ROME -- Riccardo Muti, the master conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, is sounding an ominous note, and it isn't rising from the orchestra pit.
The former longtime maestro at Milan's La Scala opera house is worried that the stubborn financial crisis in much of the world risks impoverishing not just public coffers but also the arts, whose budgets, often lean even in good economic times, are among the biggest casualties in many countries.
And, said the man known for his dramatic flair at the podium, there's more than just the risk of darkened theaters or silenced concert halls.
Muti even fears the loss of a people's very identity.
"For our governing leaders, culture is something less important, less necessary, above all in times of economic difficulties," Muti said in an interview with The Associated Press at Rome's Teatro dell'Opera, where he will conduct Giuseppe Verdi's "Simon Boccanegra" in the season's opener Nov. 27.
"But a people without culture is a people that loses its identity. We haven't reached that point yet, but the danger is there."
There are some rays of light for the maestro, who spoke enthusiastically about his current role as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra ("mutual love") and about the future of music, which he predicted will bring people together around the world. The maestro appeared relaxed in a free-ranging conversation while seated on a crimson velvet couch in a private drawing room in the theater.
While some Europeans chafe at Germany's demands that struggling eurozone countries cut their public spending to the bone, Muti said Germany had found the right formula for treating the arts.
There were budget cuts for the arts in much of Europe, "but not in Germany." Muti said the Berlin Philharmonic, where he has often been a guest conductor, didn't suffer from budget ax-wielders.
"The Germans understand more than others that culture isn't just spiritual well-being, but when it's utilized well, when it's valued, it brings economic well-being," Muti said.
This is a note that Muti has sounded before. In March 2011, barely recovered from having a pacemaker installed following a fall from the podium while rehearsing in Chicago, Muti opened a performance of Verdi's "Nabucco" at Rome's Teatro dell'Opera by lamenting the slashing of the arts budget by the government of then-premier Silvio Berlusconi.
In the United States, orchestras around the country have seen disruptions by labor disputes as the poor economy exacts its price on the classical music world. Orchestra executives complain of flat ticket sales and sagging corporate and other private support.
In Chicago, the symphony orchestra in September went on a brief strike that forced the cancellation of a performance two hours before it was to start.
Muti declined to weigh in on American orchestras' labor disputes. "I do not make judgments on countries where I am a guest," said Muti, who has been with the Chicago orchestra since 2008.
Still, he urged Americans to consider music and the other arts "a patrimony that must be preserved and brought as much as possible to the various levels of society. It's not elitism."
And a little better treatment of musicians, pay-wise, might just make for better listening, Muti added with a mischievous smile.
"I hope that musicians in American can always find that dignity and happiness that is born from an (improved) economic situation," the maestro said. "If you're OK, you play fine. No, you play even better."
Muti did complain that classical music in America is sometimes labeled "entertainment."
"Soccer and sports are entertainment ... You can't call Beethoven's 9th Symphony or a work of Shakespeare 'entertainment.' It's not 'entertainment.' It's culture."
Muti started intoning the famous bars of Beethoven's 5th Symphony: "Da-da-da-dee ... Da-da-da-dee ..." Centuries ago, he said, "they could sing this." Now, "the music that is written today is not something you can bring home and sing." The exceptions he cited were "The Beatles, some of Madonna's, Barbra Streisand."
But he stressed he doesn't want to be "cynical" and expressed optimism about the music still to be made.
Muti is especially renowned in the United States, where he won accolades leading the Philadelphia Orchestra. Spending his 30s there, he won a reputation for stripping away the romanticism of the lush so-called "Philadelphia sound" made famous by Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Normandy.
But it is Chicago which sees him waxing lyrical about work and life.
Now 71, he said he brought to Chicago, his long experience of "life, orchestras, music, theaters." Praising that city's symphony orchestra for its "mixture of virtuosity and sensibility," he ranks it as one of the world's three best, along with the philharmonic orchestras of Berlin and Vienna.
He's also in love with Chicago itself. "I believe it's the most beautiful city in the U.S." architecturally. He also gushed about its "light that comes from the north, from the lake, a brilliant light." And its "tough and friendly" people, Muti said, switching from Italian to English to pick his adjectives.
With Chicago so satisfying, did he linger too long at La Scala, from which he resigned in 2005 in a labor dispute that wrote the coda on his nearly two decades there?
Muti sighed and mentioned "my friend, Jimmy Levine," meaning James Levine, whose conducting at New York's Metropolitan Opera has spanned some 40 years.
In America, he said, "it's possible. Here, we have a more dramatic, more polemical world."
"Here, when you reach 15 years, it's the maximum," he added -- an indication, perhaps, that he felt his 19 years at La Scala were indeed too long.
Muti made a melodramatic exit from La Scala after a dragged-out controversy over artistic and programming differences with management and open rebellion by musicians.
Wary about stepping into any La Scala controversy now, Muti sidestepped a question about its season opener.
Some Italians are fuming that La Scala's gala opening night next month is featuring the German composer Richard Wagner's "Lohengrin," conducted by Daniel Barenboim, and not an opera by Verdi, the Italian composer so identified with La Scala.
Next year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of both composers.
"They were both giants," said Muti, rising from the couch to descend to the orchestra pit to lead Teatro dell'Opera's orchestra in a rehearsal to go late into the night. "They made the mistake to be born in the same year.
"It's their fault," he added with a twinkle in his eye.