Friday 2 October 2009

A Night At The Opera

By Richard Morley.
I have friends with connections. One of them phoned me and said she had two tickets for the opera and would I like to go?

How many times have I walked down the Calle de Arenal, through the Plaza de Isabel Segundo and been faced with a choice of routes to get to the Plaza Oriente and the Royal Palace? The building forcing me to make that choice is the Madrid Opera house, or properly, El Teatro Real. Built in the shape of a coffin the Teatro Real looms over the plaza Isabel Segundo like a tsunami about to break. From the outside it is not a pretty building.

I had been told that inside it was a different matter. That since its refurbishment in 1997 it was a beautiful place. I wouldn’t know. With opera tickets being the price they are, the only chance I was going to have to see the inside was on the White Night, La Noche en Blanco when, together with other places of culture, the Teatro Real opens its door to the hoi polloi so they can get a look for free. The queues for that usually snake around the Plaza Oriente for hours. I hate queuing, so I thought I would never get the chance.

And then my friend phoned me.

The Teatro Real was opened by Queen Isabel II in 1850 following thirty two years of construction. It had not been an easy building to erect. A theatre must of necessity be large and high. In keeping with the Royal Palace, which it faces, and the expectations of its patrons, who were the elite of Madrid society, it also had to be a grand edifice using heavy stone. But there is a reason why the street that runs from Sol to the opera house is called the “Calle del Arenal”. It was Madrid’s main source of sand for building and the bible tells us not to build our houses on sand. There were problems.

However, in 1850, Queen Isabel attended the opening performance of “La Favorita” by Donizetti and in the decades that followed its reputation as one of the major opera houses of Europe was solidified.

In 1897 one opera goer wrote, “The luxurious decoration of the room, with warm red and gilded tones, shone with light. In the boxes, white shoulders and bosoms, splendid dresses, jewels, muslin shawls. Diamonds shone, fans waved, bald pates shone like marble”. It is curious the author did not actually comment on the performance those bald heads and white bosoms had come to see.

I think I might know why.

Opera in Madrid has had a hard time. It is said that the Teatro is haunted by the ghost of a singer who had failed an audition! Likewise, the Teatro Real’s existence has been haunted by conflicting tastes in culture and politics.

The 1924-25 season ended with “La Boheme”. No more operas were performed until 1997. Why? I refer to my previous mention of the sand the theatre was built on. Deep cracks had begun to form in the building due to its unstable foundation and the place was closed. Shortly after, the building caught fire. It became a ruin. During the Civil War it was used as a munitions dump and was further damaged by an explosion.

In the mid sixties there was an attempt to reopen it as a music hall. Franco has forbidden the performance of opera, which he considered to be decadent. This was hardly encouraging to Spanish opera singers like Montserrat Caballe, Victoria de los Angeles and Alfredo Kraus, who were then becoming famous on the international stage.

After the dictator’s death it was decided to rescue the Teatro and there were hopes that it would reopen in 1992. Like the phantom of the opera mentioned above, the theatre failed its audition. The government had chosen José Manuel Gonzalez to carry out the restoration. He had been in charge of the necessary repairs when it became a music hall and had ignored Franco’s instructions to destroy the stage so that opera would never be performed again. But soon after work began Señor Gonzalez died of a heart attack while showing journalists around the site.

However, in 1997 the opera house reopened. The first opera was meant to be Parsifal. It’s beautiful music, but hardly the stuff of what should be a happy occasion. Besides, it was thought that five hours of opera might not please the King, who unlike his wife, is not known to be a great fan of the art form. So one of the first duties of the new Minister of Culture, Esperanza Aguirre, was to decree that the opening performance should be of Manuel de Falla’s opera ''La Vida Breve'', which as well as being a good Spanish work was a lot shorter than Parsifal.

Last Wednesday I sympathised with the King.

Since then there has been a lot of discussion, and xenophobic comment, regarding the nature of performances at the Teatro. After all, Spain does have its own home grown opera in the Zarzuela. And they tend to be happy, entertaining works which the public would enjoy.

I know I would.

But Opera is regarded by some as “High Art”, which can leave us poor uncultivated wretches a little lost – and bored.

The performance I went to see was “Lulu” by Alban Berg. Berg was an Austrain composer and shared with Schoenberg a love of the “twelve tone” technique, which meant we were not going to leave the performance with something to hum on the way home.
Let me state I am no musical Philistine. I was brought up in a musical family and play several instruments (with differing degrees of expertise) and have always loved music and in particular the classics. But I do like a good tune!

There are no tunes in “Lulu”.

