The Gran Teatre del Liceu dates back to 1837, when at the instigation of Manuel Gibert, a battalion of the National Militia formed the institutional core of the future Teatre in the unused monastery of Montsió (currently Portal del Ángel): a dramatic society of aficionados devoted to the performing arts. The first show premiered on 21 August 1837: El marido de mi mujer, by Ventura de la Vega, a dance number and a skit.
In 1838, the partners decided to take the project one step further and add a teaching orientation aimed at competing with the María Cristina Music and Declamation Conservatory in Madrid; thus the Liceo Filarmónico Dramático Barcelonés (Barcelona Dramatic and Philharmonic Lyceum) came into being to promote the teaching of theatre and music. That same year, the obtained permission to add the name of Queen Isabel II: Liceo Filarmónico Dramático Barcelonés de S. M. la Reina Isabel II. The Liceu was formed by its shareholders, contributors or subscribers to its theatrical seasons and its academic students, who received their education in exchange for offering free stage performances. In 1844, the partner of Joaquim de Gispert i d’Anglí was entrusted with finding a new location to construct a building that would house a teaching professorship and a theatre and to devise the project’s financing formula. The space that he chose was the former monastery of Los Trinitarios, on the Rambla. The building was formally purchased on 9 June 1844 under very favourable financial conditions for the Liceu.
The financing was completed with the creation of two companies: the Sociedad de Construcción (Construction Society), formed by the same Liceo Filarmónico, and the shareholders of well-off families, who received the right to use of 50 % of the box seats and armchairs in perpetuity in exchange for their financial contributions.
As the solution initially provided was insufficient from the economic point of view, a new Sociedad Auxiliar de Construcción (Auxiliary Construction Society) was created to raise the rest of the money in exchange for ownership of other spaces of the building, where shops or the private club Cercle del Liceu were set up. Unlike other European cities, where monarchs had actively participated in the construction of the great opera houses, the Liceu was built from private
contributions, which meant that an important part of the Teatre was owned by just a few families.
The first Liceu (1847-1861)
The first stone of the new Teatre was laid in April 1845. The architect Miquel Garriga was in charge of the construction and directed the works until 1846, when he was replaced by Josep Oriol Mestres. On 4 April 1847, Easter Sunday, the Teatre opened with a large splash. The programme included a symphony by Joan Melcior Gomis, the play Don Fernando el de Antequera by Ventura de la Vega, an Andalusian dance entitled La Rondeña (by Josep Jurch, choreographed by Joan Camprubí) and a cantata in Italian by Joan Cortada with music by Marià Obiols entitled Il regio imene. The first opera, Anna Bolena, came a few days later, on 17 April. The new Teatre had the largest capacity in Europe, seating an audience of up to 3,500, and the stage was equipped with the most modern facilities and technology at the time.
Since it first opened, the Gran Teatre del Liceu and the Teatre Principal were constant rivals. This rivalry focused on getting the best programming, on being the first to put on the most successful shows and on hiring the best singers. Until the late 19th century, the Teatre Principal remained on top, but from that point on, the wealthier and more innovative Liceu became the city’s main theatre. The rivalries between the audiences of the Gran Teatre del Liceu and the Teatre Principal, the liceístas and the cruzados, as they were respectively known, occasionally led to disturbances, since beyond the artistic conflict there was a confrontation between two ways of understanding the bourgeoisie and civic power.
It soon became clear that the Liceu was not earning the expected profits, which was one of the factors straining the relationship between the owners of the seats and the Liceo Filarmónico (currently the Conservatori Superior de Música del Liceu), so in 1854 it was agreed to separate both entities. On 31 December 1854, Regulations were issued for the rules and governance of the Societat del Gran Teatre del Liceu. The direction, ownership and governance of the Teatre depend exclusively on the shareholders, which henceforth would be called the Societat del Gran Teatre del Liceu.
The Societat del Gran Teatre del Liceu never ran the Teatre directly, as it was the Governing Board that was responsible for choosing the “function companies” that leased it for seasons. These entrepreneurs promised to provide a certain number of functions and managed the season’s schedule. The function companies were also responsible for the orchestra, the attrezzo and the costumes, as well as the costs of supplying the building. It was also required to grant a part of the scenery to the Societat. In return, it received the proceeds from the sale of seats that did not belong to the Societat.
The first theatre only lasted 14 years: on 9 April 1861, a fire that broke out in the tailor’s shop spread rapidly and completely destroyed the hall and the stage. The theatre was in ruins and the owners unanimously decided to rebuild it by sharing the costs among all the shareholders and people with interests in the Teatre. Barcelona won widespread admiration, since the theatre was rebuilt in a year, under the guidance of the architect Josep Oriol Mestres, once again without funding from the Spanish royal family.
The second Liceu (1861-1994)
The Liceu reopened its doors in April 1862 with the opera I puritani, preceded by a symphonic piece, Las dos lápidas, by Joan Sariols i Porta (the winning composition for the contest organised for the opening of the new Teatre).
