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Arias of Protest From Opera Fans

Grass-roots effort lobbies to reopen Barcelona's Liceu theater after fire

Every Saturday at noon, the puppeteers, mimes, and magicians performing outside the empty shell of Barcelona's famed opera house, the Liceu, encounter mighty stiff competition. Since fire gutted the Liceu on Jan. 31, 1994, major Spanish opera stars including tenor Jos Carreras have given free weekly concerts in the shadow of the theater's scorched remains.

Aside from providing a support group for opera-deprived fans, the concerts promote a grass-roots political agenda. They are protests, designed to pressure government officials to reopen the historic hall as soon as possible.

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"We're impatient," says Roger Alier, spokesman for the coalition of fan clubs that produces the concerts. "In 1861 a fire much like this destroyed the Liceu, but it only took one year to reopen."

Mr. Alier, turning away from the Liceu's faade as if it were a sight too painful to view, elaborated: "This renovation is a far more complex endeavor, but our people still feel quite frustrated."

Days after the 1994 fire (which, ironically, was set off by welders repairing a steel fire curtain behind the stage), many Barcelonans questioned whether the ornate five-tiered hall would ever be rebuilt. Rumors spread as fast as the flames that the Liceu might close or be moved from its perch on Las Ramblas, Barcelona's bustling tree-lined boulevard. And there was reason for concern: An insurance policy only covers a fraction of the estimated $80 million needed for the theater's resurrection.

The rumors spurred Liceu lovers into action. Less than a week after the fire, several booster clubs ranging from the Friends of Wagner to the Circle of Verdi Fans set aside their aesthetic differences to organize the first protest concert.

"Several hundred people turned out," recalls Fredrich Ses, master of ceremony at most shows. "We wanted to send a message to the politicians: The Liceu must be rebuilt where and how it was." Several government officials, including Liceu director Josep Caminal, publicly vowed to reconstruct the theater, but the protesters have returned week after week, rain or shine.

Why the fuss? Barcelonans consider the Liceu to be a symbol of national pride. Catalan pride. Barcelona is the capital of Catalonia, an autonomous community nestled between the Mediterranean Sea and the Pyrenees. Catalonian nationalism has waxed and waned since its 14th-century apex, achieving a great degree of home rule under the 1931-1936 Spanish Republic. But Francisco Franco's regime crushed the movement's renaissance.

"We weren't permitted to teach, publish, or [officially] speak our language. We couldn't fly our flag. But we always had the opera," says Alier. "The Liceu was built by subscription without any interference from Madrid. People who never went to the opera wept when the Liceu burned."

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Now, the mood in Barcelona has changed. The atmosphere at a recent curbside concert was anything but somber. By noon, most of the 300 spectators congregate between the graffiti-strewn construction fence blanketing the Liceu and an outdoor cafe brimming with tourists. The crowd - mainly in their 50s and 60s - looks as if it expects to sink into the Liceu's velvet-upholstered cast-iron seats rather than stand around in a brisk wind.

Many men wear fedoras, natty double-breasted suits, and just-shined shoes. Women are carefully coifed and decked out in jewels and long dresses. People exchange hearty handshakes and pecks on both cheeks.

At precisely half past noon, soprano Maria Angels Sarroca and her tuxedoed accompanist hop onto the "stage," a few wooden platforms normally used by caterers to elevate wedding bands. As soon as the electric keyboard revs up, the audience observes silence, oblivious to the din of passing car radios and jackhammers in mid-pummel.

Sarroca, a full-throated regular at the Liceu, deftly executes four Italian arias. The crowd erupts the moment she finishes. "Brava, brava," they shout, as bouquets of roses are presented to the beaming Sarroca.

According to Alier, the Liceu's management initially "didn't take us too seriously," an assertion disputed by Mr. Caminal in a telephone interview.

"While we were not responsible for its creation, we made it clear from the beginning that the Liceu completely supports this popular initiative." Caminal points out that Liceu staffers store the sound equipment used for the shows, and on stormy Saturdays they permit the concerts to be held on sheltered theater property. "We've only had rain on four or five occasions," notes Alier. "The opera gods must be listening."

Besides replicating the auditorium's lavish wood, gilt, and garnet interior, plans call for the Liceu to nearly triple in size.

The stage, formerly a miniature heirloom, is to be enlarged and modernized, allowing two separate productions to alternate on a daily basis. The installation of a communications center and computerized lighting system will facilitate live television broadcasts, previously a struggle. Even the foyers and faade that survived both fires will be refurbished. The most talked-about new feature: a state-of-the-art fire-prevention system.

The consortium of local government agencies that took over the Liceu 15 years ago established a foundation in August 1994 to coordinate the massive fund-raising campaign. The Catalan government as well as corporate giants like Canal Plus and Phillips have opened their coffers, but thousands of opera aficionados have chipped in too. More than 60 percent of subscribers refused to claim refunds for the lost 1994 season.

Alier, half-joking, suggested that a huge windfall could be realized by auctioning off the charred artifacts salvaged from the Liceu's embers.

"Everything is under guard," says Alier, with a wink. "But you can still buy burned souvenirs on the black market."

So far, the foundation reported collecting 11.5 billion pesetas ($79.3 million), which is within close reach of its goal. To bolster its efforts - and assuage restless fans - the Liceu is offering an abbreviated 1996-1997 season at two borrowed theaters. And this fall - if the seven-day-a-week restoration team keeps to schedule - the revived Liceu will be completed in time for its 150th anniversary.

Caminal says, "When this renovation is over, it will stand as a singular achievement, finished in record time ... and with amazing popular support, private capital, and public funding."

But until opera once again rises to the Liceu's rafters, the concerts on Las Ramblas continue undeterred.

"These concerts transport me back inside," says Marie Castella, who has attended every alfresco performance. "But I can't wait for my Liceu to reopen." And neither can the street performers.

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