It’s been a long wait. After nearly four years of eerie silence, music will tonight ring through the great hall of the Teatro Colón, Argentina’s most emblematic cultural monument. And, after nearly four years of painstaking repairs, we are assured that the great theatre will sparkle as it did when inaugurated on 25th May, 1908. The Argentina Independent was given a sneak preview on 6th May, and we don’t think the world famous opera house is going to disappoint.
The special closed-door function for the press and those involved in the colossal restoration project was the first performance since legendary folk singer Mercedes Sosa closed the theatre on 1st November 2006. Only part of the building was accessible and some protective covers and scaffolding remained, but the indulgent furnishings in the magnificent foyer, Salón Dorado (Gold Room), and the main hall gleamed proudly. And after the resident orchestra and choir had put everything into Beethoven’s 9th symphony, and the epic standing ovation had eventually subsided, renowned sound engineer Rafael Sánchez Quintana gave the nod of approval that everyone wanted to hear: “the acoustics are intact”.
Preserving the Colón’s unique sound – which earned the theatre worldwide acclaim – was therefore the key challenge in the restoration project. Given the scale of the refurbishment work, many art lovers feared that it would be impossible to recreate the same magical resonance that drew.
In the Colón’s heyday, which coincided with Argentina’s golden age of prosperity in the early 20th century, the best composers and singers from around the world came to Buenos Aires to experience the architectural finesse and impeccable acoustics of Latin America’s largest opera house.
However, a century later and the theatre’s damaged structure and run-down installations became an unwelcome metaphor for the country’s faded elegance.
Soon after the start of the 21st century, restoration work began on the building’s exterior, and in November 2006, legendary Argentine folk singer Mercedes Sosa sang at the closing ceremony. The Colón was scheduled to reopen just 18 months later, in time for its 100th birthday in May 2008. However, progress was stunted by city and national elections in 2007, and until the newly-appointed Macri government made the so called “master plan” its priority: the ‘autarky law’ passed in June 2008 made the Colón an autonomous entity (EATC), and the country’s bicentenary was proposed for the grand reopening.
An Unprecedented Upgrade
Some of the essential repairs were structural, such as reinforcing the walls of the 60,000m² building with carbon fibre, replacing flammable materials and installing modern fire safety and air conditioning systems. Others were motivated by aesthetic considerations but were no less meticulous. For example, the sumptuous decor in the main hall was restored to its original scarlet and gold colour by stripping a century’s worth of paint jobs by hand.
In total, the “master plan” took seven years to (almost) complete, cost an estimated $375m and required some 1,500 builders, designers and architects. Now, as the final touches are added, the question on anxious lips across the country is simple: was it worth it?
Buenos Aires mayor, Mauricio Macri, has no doubt that it was: “the recuperation of the city and country’s cultural icon fills us with pride”, he declared at a rehearsal for the reopening, “[the Colón’s restoration] fulfils the wish of the country and everyone who recognises it as one of the greatest theatres in the world.
Meanwhile, Pedro Pablo García Caffi , who became general and artistic director of the Colón early in 2009, revealed earlier this month how excited he was at completing the restoration project. “Reopening the Teatro Colón with all its splendour restored fills me with joy,” he told classical music magazine Cantabile, adding that “the quality of the renovation work is a cultural achievement in itself.”
Trouble Behind The Scenes
However, not everyone is convinced by the makeover. Though largely drowned out by the pomp and fanfare in the build up to the reopening ceremony, there are grumblings behind the curtain that could yet take some of the shine off the Colón’s triumphant return. Some are unconvinced by the extensive restoration and suspicious of the official assessment of the theatre’s acoustics.
But it is the overhaul in the productive side of the Colón that sparked a long-running conflict between EATC and the theatre’s workers.
In accordance with the “autarky law”, García Caffi oversaw a major restructuring and “modernisation” of the theatre’s in-house production methods and art workshops, which closed down some areas and left over 400 artists and staff surplus to requirement. These employees
A statement by a group representing the workers of the Teatro Colón summed up the collective indignation: “How can they replace the rooms for rehearsals for the orchestra, the ballet, for production workshops, with cafes, restaurants, bank branches, souvenir shops and even a General Motor’s dealership.
The statement goes on to lambast the treatment of artists formerly resident in the Colón, who were either dismissed or transferred to other civil service departments after the restructuring began. “They [the city government] cannot fire workers, so they send them to perform tasks that have nothing to do with their professional career, so they end up retiring or dying of sadness! [...]To give a concrete example, an opera singer with 30 years experience, who represented this country artistically, who won prizes and worldwide acclaim, now should input patient numbers at the Alvarez Hospital.
Caffi has defended the move, arguing somewhat provocatively that the Colón was not “a social benefit, where people can pile up in the aisles”. However, on April 22 of this year a judge annulled the resolutions in the autarky law that directed workers to other civil service departments and ordered the reincorporation of 138 displaced artists.
Maximo Parpagnolli, a representative of the Colón workers, says it has been failing to comply with the ruling, which ordered the reinstatement of the workers by 6th May. “It’s something that occurs systematically with the Macri government,” he says. “They don’t obey judicial rulings.”
Parpagnolli and the other workers are now waiting on another lawsuit filed against the government officers who are failing to comply with the legal decision. They also organised a protest yesterday at the doors of the Colón, but Parpagnolli assures me that they “have no interest in interfering with the party on the 24th”.
The unresolved conflict might yet disrupt the coming season. But for one night at least, Argentina will unite to rejoice in the return of its most prestigious cultural treasure.
For more information about upcoming concerts at Teatro Colon, visit www.teatrocolon.org.ar
Excerpts from Puccini’s La Bohéme and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake will be performed for 2,400 special guests starting at 8.30pm. President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner caused a furore last week by very publicly declining to attend after the controversies surrounding Buenos Aires city mayor, Mauricio Macri who is being prosecuted for his role in a wire-tapping scandal that emerged last year. But the show will go on, with the street party beginning outside the theatre on 9 de Julio from 7pm, with the public able to follow the comeback show for free on giant screens. It will not be suspended for rain, though Channel 13 will also be showing the whole event live.