return to nº48


THE FORMATION OF A GREAT OPERA HOUSE
BY Ramon Pla i Arxé

The "Liceu" Opera House was first set up as a modest private institution that organized theatre or musical performances for its members. An essential contributory factor to the transformation of that original "Liceu" into the great opera house we all know today is its large and sumptuous building. Ramón Pla i Arxé, lecturer at the University of Barcelona and the co-ordinator of the book "Liceu: un espai per a l'art. 1847-2000", looks back and reflects on the extended and rich history of Barcelona's opera coliseum, a history that appears to follow a densely latticed pattern in which art mingles with sociology.

The history of the Liceu is very complex. It is at the same time the history of the institution and of the legal problems arising from its peculiar system of ownership, the architectural history of the building (construction and reforms, fires and reconstructions), the history of the artistic performances staged there, and also the history of the audience and of the image with which the opera house has been identified.

But the history of the Liceu is also the history of the clichés to which it has been associated and which have affected the way in which the public, and more specifically its own audience, has identified with the opera house: an institution created exclusively by Catalan private initiative; a Theatre which enjoys great international prestige; a space in the city which has served as the luxuriant showcase for the haute bourgeoisie of the country; an opera house which has had the opportunity to hear all the great voices of the history of opera, most of which have sung there, and which also has a non bourgeoisie public, the particularly discerning audience of the upper floors; and finally an opera house which is known for its particular affection for Wagnerian opera. These are all somewhat cliché images. But the creation of these local myths is also the history of the Liceu because these have helped it to survive for more than 150 years.

This dense mesh of art and sociology, however, has often been reduced to a mere string of performances destined for a privileged circle of devotees who knew how to appreciate opera and for whom the outside world was only the obstacle that hindered or the stimulus that allowed them to continue enjoying the pleasures of opera. However, the history of the Liceu is not (except, perhaps, for its legal status) very different from other European opera houses, and cannot be understood in isolation from the social and political evolution of the country and the evolution of art, not just opera, throughout Europe. Yet we will have to wait some time for an account of the Liceu which takes into account the process followed by the other European opera houses, which appraises local myths critically and which not only records events but also interprets them in the context of what constitutes the art of opera and its meaning and function.

The history of the Liceu certainly has an extensive bibliography, but this is repetitive. It would be hard for it to be otherwise, because the sources are few. In fact, it has never had its own documentary archive. The ownership body, the Societat del Gran Teatre del Liceu, did have such an archive, but the artistic management of the Liceu had always been in private hands, the sixty successive impresarios who managed it. The records of these impresarios left the building along with the outgoing impresario. Thus the main documentary sources have been the deeds setting up the different institutions with which the Liceu has been involved, the press and the programmes it generated, the books and documents (memoirs, letters, declarations) of the performers in the opera house and those of the impresarios, employees, artists and spectators. Perhaps we could also include the literary texts or artistic objects, which have recorded the events there. All this amounts to very little. We do not have systematic files on contracted artists, expenses, profits, and other matters. However, Marc Jesús Bertran’s El Gran Teatre del Liceu de Barcelona, published in 1930, remains an informative history of the Liceu and an invaluable document, albeit only up to the date of publication. It is halfway between document and history, as it was written by someone who, as well as writing the history of the Liceu, was a critic during several decades of its existence. This was followed by works by Josep Artís, Roger Alier, Antoni Sàbat, Jaume Radigales, Pau Nadal and Marcel Cervelló, and the catalogue of the exhibition Liceu 150 years of history (1997). These have had very varying perspectives, narrative, historic, anecdotal, propagandist and academic research, and have provided a substantial volume of information on the history of the Liceu, even if frequently repetitive. These have now been joined by two publications that have yet to be explored in depth by historians. The first of these is the Anuari 1947-1997, published by the Friends of the Liceu, the first exhaustive list of the artistic production of the opera house for the past fifty years. This was followed by the Dietari del Gran Teatre del Liceu, an exceptional document published by Joaquim Iborra. This consists of the most significant excerpts of the twenty-six manuscript volumes containing the daily notes of the Liceu’s concierge, subsequently known as the moyordomo or administrator, on the day to day internal operations between 1862 and 1981, and is of great assistance to researchers. Certainly, this is a very rare type of document throughout Europe and provides very precise data on the history of the opera house.

