A crumbling icon

Times Staff Writer

During almost a century of buoyant and sometimes stormy existence, this city’s Teatro Colon has hosted many of the music world’s most hallowed names -- Caruso, Callas, Stravinsky, Bernstein.

The show has gone on through military coups, economic crashes and intermittent labor turmoil and crises.

Occupying almost a square block in the heart of Argentina’s capital, the theater stands as an artistic icon in a metropolis brimming with cultural self-importance. It has been called Latin America’s preeminent house of music.

Its acoustics are legendary, its seven tiers of seats and balconies a Baroque fairy tale, its 753-bulb chandelier a marvel, its grand foyer a mini-Versailles and its stage one of the world’s most spacious. The basement workshops and below-ground rehearsal halls form a labyrinth worthy of Borges, a place where tutu-clad ballerinas stretching their legs mingle with bearded tenors bellowing their lines and paint-spattered craftsmen sipping mate tea during breaks from building behemoth sets.


“If there were a fire in Buenos Aires and you had to choose one thing to rescue, I don’t doubt that it would be the Colon,” said Ernesto Schoo, octogenarian don of the city’s art critic community, whose first visit was in 1928, when he was 3. “I still remember it like it was today,” he said. “It marked me for all of my life.”

All the same, the grande dame of Buenos Aires is showing her age, with mold on the venerable stage curtain, graffiti and grit on the imposing exterior and missing strings on a pair of centuries-old viole da gamba on display in a showcase among the lapses.

Extensive refurbishing

In fact, the esteemed but battered opera house is slated to shut its doors for much-needed repairs for at least 18 months after a performance tonight by Mercedes Sosa, the legendary Argentine chanteuse and balladeer, herself an emblem of this country’s turbulent recent history.

The Buenos Aires municipal government, which runs the theater, has already embarked on a $25-million “master plan” that amounts to a complete restoration of the building. Some work, such as refurbishing of the zinc roofing, gift shop and public restrooms, is largely completed, officials say, but the most significant phase -- refurbishing the main hall, the foyer, the facade and the 13,000-square-foot stage, with its revolving disk that facilitates scenery changes -- remains to be done. Construction is also underway on an open-air stage in a new plaza across the street.

The plan is to reopen the cleaned-up version in May 2008 with a performance of Verdi’s “Aida” -- the same opera that marked the Colon’s 1908 debut after a tortured construction process that dragged on for 18 years and took three architects -- a pair of Italians (one died, the other was killed by his valet in a crime passionnel) and, finally, a Belgian. The theater was supposed to have opened in 1892, in time for the 400th anniversary of the transatlantic voyage of Christopher Columbus, or Cristobal Colon, its namesake.

That a restoration is needed is beyond dispute. Many of Europe’s grand opera houses, the Colon’s cultural kin, have already undergone similar refurbishing. But the tight-knit community of musicians, craftsmen and others who ply their trades at the Colon have voiced profound concerns about the artistic integrity and the timetable of the government blueprint.

Workers are worried about the acoustics and their jobs. Many are openly pessimistic that a theater synonymous with Buenos Aires’ European heritage will be ready for its centennial. They also fear that the historic monument could end up as a soulless rental space for traveling spectacles.

“There’s a lot of concern because the things that they want to do aren’t clear,” said Mario Perusso, who directs the Colon’s Philharmonic and has worked at the theater for 40 years.

Perusso was among several dozen Colon employees who staged a demonstration outside the front doors Friday, calling public attention to their worries. Some hoisted banners warning of “destroyed” acoustics and accusing “thieves” -- using a colorful but vulgar phrase out of tango argot -- of pocketing designated repair money.

“This is work that they should have started in 2000, so they lost six years,” said Perusso, a lively, graying eminence. “Now they want to do everything in one or two years. I have my doubts.”

Laura Beccaceci, of the Colon’s corps de ballet, was equally skeptical. “Those scaffoldings there have been up for six months,” she noted, pointing to a metal cage encasing one side of the building. “So far they’ve fixed three windows.”

Officials of the Colon tend to dismiss such concerns as the rantings of the same union militants who shut down the house for several weeks last year in a bitter wage dispute that left a lot of hard feelings. Theater management and unions representing the roughly 1,500 workers have clashed for years, fomenting a sense of permanent crisis not unusual in the singular world of management-labor relations in Argentina.

Anxious times

Representatives of management met with workers last week in an effort to allay their concerns. None is being laid off, officials say, because production will continue at other halls and facilities.

The 2007 season is already projected to include seven or eight operas and two dozen concerts and ballet works at various venues.

“We know that big changes bring out big fears in people,” said Alvaro Arrese, the architect overseeing the reconstruction, who struck a conciliatory tone. He insists that “conservation” is the guiding light of the master plan and exudes confidence that the Colon will indeed be ready for its centennial. The architect does concede, however, that unforeseen and “unmanageable” issues could arise as the work progresses. But he stresses the positive.

“The will and the guarantee are there,” he said. “We Argentines will continue enjoying our theater.”

Also to be preserved, officials vow, is the treasure trove from the basement workshops, a collection that now includes about 36,000 wigs, 80,000 costumes, 45,000 pairs of shoes and 30,000 hats, along with a plethora of sets and other materials. A proper showroom is planned. “Preservation is fundamental,” said Marcelo Lombardero, the operatic baritone who became the Colon’s artistic director last year.

But suspicions abound. Aficionados fear a reprise of the monumental delays that pushed back projects such as the restoration of the National Library here for years -- and transformed the original construction of the Colon into an almost two-decade ordeal.

“The major preoccupation of the house is that the acoustics not be changed,” said Stefan Lano, the U.S.-born music director at the Colon since September 2005. “But I guess I’m a little more optimistic than some others. The people behind the master plan seem to be sincere and professional.”

Still, these are trying times for Colon devotees. Tinkering with an icon, like changing a loved one, is no easy thing.

“Some people like the wrinkles on the woman they love, but others may want her to get a face-lift,” noted Lano. “I love the curtain at the Colon. But something needs to be done with that curtain.”



Andres D’Alessandro of The Times’ Buenos Aires bureau contributed to this report.