Milan's La Scala may be the most famous opera house in the world. It may also be one of the hardest to get tickets to. But difficulties in securing tickets are only the first of many surprises awaiting the operagoer in Italy.
For operas in Italy are different. Or maybe I should say that attending an opera in Italy is different. It's an experience no opera-lover should miss.
Among Italians, there's little of that awed reverence familiar to American operagoers. They never forget, and neither should we, that they invented opera; and when they go to it today they still bring with them a remarkably at home attitude.
Behavior and etiquette are easygoing and informal, growing more and more casual the farther south one travels. But even as far north as Parma it's not unusual to encounter the kind of atmosphere we might associate with a festive ''opera in the park'' performance, and in Verona, performances are indeed held in the local equivalent, the Roman arena.
This past Feb. 1, I had the good fortune to be in Bologna, in northern Italy, when tenor Luciano Pavarotti performed his first solo recital there in over 10 years. Pavarotti grew up in nearby Modena, and his recital had a festive and electric air to it: This was the return of the local boy who had made very, very good indeed.
Midway through Pavarotti's first song, a formidable, fur-clad woman sitting next to me began to accompany the tenor in a good but distracting soprano voice.
I gave her a withering glance. She smiled rapturously as she doubled a climactic high C. I glared. But as Pavarotti finished a moving rendition of ''A Vucchella,'' her face turned beatific and she whispered ''Bravo maestro!'' over and over. I surrendered to such total passion.
Actually, I should have expected it. Audience involvement at any opera house in Italy can quickly turn into vocal participation. This is true even at La Scala, where the businesslike Milanese are usually the most formal and reserved of any Italian audience. A few years ago, for instance, during a performance there of ''Il Trovatore,'' I had the pleasure of joining many people around me in singing along, sotto voce, during the famous ''Anvil Chorus.''
Far from being a pastime for connoisseurs, opera retains for Italians some of its earlier, purely social function. The opera house is as much a place to see old friends, gossip, and show off a new outfit as it is for hearing lyric drama.
That's the way it has always been. In the early 19th century, in the heyday of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and the young Verdi, opera was almost entirely an upper-class activity. Seasons lasted for most of the year, and a box at the opera was a personal possession, to be used as often or as seldom as one wished. Owning an opera box was like having a membership at an exclusive club that provided live background music.
Prints and paintings of the time show elaborately dressed ladies sitting with their backs to the stage conversing with friends, while the gentlemen relax with their newspapers. Most opera houses had several restaurants and bars, and some even offered gambling casinos for diversion between (and during) performances. Only when a popular star appeared or a favorite aria or choral number was sung did the audience take much interest in what was happening on stage.
Those days are gone, of course, but a little of their casual spirit does live on. Now seasons begin in December in most of the major houses and continue for three to six months. Boxes, like all other seats, are sold in subscription series, as in the United States. In many cities and small towns, there are also summer series and pleasant local productions of well-known works.
Now that opera has practically become an art form for the masses, the hardest part of enjoying it for the foreign visitor is simply getting into one. As is typical in Italy, no two opera houses have the same policies or prices for tickets. You have to hope for the best, pay very dear scalpers' prices, or else learn the ins and outs of the various opera houses.
Most of the major opera houses (see the checklist for addresses, length of season, and ticket policies) present six or more performances of each opera in a season's repertory. The majority of these will be subscription series, and they will be sold out well in advance to local people. Moreover, generally speaking, only single tickets are likely to be available for nonsubscription performances.
You can learn the dates of each in several ways. If you speak Italian, you should definitely phone, so that you can also learn the ticket ordering procedures. If you don't speak Italian, you can still write (in English) directly to the opera house(s) you are interested in and request a schedule and price list. Enclosing an international reply coupon will definitely speed your response.
Alternatively, you can obtain schedules from the Italian Government Travel Offices (630 Fifth Avenue, Suite 1565, New York, N.Y. 10020, phone (212) 245- 4822; 500 North Michigan Avenue, Room 314, Chicago, Ill. 60611, (312) 644-0990; or 360 Post Street, San Francisco, Calif. 94108, (415) 392-6206), but these offices often do not receive the schedules far enough in advance to help you much.
If you are traveling on a first-class budget and plan to stay in any of the wonderful but very expensive hotels of the CIGA chain, you or your travel agent can inquire about schedules when you book through CIGA's New York office (1-800- 221-2340). You may also request tickets, to be purchased for you by CIGA's top-notch concierges, when you book your rooms.
Once you know which performances you want to see, the next challenge is getting tickets. If you're not booked at a CIGA hotel, you can still try writing or calling the concierge where you will be staying (although it's not worth the effort unless you're staying at a fairly deluxe hotel). Some people I know have had success simply sending a check to the opera house with a brief note saying which dates they are interested in. Unless you've obtained the schedule and read the often complicated instructions for mail orders, however, you may find that you've sent your money too soon or too late.