In the field of historical writing, we should try to explain the events which have made the Liceu, in physical and social terms, a suitable venue for opera: a large opera house with a tradition of more than 150 years, which has generated an audience which understands opera and considers it to be a living, and not a static, art-form. All these events enable us to face the new phase, which is now commencing in exceptionally positive conditions.

The creation of a great opera house

The Liceu did not begin life as a great opera house but rather as a modest private institution, like many before it in Barcelona, which provided theatrical, musical and singing performances to people who became members and paid a membership fee. What converted this modest initiative into a large theatre with which everybody identified, was the building, which was exceptionally large and sumptuous and which has generated the admiration and pride of Barcelona since the nineteenth century. The person responsible for the construction of such an ambitious building on the Rambla was Joaquim Maria de Gispert i d’Anglí.

On 21 August 1837, at the convent of Montsió, on the present-day site of the headquarters of Catalana del Gas on Carrer Portal de l’Àngel, there was a performance of El marido de mi mujer by Ventura de la Vega, a dance and a one-act farce. This was the first event organised by the Amateur Dramatic Society to collect funds to finance the National Militia, a local armed organisation comprised of ordinary members of the public to defend law and order and linked to the liberal and constitutional movement of the nineteenth century. This institution, which gave rise to the Liceu, was presided over by Manuel Gibert and the membership was comprised of those citizens who had purchased the 50 shares issued, each costing 25 duros, which gave them the right to attend the spectacles organised by the Society.

The next step (February 1838) was to give an educational orientation to the Society, which, following the example of the Madrid Conservatorio de Música y Declamación de María Cristina, incorporated the entire field of song and music. Thus was created the Liceo Filarmónico Dramático Barcelonés, whose aim was to promote theatrical and musical education – hence the name Liceu - and to perform dramatic and operatic works by the students. Again 25-duro shares were issued and various teaching posts were created for oratory, rhetoric, singing and Italian. This was an important step, but it was mainly concerned with music and the dramatic arts. It was not yet the Liceu as we know it. The Liceu was born precisely when the Conservatory was swallowed up by the Theatre, which had originally been conceived as a space for the students to practise in.

In January 1844, the Council commissioned Joaquim de Gispert i d'Anglí, a member of a powerful bourgeois Barcelona family, to buy the former monastery of the Trinitarian order in the centre of the Rambla, and the necessary adjacent premises, to construct a building to house both the teaching area and a large theatre. He was also commissioned to devise a formula to collect the funds required to implement this ambitious project. This was the decisive step that led to the Liceu, as we know it. It involved three key decisions, the location, the system of financing and the building itself. Owing to the desamortización (the sale of church lands implemented by the Spanish government), several monasteries and convents on the Rambla were closed, and attracted the attention of developers. The area was a choice location for a new theatre. And it was hoped that the building to be constructed there would be very attractive, comfortable, spectacular and grandiose, and become the finest theatre in the city. In the publicity conducted in 1844 to gain members and contributions of capital for the construction of the new theatre, the intention of the promoters of the project was unequivocal: they wanted to compete with the Santa Creu Theatre, which had enjoyed a monopoly of theatrical productions in Barcelona for many years, and build the best theatre in Barcelona.

"The increase in population, the great importance and renowned culture of Barcelona justly demand a vast theatre […] with all comforts, beauty and luxury to satisfy a public with such delicate and exquisite taste [...] a large and magnificent theatre with capacity for at least 3,500 spectators. This should have a vast stage, five tiers of circles and boxes, including ground floor, upper gallery or gods, spacious corridors, wide staircases, comfortable exits, café, entr’acte salon and cloakroom. The entire theatre will be painted, decorated and furnished with corresponding taste and elegance, and the entire building will be gas lit. The circles will be much more spacious and comfortable than the present Santa Creu Theatre, and each of them will have an illuminated cabinet and lovely furnishings just as will the boxes. [...] The front stalls will be shaped and adorned like elegant armchairs, and the passageways will be roomy. The remaining stalls and seats in the auditorium, circles and gallery will also be comfortable and spacious, and lavatories, á l’anglais, will be located in different points of the building."