The Liceu’s audience was very diverse. The box seats and stalls were occupied by major bourgeois families and the local aristocracy, with the social composition changing the higher up one was seated. Music fans and members of the petite bourgeoisie met on the upper floors and the working class sat on the fifth floor. However, the Liceu had always identified with the bourgeoisie. In addition to its role as a performance hall, it was a meeting place for festivities, with masked balls, for showing off wealth and for concluding business deals and marriages. The fact that the Liceu became a symbol of the oligarchy placed it in the sights of the revolutionary proletariat, which in the late 19th century was strongly influenced by Italian anarchist trends that used direct action or “propaganda by the deed” as a means of struggle against the ruling classes. On 7 November 1893, during the opening performance of the season, in the second act of Guillaume Tell, the anarchist Santiago Salvador tossed two Orsini bombs into the stalls. Only one exploded, killing 20 people and causing a large number of injuries. After that day, the Liceu closed its doors and did not resume its artistic activity until 18 January 1894, with a series of concerts directed by the maestro Antoni Nicolau. The attack cast a climate of fear over the bourgeoisie and the box seats and stalls would take time to fill up as before.
The Teatre remained in the hands of the Societat del Gran Teatre del Liceu until the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, when the Teatre was nationalised by the Government of Catalonia. This nationalisation was specified in the Decree of 07/27/1936 by which the Liceu was renamed Teatre Nacional de Catalunya (National Theatre of Catalonia). Three days later, at the basement of the Cercle del Liceu, the Government of Catalonia’s Commissioner for Spectacles was set up, and on 5 August 1936, an appendix to the decree was drafted and the Cercle del Liceu and the Conservatory were also nationalised.
The Franco regime restored ownership of the Teatre to the owners’ society and in April 1939 Joan Mestres Calvet resumed artistic activity and began organising the 1939/40 winter season. On 9 December 1939, the opera season opened with Goyescas by Enrique Granados.
By the late 1970s, the financing system was completely obsolete compared to the great opera houses of Europe. After the death of the last businessman, Joan Antoni Pàmias, in 1980, the Catalan authorities become aware of the historical and cultural value of the institution, and on 11 December the Government of Catalonia issue a decree of creating a consortium, the Consorci del Gran Teatre del Liceu. At first the Consorci consisted of the Government of Catalonia, Barcelona City Council and the Societat del Gran Teatre del Liceu, but it was later joined by Barcelona Provincial Council and the Ministry of Culture. Despite the creation of the Consorci and the start of public funding, the Teatre’s financial deficits could not be corrected.
The constitution of the Consorci stipulated that the public authorities directly manage the Teatre. The Consorci appointed those responsible for managing and programming the Liceu, who at first were Lluís Portabella (supervisor of Pro-Música) as manager and Lluís Maria Andreu as administrator and artistic director. Despite the increase in funding from public administrations, the deficit continued to grow, reaching alarming proportions.
Fire and reconstruction
The fire of 31 January 1994 caused a profound emotional impact and a firm and cohesive civic response. On the same day of the fire, the Consorci’s Board of Trustees unanimously agreed to rebuild the Liceu on the same site. The project was entrusted to the architect Ignasi de Solà-Morales and was joined by Xavier Fabré and Lluís Dilmé.
As work to rebuild the Teatre began, the Consorci decided not to stop its artistic programming with the conviction that the Liceu was not just the building, but consisted of its audience most of all, as well as the art that was made in it. The artistic activity would be held in other important venues of the city: the Palau de la Música Catalana, the Teatre Victòria, the Mercat de les Flors, the Teatre Nacional de Catalunya, the Palau Sant Jordi and others.
In order to rebuild, improve and expand the emblematic building, a new legal approach to its public ownership was necessary, and on 5 September 1994, the Fundació del Gran Teatre del Liceu was established in a solemn event in the Hall of Mirrors. On the same day, a document was signed transferring ownership from the Societat del Gran Teatre del Liceu to public authorities.
The Patronage Council was constituted on 1 February 1995 for the purpose of stimulating private financing for the reconstruction of the Teatre and guaranteeing permanent business support for the Liceu’s activities.
The third theatre
The new Teatre opened on 7 October 1999 with a performance of Turandot, under the scenic direction of Núria Espert, in a new building whose appearance was faithful to the previous one but was endowed with advanced technical infrastructure.
The Liceu was reborn as a cultural project for society as a whole. The new theatre opens its doors as a public venue and, as such, aims to produce aesthetically ambitious art that reaches as many people as possible and helps to multiply the artistic opportunities of the country’s musicians and creators.
Joan Matabosch was the artistic director of the new theatre until 2014. During the years that he was in charge, he showed great interest in not repeating values (titles, productions, singers) that were already established and tried to innovate with approaches that stimulated the identity of the opera with living art in constant transformation.
In June 2014, Christina Scheppelmann became the Teatre’s artistic director. For five years, she was the architect of balanced, innovative and high-quality artistic seasons, hiring great voices and striving to bring opera to children and young people. As of the 2019/20 season, Víctor Garcia de Gomar is the Teatre’s newest artistic director.
Since the reconstruction, the musical directors have included Bertrand de Billy (1999-2004), Sebastian Weigle (2004-2008), Michael Boder (2008-2012) and, since September 2012, Josep Pons.