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A PUBLIC THEATRE, A PLACE FOR ALL
by Josep Caminal
General Director of the Gran Teatre del Liceu

The new "Liceu" Opera House was rebuilt on the basis of a strong commitment to respect its historical heritage, but its role as a public theatre implies that it should be open to all segments of the society, without any territorial or social discrimination. Josep Caminal, general manager of the "Liceu", describes the process of change undergone by the theatre, from the setting up of the Liceu "Consortium", in the early nineteen eighties, to the decisive episode that has seen its transformation into a public institution.

The Liceu was, even up to 1980, one of the very few opera houses that remained in private hands, although it aspired to be among the leading European opera houses. Expressed otherwise, the private sector bore in full the budgetary shortfalls arising from the operations of each season. This situation was remedied in full the following year, following the agreement signed between the Generalitat (the regional government of Catalonia), Barcelona City Council, and the Gran Teatre del Liceu, creating the Consortium. When this body came into operation, the public administration took over the management of the opera seasons and, accordingly, their costs, as was already the case throughout Europe, while the theatre remained in private ownership.

During the 80's and early 90's, the Consortium made great efforts to update the artistic production of the theatre and opened the doors to schools of opera that were not characteristic of its past. During this period, the contents of performances were diversified, and efforts were made to extend the audience. Despite these great advances, unjustifiable and recurring comments have been made, especially in recent years, comparing the level of the Liceu before and after the creation of the Consortium. It is true that with the new management the Liceu improved and approached the standards fitting the leading European opera houses, but we should analyse these developments in the appropriate context. Thus, credit should be given to all those persons who, over nearly 150 years, almost the only such case in the world, ensured that the Liceu operated without interruption without seeking a single penny from public funds. This is yet another example of the important role played by private enterprise in Catalonia.

Then came that ominous date, 31 January 1994. Immediately after the fire, the administrations unanimously declared their commitment to reconstruct the Liceu, while at the same time making quite clear their desire to negotiate with the owners to take over the ownership and thus convert it, definitively, to all intents and purposes, into a public institution.

As and from that historic decision, a process of negotiation was commenced with the former ownership, which led, in September of that year, to an agreement for the transfer of the ownership of the theatre to the public administrations. This agreement, which was signed in the course of a solemn ceremony held in the Mirrors Salon, provided for the creation of the Liceu Foundation, the body responsible for the management of the venue. The administrations were to have majority participation in the ownership of the foundation and majority management, but provision was also made to enable the participation of the private sector.

The Liceu has been one of the pioneers in the development of this form of management; some time afterwards, the Italian government was to apply a similar formula to the circuit of state opera houses in that country. This solution is at present being examined and is beginning to be applied throughout Europe, as the large budgetary shortfalls generated by opera cannot be absorbed exclusively by public funds, and must be taken up in part by sponsorship and patronage by private companies and institutions. Increased tax incentives should be devised for cases such as the Liceu where sponsors undertake commitments that correspond to the public administration.

Public involvement

The unanimous decision to reconstruct the opera house as it was, and on the same location, carried greater risk then than it would now, because at that time the affection felt by the country for the Liceu had not yet blossomed to the extent that it did during the rebuilding process. The extent and depths of this affection was striking among an enormous number of people, from very different social and geographical backgrounds. In many cases, these did not particularly identify with either what the Liceu had traditionally stood for or with the operatic world, but nonetheless they began to see the opera house as something which belonged to their own life and to their cultural memory. The public involvement and complicity which was created around the challenge of reconstruction gave fruit, ultimately, to the acceleration of the entire rebuilding process, and this has enabled the Liceu to come back to life only five years after the fire.

A wide range of society supports the Liceu, which far exceeds the sectors which are frequently and quite inaccurately considered to be its exclusive supporters and audience. The Liceu is dearly beloved by the entire public, is a cultural symbol of the country and of the city and has very specific associations that people treasure, feel close to and make their own. The Liceu, like other public areas, exudes a sense of community and magnetism. This became very evident following the fire and during the reconstruction process, and more than justifies the almost obsessive efforts made by the Consortium to attract a new audience to the traditional audience of the opera house. It also explains the fact that, in the first season of the new Liceu, the number of season ticket holders will be double that of the period before the fire. Therefore, while avoiding the temptation to issue broad dogmatic statements, it must be said that the decision to reconstruct the Liceu in the heart of the city was probably the most appropriate decision and certainly the most realistic, respecting the cultural memory embodied in the opera house and allowing for the incorporation of the equipment and technology required by any theatre in the twenty-first century.

