Performing arts centres across continents find themselves at a similar juncture in their otherwise richly diverse histories today—being closed for a prolonged period practically for the first time. The cultural landmark in the heart of Buenos Aires, Teatro Colón saw its majestic auditorium fall silent in March 2020, on the eve of the dress rehearsal for Verdi’s Nabucco, and a week before lockdown was imposed in Argentina. It had witnessed closure only once before; in 2008, for purely voluntary and welcome reasons as the venue got renovated in its centenary year.
One of the great opera houses of the world, Teatro Colón is counted among the very best, including La Scala of Milan, the Paris Opera, the Vienna State Opera, London’s Royal Opera House and the Metropolitan Opera, New York. From the performance of Aida at the inauguration of the building that presently houses it, the stage at Teatro Colón has presented the who’s who of ballet and classical music. The list boasts such names from the world of dance as Anna Pavlova, Vaslav Nijinsky, Maya Plisetskaya, Paloma Herrera, composers such as Richard Strauss, Igor Stravinsky, Camille Saint-Saëns, Aaron Copland, conductors like Arturo Toscanini, Erich Kleiber, Leonard Bernstein, Karl Böhm, Zubin Mehta, Miguel Ángel Veltri, solo instrumentalists Paco de Lucía, Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, Pinchas Zukerman, and singers including Enrico Caruso, Luciano Pavarotti, Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Delia Rigal. The legendary tenor Pavarotti is said to have famously praised Teatro Colón’s acoustics in these words, “[The theatre’s] acoustics have the greatest defect: they are perfect! Imagine what this signifies for the singer: if one sings something bad, one notices immediately.”
At the peak of the pandemic, the only sound that reverberated through its space, though, was the whirring of sewing machines in its basement workshops where the theatre’s seamstresses, costume designers and volunteers stitched several thousand face masks a week for the health workers of Argentina. “This is a factory of dreams. The Colón has this advantage that everything you see on stage, when the curtain opens, is made right here,” stage director Enrique Bordolini said in an interview to AFP, referring to the in-house workshops for machinery, scenography, props, tailoring, shoemaking, tapestry, set mechanics, sculpture, photography, make-up, hairstyling, props decoration and costume painting.
The workshops may have looked like the mise-en-scène of a play set in a PPE factory, but the action moved online under #ColonDigital, of which #Colonforkids is a notable initiative. Designed to introduce young minds to the artistic disciplines Teatro Colón nurtures, the dancers, actors, musicians and singers associated with the opera house bring together children’s literature, classical music, ballet, art, scenographic objects, etc. in short, engaging videos. Though this has the potential to get adult viewers hooked, the digital series has much to offer to them too. In addition to online broadcasts of opera, ballet and concert performances of recent seasons and from the archives, the theatre has introduced CasasdeÔpera, a series based on short lyrical pieces seeking new, edgy ways to approach the operatic genre. There is also a wealth of archival articles from the Teatro Colón Magazine now available under #ColonDigital, which through the history of the theatre also offers insights into the history of Buenos Aires.
The thoughtfully curated digital offerings only make one think of what this iconic Argentine institution—now grappling with financial challenges like several of its counterparts around the world—could present to its audiences when theatre is a safe place again. “Over the past century, there was something similar only in the world wars, art is undergoing a key moment and we are searching for how to flourish in this new stage ahead,” Colón’s principal ballet dancer Federico Fernández said in the AFP article while soprano and pianist María Castillo De Lima added, “After so much tragedy, humanity will need art anyway now.”
By Snigdha Hasan. This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the January 2021 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.