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Scenic arts

New São Paulo, Act I

The Municipal Theater helped in the urban and esthetic modernization of the city

Discreet at birth, the Republic shortly after fell in love with the spectacle. Thus, if the monarchy paid little attention to the aspects of towns, the new regime, “modern” wanted to show that Brazil would change, would become part of civilization, whose synonym, at the start of the 20th century was the Paris of Haussmann, with its boulevards, electrical illuminations and grand avenues, all of them emptying out into the cathedral of those industrial times, the Opera House. Rio de Janeiro adapted itself quickly to the new model of government. The mayor, Pereira Passos, laid out the old city, reconstructing Paris in the Carioca center by way of a grouping of grand buildings whose jewel in the crown was the Municipal Theater, inaugurated, not by chance, on the 14th of July (Bastille Day) of 1909.

Back then são paulo was a disappointingly colonial sleepy town, which was, for the são paulo elite, a reason for shame as they also wanted to have their Paris. “The closed social life on the coffee plantations and being limited to masses, were substituted by the search, more and more constant, for streets and squares, for meetings in the public sphere, for life in society, referenced by the standards of the world said to be civilized” observes the historian Margareth Rago from Unicamp. At the beginning of the century a columnist in the O Estado de S.Paulo newspaper had put on paper the complaints: “There’s lots of reserve and little sociability in the families. A place for meeting is lacking, which is deserving of the good taste of the são paulo dwellers.” The solution, according to him, would be “a theater that will operate a radical transformation in the habits of the city, making the beginnings of a new phase in the night life that can’t just stop there.” In those times, são paulo could not stop. The Republican mayor, Antonio Prado (1840-1929) joined the chorus: “The city doesn’t have a social life and a Municipal Theater would attend both to the material part and to that of education” he declared, attempting to placate the resolution of the adversaries, who did not see such a work as a priority.

Coffee barons
“What mattered was the monument that the city would gain: a symbol, both political and cultural as well as esthetic, at the service of modernism. Its construction corresponds to the yearnings of the Paulista elite to see the city equipped with a grand operatic theater, at the height of the place that it had occupied in the country, as the representative of an urban center of the first national industries and of the coffee barons” analyzes Maria Elena Bernardes, author of the doctorate thesis, defended at USP, entitled, The glorious city banner: the Municipal Theater of são paulo (1911-1938). In truth, what had been intended was not only to erect an opera house, but to initiate a new urban movement for são paulo, to make of it a metropolis for the elites, with European characteristics and, in a national dimension, to secure a mediation between the interests of the coffee producers and those of the federal government. “The conception of the city for mayor Prado was an international cosmopolitan metropolis, which would incorporate elements of French and English urbanism, such as boulevards and parks, where the neoclassical palaces would become references in the organization of city space” observed the historian Nicolau Sevcenko. The catalyst for the renovation would be the Municipal Theater, the first monument assumed by the são paulo public authority.

“The administration of the city up until then had unfolded without governmental guardianship: urban expansion, sanitation, provision of services such as water, energy, transport etc. everything had materialized thanks to proposals of private origin, without any articulation between the actions. Mayor Antonio Prado would be the paradigmatic figure in this disunited spectrum of urban transformation” evaluates the architect Hugo Segawa from USP. However, different from the expansive of Pereira Passos, who had carried out a major intervention in physical-social sanitation and of urban embellishment, Prado opted for the discrete urban surgery of the central triangle (streets 15 de Novembro, Sao Bento and Direita). The scalpel would open up a cut with the creation of a theater along the lines of the Garnier Opera House. The first discussions concerning the Municipal Theater were initiated in 1895, but only in 1903 was a law passed that authorized its construction. The construction was to be under the supervision of the architect Ramos de Azevedo. The building took eight years to be completed, at a cost of 4,500 of the King’s contas, double the approved budget.

Money was not spared: adorned with gilded gold decorations and a large chandelier, with 700 prisms and 220 lamps, it was the tallest building in the são paulo of 1911. Four and a half million tiles were used, 700 tons of iron structure that generated a construction of 3,600 square meters, rising to an esplanade joined to the gardens that occupied 12,600 square meters. There were places for 1,816 spectators, all present on the 12th of September 1911, when the theater was inaugurated, realizing, according to the Ilustração Paulista magazine, “its destination as a showpiece of civilization.” Back in 1906, a councilman had proposed “improvements of the badly kept surroundings of the monumental building, as the transformation of the Anhangabaú valley into a public garden.” The stage had begun to leave the building to take over the city. “As yet it was not popular in são paulo to speak of planned urban intervention. Mayor Prado’s administration was a preparatory step towards installing the first debates of an urbanistic nature in são paulo” says Segawa.

The Municipal Theater, alongside the railway stations (such as Luz), in the molds of Haussmann intervention, was the inspiration that spread the fire of modernization through the timid “villa.” In 1910, a year before its inauguration, a group of society figures proposed the construction of three grand avenues. “It’s not illusory to hope that são paulo can show the desire of its children by demolishing, and from the ruins take pride in a new city, worthy of the century’s progresses” wrote the project’s author, Alexandre de Albuquerque. The new highways established a direct link between the Municipal Theater and the railway stations, the connection between the aristocratic district of Campos Elíseos and a route for the region beyond the river Tietê, a sector of future metropolis expansion. “Long boulevards, defining points of monumental flight, adding value to buildings such as the Municipal Theater and the train stations, a paved solution in the system of Parisian circulation, with Garnier’s Opera House as the culminating visual point” analyzes a Segawa. Not everyone saw this through sparkling eyes.