The first proposal in relation to the reconstruction stipulated 1997 as the year of inauguration. This was a good suggestion, but fortunately it was not pursued. In view of the magnitude of the work, such an early completion date would, without doubt, have meant doing it badly. Nonetheless, while we decided to be patient and also asked everyone else to be patient, we had to make it quite clear as soon as possible that we were going to rebuild the opera house. This is why work began so early on in the auditorium, which soon regained its previous appearance when no more than the bare skeleton of the stage construction was visible, inverting the normal order of priorities. At the same time, guided tours were organised, so as to provide first hand information on the progress of the works and bring the project as close as possible to the public. This course of action contributed to the intense feeling of collective involvement with the opera house and its future.

Generation of added value

The Liceu does not have to start from scratch. We are far from devoid of tradition or experience. What we had to do was to design the future on the basis of total respect for a history of more than 150 years. We bore this very much in mind in drafting the agreement with the former owners, and, through the Foundation, sought to ensure their participation in the running of the theatre. But nonetheless, neither can it be denied that some modifications were required to the objectives and operation of an opera house that was no longer to be private. The Liceu, as a public venue, is the recipient of funds generated from the tax contributions of the entire community, and thus should generate added value that would be perfectly palpable to all members of the public.

A public opera house should, in the first place, be very concerned to ensure that the fruits of its artistic creation reach as wide as possible a range of the public. In this respect, one of the most satisfactory events in the stage that is now commencing is the extraordinarily good response to the new form of season tickets at affordable prices, particularly among young people. We should be careful; however, as this is the first year in which these have been available and in recent times the Liceu has been continuously in the limelight in the media. We must now consolidate the loyalty of this new audience and continue to increase it in successive seasons.

In the artistic field, the Liceu, as a public institution, has a difficult task, to put itself one or two steps beyond what the people ask of it. The artistic director must not forget the preferences of the majority of the Liceu audience, but he must also be somewhat daring in the aesthetic, musical and intellectual fields. However, this lead should only be by one or two steps, as otherwise a rift could be created between the opera house and the public.

Another benefit that we should contribute to the public is the creation of employment opportunities for all young professionals in the country working in areas related in one way or another to opera, from musicians and singers to set designers, computer staff and hair stylists.

Another challenge facing the Liceu is to open itself up to the entire metropolitan area. Today one cannot speak of the democratising of culture without ensuring ease of access. The agreement for the sale of tickets through the Servicaixa system over these recent years, during which we have tried to recover a sense of normality by very short opera seasons, has enabled us to capture public from locations which are very distant from Barcelona who were not regular opera goers and on occasion had never been there before. We have thus proven that a measure as simple as increasing access to tickets has given the opera house a new market. It would be paradoxical if the Liceu continued to become increasingly international, and yet were unable to reach out to all corners of this country, especially the parts nearest the city.

nother fundamental objective of the new Liceu is its economic and business management. The persons running a public theatre should be particularly careful in relation to the processes of reduction of costs and optimisation of resources. The particular design of the Liceu Foundation, mentioned above, is a sure guarantee in this respect. This is a private body directed by a board of management with majority public representation, consisting of the four administrations of the former Consortium, who have ultimate responsibility for economic management. However, at the same time, the governing body has a minority representation of former owners, on the one hand, and also of sponsors, through a Patronage Council created as an instrument to channel private contributions for the operation of the venue and to accept co-responsibility in its operation.

Another pioneering management instrument is the contract-programme, the objective of which is to define the artistic programme, the activity, staff policy, budgets and commitments of the administrations towards the theatre during a period of four years. This programme is a fundamental and binding implement and must be complied with by the artistic and general management of the Liceu. It takes into account the high risks of budgetary deviations of different natures in an opera house, and thus will enable the artistic director to conduct good planning of activities in the medium and long term on the basis of economic resources.

In any event, the best guarantee for the future of the new Liceu is the competence of the professional team in charge, under the leadership of Joan Matabosch. It is a closely unified team, all from the same generation, not at all normal in opera houses, enjoying the significant benefit of having lived through the reconstruction process.

