Most people go to the opera to see the show. In Buenos Aires, many go just to see the opera house.
Recently refurbished, the Teatro Colon offers guided tours through what is one of the world's truly great houses of music. These tours are a hot attraction, especially for the tourists flooding the Argentine capital these days, where the dollar still has muscle. The tours are in Spanish, English, Portuguese and other languages.
I saw my first opera in the Colon in 1965: Aida, by Giuseppe Verdi, the same opera that opened the place in 1908. My impression was that the audience was not forgiving. Before the curtain went up a man in a tuxedo stepped out and announced the tenor was ill and his understudy would sing. The crowd booed the man off the stage. Then it booed the tenor almost back to where he came from after his rendition of the beautiful aria, Aida. But he bravely persisted. At the end of the evening he collected two bows.
It took 18 years and three architects - two Italians and a Belgian - to build the Colon. The first Italian died naturally, the second was murdered by his valet; the Belgian finished the job.
Back then everybody thought it worth the wait. Most people who see the Colon today agree. It is art on the street, especially striking at night when illuminated - a stack of stone the color of old bone, all pediments, pillars and Palladian-style doors opening upon balconies all around.
The structure presents its back to the river of traffic that flows down Avenida Nueve de Julio, and the sheltered carriageway at its front to a crisp urban park. It is a building from another time set among the contemporary edifices of a modern city. It raises the question: Why can't we have buildings this beautiful anymore?
Over the century of its life, scores of famous composers came to conduct or simply be present to see their work performed at the Colon: Richard Strauss, Igor Stravinsky, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copeland. Every opera singer of note, every virtuoso soloist, comes to the Colon.
The two main features of the opera house are the auditorium and the foyer that leads to it, up a broad, red-carpeted stairway, with columns of Verona marble soaring above, two lions at the base of each banister carved from Portuguese marble. The mosaic on the floor came from Venice, the stained-glass windows from Paris. A sculpted head of Beethoven presents its gargantuan silhouette against a window.
In the museum chambers to the right and left of the stairway are collections of instruments, old Stradivarius violins and mementos from famous singers. Busts of Wagner and Verdi decorate the hall.
Recently a critic employed by a New York newspaper flew down to review Benjamin Britten's opera Death in Venice, a production the critic suggested was diminished by the red and gold grandeur of the auditorium.
His review had as much in it about the building as the opera. No doubt: The Colon overwhelms. It is said that more than a few singers who have performed in London's Covent Garden, New York's Lincoln Center, even in La Scala in Italy, have been intimidated when they first looked out from the stage of the Colon at all the thousands of faces looking back expectantly from the stalls and balcony boxes, seven tiers rising to the great painted ceiling.
How will I reach the people in the cheap seats? they might have asked themselves, their confidence shrinking by the second.
But not to worry. All those uneven surfaces out there are contrived to channel sound: the bronze and gold leaf to deflect it, the red cloth to absorb it in just the right measure. Our guide said this explains the Colon's success as a music hall, this ingenious and mysterious deployment of objects and ornaments.
While there we were allowed to watch a rehearsal of Swan Lake from a center balcony box. After it was over, my eye strayed to the ceiling, brightly lit by a chandelier of 700 bulbs, and decorated by the late Argentine artist Raul Soldi: A line of mimes, goblins, musicians, actors and dancers circle the chandelier.
I first saw these paintings a year after they were put up in 1966. The original frescoes by French artist Marcel Jambon were destroyed when a theater official got a bright idea: To cool the auditorium on a very hot day long before air-conditioning arrived, he had bars of ice laid above the ceiling. The water from the melting ice filtered through and did its work.
Soldi's pictures, which I didn't like when I first saw them, have improved through the years.
The Colon employs about 1,500 people; it occupies almost a city block and stretches far beneath the streets that run by it. Down there are custodians, artisans, artists, a huge rehearsal hall for the Colon's Corps de Ballet, chambers for musicians of its two orchestras and choir, dressing rooms, studios, shops where costumes, jewelry and wigs are designed and made and other appurtenances necessary to the production of an opera. Sets are built in an underground chamber as big as an aircraft hangar.
It is a busy place, with more than a few eccentric traditions: one such was the gallery box with a bronze privacy screen set aside for widows (no longer used for that purpose). Another relates to the three upper circles, where the true aficionados of the opera and ballet stand for the performance: The lower one is for women only, the next one up for men only. The highest circle is where men and women can stand together. They call it paradise. I always wondered why.
WHEN YOU GO
Tours in English of the Teatro Colon are offered Monday through Sunday at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. The guided tour lasts 75 minutes and covers two of the opera house's upper floors and the three large underground floors. The price is the equivalent in Argentine pesos of $12. The tour office will not take foreign currency.
Most of the tour is on foot, with an occasional ride in an elevator. Tours for the disabled can be arranged by appointment.
For more information on the Colon, visit www.teatrocolon.org.ar.