At La Scala, for instance, postal orders for any performance of a given opera must be received during a specified six-day period about a month before its first performance (dates of acceptance of postal orders and full instructions for ordering are given in its schedule). Ticket confirmations are sent by mail, the expenses of which must be paid when the tickets are picked up and paid for at the box office - which can only be done during the two days preceding the performance and ending half an hour before curtain time.
Telegram and telex orders are not accepted, nor, at La Scala, are phone orders. Standing-room tickets go on sale an hour before the performance, but lines to see major stars begin forming hours in advance.
Even if you are successful when sending your money in ''blind,'' you may find , incidentally, that you've received tickets to something you have little interest in seeing. Most of the major houses are adventurous in programming, and few limit themselves to classic Italian works. In the past year Rome, for example, played a new opera by Philip Glass, while La Scala premiered a new work by Stockhausen. Wagner is performed everywhere.
But don't be put off by the complications. You can always just go to an opera house early, armed with a sign saying ''looking for two tickets'' (cerchiamo due biglietti), an ample dose of optimism, and an ability to bargain with scalpers. One way or another, everyone I know who has wanted to see an opera in Italy has managed to do so. And no one has regretted the effort it took. The major Italian opera houses
Milan: Teatro alla Scala, Piazza della Scala (ticket office: Ufficio Biglietteria, via Filodrammatici 2), 20121 Milano; phone (02) 80-70-41. The season in Italy's premier opera house begins Dec. 7 and runs through June. There are spectacular productions with international stars in a theater filled with history. Ticket prices range from about $5 to about $50; scalpers charge $75 or and enclosing an international postal money order for 7,000 lire. Mail order policies are described above. Tickets go on sale at the box office a week in advance.
Rome: Teatro dell'Opera, Piazza Beniamino Gigli, 1; phone (06) 46-17-55. The Rome opera house is still the ugliest in Italy, although its acoustics have been improved in a recent remodeling. The season runs from early December to mid-June. There are also summer performances at the Baths of Caracalla. Mail orders are accepted up to 60 days in advance; payment in full (bank draft or postal money order) must accompany the request. Add in a 10 percent surcharge for mail orders; tickets may be picked up beginning three days before the performances. Otherwise, tickets go on sale at the box office only two days in advance (get there well before the 10 a.m. opening time). Prices range from $2 to $20, and are very much in demand.
Naples: Teatro San Carlo, Biglietteria, Via Vittorio Emanuele III; phone (081 ) 41-82-66. The Naples opera house dates from 1737, although it was rebuilt after a fire in the early 19th century. It's another great theater with top casts and an illustrious history. The season runs from about Dec. 10 to mid-June. Ticket prices are about the same as in Rome. For ticket information, write or call for a calendar and price list.
Venice: Teatro La Fenice, Campo San Fantin 2549, 30124 Venezia; phone (041) 70-93-44. This small jewel of an opera house is surely one of the most beautiful in the world. The season begins a week before Christmas and runs through June, but there are special performances year-round, and especially at Carnival, whose dates in 1985 will be Feb. 13-19. Tickets go on sale a month before the first of each series of performances, and they can be very difficult to get. Telegraph orders are accepted, however. Full payment must accompany each order. Tickets may be picked up beginning two days before the performance. Prices range from about $3.50 to $20.
Turin: Teatro Regio, Biglietteria, Piazza Castello 215, 10124 Torino; phone ( 011) 54-80-00. The present theater dates from 1973, but its history goes back to 1738. It is especially associated with Puccini. The season runs from late November through mid-June. Postal orders, accompanied by full payment, must arrive at least 15 days in advance of the performance. Most seats are about $12.
Bologna: Teatro Communale, Largo Respighi, 1, 40126 Bologna; phone (051) 22- 29-99. Although it seldom gets the all-star casts of some other houses, the present Bologna opera house, which dates from 1763, may be, after La Fenice, the most beautiful in Italy. Many of Wagner's Italian premieres were given here, and his work remains a specialty of the house. The season runs from early December to early May, and it is hard to find anything but nonsubscription tickets. You can get on a mailing list here, however, and postal orders are accepted far in advance. Prices range from $7.50 to $15.
Parma: Teatro Regio, Via Garibaldi 16, 43100 Parma; phone (0521) 22-003. This elegant theater was founded by Marie Louise (who became Duchess of Parma after her separation from Napoleon in 1829). It is most famous now for the intense, and sometimes riotous, involvement of its audiences. On the right (or wrong) night, it can be quite an experience, but it's not the place to expect sublime performances. The season runs from late November through late April. Ticket prices range from about $5 to $15. Write or call the biglietteria for ordering information.