A theatre without frontiers

One of the main worries of those involved in the reconstruction project has been for the new Liceu to have the right dimensions, because it would be as woeful to be short as it would be sinful to be excessive. It would be terrible if the new facility were oversized as afterwards this would have to be paid for in the form of extremely high maintenance costs, to the detriment of the allocations to the productions for the season. One of the most widespread faults in opera houses is their unjustifiable structural cost, due to huge staffs and oversized installations, which turn out to be underused. Our desire, therefore, was to ensure that the Liceu had everything that was strictly necessary to develop its own artistic project, but we also wanted its installations to have the appropriate information technology, especially in relation to the audio-visual field, an area in which we can now boast of being one of the leading theatres.

By means of an imaginative use of the new supports provided by the world of image and communication, the new Liceu is in an excellent position to meet one of the main challenges of a public theatre, to bring its own artistic production to the maximum number of people, beyond the physical frontier of the walls of the building. However, this high technological level opens up enormous possibilities in the field of aesthetic creation, since it will be possible, for example, to enrich the productions recorded in magnetic format with virtual images, a practise which today might still seem sacrilegious to many, but which in the long term will become standard.

Stated in simple terms, it should be said that what we have done is not merely to reconstruct an opera house. We have brought up to date a cultural facility with the wish that it is used for many other purposes in addition to opera. The Liceu is, and will be, an opera house par excellence, as it has been during the past 150 years, and this is why we have rebuilt it. But we should also add that time has shown that large spaces dedicated to one single use are not feasible, and are doomed to be shut down and forgotten the day they are no longer used for the purpose for which they were initially created. The multiplicity of uses of such venues is essential, in the first place because this is the only way to bear the enormous maintenance costs, but also because this generates added value, which would otherwise be unthinkable. A person who would never go to the Liceu to see opera or ballet or hear a concert might, on the other hand, come to a musical in a summer programme, for example, and so come around to feeling as much of an attachment to the Liceu as opera-goers. As a public theatre, we should satisfy both types of public.

Opera is at present going through an important period of revitalisation and is being accepted by a growing number of people, a process that guarantees its future as a genre. However, it would be a grave error to deprive the wider sectors of society of the fruits of a cultural project as extensive as the new Liceu, a project that must have no frontiers, whether territorial or social.

Seventeen points summarising the artistic direction and form of management

The programme contract defines the artistic direction of the Liceu and the operational objectives which management has undertaken to apply during a period of four years. The model of opera house desired has been set out carefully in seventeen points, with further more detailed explanations of each point, in response to the guidelines laid down by the public bodies, which are now the owners of the Liceu. The following are the seventeen broad objectives that have been established for the period 2000 to 2004.

1) The repertoire for the season should maintain a balance between the various aesthetic orientations in opera, and in the programming of opera, ballet, recitals and concerts.

2) There should be a minimum number of different performances per season, ranging between a minimum of eight and a maximum of twelve; and the number of performances should be progressively increased.

3) Programmes should include productions with innovative, stimulating and quality interpretations of the main repertoire works.

4) Important soloists from the international circuit should be selected for the leading roles.

5) There should be more co-productions, as opposed to productions financed solely by the Liceu.

6) Efforts should be made to incorporate competent professionals from the country in the artistic activity of the opera house.

7) The quality of the Liceu orchestra and choir should be ensured.

8) Efforts should be made to ensure the international prestige of the Liceu, and give it a leading place among the best and most prestigious European opera houses.

9) The activity of the Liceu should, as far as possible, be co-ordinated with that of the other cultural bodies of the city and country.

10) Efficient and careful management should be provided in order to guarantee the viability of the artistic programme.

11) There should be optimum distribution and organisation of human resources.

12) Efforts should be made to attract a greater and more diverse audience.

13) Access to the Liceu should be ensured to the different segments of the population.

14) The Liceu should become a permanent centre of activity, open to other cultural groups and sectors of the country.

15) There should be a strengthening of the relationship with the audio-visual media as part of an essential objective of the Liceu.

16) The power of the Patronage Council should be increased and this body should promote the participation of the private sector in the Liceu Foundation.

17) The Educational Project should be fostered in order to create and train a new audience for the future.