Stories and secrets of those who work behind the scenes at La Fenice Opera House, which was destroyed and then rebuilt 26 years ago

28 January 2022

La Fenice Opera House, one of the symbols of Venice, a theatre admired all over the world and which wrote – and continues to write – pages of the city's history. Andrea Muzzati, a 60-year-old Venetian who has been working there since 1981, had just passed his high school diploma when, while looking for his first job, he heard that they were looking for personnel at La Fenice. He was hired and today, 40 years after that day, he is the key grip, responsible for positioning cameras and support equipment behind the scenes of the performances hosted by the world-famous Venetian Opera House. On the 29th of January 1996, he was not in Venice when the place which had become a second home burned to the ground. He was on tour in Warsaw with the rest of the theatre crew.

In his eyes, however, you can still read the indelible memory of a pile of ash and burnt wood. And those same eyes, 26 years later, are still veiled in sadness and emotion. The symbol of Venice, the place he loved and which he would not have changed for anything in the world, had gone up in smoke and debris. But La Fenice, like its evocative name, rose again and in 2003 it revealed itself in all its beauty, following the motto “The way it was, where it was”. Together with the structural and scenic part, the gilding, lights and designs, Andrea's work was also reborn.

"On that terrible evening they called us and explained what had happened, but there were no mobile phones then. We were dazed: we immediately turned on the TV and saw the first images of the disaster. Those were difficult days, so far away without understanding and without seeing," he says, "we came back and there was nothing left. We couldn't understand what our future might be. Then they built Palafenice and we stayed there until 2003". Indelible memories also for La Fenice's deputy chief electrician, Andrea Benetello, who at the time of the fire was working for Viet, the company whose owner was convicted after years of interrogations and investigations.

"These are things you never forget," he says, "even today, after 26 years, when I smell something burning, it's automatically as if I were on the field that night, watching La Fenice burn. I can still hear the sounds of the weights and counterweights collapsing from 32 metres, the explosions, the glass bursting, the hallucinating sounds that made the floors shake". Benetello had just finished his shift when the fire broke out and he spent the whole evening in the field, watching the rapid destruction of the theatre, razed to the ground by high flames that threatened to burn down an entire sestiere of Venice. "As long as I was there, I imagined all that was lost," he concludes, "but we understood the gravity of the situation when the fire brigade told us that the flames were already in the Opera House and that everything would burn like a haystack". For two years Benetello told investigators everything he had done and seen, and now that story is behind him, even though it has left an indelible mark on his life.

The theatre was completely emptied, and in 2003 it was rebuilt just as it had been before, although it 'smelled' new. "The first time we went on stage and saw the room all gilded, it was a strange sensation: we were used to the old, worn-out ceiling, but this one was new, it sparkled," Muzzati explains. "The old Opera House was wonderful, it wasn't easy to get used to it again, even though they did a great job rebuilding it, especially the stage, of which there was absolutely nothing left".

The reconstruction has facilitated the hard work of all those people, like Muzzati, who work behind the scenes, but also made the theatre simpler in its internal organisation and faster in staging the works. The spaces are now wider so that the loads can be moved more easily, the weights are no longer lifted with ropes by hand but with modern winches and a computer-controlled system, and four mobile bridges have been created to transport the materials, because in Venice everything arrives by boat. Support and new technologies have improved the quality of work, even if it has been at the expense of the charm of the old craft. "The sound of the ropes and pulleys when you were pulling weights stays with me", says Muzzati, "I joined the theatre by chance, after school, when I heard they were looking for people. I immediately became a stagehand and it's a job I wouldn't change for anything else, I'd do it all again, because it's impossible to get bored here, every day there's something different. The old masters taught us so much, they knew every detail of the theatre, they loved it, and they were able to pass this passion on to us". There are currently 30 stagehands working at La Fenice Opera House, divided into teams. They are a sort of deus ex machina of the theatre, the centre from which the stage action starts, where the wings are raised and lowered with millimetric precision, where the work is mounted and dismantled.

Muzzati, who in 41 years has listened to thousands of operas and fallen in love with Tosca, who has never sat in the stalls to enjoy a performance, also addressed the damage that the high waters of 2019 have inflicted on the theatre, as well as the entire city. Water and fire for La Fenice Opera House, which has been able to rise from its ashes stronger than before.