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ROME (Reuters) - Rome's opera house has sacked nearly 200 members of its permanent orchestra and chorus as Italy's worst economic crisis for decades chokes state spending on the arts.
Just two weeks ago, the opera's internationally respected honorary director, Riccardo Muti, quit after a six-year tenure marked by infighting, strikes and financial problems.
The Teatro dell'Opera di Roma musicians, whose contracts will be terminated by the end of the year, could be re-engaged as part of an "outsourced" orchestra, the ministry for cultural affairs said late on Thursday, describing its move as a "painful but necessary step to save the Rome Opera and start again".
Opera houses worldwide increasingly rely on freelance staff due to funding short-falls, and venues across Italy -- where opera was invented in the 16th century -- have been forced to make similarly drastic staffing changes.
Hit by falling revenues and mounting costs, the loss-making Rome Opera, has accumulated debts of more than 40 million euros ($50 million) and relies on subsidies from both the cash-strapped city of Rome and the central government to survive.
Thursday's decision prompted calls from opposition Forza Italia party for Cultural Affairs Minister Dario Franceschini to force Rome Opera's superintendent, Carlo Fuortes, to resign.
Fuortes, appointed at the end of last year, said the orchestra and chorus cost 12.5 million euros a year and outsourcing would save 3.4 million.
Massimo Cestaro, secretary general of theater workers' union SLC-CGIL, said, "The truth is that there has been a campaign to dismantle the principal cultural institutions of our country."
He said the real goal of the government was to turn Italian theaters into "empty boxes".
Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Louise Ireland