What do vanilla wafers and the Colón Opera House have in common?
Teatro Colón (Colón Opera Hoouse) is Argentina’s leading opera house, opened in 1908. Opera is also a popular brand of vanilla wafers made by a company called Bagley. They were launched in 1906 under a different name but the manufacturer decided to change it to Opera to honor the magnificent new opera house. Both have delighted generations of Argentineans to this day.
My mother and I took three of my nieces on a guided visit of “el Colón,” as it’s affectionately known. Our guide, Javier, was a delight. The tour started at the main entrance hall, on Libertad Street. This is where the other half makes a grand entrance. The more humble ticket holders go in through the Tucumán and Viamonte side entrances. It’s been this way ever since the opera house was opened in 1908.
The main focal point of the hall, the grand Carrara marble staircase, symbolizes the link between the mundane and the world of the arts. The columns that support the ceiling are covered in different kinds of marble: red from Verona, yellow from Siena and pink from Portugal. The stained glass window is from Paris. The building, eclectic in style, was inspired by the great opera houses of Europe.
We mounted the stairs, worthy of the scene where Cinderella loses her crystal slipper, towards the Hall of Busts. Theatre-goers use this area during the intermission to stretch their legs, have drinks, chat, while Bizet, Beethoven, Rossini, Gounod, Mozart, Bellini, Verdi and Wagner look down from high up.
Javier told us that, in the past, the season was very short; it lasted for the winter only. The reason was that only time the European companies were able to travel to South America was during their summer. When the season finished, the Teatro Colón was closed until the following year. All this changed in 1920, when the Colón’s orchestra and ballet company were created and the season lasted from March to December. However, the Teatro Colón hosted a number of internationally renowned artists like Luciano Pavarotti, Igor Stravinsky or Maya Plisetskaya.
The lavish Golden Room sparkles, glitters and glimmers. Every surface is covered with gold leaf, gold dust paint and big mirrors. The floor is Slavonian oak. Thanks to the restoration undertaken between 2001 and 2010, the name of the artist that painted the linen ceiling was discovered. It was a Monsieur Romieu, forgotten or unknown for decades. The Golden Room is used for master classes, auditions and more intimate concerts.
We then moved on to the splendid concert hall. Our guide asked us to be very quiet. There was an audition going on and we didn’t want to disturb the candidates. We silently filed into one of the boxes, sat down and enjoyed part the audition. It felt like a privilege.
We were in an official box used by various authorities on special occasions. The President and the Mayor have their own boxes at either side of the stage, in a location called avant-scène. In the past, the widows could not be seen in public, so if they wanted to enjoy the ballet or the opera, they had to sit behind black railings inside enclosed boxes. Of course, widowers had carte blanche to have a merry old time.
The hall can seat up to 2,400 people. 300 more people can stand in the upper levels. Its horseshoe shape and open boxes mean that the sound can travel freely, making for almost perfect acoustics. The giant chandelier weighs a ton, literally. The renowned Argentinean artist Raúl Soldi painted the inside of the dome. There is a narrow corridor around the dome, well hidden from view, where musicians and singers can create special effects, like a chorus of angels coming from above. I wouldn’t be able to climb up there, let alone carry an instrument!
And for good measure, an old Opera commercial. I shouldn’t say old because I can remember watching it! The quality isn’t very good, I’m afraid, but the sentimental value is there.