Operatic Lifeline


100 Years On, Argentina’s Teatro Col

In the popular imagination outside Latin America — and perhaps within it too — Argentina and its capital Buenos Aires are probably the most “European” of cultures in Latin America. And nothing screams European like opera, which is seen by many as Europe’s invention and gift to the world.

Some of Argentina’s “European-ness” is of course imaginary, a willful omission of other political and social influences that are very much homegrown. Nevertheless, all clichés have their truths, and what’s undeniable is that the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires is the most famous and noted opera house in all of Latin America, rivaling its counterparts in Europe.

It’s also 100 years old now. That accounts for the exhibition “On With the Show! A Celebration of the 100th Anniversary and Restoration of the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, Argentina” now at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) Cultural Center — which documents both the history of that centennial and the opera house’s more recent renovation according to a master plan put together in 2000.

So this is not your usual “art” exhibition at the IDB Cultural Center, but rather a way to celebrate the existence of an important cultural and performance institution through photographs, artifacts, drawings, costumes and a host of other items.

The Colón is inherently vital to Buenos Aires itself — part and parcel of the dramatic history of both the city and the country. Indeed, given the upheaval, rallies and riots that have accompanied Argentina’s political history, nothing could be more appropriate than a place like the Colón, where the dramas of opera dominate the stage.

“The Teatro Colón is one of the most prestigious opera houses in the world,” wrote IDB President Luis Alberto Moreno in the exhibition catalogue. “Immediately after its inauguration in 1908, the theater was transformed into a cultural icon for the City of Buenos Aires, attracting the interest of the most demanding world figures in the field of opera and musical performing arts.”

Moreno also pointed out the connection between the IDB and Teatro Colón, including the loans provided for assisting in the restoration, which cost an estimated million. “The Inter-American Development Bank has been an important partner in this effort of preparing the theater to actively continue its role as a beacon of Argentine culture for at least another one hundred years, not to mention the economic and social implications a vibrant restored opera house will have for the City of Buenos Aires.”

As much as the Colón is dear to the heart of Buenos Aires, it’s also an opera house of world stature right up there with the Met in New York, La Scala in Italy and the Paris Opera. And that, of course, is the key to its prominence in Latin America. Almost from the beginning of its existence, the Teatro Colón has attracted world-class artists, composers, singers and conductors from the Italian, Spanish, Russian and German schools of opera. So even though it is an Argentine institution, it is also very much a European opera house, with a meshing together of Italian renaissance, classic German and French architectural styles.

That’s the result of at least three architects and visionaries: Francisco Tamburini, Victor Meano and Jules Dormal, all of whom worked on the Colón project in succession from its groundbreaking in 1889 to its opening 20 years later in 1908, when Verdi’s “Aida” was performed. Interestingly, Meano took over for his close colleague Tamburini after his unexpected death, but then Meano himself was murdered before completion of the building, with Dormal finishing up the job.

The current restoration, which will be fully completed by 2012, hopefully won’t be as dramatic. Already, this newly energized Colón is serving as a kind of beacon for the appreciation of opera throughout the region, with 24 Latin American theaters, including the Colón, coming together in 2007 to form the Opera Latino American to promote opera in the Latin world.

Throughout its history, the Colón has had more than its share of magnificent voices and performances on its stage. Right from the start, the very best musical performers in the world flocked to the theater, and the history of those performances — depicted in numerous photographs — is one of the big pleasures of this exhibition.

Just a brief list of the names is enough to make an opera buff giddy with nostalgia. Enrico Caruso performed at the Colón regularly beginning in 1899 in classic works such as “Aida,” “Lucia di Lammermoor,” “Tosca” and “Pagliacci.” In 1901, Arturo Toscanini made his Buenos Aires debut with “Tosca” but at a different theater, although he eventually made his way to the Colón in 1912, where he oversaw 15 operas.

Caruso and Toscanini though were only the beginning. There was “the divine” Claudia Muzio; German conductor Erich Kleiber; Swedish soprano Birgit Nilsson; Hungarian Roberto Kinsky; María Callas; Americans Leonard Warren and Beverly Sills; Plácido Domingo of the Washington National Opera, and so many other legends.

The Colón grew into a classic institution, not only for its staging of great operas by great artists, but by maintaining a cultural presence with extensions such as an experimentation center, a chamber opera, an artistic training institute, two professional orchestras, an academic ensemble, as well as an adult chorus and children’s chorus.

On display are photographs of the opera house at its zenith, as well as before-and-after restoration examples and period photographs showing horse carriages pulling up to the entrance. There are also various costumes — a royal robe from “Don Carlos” and a headdress from “Romeo and Juliet,” for instance — as well as a baton from 1934 used by Spanish conductor Manuel de Falla, who died in exile in Argentina.

The mix of offerings ends up as a composite portrait of the Teatro Colón, showing its rich history, amazing growth and survival amid often chaotic conditions, its iconic status as a highly original institution, and its even greater potential for the cultural future not only of Buenos Aires, but of Latin America. Bravo!

On With the Show! A Celebration of the 100th Anniversary and Restoration of the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, Argentina through Aug. 1 Inter-American Development Bank Cultural Center 1300 New York Ave., NW For more information, please call (202) 623-3774 or visit www.iadb.org/cultural.

About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.