miércoles, enero 07, 2009

The Colón disaster

In the first half of 2008 I wrote several articles about the Colón situation. The last was called "The Colón´s sad centenary" and was written late in June. Long months elapsed as the paralysis went on. I will now synthesize five main subjects: the so-called 2008 "season"; the internal chaos; the building´s restoration; the Autarchy Law; and the plans for 2009.

A) The "season". There was one really positive thing: the Buenos Aires Philharmonic under the aegis of Arturo Diemecke gave us a good panorama of symphonic music and it accomplished the feat of maintaining its original programming both in the artists it presented and in the varied list of worthwhile scores it played at the Coliseo and the Ópera.

There´s another positive fact; the Institute of Art managed to offer at the Teatro 25 de Mayo a praiseworthy presentation of Purcell´s "The Fairy Queen" with students led by Jeffrey Gall.

Nothing else was unblemished, apart from the "original sin" of the year: no opera season. Small chamber operas don´t begin to compensate for the loss of the big ones, although they can be an agreeable complement; but the year of the Colón Chamber Opera was very poor in quantity and quality. The Center for Experimentation (CETC) had just one bright moment: Marta Lambertini´s "¡Cenicientaaaa!". The Chorus spent long weeks inactive, and similarly the Colón Orchestra, whose conductor Carlos Vieu resigned with a strong letter of solidarity with the organism mentioning a list of working conditions that hadn´t been met by the authorities. Sporadic valuable concerts (Decker, Corboz) don´t make a year.

The Ballet had a sad time; a first half under Guido De Benedetti was marked by dire shortages (no money available for slippers or for a dancing floor needed to level rough spots) and wholesale eliminations of programmed pieces. After fighting with Executive Director Martín Boschet, De Benedetti was replaced by a team made up of Olga Ferri and Jorge Amarante. Their luck wasn´t much better and after several mishaps the year was topped by the cancellation of all activities (not just the Ballet) in December due to an administrative snafu.

Uneven chamber concerts at unrepresentative venues in the Capital ( I single out something positive though hardly characteristic of a lyric theatre, a Franck series of organ music in various churches), a much heralded but to my mind unconvincing "federal Colón" (a "Traviata" in San Luis and some other things in the provinces), a total lack of activity at the "Salón Dorado" after the wrong-headed concert on May 25 although the hall was workable (ditto for the CETC´s theoretically restored premises), complete the lopsidedly grim panorama of what was the centenary year of the great institution.

B) The internal chaos. Boschet was planted at the Colón as far back as May 2007; he was the PRO´s confidence man and one of the factors in Ignacio Liprandi´s downfall as prospective Minister of Culture. When Horacio Sanguinetti, already in trouble due to rash statements to the press, took charge as Director General in December 2007, he had to accept the presence of Boschet as Executive Director (he shouldn´t have). From then on, there was a most unhealthy double command. In the traditional and time-proved organizational matrix, the Colón had a General Director, an Artistic Director, and Directors handling the Administrative and the Technical sides. The General Director had veto power and was the last instance; and he depended in the chain of command from the Culture Secretary (now Minister). In the current Colón crazy scheme, there were two Co-Directors and no Artistic Director, and Sanguinetti depended on Chief of Government Mauricio Macri himself, not on Hernán Lombardi (Minister of Culture) or on his Secretary of Cultural Management ("Gestión Cultural"), Pablo Batalla. Good riddance, you might think, for the idea of a dependence on Batalla, a notoriously controversial ex Executive Director of the Colón who shouldn´t have have had a post in Macri´s Cultural scheme, was certainly worrying. But in fact Macri, his Vice Chief Gabriela Michetti and his Cabinet Chief Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, supervising .Sanguinetti and/or Boschet, proved that none of this quintet understood the way a great lyric theatre functioned, and the whole year become a comedy of errors with the exceptions above mentioned (delegation on capable people like Diemecke and the Institute´s Director Ana Massone certainly was a good thing).

Now and then, out of the murky internal panorama, some matters became unavoidably public: the resignations around June-July of Vieu, De Benedetti and Irene Amerio (who held the important role of Director of Studies, the person who coordinates the artistic affairs of the theatre), the complaints published in the press, the very poor repercussion of the centenary´s celebrations, the cumulative anguish and rage of the employees, the lack of clarity in all communications and its effect on public opinion. The constant difficulties provoked by a completely dispersed Colón rehearsing or working in uncomfortable or inadequate buildings, the cancelled performances, the public statements of such beloved conductors as Daniel Barenboim and Franz-Paul Decker deploring the current state of the Colón. And two matters that kept on being delayed week after week and were both crucial: the whole sorry affair of the old and the new Master Plans and the ugly manipulations surrounding the project of the Autarchy Law, undergoing constant reworkings.

