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BY Jordi Casanovas,

One of the titles selected by the artistic director of the Liceu as representative of the programme renovation project for the 1993-94 season was Paul Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler. This work, set during the Lutheran revolts, is a reflection of the contradictions between art and power, between the interests of private life and the public community. One of the most spectacular scenes of Mathis der Maler depicts the burning of Lutheran books by the Catholic troops. A magnificent stage set was built, which, very shortly after the first performance, would itself be reduced to ashes.

On 31 January 1994, the scepticism of those who do not believe in miracles was again borne out. Technicians had frequently pointed out the risk of continuing to put off the reforms proposed for the first time many years beforehand by the Consortium of the Liceu. The author of the project, the architect Ignasi de Solā-Morales, had described the situation in the following terms: "Only a miracle has saved the Liceu from catastrophe up to now". Everybody trusted that the miracle would continue a few months longer, or perhaps one or two years, the time necessary to implement the alternative reform project adopted at that time, the so called minimum reform plan, addressed precisely at correcting shortcomings in the safety of the building. However, the inevitable did in fact occur.

Between ten thirty and ten forty-five on the morning of 31 January, two welders were working on the repair of the safety-curtain, the function of which, by one of the ironies of destiny, was, in the event of a fire, to prevent the flames from spreading from the stage to the auditorium, when the sparks of a welding torch fell among the folds of the fixed curtain hanging over the stage. Bits of the burning curtain fell to the ground and, although these were put out rapidly and the safety curtain was dropped, this proved to be useless: the flames had already spread to the velvet curtain and licked at the gridiron and the ceiling.

By the time the firemen arrived, shortly after eleven o'clock, the fire was beyond control. They came far too late, since, it would appear, the repairmen themselves had tried to put out the fire using the resources at their disposal, instead of immediately notifying the fire-fighting services. Above the ceiling of the auditorium, the space which served as the workshop formerly used by Mestres Cabanes was crammed with wood and old bits of furniture which were now burning fiercely. An hour later, this load of burning matter came crashing down on the stalls and immediately afterwards, the general director of the Liceu, Josep Caminal, declared that the entire theatre had been completely destroyed.

Nevertheless, when access was finally gained, it became evident that a large part of the opera-house had been saved: not only the external walls, but also the foyer, the stairs, the Mirrors Salon, the offices, the Liceu Circle and the Conservatory, although all that remained of the theatre proper were four walls and the great arch of the proscenium, which had scarcely changed since 1861. More important than anything else, there were no victims, as the employees had been able to leave the building in time, as had a group of children who were on a guided school tour in the building when the fire broke out.

This is the story of a disaster which had been feared, predicted and almost expected for quite a while beforehand, in the first place, by the management of the Liceu, such as Solā-Morales, who, sotto voce, had revealed these fears in private conversations and in confidential reports which, on occasion, were leaked to the media. The warnings they issued were always of the same nature, such as the statements of Josep Caminal made immediately after the disaster: "We were asking the theatre for far more than what it could provide". There were always people working here, there and everywhere, a far greater level of use than only a few years beforehand, more sets, which, in turn, were increasingly more elaborate, and machinery and lighting which needed huge quantities of energy. "But if I had closed the theatre", he added, "everyone would have said I was mad". All that was needed, and what eventually happened, was for a number of fatal circumstances to coincide in time and in space.

The public also noticed the danger while strolling along the corridors during the entr’actes, but did not pay much attention, almost as if this were another element of the legend of the Liceu. Every self-respecting opera house should have such legend, such as the first great fire in 1861, the anarchist bomb in 1893, the lake that was believed to lie under the stage, the love stories in the boxes area, the Wagnerian festivals during the 50's or the memory of historic debuts by so many leading stars. Finally, with the 1994 fire, this legend took hold of the entire public as it had never done before. The flames gave new life to the myth of the Liceu, because this is the stuff of tragedies.

The irony of the Phoenix

When a theatre is burned and rises from the ashes, there is always a temptation to compare the event with the Phoenix. The press did this in Barcelona at the time of the fire in 1861, just as, almost a century earlier, the Venetians had done when they commenced work on the construction of a new theatre on the ruins of the San Benedetto. In this case, moreover, they wanted the new opera house to be under the auspices of the mythical bird, perhaps in order to protect it from the risk of subsequent catastrophes, which, at that time, was enormous, owing to the large volume of wood used in the construction and to the nature of the heating and lighting systems.

In fact, what transpired was that La Fenice honoured its name all too frequently: after building work commenced in 1790, and before completion, the new theatre was burned for the first time. It went up in flames again in 1836. Finally, almost two years after the fire at the Liceu, on the night of 29 January 1996, La Fenice was destroyed for the last time, as the result of a sinister accident, sinister since subsequent investigations revealed that the fire was caused intentionally by Mafia interests linked to the works then being conducted.

In the case of La Fenice, as in the case of the Liceu, there was talk of ironies of destiny, precisely because one of the objectives of the works being carried out at La Fenice was to enhance the fire prevention systems. But the gravest and most decisive factor which led to the total destruction of the theatre, after nine hours of the outbreak of fire, was the fact that the canals next to the building had been temporarily dried out, so they could be dredged, in order to facilitate the movement of the launches of the fire extinguishing services.

The reconstruction of La Fenice, which was to be concluded in 1997, has been seriously delayed by confrontations between the construction companies and by the different court proceedings being pursued.

Scenes of tragedy

The experience of the Venetian opera house is merely the last of the catastrophic episodes suffered by large opera houses from time to time, which would appear to be envious of the tragic aura surrounding the heroes and heroines who tread the stage. London’s Covent Garden was destroyed in 1856 by a fire that began in the carpentry workshop. The Dresden Opera House was burned in 1869 and again, in 1945, was reduced to rubble during the allied bombings of the city. The war also destroyed the Vienna Opera and the Wielki Theatre in Warsaw.

In 1951, the interior of Geneva’s Grand Thęatre was reduced to ashes as a result of a fire. More recently, in the 1990's, two other European opera houses were burned down intentionally, like La Fenice: the Petruzzelli Opera House in Bari and the Frankfurt Opera.