Guided visit to the Colón Opera House in Buenos Aires

What do vanilla wafers and Teatro Colón have in common?

Opera!

Teatro Colón seen from 9 de Julio Avenue
Teatro Colón seen from 9 de Julio Avenue

Teatro Colón is Argentina’s leading opera house, opened in 1908. Opera is also a popular brand of vanilla wafers made by a company called Bagley. They were launched in 1906 under a different name but the manufacturer decided to change it to Opera to honor the magnificent new opera house. Both have delighted generations of Argentineans to this day.

My mother and I took three of my nieces on a guided visit of “el Colón,” as it’s affectionately known. Our guide, Javier, was a delight. The tour started at the main entrance hall, on Libertad Street. This is where the other half makes a grand entrance. The more humble ticket holders go in through the Tucumán and Viamonte side entrances. It’s been this way ever since the opera house was opened in 1908.

Main entrance hall
Main entrance hall

The main focal point of the hall, the grand Carrara marble staircase, symbolizes the link between the mundane and the world of the arts. The columns that support the ceiling are covered in different kinds of marble: red from Verona, yellow from Siena and pink from Portugal. The stained glass window is from Paris. The building, eclectic in style, was inspired by the great opera houses of Europe.

We mounted the stairs, worthy of the scene where Cinderella loses her crystal slipper, towards the Hall of Busts. Theatre-goers use this area during the intermission to stretch their legs, have drinks, chat, while Bizet, Beethoven, Rossini, Gounod, Mozart, Bellini, Verdi and Wagner look down from high up.

Classical composers keeping an eye on the public
Classical composers keeping an eye on the public in the Hall of Busts

Javier told us that, in the past, the season was very short; it lasted for the winter only. The reason was that only time the European companies were able to travel to South America was during their summer. When the season finished, the Teatro Colón was closed until the following year. All this changed in 1920, when the Colón’s orchestra and ballet company were created and the season lasted from March to December. However, the Teatro Colón hosted a number of internationally renowned artists like Luciano Pavarotti, Igor Stravinsky or Maya Plisetskaya.

The lavish Golden Room sparkles, glitters and glimmers. Every surface is covered with gold leaf, gold dust paint and big mirrors. The floor is Slavonian oak. Thanks to the restoration undertaken between 2001 and 2010, the name of the artist that painted the linen ceiling was discovered. It was a Monsieur Romieu, forgotten or unknown for decades. The Golden Room is used for master classes, auditions and more intimate concerts.

All that glitters is gold
All that glitters is gold

We then moved on to the splendid concert hall. Our guide asked us to be very quiet. There was an audition going on and we didn’t want to disturb the candidates. We silently filed into one of the boxes, sat down and enjoyed part the audition. It felt like a privilege.

We were in an official box used by various authorities on special occasions. The President and the Mayor have their own boxes at either side of the stage, in a location called avant-scène. In the past, the widows could not be seen in public, so if they wanted to enjoy the ballet or the opera, they had to sit behind black railings inside enclosed boxes. Of course, widowers had carte blanche to have a merry old time.

Concert hall
A candidate belting out during the audition. The widows’ boxes can be barely seen in the bottom right-hand corner.

The hall can seat up to 2,400 people. 300 more people can stand in the upper levels. Its horseshoe shape and open boxes mean that the sound can travel freely, making for almost perfect acoustics. The giant chandelier weighs a ton, literally. The renowned Argentinean artist Raúl Soldi painted the inside of the dome. There is a narrow corridor around the dome, well hidden from view, where musicians and singers can create special effects, like a chorus of angels coming from above. I wouldn’t be able to climb up there, let alone carry an instrument!

And for good measure, an old Opera commercial. I shouldn’t say old because I can remember watching it! The quality isn’t very good, I’m afraid, but the sentimental value is there.

Go to Teatro Colón website for more information.

Barrancas de Belgrano park in Buenos Aires

Plaza Barrancas de Belgrano is a leafy public park located in the eponymous neighbourhood of Buenos Aires. Its downward slope (barranca) towards the river gave it its name and makes it unique in the city. Or rather, it slopes down to where the river Plate used to be before the wetlands were dredged and filled in.

