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THE ENVIRONS OF THE OLD LICEU
by Sempronio

Sempronio, that old journalist who specialized in writing chronicles about Barcelona, shows an enviable memory and he has many special remembrances of the "Liceu" Opera House as it was in the past. The following pages recount a series of short stories that contribute to explain and, above all, to get a better understanding of the great history and character of the "Liceu" theatre. Because, many times, simple and apparently insignificant anecdotes turn out to be more evocatively explicit than the lucid account of a premiere or of the brilliant career of a great opera singer.

I should point out from the outset that this account deals with a period long past. One single word will be enough to throw all readers, this being arximaga. In simple terms, the arximaga was the person whose function was to engage musicians and get an orchestra together. He could be found, or rather, approached, in the Rambla del Mig, in the cafés near the Liceu, the Cafè de l’Òpera, Gambrinus, Glacier, Oriente, and Mallorquina.

I am talking of music and the Liceu. But in actual fact, at the times I write about, the entire Rambla del Mig, beginning at the Pla de l'Os, was really one large labour market in which one could find, seeking the opportunity to work, not only musicians who emulated Albéniz and Pau Casals but also stage actors who rivalled Borràs and Zacconi and bullfighters who considered that they were better than Gallo and Belmonte. All they needed was an impresario who would believe in them. Or rather, in the case of musicians, to come across the arximaga who at that very moment was recruiting the members (or "professors" as they were referred to) of the orchestra of the Liceu for the following season.

Many musicians wished to play with the opera orchestra. But there were also various musicians who played in all the orchestras. At times, when different performances coincided, they played at the performance they felt most obliged to play at and if, for example, they played in the Municipal Band, they would not play at the Liceu. It was not unusual for the conductor of the orchestra to raise the baton only to discover, with consternation, that one of the trombones had not attended a single rehearsal of the work and was simply a last minute substitute who had been recruited right there in the Rambla, by the arximaga.

Such cases were the staple diet of the conversations about the musical world of the groups that gathered to chat and gossip about musical matters in the neighbourhood. One such gathering place was a travelling accessories shop in Carrer Sant Pau, across the street from the stairs that led up to the "gods" in the Liceu. The owner of this shop had two jobs: as well as running the shop, he played in a quintet on a boat of the Compañía Transatlántica. Any occasion and any place was considered suitable to discuss the vicissitudes of the Liceu, but, curiously, the greatest criticism emanated from a lamp shop also in Sant Pau, owned by a former baritone who was a brother of the impresario Joan Mestres.

It should be remembered that the impresarios of the Liceu enjoyed veritable mythical popularity in the neighbourhood. Names such as Mestres, just mentioned, Bernis, Volpini and Rodés were familiar and were repeatedly bandied about in the bars, barbers, hairdressers and other places where the garrulous gathered to talk. The best of it all was that most of those who indulged in this criticism or praise had never even stepped foot in the Liceu, but this was not important. In Carrer Sant Pau, everything referring to the opera seemed to affect the entire community.

Needless to mention, there was always great hustle and bustle on the street and all the way up and down Rambla del Mig. In the Rambla, the curious would stand for an hour across from the main entrance to the Liceu, which was a relatively uninteresting prospect, since all that was afforded to them was a glimpse, between the traffic, of a lady’s evening gown with its tail dragging along the ground. But that, in itself, was enough. At the same time, in Carrer Sant Pau, an enormously long queue of modest spectators, waiting for the door to the gods to open. While standing in line they were entertained by the cries of ticket sellers who shouted out loud the plot and theme of the opera. In the case of Wagner operas, these were met with a certain degree of disdain by the devotees, who carried translations into Catalan by the writer Pena.

The set designer in the tobacco shop

The Carrer Sant Pau of that time had the air of a neighbourhood high street, an umbilical chord linking Poble Sec and the Rambla. It sported one top grade hotel, the Hotel España; three cinemas, Argentina, Diana and Monumental; a number of luxury hairdressers; Pauleta Pàmies' dancing academy, and two bookshops, Millà and Palau, sanctuaries of literature and of the theatre. Lluís Millà, owner of one of these bookshops, was a dextrous writer and had written a large number of works. In one of these publications about the Liceu, and in particular, an opera buffa performance, he wrote:

"I'm a Liceu lover, and depressed.

I am loathe to miss its shows

And all the more when Peter blows

Because that's what I like best."

Peter was the lamp lighter and blew (bufa in Catalan) out the lamps in the hall after every performance.

Carrer Sant Pau, under the shadow of the Liceu, was the focus of different varieties of businesses, celebrated the length and breadth of the city. The most famous institution was a tobacco and stamps stop that never closed, and that seemed like no more than a short and narrow hallway practically embedded in the theatre building. At all times of the day and night people came from all corners of Barcelona to drop letters in the letterbox, which was located in the street. It was run by the Morros brothers, the grandsons of the founder of the establishment. They had two sisters who were modest artists in their own right; one was a painter and the other a piano teacher. Although the shop was tiny, it had its own regular conversation group, the leading light of which was the stage designer, Vilumara, a low sized man with big grey side locks, and a constant pipe smoker.

This man was famous for his stinginess. He worked all alone in the workshop located over the auditorium of the Liceu. He dispensed with assistants and did all the most mechanical work himself, such as sticking strips of reinforcement in the paper sets. In the tobacco shop, on his way up and down from the workshop, he always found someone to talk to for a while. Once, having filled his pipe, he asked at the counter for a five-centime box of matches.