And the result was in fact just as the promoters hoped. On the date of inauguration, explains Marc Jesús Bertran, "the public explored the salon, the gallery, the corridors and the ancillary rooms; they filled the foyer and lounged on the divans, paced the marble floors with delight, and had words of praise for everything". They were fascinated.

o finance these works, the Liceu, which had received favourable treatment from the City Council in the purchase of the site, employed a system which was to affect the future of the theatre. The same account we have quoted above went on to say that "the Liceu Company will execute this project by means of the transfer of seats in perpetua, up to half the total value of boxes and stalls for the shareholders who wish to purchase them". In fact, this mechanism, consisting of attracting capital in return for the perpetual ownership of boxes and stalls, gave rise to the system of ownership that lasted up to 1981. The system gave the Liceu a loyal audience, because they held ownership over a specific part of the building, and led to an image of exclusive ownership of the opera house by a specific social group. This system also ensured annual contributions of capital by the members, by way of a capital grant, thus enabling the survival of the body that conducted the artistic planning of the theatre. However, it also gave rise to great financial instability to those who ran the theatre, as a large number of the stalls and boxes, in fact the best, were not managed by them. This precarious balance would last, in fact, up to the creation of the Consortium.

The theatre was constructed following plans of various architects, including Miquel Garriga i Roca and Josep Oriol Mestres, father of Apel.les Mestres, who pursued the initiatives of Joaquim M. de Gispert. And when a fire destroyed it almost entirely in 1861, it was reconstructed in one year, under the direction of the same Josep Oriol Mestres. A Russian writer who visited Barcelona (Isaac Pavlovsky: Sketches of contemporary Spain 1884-1885, Saint Petersburg, 1889) described the scene as follows: "even while the theatre was burning, there and then a collection was commenced for the construction of the new theatre and it did so well that, a short time later, the necessary sum had been got together, and one year after it had been destroyed the theatre was back in action". There was a certain degree of exaggeration in the description of the events which most probably had been recounted to him by his Catalan friends, but the thrust of the story was unquestionable: the public regarded the Liceu as part of the city’s heritage. The necessary space for opera had been consolidated.

The Liceu becomes an opera house

This Liceu opened ceremoniously on Easter Sunday, 4 April 1847. The programme consisted in a symphony by Joan Melcior Gomis, the play Don Fernando el de Antequera by Ventura de la Vega, an Andalusian dance entitled Rondeña by the composer Josep Jurch, choreographed by Joan Camprubí, and a cantata in Italian by Joan Cortada with music by Marià Obiols entitled Il regio imene, dedicated to the wedding of Isabel II and Francesc d’Assís de Borbó. This was a foretaste of the type of spectacle that the Liceu would provide in its early years.

For many years, programmes included a theatrical work (preferably in Spanish but with occasional works in French, Italian and Catalan), music (opera, zarzuela, ballet, or a concert), and frequently featured a wide range of magic performances (tightrope walkers, gymnasts, circus acts, etc.), often preceded by a symphony, which would be announced without stating the name of the composer. The following is a random example, obtained from the Dietari del Gran Teatre del Liceu: "9-4-1863: Second anniversary of the burning of the theatre: Dance La Vivandera, aria from Lucrecia, aria from Trovador, exercises on strings by Mr. Blonden". Opera was also performed, of course, the first, Anna Bolena, thirteen days after inauguration, but the basic fare of the performance was a mixture of theatre and dance, a theatre company and a dance company being contracted per season, together with opera and circus shows. It was not yet, however, an opera house.

The progression to the opera and dance venue that the Liceu eventually was to became occurred gradually throughout 1880’s. At the end of this decade, there was a movement away from the matinee performance or double function of the variety shows, as exemplified by the inaugural performance, and a structure of annual programming was established with the assigning of genres to each of the three seasons of the Theatre’s operations: winter, dedicated exclusively to opera; Lent to concerts, ballet and operetta; and Spring, once again dedicated to opera or operetta. The matinee performance was done away with, which enabled shows to be rehearsed for a few days, as can be seen from the Dietari del Gran Teatre del Liceu, and the starting time of performances was set at eight thirty p.m. These new measures, together with other changes, were put into operation, allowing the Liceu gradually to become a venue that gave preference to complete opera and dance works. As and from this point one could say that it was an opera house. Consequently, a public began to be formed, and thus a tradition, which was expert in assessing the opera repertory, which had been reduced to a smaller number of works, as had happened in other opera houses throughout Europe. This repertory consisted of Faust, Barbiere, Aida, Lucia, Les Huguenots, Il Trovatore, and such other widely performed works in which the audience felt itself to be expert and capable of making valid criticisms.