“One fine day a group of bandits took into account that são paulo did not have the aspect of a modern city and that what was missing was money for prostitutes and gambling. Thus the mode of patriotism took off. All the newspapers cried out the hymn of embellishment. Hands to the cheat! Down with old houses. Widen the city. We want theaters just like Paris, gardens like Berlin. Once the houses were knocked down, everything that had to be embellished was the property of the group” denounced the workers’ newspaper La Battaglia, in 1912, comparing the são paulo elite and the Prado team to “members of a high class gang.” são paulo, therefore, could no longer stop to be Paris. To the point of making Clemenceau exclaim: “são paulo is so curiously French that during my stay of a week in the city I don’t recall the sensation of being abroad.” At last, modern.

This modernization, nevertheless, brought with it inconveniences. “Of all of the bars in the city, that of the Municipal Theater was the most sought after by society and one of the most watched over by the police. The eulogy of progress went on to be contrasted with what had been denounced as its high costs. Although many were happy with the importation of European customs, others lamented the loss of the simplicity of the provincial life, paying attention to the bad aspects introduced by modernization, such as drugs” explains Margareth. The Municipal Theater was also the stage of the first affront to the elite coffee barons, the Week of 22. As yet restricted to those that could hand over 186,000 réis for a box, in order to hear odes against the bourgeois, the dissonance of Villa-Lobos and, in the theater’s hall, an exposition of works by Anita Malfatti, Di Cavalcanti and Rego Monteiro. Scandalous during the decade of the 1920’s, Mário de Andrade returned to the Municipal Theater in 1935, this time as the director of the Culture Department, carrying out cultural revolutions more substantial in the life of the theater than just a mere affront.

“Mario made the city’s most sumptuous equipment accessible to the population, establishing the obligation of a free operatic recital, as well as others at popular prices” says Maria Elena. “The public who went to the Municipal Theater? But this group didn’t represent absolutely the city’s people who elected the owners of the prefecture so that it would subsidize a company so that this one, through exorbitant prices, would satisfy a mode of the elite” screamed the author of Macunaíma. In spite of the efforts by Mário, on his departure in 1938, everything returned to what it had been, a situation that appears to have been maintained up until today. “While the juridical structures of the municipal theaters of Rio and são paulo had been conditioned to state paternalism and subject to the inclemency of political changes, viable solutions don’t exist for the work of artistic improvement over the long term” says  maestro Isaac Karabtchevsky, who has been the artistic director of both theaters.

“The inevitable and obligatory change of artistic directors gives the opportunity for every type of amateurism, from the cancellation of seasons to abrupt changes of musical direction. There is talk of transforming these theaters into Foundations, but this runs into the problems that recently hit Italy, where, through lack of community support, the government reduced its funds for paying the personnel and invited artists” she says. “Our tradition is not one of community, but we should find a way to preserve, by way of the theaters, professionals who contribute to the rescue and evolution of stable entities.” In the end, in the case of the Municipal Theater of são paulo, there’s a glorious past, with the passage, across its stage, of stars such as Isadora Duncan, Caruso, Gigli, Toscanini, Callas, Tebaldi etc. What remains of all of this glory? They were not sounds or gestures, but clothing, scenery changes of great beauty and historical value. “The archive of today, which goes back to the decade of the 1940’s, could have counted upon 50,000 plays, a quantity worthy of the Paris Opera House or the New York Metropolitan. But it was neglected, attacked by vermin or simply discarded” revealed Fausto Viana, an USP researcher and the coordinator of the project Scenery Clothing: the Cataloging of Theatrical Costumes of the Municipal Theater of são paulo, financed by the Vitae Foundation, who carried out the cataloguing and the cleaning of the costumes of more than 60 operas.

There are rare findings such as costumes of an Aida made by hand, the costume worn by Renata Tebaldi in her passage through são paulo, the costumes created by Denner for the opera Lakmé by Delibes, is a treasure, all the costumes for the Balé do IV Centenário, idealized by Portinari, Di Cavalcanti, Burle Marx, Lasar Segall, among others. “And it’s important that costumes of historical value or style be preserved for research and not reused in a new theater production” affirmed researcher Viana, who emphasized that it was not her intention to “solidify” the theatrical archive, but only to protect the oldest costumes (those over 30 years) or those whose design or designer has museum like importance. Counting upon a team of 75 volunteers, without any onus on public coffers, the group has already organized 3,800 costumes, separated by opera, era and wardrobe manager. All of this work, nevertheless, is under threat of being lost. The Municipal Theater is transferring the catalogued costumes to an open shed at the Metro and as yet it has not been decided to donate the museum important pieces of the archive to the Municipal Theater’s Museum (which, amazingly, does not belong to the theater but to the Iconography and Museum Division).

“It would be fundamental to preserve this legacy so that it could serve as research material for posterity. Even more important would be the creation of a theater museum, not only with the costumes of the Municipal Theater, but bringing together the many archives of theatrical costumes and props spread over the country, fundamental so that the history of our stage can be guarded” she suggested. It does not appear difficult to evaluate the damaging consequences of re-using (and most certainly in the process making useless) anthological costumes only to dress a figure in a current production. In the end, of the theater that was founded to “civilize” são paulo very little remains today, as well as its history, there are the ghosts that they say haunt the theater and, in a more concrete manner, these costumes. The city merits them.