My musical ear enjoyed the sounds of the orchestra and the quality of the singers could hardly be surpassed, but the story of a heartless hussy who goes through three husbands in a life that passes from poverty through riches to degradation is not a happy one. But neither is La Boheme, and that’s got some wonderful tunes.

This four hour, (yes, really!) opera has recently been performed at The Royal Opera house in London’s Covent Garden. Here is a quote from London’s Daily Telegraph: “Some directors have sought to soften its edges with comedy or lard it with visual glamour, but Christof Loy's new production rigorously refuses any such sentimental concession or moral compromise: his interpretation is bleak, raw and ice-cold.”

And London’s Guardian Newspaper: “Christof Loy's mind-numbingly tedious staging of Berg's Lulu achieves the impossible - it allows Berg's masterpiece to come across as a turgid and overlong evening of musical endurance.”

And I would say they just about hit the nail on the head!

So, did I have a good evening? Well, yes I did. Despite the reviews above I did actually enjoy the story – if not the telling. But I really had to put my brain to work. The libretto is in German, but above the stage – far too far above so I was like a nodding donkey all evening – was a screen with Spanish subtitles, which I then translated into English. I would like to thank Gloria Nogué, who the program tells me was responsible for those subtitles, for making it so easy. She just about hit my level of Spanish!

Our tickets were for the VIP section, which meant we had much the same view as the King and The Queen, should they have been willing to endure the performance. It gave me a great view of the great horseshoe shaped auditorium with its wonderfully restored gilt boxes and a great view of the stage, which is huge. This wasn’t actually filled with much and the simple set with much left to our imagination and the choreography basically consisted of the cast ambling round or standing still.

Our VIP tickets gained us entry to the Goya room during the two intervals. They also meant that our refreshments, white wine for me, cava for my companion, and delicious canapés, were complementary. It’s nice to see how the other half live once in a while.

From next year the Teatro Real has a new director, Gerard Mortier. He is quoted as saying, “I aim to fascinate the public. One of the first things I’ve noticed about Madrid is that the Opera House faces the Royal Palace and has its back to the city. I hope to keep the theatre facing the palace but for it also to embrace the city and bring in the people”.

He said he also hoped to attract younger people to the opera and to emulate what he called the Paris Opera's feat of bringing down the average age of opera-goers from 58 to 42.

Ok, it’s not that long a walk from La Latina to the Teatro Real, but he will need to stage something much more entertaining than “Lulu” and try to reduce the normally ridiculously high prices for tickets. I hope he succeeds. It was a great experience, but next time I want to be entertained.


  1. I am afraid I do not agree with you in certain points. In the times of Franco, opera was not forbidden, but there were two facts that prevented it. One, that very few international artists came to Spain because of being a dictatorship, and the main one was that there was no money to set up an opera performance, neither in Madrid or Barcelona, and no money to refurbish the Teatro Real.
    Certainly Franco had no interest in culture, particularly music, and even there were very few performances of Zarzuela -in the Teatro de la Zarzuela and other theatres- unlike in the 1920's, 30's and 40's (My grandfather was a composer and between other things he composed some zarzuelas and had a few friends also composers of zarzuelas at that time)
    The Teatro Real was certainly open for concerts. I sang there in 1982 with the Coral de Santander, with a program by Carrasquedo, a 18th century composer that had just been discovered by the American conductor we had in the choir.

  2. Perhaps I should have expanded on my paragraph that began "In the mid sixties there was an attempt to reopen it as a music hall." It did indeed stage concerts, but it is on record that Franco more than discouraged the staging of Opera. The zarzuela style of opera was a response to the supposed "decadance" of the Parisian and Germanic operas of the previous century, so I doubt that that particular style, especially as it had a resurection in the mid 1900s, would have met with his disapproval. As regards the financial wherewithal not being available, the reserrection of Spain's finances that led to the so-called "Golden Age" of the sixties and seventies, could well have been used for the reintroduction of grand opera in Spain, but the political will was not there.

  3. Sorry to disagree again. The Zarzuela commenced in the 17th century, even Lope de Vega and Calderón de la Barca wrote some libretto to one. In the mid 19th century became much more popular, with Barbieri, Arrieta, and later in the 19th century with Chapí y Chueca. And Barbieri is certainly earlier than the french operettas.
    In the early 1960's there was still no money around. Spanish tourism started in the mid 1960's. Do not forget that Spain rebuilt the country on its own and took an awful lot of years. Franco died in 1975, and the opera did not open as an opera house until 1997, Felipe Gonzalez who was also 14 years in power (1982 -1996) also had very little interest in music or culture in general, although his vicepresident, Alfonso Guerra did.