These transformations coincided with the Modernista movement, in a climate of euphoria, both in economic terms - the consolidation of a prosperous bourgeoisie, political, growing Catalan nationalism - and cultural, the desire for Catalan culture, architecture, law, visual arts, music and literature, to adopt the stamp of modernity, to put Catalonia on a par with any other European nation. This climate affected the Liceu, for example, bringing about the production of works by Catalan composers who were in tune with the artistic currents of the time, such as Felip Pedrell, Jaume Pahissa, Joan Lamote de Grignon, Enric Morera, and with texts by Balaguer, Guimerà and Eduard Marquina, which were very well received.

In this Modernista climate, the Liceu also became the social showcase of the bourgeoisie, which saw it as a refined and prestigious space. At the same time, anarchism, which had become a dominant force in the social revolutionary movements of the time, viewed the Liceu as one of the symbols of the governing oligarchy. This identification tragically affected the life of the Theatre; on 7 November 1893, the night of the opening of the season with a performance of Gioacchino Rossini’s William Tell, the anarchist Santiago Salvador threw two Orsini bombs onto the auditorium, only one of which exploded, causing some twenty deaths. This spread commotion among the public. For many years, the seats occupied by the persons killed by the bomb remained unused, and the incident augmented, and frequently distorted, the classist image of the Liceu.

New aesthetics: the formation of a tradition

The Liceu, at the end of the century, was a prestigious and sumptuous theatre dedicated to opera. The following step was to incorporate new aesthetics and to try to get the audience to enjoy the opera for itself, and not reduce the experience to a mere measuring of whether the tenors got up to the C, or whether the stage set was elaborate enough. Opera should be regarded as a living art form, a means of dramatic expression rising out of the integration of the text, the music and the visual arts.

In fact, the Liceu, which had maintained right from the beginning a desire to recruit the best voices in opera, had consolidated a public which was interested, almost exclusively, in the vocal capabilities of the singers, and probably lacked the ability to evaluate other factors. Thus, from very early on, there was a myth of a public which was very demanding and fastidious and which sought self-confirmation from the odd scandal, the failures of a few famous singers, from which the audience derived satisfaction. But at the same time, new trends were introduced very successfully, Wagnersism, Russian opera and ballet, and some foretastes of the musical and artistic avant-garde.

This was a long and slow but certainly progressive movement which commenced with the first performance in the Liceu of an opera by Wagner (Lohengrin, 1883), but which was interrupted violently by the civil war. Two impresarios, Albert Bernis (1882-1885, 1886-1891, 1899-1906 and 1907-1911) and Joan Mestres Calvet (1918-1930,1933-1936 and 1939-1947), were the most significant and constant driving forces, and these should be remembered by the Liceu with gratitude. This process involved a decisive expansion of the public’s taste. Popular success was obtained, at the same time as respect was gained from creative circles, which prevented the Liceu from being isolated from contemporary artistic developments. The stage sets were in the avant-garde of European scenography at the time and affirmed and strengthened the already magnificent Catalan stage design school. Moreover, from the 1920’s onwards, works were normally sung in their original language, and prestigious orchestral conductors were contracted. In the eyes of the public, these developments placed the Liceu alongside the great European opera houses.

Initially (1847 - 1881) the programming was characterised by the monopoly of Italian works – up to the 1920’s, all works were sung in Italian, including French, German and Catalan opera - and, more precisely, in romantic Italian bel canto, the indisputable style of the time (Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti). Verdi’s works arrived surprisingly soon after their world premieres and he was to become one of the most frequently performed composers in the history of the Liceu. The majority presence of Italian opera had a competitor in the form of the other great current in opera of the period: grand opera (Auber, Meyerbeer, Halevy) which was particularly suited to a grandiose theatre such as the Liceu and which appealed to a public which was fascinated by the large spectacular productions of that school. However, the growing recognition of the Liceu as one of the great opera houses of the world was due, in addition to the works of the composers mentioned above and the regular visits by singers with great international prestige, to the programming of works by Wagner and the Russian repertoire of ballet and opera.