"I'm out of them", replied the shop owner. "Take a ten centime box"

"No, I won't", replied Vilumara, and then, pretending he had to go out for some urgent errand, called out "I’ll be back in a minute", and took his leave.

The errand consisted in walking the length of the Carrer Sant Pau to another tobacco shop, La Bretxa, beside the Ronda, where he duly purchased a five-centime box of matches. He then returned to the Morros premises to resume his place in the conversation.

This non-stop tobacco shop was a privileged centre of information, where news arrived before any other point in the city. One night, the particular piece of news under discussion was so terrifying that Vilumara, who liked sweeping statements, exclaimed: "This world consists of sons of wh...". When he realised that he had perhaps exaggerated a little, he added, "Saving present company, that is". Manuel Fontedevila, a well known journalist, who had his eye on a box of Havana cigars, joined in: "Vilumara, if you're concerned about what I think, you don't have to make any exceptions."

I spoke of hairdressers. Located on the Rambla next door to the Liceu was the Cebado salon, which catered only for gentlemen when it opened. However, after some time, the owner realised that the female public could be a good money-spinner and he had a representation of The Barber of Seville painted on the ceiling. The female public did in fact respond positively and all the divas of the opera, including Barrientos, became clients. A wrought iron sign of the name Cebado hung from a balcony over the establishment. When the hairdresser's closed in 1934, and the elaborate sign was taken down, for the people living around La Rambla it was as if a tooth had been extracted.

The market and the claque

It is only logical that a discussion about cafés should feature the Cafè de l’Òpera, which, in its desire to be identified with the Liceu, was named after it, and which was, and still is, located directly across the street from it. A few years ago, it was given a facelift and its noucentista decor was restored. Its main attraction consisted in the mirrors, engraved with fluoride, which represented female opera characters, Aida, Butterfly, Traviata, Tosca, Isolde_ As I have said, the café has had a facelift, but the bar and counter were also refurbished, with the removal of the last vestiges of the drinks rack, which looked rather like an altarpiece.

Before the war, in the early hours of the morning when the theatres emptied, large groups of people often poured into the Cafè de l’Òpera. The owner, Mr. Dòria, expecting large orders of drinks, would light all the lights and come to take the order, notebook in hand. When this consisted of only cafés con leche, he did not hide his disappointment and proceeded to dim the lights again and leave the place almost in darkness.

The journalist Josep Maria Pascual, music critic of La Publicidad, could frequently be seen in the Cafè de l’Òpera, sitting alone and occasionally dozing off. He was known as Don Pasquale and was the subject of numerous anecdotes, most of which were probably untrue. It was said that, carried away by his devotion to the tenor Gayarre and exaggerating their friendship, he once wrote: "Julián and I would have been lovers if sex had permitted".

It would be impossible to evoke the most characteristic surroundings of the old Liceu without mentioning the neighbouring Boqueria market. The connection between these two institutions, opera and food market, is somewhat unlikely. The common ground is the celebrated fish-bowl room in the Liceu Circle Club, from which various most respectable gentlemen, reclining in armchairs, gazed through the window at the pretty servants and stall vendors coming and going from the nearby market.

The Liceu and the Boqueria market were moreover closely linked in another specific area that was very important in the theatre world, the claque. This appears to have been an invention of the French, but its arrival at Barcelona, and specifically at the Liceu, deserves special mention, although it should be pointed out that in part this was due to pure chance. In 1882, a baritone, Sante Athos, received systematic protests from the public led by a character towards whom he felt deep antagonism. The friends of the singer replied by seeking the assistance of a butcher from the Boqueria, Joan Lligue, known as the Lad from Salau, who led a group to the Liceu with the mission of applauding and shouting "bravo" whenever Athos opened his mouth. This led to the introduction of the claque in the Liceu. The Lad from Salau headed the list of leaders of this activity, which was composed successively of Villegas, who worked with the gas company; Simon, who worked in the Borsí, and the Rosés, father and son, who forged the reputation enjoyed by the Liceu claque. It was a pity that in 1981 the Consortium of the Liceu disbanded the claque since, at the time of its dissolution, it was ninety-nine years old and had only twelve months to go to its centenary.

Horses and a camel

Not everyone who went to the Liceu saw the performance. I should explain myself. I do not refer to those whom we could count by the dozen who were moved solely by the prospect of dressing up elegantly and being seen, and who mingled in the foyer or chatted in their boxes. Here I wish to dedicate a word to those who were obliged to attend as part of their duty as coachmen or chauffeurs. Once they had set down their passengers and parked their cars in Carrer Fernando, Plaça Pi or Plaça Beat Oriol, their favourite meeting point was in the refreshment bar located at the top of Carrer Sant Pau. The owner of this establishment, Domingo, belonged to the Faculty, as horse enthusiasts in Barcelona sardonically referred to their circle. These enthusiasts also at times conducted business between themselves. Domingo always had a cob or pony in his stable for sale or loan to his friends. This refreshments bar at the corner of Sant Pau was the scene of heated and at times passionate arguments. One night, there was an unexpected end to the proceedings. A recently employed chauffeur was heard to say:

" Hey lads, the show is over..." He pointed to the stage door through which there exited, with all due pomp, the camel that the director of the zoo of the Parc de la Ciutadella had lent to give atmosphere to the mise en scène of the second act of Aida.