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  • Writer's pictureSonia Cuesta Maniar, PhD

A Brief History of Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona

What is Gran Teatre del Liceu?

The Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, commonly known as simply El Liceu, is one of Europe’s leading opera houses, built in the mid-19th century.

The Gran Teatre del Liceu is one of Europe’s most renowned opera houses. Despite a turbulent past, in which it has fallen victim to two fires and a terrorist attack, the Liceu prevails. It has hosted performances by some of the world's greatest singers of the last century, including Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo, and homegrown Catalan Montserrat Caballé.

Gran Teatre del Liceu

Gran Teatre del Liceu History

The history of the Liceu began in 1837 when the National Militia, a pro-liberalism paramilitary organisation, formed the Liceu Filo-dramático de Montesión as a society of music and theatre enthusiasts, devoted to the teaching and learning of the performing arts. Initially, the association met weekly in a disused Dominican monastery. However, the immediate success of the Liceu and dramatic increase of its membership encouraged the group to build an opera house they could use as their permanent base. They deliberately refused to accept any royal support for the project. Instead, they financed the costs of the building through the donations of their members and shareholders – in most cases, well-off Catalan families. In exchange for their financial contribution, shareholders received the right to use 50% of the box seats in perpetuity.

The Liceu was built in the 1840s according to the designs of architects Miquel Garriga i Roca and Josep Oriol Mestres. The pair created a cutting-edge Neoclassical theatre that could seat an audience of up to 3,500 people, making it the largest European opera house of its time. The auditorium, inspired by Milan's Teatro Alla Scala, was laid out in the shape of a horseshoe. The stalls, built across five levels surrounding the central stage, allowed viewers to sit comfortably.

However, the Liceu's upward trajectory was abruptly halted in April 1861, when a fire broke out in the tailors' workshop and destroyed the hall and the main stage. Devastated, the shareholders unanimously decided to rebuild the Liceu by splitting the costs. Their act of firm resolve and solidarity won them widespread admiration across Barcelona’s cultured classes. Architect Josep Oriol Mestres was able to rebuild the theatre in only a year; once again, as a testament to their togetherness, the Liceu did not have to seek funding from the royal family.

Over time, however, the Liceu's reputation became increasingly associated with the the aristocracy and upper-middle class. The permanent control of most seats by its shareholders fundamentally divided the opera's crowd by class. Indeed, upper classes would sit in the levels closest to the stage, while the bourgeoisie met on the upper floors, and the working class were relegated to the fifth floor. Such stratification according to class, especially the unsatisfactory accommodation of poorer audience members, created a fracture amongst the Liceu's audience. Tensions came to a head in November 1893, when anarchist Santiago Salvador tossed two bombs into the lower stalls during the season's opening performance. The attack killed 20 people and left dozens injured. In a bid to democratise the Liceu and alleviate what had become a heavy financial burden, the theatre eventually handed over ownership to the city council in the 1970s.

In a cruel turn of events, a second fire in 1994 once more reduced the theatre to ashes when a spark from a welder’s blowtorch set the stage alight. Again, the board of the theatre agreed to rebuild the structure completely, which had become a symbol of Barcelona. The fire had an extraordinary social impact on Catalan society: audiences continued to attend concerts amongst the ruins to show their continued support for the Liceu. The theatre reopened in 1999 and now boasts nearly 2,300 seats across six storeys. During the works on the Liceu, the building was renovated and improved, maintaining all the while its original decoration and style.

In its long lifetime the Gran Teatre del Liceu has lived several lives. The opera house has gained great cultural significance in Barcelona as a symbol of resilience and solidarity. Today, the theatre continues to open its doors to promote and showcase the artistic talent of many musicians and creators across Catalonia and beyond.

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