Saving Liceu

Historic opera house sings again

Barcelona's sumptuous opera house, the Gran Teatre del Liceu, has risen from the ashes.

In 1994 a fire destroyed the auditorium, stage, and backstage area of the Liceu, the second-largest opera house in Europe (after La Bastille in Paris). In October, it reopened following a year of renovation.

"[It's] the same as before, but even more beautiful," says famed opera singer Carlo Bergonzi, referring to the reconstruction of the venue where he has sung many times. Architect Ignasi de Sol-Morales has reproduced the glory of the old Liceu, right down to the colors and textures.

Much of the original theater, with its neoclassical marble entrance hall, silk-upholstered walls, crimson-velvet-covered seats, and golden angels on a five-tier horseshoe structure, has been retained. A new entrance and foyer have been added, along with computerized technology for the stage and acoustics.

The Liceu, built in 1847, burned down once before and was restored in 1861. It has always been a key feature of the Barcelona landscape, overlooking the tumultuous La Rambla Boulevard in the heart of the Spanish city's medieval quarter.

At the recent reopening, the show was not on the stage, but in the imposing Hall of Mirrors, the building's main reception area. Many such shows over the past 152 years have been played there. King Juan Carlos and the royal family of Spain rubbed shoulders with President Jos Mara Aznar, government ministers, regional and local political leaders, and past opera greats like Mr. Bergonzi, Edita Gruberova, Jaume Aragall, and Magda Olivero.

Amazingly, the architect's plan for refurbishing the Liceu was presented more than a decade ago.

"The main problem back then was security. It was too vulnerable to fire, and the exits were not adequate," says Mr. de Sol-Morales. "Also, the stage and backstage area were so small that the theater could not share any production with other top opera houses."

The fire in 1994 not only proved him tragically right, but also gave him a window of opportunity to carry out his ideas.

At the beginning of the 1990s, the Liceu was in poor condition, and there was no money and no political will to carry out needed renovations. The consensus and commitment were achieved only after the disaster.

Booming Barcelona

Barcelona is a cosmopolitan and sophisticated city that is the economic engine of Spain. Its 1.5 million people speak their own language (Catalan), and the region's distinctive music, art, and architecture are world famous.

The Liceu is at the center of the "old city," still within its medieval walls when the opera house first opened in the mid-19th century. Until recently, the Liceu shared its block with 90 longtime residents; any proposal to evict them met with furious political opposition.

"We were able to get that vital space after the disaster, when the residents were finally ready to sell [a few years ago]," de Sol-Morales says.

With the added elbow room, the new opera house has almost tripled its space backstage and for storage rooms, offices, and rehearsal rooms.

Some $120 million was raised to pay for the reconstruction. The theater started as a private society, whose members were not only possessors of shares, but also owners of their seats and boxes. In 1861 they rebuilt the fire-gutted Liceu in less than a year. But 140 years later, their descendants were no longer the wealthiest Catalans, nor the most passionate about opera.

The Society of Owners gave away the insurance money from this most recent fire in exchange for a preference in the purchase of season tickets for their old seats.

The rest was provided almost 50-50 by government and corporate donors, who saw their investment as a way to connect with the city.

Anabel Garca, a student standing outside the Liceu to get a view of the glamour on opening night, said she thought the renovations were too expensive.

"Right behind the theater, where poor people live in dilapidated buildings, is where that money was needed," she said.

Her friend Neus Dur, on the other hand, was proud. After cheering and waving at the king and the mayor, she commented: "The fact that this was done so quickly and efficiently makes us proud as Catalans. The Liceu was always a cultural pride of Catalunya, but now we feel it belongs to us, too."

The opera performed at the grand reopening had special meaning. "Turandot," Giacomo Puccini's final masterpiece finished after his death by his disciple, Franco Alfano, was scheduled to be performed in January 1994 when the blaze destroyed the sets along with the theater.

The 1999 production of "Turandot" was directed by Nuria Espert. Set designer Ezio Frigerio filled the enlarged stage with massive dragons and other Chinese paraphernalia.

The orchestra and choir of the Liceu, which had waited five years for this moment, produced an outstanding performance under the baton of French conductor Bertrand de Billy, the new musical director.

Patrons vote with their wallets

International newspapers and specialized opera magazines alike have praised the reconstruction of the Liceu as an example of a smooth balance between public sensitivity to culture and private efficiency and economy.

"The opera house was built anew in less than three years, which is remarkably fast for an opera house with almost 2,400 seats," says Josep Caminal, the Liceu's director-general.

"La Fenice in Venice suffered a similar fire exactly one year later, and they are still deciding where to build the new one," he says.

So far, the people have voted with their wallets in favor of the new Liceu. More than 15,000 patrons, twice as many as before the fire, have bought season tickets for the eight operas and three ballets of the 1999-2000 season.

"We could never have done it without the commitment and [cooperation] of the people of Barcelona," Mr. Caminal says.

Artistic director Joan Matabosch has organized a conservative first season of operas, most of which are old-time stalwarts: "Turandot," "Lucia di Lammermoor," "Don Carlo," "Lohengrin," and "Le nozze di Figaro."

The season also includes two 20th-century operas, Leos Janacek's "The Makropulos Case," with veteran Anja Silja; and Ermanno Wolf Ferrari's "Sly," with Liceu favorite Jos Carreras.

"We can do twice as much with three sets backstage at the same time, but we are starting this at a slow pace," artistic director Matabosch says.

It is the combination of boldness and care that took Barcelona's Gran Teatre del Liceu this far, and the current staff is not going to leave that path now.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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