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It's Puccini vs. punks n Montreal

Music, it is said, hath charms to soothe the savage breast. But does it pack sufficient wallop to clear a subway station of loutish loiterers?

Opera has become the latest weapon employed by Montreal's Metro system to chase off young people who loaf about downtown stations, demanding spare change from passers-by, chain-puffing cigarettes under "No Smoking" signs, cussing, spitting and generally making life unpleasant for subway riders.

Cops can't seem to frighten them away. But Metro officials reckon diva Maria Callas or tenor Luciano Pavarotti might just do the trick.

Montreal is already claiming success, saying riders are being hassled less since the test project started booming. Other Canadian cities have used classical music to repel loiterers from public spots, but Montreal is the first to resort to opera.

In a debut underground performance, strains of Tristan und Isolde, Don Carlos and other epic operas are blaring from loudspeakers in the busy entranceway of Berri-UQAM station.

"These kids don't like opera, and that's why we're using it," Serge Savard, spokesman for the Montreal Urban Transit Commission, told reporters.

"If they didn't like country music, we would play country music."

Montreal is famous for its safe, clean subway system. But recent years have seen an invasion of some stations by loud gangs dressed in scruffy denim and leather festooned with chains. The self-described punks are perhaps less dangerous than they look. Still, they can be aggressive and highly obnoxious, flipping smoldering butts at people, cursing or even spitting on those who refuse their entreaties for change.

"It's not the ambience we want," Savard said.

So the Metro is turning to the big guns: Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries, Rossini's Barber of Seville, even Puccini's Madama Butterfly.

But the assault has also wounded the sensibilities of opera fans.

"This shows true contempt for the art form," John Trivisonno, spokesman for L'Opera de Montreal, told Canada's National Post newspaper. Trivisonno complained that the project "is a blow to punks as well, because it says they aren't able to appreciate anything that is foreign to them."

In resorting to opera, Montreal is following in the footsteps of other Canadian cities, which have discovered that symphonic sound is a powerful persuader.

The country's largest city, Toronto, as well as Alberta's Edmonton and New Brunswick's Moncton are among the centers piping classical music into public places for the purpose of scattering gangs, although the same strains have a side benefit of soothing everyday people.

Toronto uses Bach, Beethoven and Brahms to shoo punkers from crime-plagued subway stations. In Edmonton, oboe concertos have chased drug dealers from downtown parks.

Moncton, meanwhile, plays piano sonatas along a stretch of the main street as a way of scaring off teenaged troublemakers.

"It has had a real, measurable effect _ there's been a reduction in crime, a reduction in problems, and kids don't hang around anymore," said Mike Walker, chief security officer for the Toronto Transit Commission.

However, he jokingly told a Toronto newspaper, by cranking up the opera, Montreal may be playing a bit too rough.

"We use classical here. We don't use opera," he said. "We wouldn't do that to anyone."