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BY Xosé Aviñoa

Xosé Aviñoa gives a historical account of the evolution of the audience of music lovers that, over the last 150 years, has regularly filled a theatre which had, from the start, appeared as an important source of entertainment for an increasingly wealthy bourgeoisie. The author remembers that there was a long and at times tense rivalry between the "Liceu" and the rest of the city's theatres; which were the artistic preferences of the audience; how a new genre called "music hall" burst upon the scene in the nineteen twenties, together with variety shows and cinema; and that, after the Spanish Civil War, there was a renewal of social events characterized by the flaunting of a luxury Aviñoa labels as "shameless", etc... All things considered, in the author's own words, this is the trajectory of "a luxury theatre which all those who could afford it, as well as all those who could not, aspired to get access to, moved by a natural interest and a great liking for opera".

It has always been clear every stage activity requires a public, as otherwise this activity would be a rehearsal or a class, and not a performance. Therefore, and all the more so at the present day, the end of the twentieth century, in any discussion on the world of stage entertainment, great consideration must be given to this factor, which is not only necessary but a determining, influencing and decisive element in any project. Every stage work is put on for a public and therefore we must ascertain the public’s tastes and learn how to satisfy or modify them. The audience has ceased to be the passive recipient of the action of the opera house and has become one of the protagonists. Benjamin, Bourdieu, Imgarden and many other writers have explored and established the role of the public as a structural ingredient of stage performances.

Opera, as an integral product of the entertainment world, has always had a public, which has been a determining factor in its artistic direction and development.

When in 1838 the Liceu Filodramàtic de Montsió was started, the body responsible for this initiative, the Fourteenth Battalion of the National Militia, stationed in Barcelona, was in a state of war, the First Carlist War, and the city was infested with soldiers. However, it would not appear that the aim of the project of creating such a centre to stage performances and to train future singers was, as has been widely said and written, to entertain the off duty troops. If this were so, then either the army of bygone years was extremely cultured, which seems improbable owing to the nature and preferences of the military of all times, and especially in the past, or else the performances staged at this new centre were extremely commonplace and vulgar, which may well have turned out to be the case, but it is not likely that this was the initial intention.

The founding of the Liceu and the breaking of the exclusivity previously enjoyed by the Santa Creu Theatre in part stemmed from a general reluctance to continue to accept privileges such as that which this latter institution had originally been granted by Philip II in 1579. However, this initiative was, above all, due to the current economic and social situation: the theatre business presented good investment possibilities.

This gives us a different angle on the matter, one that is much more credible. An army at war would be much more likely to be awarded the sites which the desamortización, the State re-allocation of church lands, had freed for development. Consequently, with only a low level of investment a project could be designed for the entertainment industry, which was certain to yield a high return. Thus, Manuel Gibert and all those who backed the project, were no more than bourgeoisie with initiative who, after a few short seasons, when business was thriving, saw that this was a money spinner and transferred the theatre to the magnificent and lavish opera house on the Rambla dels Caputxins which met their expectations. This entire project would not have been possible were it not felt certain that the population of Barcelona would respond.

The change from only one single theatre with such a deep-rooted past as the Santa Creu Theatre, to various theatres, the Liceu Filodramàtic, el Nou, the Mercè, etc., demonstrates that the public of Barcelona was hungry for such a form of entertainment; the bourgeoisie was being transformed by the potential shown by industry, and was capable of undertaking projects as ambitious as the creation of the first railway in 1848.

Between 1850 and 1870, the Liceu consolidated the image of a Gran Teatre, which surpassed in both programming and financial return the many other theatres which sprung up in Barcelona during these two decades, such as the Tívoli (1848), Odeón (1850), Camps Elisis and Circ Barcelonès (1853), Prado Catalán and the Romea (1863), Teatre Varietats, Barracón and the Teatro de la Zarzuela (1864), Novetats (1869), Teatre Espanyol (1870), Buen Retiro (1876), Circ Eqüestre (1879), etc. Operas were selected from the Italian repertoire, and singers of international renown contracted. Full houses were guaranteed owing to the skilful distribution of the system of ownership of boxes, dress circle and front stall seats by persons who guarded them jealously. Thus the Liceu became the natural home of the bourgeoisie, and this distinguished it from other theatres. Yet, various sources confirm that it was its operatic programme that attracted the public, and that this had permeated all strata of society and many areas of cultural life. Italian opera, larger zarzuela (Spanish light opera works), and French comic opera, sprinkled with other spectacles, comprised the leisure activities of Barcelona and comprised a very important entertainment industry.

As long as the aesthetic influences were confined to the world of Italian opera, whose only rival was the powerful zarzuela, directly influenced by French comic opera, the Liceu could dedicate itself to the greater musical genres, leaving other forms to other theatres. The Liceu catered for the bourgeoisie with its expensive and more sophisticated shows, whereas the theatres of the Passeig de Gràcia catered for audiences drawn from the artisan classes with a less ambitious range of entertainment.

