LA RAMBLA’S LICEU THEATRE IS A THREE-TIME VICTIM OF FIRE BURSTS by Brian Thomas - Profesor/a de inglés - Barcelona

Brian Thomas

Profesor/a de inglés



A Fan of the Flames
As iconic city structures go, theatres are right up there. Despite
‘advances’ in entertainment technology, such as streaming services,
quick-to-hand documentaries and even the more recent development of
virtual, or video-led tours it is, in my opinion, a rare thing that can beat a
quality theatre performance. Sure, one might argue that it is essential to
be familiar with the language and culture of a place, and a language
barrier can be a deterrent for visitors to a new location to invest in the
visiting of a live performance. However, Opera has that unique quality of
transcending language because, of course, all of the elements of plot
are contained within the visual and musical aspects of performance.

Barcelona’s La Rambla is certainly full of history, and independent of the
iconic theatre has seen its own fair share of drama (and comedy, one
would imagine) over the centuries. The Liceu Theatre opened on 4
April, 1847 to much fanfare, following a decade-long push for the Liceo
Dramático Filarmónico de S. M. la Reina Isabel II (Dramatic
Philharmonic Lyceum of H.M. Queen Isabel II) to have their very own
home, one in which their masters and students of opera may display
their talents.

A major boast for the entire city was that, for many years, Liceu
remained the biggest opera house in Europe, with a capacity of 3,500
seats. However, fourteen years into its impressive stint, the building
succumbed to fire on 9 April, 1861. It’s hardly a unique selling point for
any theatre to brag about a dramatic blazing inferno that sends a rippling
fireball along the street (and why would they brag, as on many
occasions theatre fires have resulted in multiple fatalities – thankfully not
this time however). The origin of the blaze is unknown, but the story
goes that one of the stage-hands lit up a cigarette after the actors
finished rehearsal and … well, you can see where this is going. And we
can likely imagine where he went – as far from the theatre as humanly
possible, perhaps jumping onto a ship in the port.

Thirty-two years later, and not to be outdone by a mere cigarette-related
incidente de fuego, a far more sinister (and exciting) event took place.
Bearing in mind that then, as now, the theatre is largely considered a
venue for the middle- to upper-class (though that wasn’t always the case
– Shakespeare’s old Globe Theater in London is a case in point, where
the working classes were placed in the ‘pit’ and customarily busied
themselves with loud cat-calling and drunken fighting). In Barcelona’s
case, replace the notion of ‘the drunk’ with ‘the anarchist’ who, in his
finest moment, ought to steer mighty clear of any inebriating substance.
On November 7th 1893, the opera season opened with a performance of
Rossini's William Tell. Among those in attendance was Santiago
Salvador, a trim, good-looking fellow with a fondness for sugary drinks
(hence his nickname ‘el noi de sucre’ (the sugar boy), who bought
himself a seat in the fifth floor with a peseta (roughly €2 today) he had
borrowed from his wife, who was probably as surprised as the rest of us

that he spent it on theatre admission rather than on as big a block of
sugar as a peseta will warrant.

Salvador sat through the first act and, before intending to launch his two
Orsini bombs at precisely 11 o'clock, moments into the second act.
Personally, I love the story of William Tell and would have been more
than irked that the play faced such shoddy interruption, but then again,
anarchy does tend to espouse such things. I digress - the first bomb
landed in Row 13 and exploded immediately whilst the second landed in
the lap of a woman, already killed by the first blast, and failing to ignite,
thudded dully to the floor and hid rather sheepishly under a seat. Seven
people were killed immediately, while thirteen more died over the next
few hours and a total of twenty-seven more were injured to various

Amidst this carnage, a number of things should be noted: first, rumour
abounds that Salvador’s actual target (aside from the collateral damage
of innocent spectators) was the King of Spain, Alfonso XIII. In hindsight,
we can successfully douse cold water over this theory, as the young king
was barely 7 years old at the time, and theatre in Barcelona was not
high up on his agenda while his Regent, Maria Christina of Austria,
similarly would disabuse the attendance of a play geared towards any
form of nationalism. Second, if we assume that Salvador had prior
knowledge that no one directly representing Madrid royalty was in
attendance, did he target anyone else in particular? If not, this instance
could indeed bracket the man into the category of a rogue terrorist.
Whatever we may speculate, the ‘boy of sugar’ made a speedy getaway

and fled to his hometown of Teruel in the province of Zaragoza. Police
finally caught up with him, and he attempted suicide by shooting himself
in the stomach. Sadly for him, this failed, and he endured a rather
painful fate as he was nursed back to some form of health, before being
garrotted to death in Reina Amalia prison in Barcelona two weeks later,
dying at the age of 32 and leaving behind a girlfriend and two daughters.

The turn of the century saw an initial trepidation in attending the House
that had been victim of incendiary events already twice but, ironically for
one of the more turbulent 60 years of any European country including
the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936 and the ensuing fascist
crackdown in 1939, the theatre thrived. I can only speculate as an
individual lucky enough never to have lived in a place ravaged by street
conflict, but perhaps the idea of escapism really appealed to those
wishing for some well-deserved distraction. There was a brief period
during the war when the opera seasons were suspended, and after the
war, it was returned to its original owners. From 1940 to the 1960s, the
seasons were high quality ones. Indeed, in a fortuitous event in 1955,
the board successfully lured the Bayreuth Festival to perform away from
their natural home in Germany, and even the great Richard Wagner
graced the city with his presence.

The Olympic Games of 1992 saw a heightened appreciation of this great
city on the world stage, and the Liceu continued to thrive and received
more funding, both federal and regional. However, on 31 January,
1994… you guessed it, the building went up in flames AGAIN (will you
even trust me that this building IS safe to go to??) This time, the fire was

caused by a spark that cruelly fell on the curtain during a routine repair
(although no cigarette butts were found in the rubble). Lastly for now, in
an incredibly generous and quirky gesture, just last week the Opera
House celebrated the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions by performing to a
packed house of … PLANTS. Over 2,000 lucky shrubs sat enthralled as
a full orchestra serenaded them, and the last word should surely go to
Eugenia Ampudia, the conceptual designer of the event who urged all
those plants that did not get a ticket ‘to beseech your owners to offer you
the live stream, because this is for all plants and their owners.’ A true
inspiration floral.

P.S. If you didn’t understand that word play, I’ll say two things, i) don’t
worry, it fails and ii) word-play is important in any language, and in
English lessons, we will teach you a fine amount.

#englishlessonsspain #aprenderingles #englishteacherinspain #englishteacherbarcelona #englishteachercatalonia #brianthomasenglishteacher #learnenglish #
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