The Teatro alla Scala was founded, under the auspices of the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, to replace the Royal Ducal Theatre, which was destroyed by fire on 26 February 1776 and had until then been the home of opera in Milan.
The cost of building the new theatre was borne by the owners of the boxes at the Ducal, in exchange for possession of the land on which stood the church of Santa Maria alla Scala (hence the name) and for renewed ownership of their boxes.
Designed by the great neoclassical architect Giuseppe Piermarini, La Scala opened on 3 August 1778 with Antonio Salieri's opera L'Europa riconosciuta, to a libretto by Mattia Verazi.
The early period of the theatre's artistic history is linked to the tradition of "Neapolitan" opera buffa, whose leading exponents were Giovanni Paisiello (1740-1816) and Domenico Cimarosa (1749-1801). Among the numerous operas performed may be mentioned La frascatana (1780), Il barbiere di Siviglia (1786) and Nina pazza per amore (1804) by Paisiello, L'italiana in Londra (1780) and Il matrimonio segreto (1793) by Cimarosa.
The theatre's repertoire was renewed between 1793 and 1798 with L'oro fa tutto by Ferdinando Paër (1771-1839) and Un pazzo ne fa cento by Giovanni Simone Mayr (1762-1845). Thus La Scala opened towards the neoclassical French taste and to the subsequent, more radical evolution of musical theatre. Paër and Mayr historically represented the junction and passage between opera buffa and the romantic opera of Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868). With the advent of Rossini in 1812 (La pietra del paragone), the Teatro alla Scala was to become the appointed place of Italian opera seria: of its history dating back more than a century and of its subsequent tradition up till the present. The catalogue of Rossini's works performed until 1825 included: Il turco in Italia, La Cenerentola, Il barbiere di Siviglia, La donna del lago, Otello, Tancredi, Semiramide and Mosé.
During that period the choreographies of Salvatore Viganò (1769-181) and of Carlo Blasis (1795-1878) also widened the theatre's artistic supremacy to include ballet.
As for its foreign repertoire, outstanding were the productions, in 1816, of Die Zauberflöte, one of the operas by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) given during the nineteenth century, and, in 1822, of La vestale by Gaspare Spontini (1744-1851).
In 1806 Alessandro Sanquirico (1777-1849) was appointed director of stage design. He renewed the theatre's concept of productions by adjusting them to the new romantic tendency. In 1814 the depth of the stage was increased, to occupy part of the site of a demolished convent in what is now via Verdi.
In 1821 the candle lighting at La Scala was replaced by a large central chandelier with safety lamps (called "argants"), which remained in use until the gas lighting system was introduced in 1860.
An exceptional new season of serious opera opened between 1822 and 1825, with Chiara e Serafina by Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848) and Il pirata by Vincenzo Bellini (1801-1835). The later operas of Donizetti performed at La Scala were (until 1850) Anna Bolena, Lucrezia Borgia, Torquato Tasso, La fille du régiment, La favorita, Linda di Chamonix, Don Pasquale, and Poliuto. These were followed (until 1836) by Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Norma, La sonnambula, Beatrice di Tenda and I puritani.