La Scala returns $3.4 million to Saudi Arabia in debacle

Italy's famed La Scala opera house will immediately return 3 million euros ($3.4 million) sent to an escrow account by Saudi Arabia in what Milan's mayor on Monday termed a badly handled fundraising deal. But he did not rule out future dealings with the kingdom despite concerns raised over its human rights record.

Milan Mayor Giuseppe Sala told reporters that La Scala's board decided to return the money deposited earlier this year by the Saudi culture minister without a proper indication of its purpose and before the board had been formally notified of fundraising discussions with Saudi officials by La Scala's general manager.

While the current procedure aimed at making Saudi Arabia an official financial backer of the opera house was officially closed, Sala refused to rule out future talks with the kingdom. He said a planned tour by La Scala's orchestra in 2020 will go ahead as planned.

"We are not closing doors to Saudi Arabia," Sala said. "It depends on the form of cooperation. We will do the tour. I wouldn't make a list of countries where it doesn't make sense to go, also because this kind of activity can help in respect to the situation that exists today in Saudi Arabia."

The fundraising deal, for example, foresaw the establishment of a music school run by La Scala's academy that would be open to all Saudi children regardless of gender.

While announcing the return of the money, the mayor noted that the Italian government and financial institutions continued to have dealings with Saudi Arabia.

Italy is Saudi Arabia's ninth-largest trading partner, according to the Saudi embassy website. While Italy's premier Giuseppe Conte said at his year-end news conference that Italy planned to suspend arm's sales, no action has been taken yet.

The opera house deal, which would have given a seat on the La Scala board to Saudi Arabia's culture minister, was hotly contested in light of Saudi Arabia's human rights record. The kingdom is under increased scrutiny internationally since the killing of a Saudi journalist inside its consulate in Istanbul last October and the plight of a Saudi woman who turned to social media to help escape alleged family abuse.

Other Western cultural institutes have also grappled with how to handle financial contributions from Saudi Arabia following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. Saudi Arabia, which has been making moves to open culturally to the West, participated for the first time in last year's Biennale architecture exhibit in Venice.

As part of the arrangement agreed, Saudi Arabia would have contributed 15 million euros to La Scala over the coming years and in return would have become a so-called "founding member." of the foundation and taken a seat on the board.

Sala said the talks with Saudi Arabia, which included discussions ahead of the gala Dec. 7 season-opener, were poorly handled in terms of communication. He said he had been aware of the talks, but not of their speedy advancement nor of the transfer of funds.

But he said that general manager and artistic director Alexander Pereira had acted in good faith while showing some naivete in dealing with Italian politicians.

"In all these years in Italy, he should understand the mechanisms," he said. "If you think that one day a politicians tells you one thing and then the next day he says the same thing, you are dreaming."

Despite calls by the governor of Lombardy for Pereira's dismissal, Sala said regional representative on the board made no such motion during Monday's board meeting and that his position at the opera house was not in question for the time being. His mandate expires next year.