C) The building´s restoration. Chief of Government Mauricio Macri was informed of the characteristics and advancement of the Master Plan (MP) as early as May-June 2007. When he won the elections he had a crucial interview with the then Chief Jorge Telerman, who along with the Minister of Culture Silvia Fajre had always promoted the MP. It transpired that Macri had asked Telerman to cut down the heavy City deficit in the long six-month transition until Macri took over in December, and newspapers informed that restorations in progress wouldn´t be affected, but it turned out to be untrue. Indeed, from July on work at the Colón was progressively paralyzed. When Macri denounced in February 2008 the stopping of the reforms he was being disingenuous. Apart from matters of finance, there had been strong attacks on the modifications and telltale photographs were published; some of the worse aspects were avoided through the resolute action of people such as the patrimony specialist Fabio Grementieri or the Colón photographer and ATE labor leader Máximo Parpagnoli. But Macri confirmed Architect Sonia Terreno as Director of the MP and decided not to investigate. Things got much more complicated. Macri decided to change “supervisor” and switched control of the MP from the Ministry of Culture to the Ministry of Urban Development (“Desarrollo Urbano”), which meant an executional delay of several months. But he also decided to call a bid for the management of the MP; this was won in June 2008 by SYASA (Seminario and Sons); the terms of the bid call for severe sanctions if the main work isn´t finished by December 2009. But SYASA couldn´t control a basic factor: the interruptions during the second half of 2007 had left the City with a big debt owed to the main Spanish concerns that had won the bids years ago , San José and Dycasa. It took until late September 2008 to reach an agreement and liberate the funds allowing the work to resume. Which it did, though rather slowly. Further complications: not content with having the MP controlled by SYASA, the Ministry for Urban Affairs invented an Unidad de Proyectos Especiales (UPE) to control SYASA! But Minister Daniel Chaín still said that the Ministry didn´t decide what had to be done, that supposedly it was the Colón´s authorities that provided the requirements. And Executive Director Martín Boschet presented a plan to SYASA that put heavy emphasis on VIP venues, gift shops and tea rooms whilst neglecting spaces for production. When published by La Nación, it was promptly disclaimed by Chaín and Colón General Director Horacio Sanguinetti, both insisting that the Colón´s traditional vocation wouldn´t be altered. But many employees thought otherwise and believed that there were signs of a drastic orientation change toward a multiuse Colón with much less integrated production and reduced personnel. At the present time we still don´t know (and neither does the Legislature) exactly what plan has been accepted and is being put into execution by SYASA and the MP. Damage control is being tried through an ad-honorem Commission of Notables, two from the Colón (Roberto Oswald and Mario Perusso) and two from cultural life (Architect Alberto Bellucci, Director of the Museum of Applied Arts, and Gisela Timmermann, Executive Director of the Mozarteum Argentino); the names are irreproachable and one hopes they will be able to put some order in this mess. On the other hand, an internal commission named by Sanguinetti and integrated by technicians of the theatre has had no chance to act and they have even been forbidden to enter the Colón by the Ministry! In fact, the annual holidays have arrived for the Colón´s personnel, so the problem will be when they come back in the middle of February; theoretically they should be assigned to different buildings all over the capital but won´t be allowed to work at the Colón itself, wholly taken over by SYASA and the MP. And there are denunciations that no inventories have been made and that patrimony may disappear. D) After half a dozen versions and endless controversy , the Autarchy Law so urgently demanded by Sanguinetti finally passed, when a definitive text incorporated a Board of Directors of five members instead of the twin Directors we had during most of 2008. This change convinced the leading members of the Frente para la Victoria (“Kirchnerista”) and the Coalición Cívica (Carrió) to vote with PRO , whilst others protested to no avail (Patricia Walsh, Néstor Ibarra, etc.) against what they felt were gross mistakes; the law passed with a big majority. Among many other dangerous or wrong dispositions I single out: a) The five-member Board, which surely dilutes authority; b) The Board lasts as long as the Chief of Government (this is autarchy??); c) Many windows are opened to let the Colón drift out of its main vocation; d) The Law only insures that salaries will be paid by the City, but all the rest must be obtained by the Colón: it will be reduced to a second-rate theatre, for in this devalued country only the Government can dispose of enough money to pay for the international artists and productions that make a great opera house. Just one good point: the elimination of the so-called “cuenta única” that didn´t allow multi-year contracts. E) The future. A silly scandal allowed Sanguinetti to get rid of Boschet, for it was exposed in La Nación that the latter had allowed the celebration of the centenary of Converse, the brand of sport footwear, at the CETC (Center for Experimentation) featuring one of the Ramones, a famous punk rock band. There have been flagrant attacks against the Colón´s vocation in earlier years (the A.N.I.M.A.L. rock group, Cerati, etc.) but somehow this struck a public nerve and Macri allowed Sanguinetti to drop Boschet. Anyway it was for a short time, due to the new Board of Directors allowed by the Autarchy Law; but when the members were known, it came out that one is a labor lawyer and two are accountants; hardly people “with a known trajectory in the arts” as is specified in the Law… The first member is of course Sanguinetti, and the fifth is supposed to be a technician of the Colón, but an internal election had no quorum, so there are four named directors, not the required five. Finally Sanguinetti decided to present a restricted opera season in 2009 at the Coliseo, the same theatre that he had discarded in 2008; he now says that the financial conditions of the agreement are much more reasonable. Five operatic titles is certainly little, but at least there is a season. The biggest event will be Wagner´s “Parsifal”. Two rather small operas will hardly take advantage of the Coliseo´s big pit: Mozart´s “The Abduction from the Seraglio” and Gluck´s “Orfeo ed Euridice”. A standard Verdi, “Rigoletto”. And a double bill with Dallapiccola´s “Volo di Notte” and Puccini´s “Suor Angelica”. No details about singers yet. Various rumors have circulated about replacing Sanguinetti, even mentioning Plácido Domingo, but the Colón is in such a parlous condition that the 2009 season will surely be a thankless task for whoever holds the helm. Time will tell.

For Buenos Aires Herald

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