by Isabel Ortiz
Coming to Buenos Aires, I never fail to be surprised at how a country in economic collapse nevertheless prioritizes the arts, maintaining a flourishing permanent ballet company, orchestra and opera troupe. The celebrated Teatro Colon is lauded worldwide for its unrivalled acoustics and lavish construction and remains the pride of the Argentine arts scene. Built in the early 1900s by three different architects (the first two Francesco Tamburini and Vittorio Meano, both died in the process, the latter of old age and the former murdered by an angry ex-girlfriend, leaving the task of completion to Julio Dormal in 1908), the Colon was a love letter to the European opera houses of the Golden Age, a monument to all things elegant and luxurious.
As one of the city’s greatest treasures, the Colon has also been surrounded by its own political controversy within the city and national government. For the past four years the Colon was closed for a restoration, and the city government was heavily criticized for the preposterous delay of its renovation, which was meant to be completed in one year. In previous years, I remember seeing the Colon orchestra protesting by playing in the park outside while the sounds of drills and jackhammers rattled on. In events associated with the Colon, the orchestra refused to dress up, wearing t-shirts and jeans instead. It is said that the president of Argentina, Cristina Kirchner, refuses to come to the Colon in protest of the Buenos Aires city government’s policies. Governor Mauricio Macri finally accelerated construction last year, and it has now been returned to its prior state. I took a tour of the Colon a couple weeks back and it seemed more or less restored to its former glory, though little things like extraneous holes in the ceilings and slightly different shades of paint seemed to hint at a rushed reopening.
However, despite the chaos surrounding the Colon’s reopening, my visits to it have proven that as far as the quality of the productions, nothing has changed. The Argentine people remain just as passionate about opera as they are about soccer, jumping out of balconies during incredible arias and not shy about expressing their distaste over the less compelling aspects of a performance. When I went to see Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, the audience responded to lackluster stage direction by booing the set and costume designers when they came out for their final bows. During a particularly beautifully executed pirouette in the Colon Ballet’s production of The Sleeping Beauty, the crowd went wild, with one audience member screaming “Diosa!” (“Goddess!”) from the uppermost balcony in the back row. At every performance, the amount of people in cheap standing room seating is immense, indicating a greater interest in the arts among the middle/lower classes. This passion and fervor for artistic culture is manifest in the top dancers, singers and musicians that the country still manages to attract, no matter its economic struggles. Though the Colon has undergone its period of turmoil, it seems it might be headed back to its prime, with the support of a devoted public behind it.