During the period 1883 to 1914, the main phenomenon was Wagner. However, it was not the Liceu that introduced Wagner to Catalonia and, furthermore, the programming of Wagner encountered all kinds of resistance from more orthodox Wagnerians, the Wagnerian Association founded in 1901 by Joaquim Pena, who considered that Wagner was not properly produced. At the Liceu, Wagner works were performed in Italian, with inappropriate staging, and often by singers who were not specialised in the Wagnerian technique. But both in the period from the premiere of Lohengrin (1883) to the famous production of Parsifal in 1913, and in the period from 1914 to 1936, there was a continuous increase in both the number and the quality of performances of Wagner operas: they were sung in German, suitably staged, performed by great Wagnerian voices and conducted by the best international conductors of German opera. The following are only some examples: in 1899 the season began with Tristan und Isolde, which scored great acclaim, and when Die Walküre was first performed, the cavalcade scene used a surprising cinematic projection and the lights were turned off in the auditorium for the first time during a performance. The production of Wagner at the Liceu, very much favoured by the impresario Bernis, continued unceasingly: during the Wagner Festivals, which occupied in full the spring seasons of the years 1910 and 1911, the Ring Cycle was performed in full seven times - three times in 1910 and four times in 1911, as well as 23 representations of another six of his works. The premiere of Parsifal has a special symbolic and emotive significance, as up to 1914, this work could be performed in full only in Bayreuth. Barcelona chose to be the first city in the world to stage this work legally, and thus on the last day of 1913, at 22.25, the performance of this work began, continuing until 5 in the morning of 1 January. The leading role was performed by Francesc Viñas and the work was conducted by Franz Beidler. The extraordinary phenomenon of Catalan Wagnerism empassioned not only the Liceu and its audience but also influenced the visual arts and gained the enthusiasm of the widest of audiences as well as intellectual circles. It led also to the incorporation of the German repertoire to the Liceu, under Mestres Calvet, especially Mozart and Strauss. The programming of these composers and works, successfully (Wagner and Strauss) or unsuccessfully (Mozart), most of whose operas had never been performed in Catalonia, was due to a deliberate policy to bring to the Liceu the essential repertory of a great opera house. Mestres Calvet wrote in his memoirs: "A change of air was needed in the house; it had to be opened up to the four winds of art; new desires had to be awakened; the horizon had to be expanded; we had to do away for ever with the routine of a repertory which was stuck in the same mould. Implementing such ambitious plans could not be done just in one day. All innovation clashes with the hostility of segment of the audience, not to be identified with those seat owners who from the outset expressed their approval". With Wagner, and with Strauss and Mozart, he certainly managed to give new life to the Liceu.

While Wagner delayed some time in arriving, Verismo - Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Puccini and Cilea - was adopted rapidly and such works were performed at the Liceu very shortly after their world premiere in Italy. Verismo was, in theory, a current opera form and therefore had the attraction of being new, a desire which dominated the programming of those years. At the same time, Verismo was closer to romantic melodrama than to the works of Emile Zola, to which it ascribed. Therefore, despite the popular success of Verismo works, which always met with hostility from the inteligenzia, its effect on the formation of the taste of the Liceu was more reiterative of an existing tradition than it was innovative.

A case parallel to that of Wagner is that of Russian opera and ballet, a phenomenon more restricted at the Liceu than Wagnerism, although both shared the enthusiasm of the public and of local intellectual figures, as had happened in Paris. There was veritable fascination for the Russian spirit. This was due probably to the extraordinary impact in 1917 of Diaghilev’s Russian Ballets, with dancers of the stature of Nijinsky, the admiration for the great voices of the Slav repertoire (the mythical Fiodor Chaliapine made his debut in the Theatre in 1927), the exoticism and the colour of the Russian music and the impressive role of the choir. Boris Godunof, as had happened with Lohengrin, became almost obligatory in all seasons up to 1935. In this climate of enthusiasm, Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades was given its first Barcelona performance in 1922, conducted by Kussevitzky, and in the same season Borodin’s Prince Igor was also performed. In 1926, Rimsky-Korsakof’s The Invisible City of Kitege was performed for the first time outside Russia, and became one of the most popular works in the Russian repertoire.