The park was designed by French architect Charles Thays in 1892, who also designed  the Botanical Gardens, among others, and is located in a quite posh and tony area.

Let’s take a stroll together.

Barrancas de Belgrano07
The land belonged to Dr. Valentin Alsina (1802-1869,) an Argentinean lawyer and politician. His house (photo) was built in 1856 in the Italianate style popular at the time and nowadays is dwarfed by modern tall apartment buildings. It now houses a foundation.

 

Ombu
This massive ombu is one of the park features. This evergreen tree (Phytolacca dioica) is native to the Pampas and is a symbol of Argentina, Uruguay and the gaucho culture.

 

Pergola
This band stand was built in time for the Centenary celebrations (1910.) Nowadays, a group of musicians organize milongas (tango dances) every evening and everyone is welcome to join.

 

A view of the slope that gives the park its name.
A view of the slope that gives the park its name.

 

Workers at lunch in the park
Workers at lunch in the park

 

This historic construction (1905) was once the park keeper's residence. In 2011 it was repurpused into a children's lending library called La Reina Batata after a nursery rhyme by singer, author and songwriter Maria Elena Walsh. Her music and books have influenced generations of Argentineans, including me.
This historic construction (1905) was once the park keeper’s residence. In 2011 it was purposed as a children’s lending library called La Reina Batata after a nursery rhyme by singer, author and songwriter Maria Elena Walsh. Her music and books have influenced generations of Argentineans, myself included.

 

One of the many paths that crisscross Plaza Barrancas
One of the many paths that crisscross Plaza Barrancas

 

Beautiful terrace overlooking the park
Beautiful terrace overlooking the park

Interesting things to do for free in Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires offers many interesting cultural activities to do for free. Here are only a handful of them.

Free concerts

You can catch these concerts while you’re out and about.

Live music, mainly tango and contemporary, at the Carlos Morel Hall at Teatro San Martin. Fridays and Saturdays at 7. Avenida Corrientes 1530.

Music at midday at the Carlos Morel Hall at Teatro San Martin (recordings). Tuesdays through Fridays from 1 to 2 pm. Avenida Corrientes 1530.

Midday live music at Teatro Gran Rex. Every weekday at 1 pm. Avenida Corrientes 857.

Museums

Some museums take a couple of hours of your time and some, maybe half.

Museo del Bicentenario. Avenida Paseo Colon 100 (just behind the Government House). Winter hours (March 21 to September 20) 10 am to 6 pm. Summer hours (September 21 to March 20) 11 am to 7 pm.  The museum is housed in the remains of the old Buenos Aires Fort from the 18th century and the Customs Building –known as Aduana Taylor- built in 1855. Both buildings have played a crucial role in our history. The museum covers the last two centuries of Argentinean political history.

Remains of the Fort of Buenos Aires at Museo del Bicentenario

Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. Avenida del Libertador 1473. Tuesdays through Fridays 12.30 am to 8.30 pm, Saturdays and Sundays 9.30 am to 8.30 pm, closes on Mondays. It’s the most important art museum in the country. Its permanent collection comprises works from Antiquity, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, modern art, Argentinean art and much more.

Biblioteca Nacional (National Library). Agüero 2502. Mondays through Fridays from 9 am to 9 pm, Saturdays and Sundays from 12 am to 7 pm. The Sala del Tesoro (where rare books, etc can be seen) is open Mondays through Fridays from 10 am to 6 pm. A wealth of Argentinean and world culture and literature is housed here.

Museo del Libro y de la Lengua (The Book and Language Museum) Avenida Las Heras 2555.  Tuesdays through Sundays from 2 pm to 7 pm.   This museum is devoted to the variation of Spanish language spoken in Argentina.

Recoleta Cemetery. Junin 1760. This historic cemetery is like an open-air history and art museum.

Museo del Agua y la Historia Sanitaria (Sanitation Museum) Riobamba 750. Monday through Friday from 9 to 1.  The collection consists of terracotta ornaments, pipes, meters, taps, historic documents like a bill dating from 1915 for emptying a cart with sewage and toilets!

Check out the free guided tours around the city organized every month by the local council here (in English).

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