However, once the monopoly of Italian opera was broken by the arrival of works from the French opera repertoire, such as Gounod (Faust, 1864; and Romeo et Juliette, 1884) and Bizet (Carmen, 1888), and by Wagner (Lohengrin, 1882), the public, which was little affected by the political upheavals so frequent during those years, began to express disquiet, as it also subsequently did following the bomb of 7 November 1893. Between the Restoration and the final triumph of Wagnerism in 1899, the opera public became increasingly entrenched and conservative, and declared itself firmly on the side of Italian opera, contrary to young nationalist movements and to the new currents that these demanded. Rivalry between opera impresarios led in certain cases to the first performances in Barcelona of important works not being staged in the Liceu, the theatre which best represented the bourgeoisie. This was the case of Carmen, which was in fact premiered in Teatre Líric, and Lohengirn, first staged in the Principal. The rivalry between theatres and followers of particular opera genres and trends led at times to considerable tension, which, in retrospect, well illustrates the passion aroused by opera. Supporters of Wagner operas were ranged against Puccini enthusiasts. Those in favour of reform and improving the quality of all aspects of production, whose organ was the publication Joventut, opposed those who defended the role of the theatre as a centre of bourgeois sociability. This is reflected in the celebrated case of the debate raised in issue number 229 of Joventut (1903) on the need to turn off the light in the auditorium during performances, and the anonymous reply printed in La Vanguardia. "Let us not be self-deceiving and speak the whole truth: the Liceu of Barcelona is almost the only, if not in fact the only, truly beautiful location for socialising, and while the stage performance is an attraction which motivates attendance at the opera house, the main interest is concentrated in the auditorium rather than on the stage, and consequently, it is preferable that this should be illuminated at all times, as without light, there is no incentive whatever for the mutual expansion of habitual theatre goers."

As from the second decade of the twentieth century, the Liceu was the only theatre devoted exclusively to opera, and non-musical and other productions had ceased to be staged there many years previously. While occasionally operas were performed in other theatres, the only venue to do so on a systematic basis was the Liceu. At the height of World War I, Russian works arrived with the first performance in Barcelona of Boris Godunov (1915) and the Russian Ballets (1917), heralding a substantial change in opera styles, with the abandoning of Wagnerian ecstasy and the arrival of the great Russian operatic repertoire.

The Liceu was therefore consecrated as the venue for grandiose performances and the Madrid-sympathising bourgeoisie became reconciled with the institution owing to the identification with the Liceu of key members of the bourgeoisie such as the Viscount of Güell, Vidal-Quadras, Bertrand, etc. These families, in turn, promoted various symphony and chamber music initiatives, such as the Chamber Music Association. But, ultimately, the Liceu became a luxurious opera house to which aspired, as if instinctively, all those who belonged to the upper classes as well as those who harboured a great love for opera.

On the closure of the Teatre Real (1925), the Liceu became the only large theatre dedicated to large-scale opera productions, and the home to the seat-owning bourgeoisie, which was proud of its exclusivity. It also, however, received the invectives of revolutionary movements who considered it to be the redoubt of the dominating class and who, by extension, considered opera to be a spent force, which could not compete with the shows being staged in the Paral.lel, music halls, variety performances and cinemas.

This was the root of the conflict during the 1931-32 season directed by Josep Rodés, following the declaration of the Second Republic and the conversion of the Liceu into the Teatre Nacional de Catalunya, after the outbreak of the Civil War. The great figures of opera of those years, such as Vendrell, Lázaro, Folgar, Fleta, Redondo, Espinalt and Capsir, were successful in zarzuela, performed frequently in theatres throughout Catalonia, whereas opera was performed regularly only in the Liceu, and most of the singers came from abroad.

With the victory of the Nationalist rebels against the legitimately proclaimed Republic, things returned to their previous state. The Madrid sympathising bourgeoisie began to use the Liceu as a select club impregnated with all the glamour that could be mustered up in the impoverished country. There appeared the gossip magazine Liceo, featuring the offspring of the bourgeoisie at play and young men and women of marriageable age enjoying shameless luxury. This displayed the values of the public, which had made of the Liceu the banner of social success. This was also reflected in the luxurious programmes, full of advertising for objects, which were out of reach for normal mortals. There remained only the audience of the fourth and fifth floors, which day after day earned the reputation of understanding the genre and being discerning, and which, neither physically (owing to different access doors) nor morally could mix with the public below.

During the long number of years of Pàmias as impresario, the Liceu became the epitome of the opera house where everything was spelt out in advance, and its defects were assumed in a pact of silence between the associates. It had a dreadful second-rate orchestra incapable of reading the score without mistakes, squalid dressing rooms and no international projection. The cult of star worshipping was fostered at the cost of poor quality secondary signers, there was lack of control on the sale of tickets put up for sale by the owners and by the theatre, and favouritism with respect to the political class and the representatives of the governing powers who had free entry and enjoyed privileges in exchange for keeping things as they were. To summarise, the Liceu became simply another example of the Franco regime.

The result of this state of affairs was the popular reaction, excessive and inappropriate during the first years of the transition, which consisted in provoking the bourgeoisie, in their perfumed finery, as they left through the theatre door in La Rambla. There was a sense of suppressed rage against the users of the Liceu.

During the transition and especially after the death of Pàmias and the creation of the Consortium, a large number of members of the Liceu belonging to the new political class rushed in to occupy their own little niche of glamour in the Liceu, which had been Catalinized by decree, and which now was home, not only to the old owners, but also to new members of the beautiful people.

The renovation had worked in the sense that it set the opera world in the same direction as it had been going throughout Europe and America. It did not matter if expense exceeded the budget. Opera was a sign of distinction for a city such as Barcelona and this had a price. Mitigating in its favour was the improved standard of all aspects of production; singers, set designers, musicians and conductors, for the production of the old Italian, German, French and Russian repertoire. More ambitious productions were also staged, such as Wozzeck and, more recently, Einstein on the beach, which met with the approval of the former habitués of the Liceu and were admired by new generations of enthusiasts who were not necessarily confined to the fourth and fifth floor and who had in many cases got to know opera from records.

Expense has not been spared in the reconstruction of the opera house, the absence of which, over the five years of closure, has paradoxically kept alive and even further kindled the love for opera among all sections of the Barcelona public. Will there be room for everybody in the new opera-house?