Russian opera, and even more so Russian ballet, introduced not only brilliant and innovative stagings but also the European avant-garde strengthened by choreography (Fokine, Massine) and sceneography (Nicola Benois in Stravinsky’s Petrushka, Pablo Picasso in Erik Satie’s Parade, Cocteau in Milhaud’s Le train bleu, Joan Miró in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliette, and Pere Pruna in Auric’s Les matelots). In 1933 there was a production of the Russian Ballet Company of Monte Carlo with a production of Jeux d’enfants by Bizet-Miró, The Three Cornered Hat by Falla-Picasso), which followed the same trend as Diaghilev, and they returned each spring until 1936. Certainly, no other production put the Liceu as much in the vanguard as did the Russian ballet and it had a profound impact on the formation of the audience’s taste.

In this climate, there were many very successful performances of classical and avant -garde symphonic music, such as the premiere of Oedipus Rex, with text by Cocteau and music by Stravinsky, and La vida breve, by Manuel de Falla, with stage designs by Oleguer Junyent and musical direction by Joan Lamote de Grignon, and also concerts conducted by Stravinsky, Pau Casals and Strauss. The effects of the civil war on the opera house were enormous and it would take many years before it could regain this degree of success.

In 1936, the Liceu became the National Theatre of Catalonia, in order to afford it protection, but it became more of a venue for institutional ceremonies than an opera house. It lacked the figure of an impresario to take care of the planning, and suffered from the political climate of pre-war Europe, which made it enormously difficult to contract German and Italian artists, and from the revolutionary environment in the country. The Minister for Culture of the Catalan government decreed that the Theatre was once again to have a programme which would be more suited to the "high artistic quality and international prestige" of the Liceu, but the programming of those years did not rise above the frugal, with the exception, perhaps, of the first performance at the Liceu, of The May somersault by Eduard Toldrà and Josep Carner, ten years after its premiere at the Palau de la Música Catalana.

The long post war period

For the Liceu, the post war years began in 1944, since, despite the penury of daily life, the political pacts between Franco and Hitlerian Germany during the first years of the war led to visits of the best known figures of German music of the time, with the Frankfurt opera conducted by Hans Konwitschny and Karl Elmendorff (1941), the programming (1942) of a Mozart, Wagner and Strauss Festival and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Hans Knappertsbusch. From a strictly musical perspective, the panorama was extraordinary. After the turnabout in the war and the progressive isolation of Spain from the international community, 1944 saw the beginning of a period in which the artistic programming had to adapt to adverse circumstances, and the quality of performances declined. This artistic decline, however, contrasted with the desire to regain the former splendour of the stalls and the boxes. The Liceu displayed almost ritual ostentation over a period marking, firstly, the strength and, subsequently, the decline of the Franco regime.

The person who marked this period was the impresario Joan Antoni Pàmias, an active figure in the life of the Liceu from 1947 to 1980, who had to confront a regime of operation of the opera house that was even more complex than the regime encountered by his predecessor, Mestres Calvet. This was due in part to the inexorable increase throughout Europe of the structural expenses of putting on opera. However, in the case of the Liceu, there was the added complication of the revival of the custom of the open sale of the owner’s seats, with all profits going to the owners. This custom was so rife that alternative ticket offices were created which, in fact, competed with the impresario, since they sold the best seats in the house, the privately owned seats. In such conditions, it was hard to maintain the artistic standard of the Liceu and, above all, that of its permanent personnel. The orchestra and the choir took years to recover and the great orchestral conductors of the time ceased to be regular visitors. The impresario, however, found the formula for guaranteeing successful artistic seasons in the quality of the voices.

