “wanted to take control of.”

Priorities out of whack?

Saudi money has proven hard to turn down on many an occasion. In the aftermath of Khashoggi’s murder, US President Donald Trump openly cited billion dollar arms deals with Riyadh as a reason for his soft response.

Meanwhile, UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt recently pleaded with Germany to drop Berlin's ban on weapons exports to Riyadh, saying it was having a negative impact on the bottom lines of UK and European weapons manufacturers.

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