MILAN — Alexander Pereira will arrive at the Milanese opera house La Scala as general manager in 2015 with a unique set of work experience that may be just what's called for as European cultural institutions are squeezed financially: top Olivetti computer salesman, trained singer and veteran artistic director of the Zurich Opera and Salzburg Festival.
"I think maybe there is now a possibility where I can use all my experience, and maybe it is the institution that needs it most at this moment," Pereira said in an interview Tuesday, the day after he got the call that he had been chosen for the prestigious La Scala job.
The 65-year-old Austrian was in Milan, gathering his first impressions behind the scenes of the opera house and meeting the man he will replace, Stephane Lissner, a Frenchman who is leaving Milan in September 2015 after a decade to take over the Paris Opera. Lissner's achievements include increasing the share of private contributions to the public theater, keeping a balanced budget and bringing in Daniel Barenboim as musical director.
Pereira's challenges include keeping up the hunt for private funding and finding a new musical director to replace Barenboim, whose commitment ends in 2016, while maintaining La Scala's cultural heritage as a top European opera house.
"This problem of the state running out of money is not only in Italy. I am fighting like mad with the Austrians about the exact same problem," said Pereira, who has been running the Salzburg Festival since 2012 following two decades at the Zurich Opera.
"This atmosphere that the state cannot finance our value system, not only culture but also hospitals, social security, the universities, means we have to try to create a new solidarity between the public sector on one side and private supporters, big companies, on the other. We have to try to make it work. This will be an important goal for me when I work for La Scala."
Pereira's hallmark at the Salzburg Festival has been a focus on new productions – something he plans to continue at La Scala.
"I want to be able to produce new productions, which automatically means I have to get more money," he said.
Pereira's first passion was singing, but he went into business to please his mother, first working for the Austrian tourism board, then selling Olivetti computers in Germany. His 12 years in sales, he said, helped him learn not to take negative responses personally.
"I couldn't cope with all the financial difficulties of an opera house if I hadn't had the chance to learn in the business world," he said.
While he began studying singing again after establishing his business career, he eventually said to himself, "It's not quite good enough."
When he later became a director of concert and then opera houses, he realized the purpose of his singing. "I had to learn singing to understand voices, he said. "Fate gave me another way."
Though Pereira does not assume his new role at La Scala until October 2015, two and a half years is not long in opera years, and he is already mentally beginning to imagine his inaugural season.
"Fortunately, I have a big network of contacts, singers and stage directors. I also have the Salzburg Festival sitting in front of me, and many artists will pass through Salzburg this summer. I will use the time to make a few important engagements, and I hope this will work," he said.