This is, in fact, a golden age in voices. The Catalan singers, Victoria de los Ángeles and Montserrat Caballé, and the Italian Renata Tebaldi were, as well as exceptional singers, the most solid basis for the continuity of the Liceu, which planned its seasons on the fervour which they created. The mezzo sopranos Fiorenza Cossotto and Elena Obraztsova, the tenors Jaume Aragall, Josep Carreras, Carlo Bergonzi and Plácido Domingo, the baritone Manuel Ausensi, the basses Bonaldo Giaiotti and Justino Díaz, among others, played a similar role alongside figures who were worshipped, such as Joan Sutherland, Gianna d’Angelo, Virginia Zeani and Bianca Berini.

Owing to the fervour and devotion of the public towards these great figures, all other aspects, including musical and theatrical concerns, were relegated to the background. The case of Renata Tebaldi is a clear demonstration of this: at a time of the almost complete international isolation of Spain, the arrival in Barcelona of such a renowned world star caused a great stir. However, the artist with greatest loyalty to the institution was Montserrat Caballé. During more than thirty years without interruption, Caballé performed most of her immense repertoire in the Liceu, with some of the most significant works of the "Donizetti Renaissance" such as Roberto Devereux, Mary Stuart, Lucrezia Borgia and Gemma di Vergy. In the last years of the impresario Pàmias, she was almost like the lynchpin of each season.

The visit of the Bayreuth Festival company in 1955 was one of the great public events in Barcelona at the time, because of the extraordinary musical level of the performances and, more especially, the innovative stage designs of Wieland Wagner, which caused both admiration and scandal. Accustomed to the realist and detailed perspectives of Mestres Cabanes, we can understand the surprise cased by Wieland Wagner’s new solutions. The visit of the Bayreuth company was the only, and therefore fundamental, contact between the Liceu and the revolution in opera staging that was occurring in the rest of Europe.

The established repertoire continued to be revived, but the impresario availed of the situation created by the political situation during the cold war and the desire of Eastern European regimes to become known in the West. He therefore invited a large number of companies to stage Barcelona premieres of important works by composers such as Janacek, Martinu, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Weill. The conservative and somewhat prim Liceu of the time was profoundly scandalised by the premiere (1970-71) of Mahogany by Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill, to the point that the company considered it necessary to publish an "Important warning" to distance it from the contents of the opera: "By no means does the management of the Gran Teatre share or agree with the opinions expressed in Mahogany […]. To avoid unfortunate misunderstandings, it should be noted that this work […] contains marked manifestations of audacity, disrespect and scathing criticism of many aspects of traditional social values".

The impossibility of continuing the regime of private ownership of the opera house became progressively more evident and came to a head at the end of the period. During the transition to democracy, the Liceu was popularly perceived once again as a bastion of the elite and the classes associated with the Franco regime. Various minor incidents led to a large scale desertion by the public, and plain spoken articles appeared in periodicals, such as that in Destino (9 to 15 March 1978) showing an image of the red velvet of the stage curtain with the caption "Is the Liceu dying?" It was a sign of the times.

The problem, however, was essentially financial and with the death of Pàmies there arose the need for a whole new appraisal and a review of the legal status of the Liceu, so as to guarantee its survival and its artistic standard.

The public ownership of the Liceu

In 1980, when the crisis of the Liceu was fully recognised by public opinion and there was no visible solution on the horizon, the death of Joan Antoni Pàmias seemed like a symbolic event. He effectively represented the crisis of the exclusively private system that had governed the opera house since its foundation. The determining cause of this situation was financial and only the intervention of the public administrations in its financing could resolve the situation.

The year 1980 coincided with the constitution of the first democratically elected government of Catalonia, the Generalitat, which had exclusive powers over culture. It was inconceivable that an institution so much longed for by the Catalans as the Generalitat would stand by and not prevent the disappearance of a body with such enormous cultural significance, which had brought worldwide prestige to Barcelona and Catalonia. Consequently, on 11 December 1980, the Generalitat created the Consortium of the Gran Teatre del Liceu, in conjunction with the City Council of Barcelona and the Societat del Gran Teatre del Liceu, which was subsequently joined by the Diputació de Barcelona and the Ministry for Culture. With the creation of the Consortium, the direct management of the Liceu effectively came into the hands of the public administrations. Lluís Portabella, director of Pro-Música, was appointed manager, and Lluís Andreu, former associate of Carles Caballé’s agency of singers, was appointed director, and exercised the functions of artistic director.

