The Teatro Colón is a landmark for tourists in Buenos Aires, if only to take the guided tour. This is a sumptuous building, recently restored, and with an active cultural programme, so taking the tour is a pleasure. Mainly an auditorium for opera and ballet, theatre performances are the rare exception. To see a performance there, visitors can try a Monday night booking, when prices are discounted.
Its scale is striking – the building’s setting, overlooking the wide thoroughfare of Avenida 9 de Julio to the east, the plazas separating it from the courts or Tribunales to the west, and with a reasonably spacious pedestrian plaza to the north, allows you to see it well. This building is large, seating just under 2,500, with standing room for 1,000 more, and boasting a stage area of some 400 square metres.
The principal entrance on the western Tribunales side on Calle Libertad has an ornate cast iron and glass canopy, to enable patrons to make a sheltered entrance from their carriages, as they were doing at its opening in 1908. The very elevated were able to take their carriages right inside the building, and enter the ornate foyer via a flight of carpeted steps.
The foyer is as heavily ornamented as the rest of the building, perhaps more so. It becomes clear that then as now, the social dimension of going to the opera loomed large in the public’s mind. An elaborate system of entrances and foyers kept the social classes apart, however united they were in their love of opera.
Though the (very knowledgeable, English-speaking) tour guide made much of the fact that two principal architects had worked on the building, in contrasting French and Italian styles, the building is in truth a great success in its styling, united in colouring and theme, and actually pleasantly varied in style.
The modern additions – coffee shop and restaurant, ticket sales, bookshop – are tastefully integrated into this Belle Epoque confection. But tasteful doesn’t begin to describe the impact of the ornamentation of the upper foyers.
The ornament is floor-to-ceiling, the colour scheme varied and harmonious, the art work largely gracious and in keeping with the building’s purpose – to impress, and to enable social transactions.
A palace – yes, to the Muses, but a palace – in which to feel at home. The gods and heroes of this pantheon are musicians, their busts presiding over the mortals below.
The domesticated gods of a previous culture are pressed into service here. It was said that if you wanted someone to fall in love with you …
… you whispered the name of your intended in Cupid’s ear, and he directed his mother’s arrows to the heart of the beloved.
This in a setting which might already make you light-headed. And if your friends were to overhear the name, and assist the arrow in its flight, then so much the better.
The serious side of the transaction was reserved for your elders. You were in due course made to sit on the two outer seats of this sofa de salon while the patriarchs compared notes and bank balances. Only if the outcome was judged satisfactory would the match be made. And woe betide you if a male member of your family made a faux pas, sitting down on one of the other sofas – these were strictly reserved for the ladies. Sitting betrayed the fact that you were a stranger to this echelon.
Oh, and the music? Beyond the foyers is one of the best acoustics in the world (Marshall Long, Acoustics Today April 2009), recognised as such by performers like Pavarotti. The theatre’s “acoustics (have) the greatest defect: its acoustics are perfect! Imagine what this signifies for the singer: if one sings something bad, one notices immediately.” We were lucky enough to hear an orchestral rehearsal on our tour – the acoustics are indeed crystal clear.
And what of the ordinary public? The standing room at Teatro Colón was known as the ‘hen house’, filled with ordinary Italian opera lovers, who made their feelings clear, booing, catcalling, and throwing food at the stage if the music was not to their liking. Despite the social hierarchy, this voice from ‘the gods’ was also well-known.