From an artistic perspective, the Consortium established as an immediate target the task of attracting back to the Liceu the audience that it had lost. It brought about considerable improvements in the quality of the permanent personnel, in the case of the choir, with the appointment of Romano Gandolfi and Vittorio Sicuri. In terms of the works produced, it provided exactly what appealed most to the traditional public, while ensuring the continuity of the more recent tradition. Thus the programming was built around the total pre-eminence of the voices. The Liceu saw the return of mythical figures, such as Joan Sutherland, Mirella Freni, Renata Scotto, Raina Kabaivanska, Agnes Baltsa, Alfredo Kraus, Plácido Domingo, Carlo Bergonzi and Renato Bruson; it witnessed the debut of new signers such as Eva Marton, Pilar Lorengar, Gwyneth Jones, Lucia Popp, Marilyn Horne, Dolora Zajick, Tatiana Troyanos, Eva Randova, Jon Vickers, Martti Talvela, Matti Salminen, Nicolai Ghiaurov and Simon Estes. Later there would be appearances by Leonie Rysanek, Hildegard Behrens, Luba Orgonasova, Vesselina Kasarova, Ana María Sánchez, María Bayo and Robert Hale. These efforts were met with a palpable sense of enthusiasm, reflected in an increase in ticket sales, but once again, there was a sizeable financial deficit. In 1986 Lluís Portabella was replaced by Josep M. Busquets, and in 1989 Lluís Andreu resigned and was replaced, in 1990, by Albin Hänseroth, acting as artistic director. Subsequently, in March 1993, Josep Caminal was appointed director general of the Consortium of the Gran Teatre del Liceu.

With these new appointments, the financial problems of the Liceu were addressed. Moreover, the appointment of Hänseroth as artistic director led to the opening up of the Liceu to Central European and American staging trends, with the presentation of productions by Robert Wilson (Einstein on the Beach), Harry Kupfer (Tannhäuser), Peter Sellars (Le nozze di Figaro) and Götz Friedrich (Lohengrin and Mathis der Maler). Thus the Liceu tasted the new currents in dramaturgy without abandoning the great vocal tradition.

The fire on 31 January 1994, which had great emotional impact and drew an extraordinary response from Catalan society, was the catalyst of a constructive and decisive attitude and sense of solidarity which would lead the Liceu to rising again from the ashes. What had to be decided now was not merely the simple improvement or viability of the institution, but its very survival. Thus, what was now needed was the reconstruction of the Liceu in a new climate, with the public unambiguously identifying with the opera house, sweeping along the politicians and the business sector, which wanted to be associated with the achievement of a rapid reconstruction. On the very day of the fire, the evening of 31 January 1994, the Governing Body of the Consortium agreed unanimously to rebuild the Liceu on the same site, on the basis of the pre-existing Liceu Reform and Extension project drawn up by Ignasi de Solà-Morales and Xavier Fabré. On 5 September 1994, in a solemn ceremony in the Mirrors Salon, presided over by the President of the Generalitat, three protocols of great significance were signed, which transferred the Liceu to public ownership and constituted the Foundation of the Gran Teatre del Liceu.

Parallel with the reconstruction process, the Consortium decided not to interrupt the opera house’s artistic programming on the basis of the conviction that the Liceu was not reduced merely to the building - emblematic though this might be - but was composed, more than anything else, of its public and its artistic expression. This decision, which also favoured maintaining the standard of it fixed personnel, was echoed by a splendid response on the part of the spectators who filled the provisional venues of Liceu productions: the Palau de la Música Catalana, the Teatre Victòria, Mercat de les Flors, the Teatre Nacional de Catalunya and the Auditorium.

Various other initiatives were also taken for the operation of the opera house. The first was to define an artistic direction for the future programming of the Liceu and to give Joan Matabosch the responsibility to implement it, as artistic director. The second was to agree to the financing of the Liceu until the year 2004 with the public administrations, now that it was committed to providing a programme of artistic activities with the budgets and the staff contained in a Programme Contract signed in 1998. It was the beginning of the future.