San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

The House that Coffee Built

“IF you build it, they will come,”intoned Kevin Costner in the 1989 movie,“Field of Dreams.”Turn the clock back almost a century.San José’s National Theater had its roots inexactly the same sentiments.It stemmed from one Adelina Patti, anItalian-English opera diva regarded as themost renowned female vocalist of late 19thcentury. She turned down an invitation toperform in Costa Rica during an 1889world tour, citing lack of a suitable performancevenue to showcase her talents.It wasn’t entirely true that San José hadno theaters at that time, says AlfonsoSolano of the National Theater’s culturalpromotion department. Several make shiftperformance halls existed around townduring the mid-1800s, the nicest of which– though nowhere near as elaborate astoday’s structure – was the MunicipalTheater. Earthquake damage necessitatedits demolition in 1888.COFFEE barons made the decision toconstruct a national arts house, the likes ofwhich Latin America had never beforeseen. Ground broke in 1890. Architectsmodeled plans on the Théatre Comique inParis, with sandstone exterior andItalianate arched windows and marblecolumns.Construction was financed partly bythe state and supplemented by a 20-céntimotax on each 100 pounds of coffeeexported. A total of ¢2 million (just over$900,000 at late-1800s exchange rates)was raised.“The exact amount was always asecret,” explains architect William Monge,adding the government was reluctant todivulge how much it spent on a project fora city of scarcely 20,000 people at the time.Monge is doing a retrospective study toestimate the cost in 1890s terms. Theinventory today of building and furnishingsis valued at $10 million.AFTER seven years of anticipation,President Rafael Yglesias (1894-1902)dedicated the theater on Oct. 21, 1897.Opening night saw a production by theFrench Opera Company of composerCharles Gounod’s “Faust.”The arts in Costa Rica had finally comeinto their own.“What a boon for Costa Rica,” Solanosays. “A country with no real roads orhighways finally had such a theater.”The building was also fully equippedfor electricity – a rarity in the world at thattime – and was served by the capital’ssmall electric plant that stood where theSocial Security (Caja) building standstoday.“Antiquated electricity,” Monge says,“but electricity nonetheless.”THE theater was the scene of balls anddances during the first half of the 20th century,according to Solano. An annual president’sball took place each Sept. 15 to celebrateIndependence Day, and the aristocracyfrequently rented out the building fordebutante parties. That practice ended inthe 1940s, but the theater is still the site offormal government receptions on specialoccasions.The most famous of the theater’s elaboratefrescoes is Italian painter AleardoVilla’s ceiling mural, Alegoría del Café yBanano (Allegory of Coffee andBananas), depicting a harvest of the country’stwo signature crops. The same scenealso illustrates Costa Rica’s old ¢5 note,and you might find a vendor outside onthe Plaza de la Cultura selling the bill as asouvenir.THE National Theater building itself isopen Mon.-Sat., 9 a.m.-4 p.m. To getbeyond the lobby and the gift shop duringthe day, admission is $3 and includes aguided tour in English, Spanish or French.A couple of the guides are presently studyingLESCO, Costa Rican sign language,and plan to be equipped to sign tours by theend of the year.Or stop in for a bite at the Café delTeatro Nacional, to the left of the lobby asyou walk in. Sandwiches, cakes and coffeemake up the fare – it’s a pretty standardlight, upscale-café menu – but no restaurantin Costa Rica is quite so baroque in itsdécor. Frescoes on the ceiling depict seminudefigures celebrating the theater’s grandopening in 1897. The café keeps the samehours as the theater itself, but is open untilcurtain time on performance nights, andagain at intermission.Or, now that the cultural season is infull swing again – the theater is dark duringschool vacations from mid-Decemberthrough late January – attend a performance.Tickets start at $4 and rarelyexceed $50. Where else can you see showsof world-class symphony, dance and operafor such prices? And if you’re willing to sitin the cheaper, less comfortable, obstructed-view seats in the upper balcony – derisivelycalled the gallinero (chicken coop)in the early days – you can really do a performanceon the cheap. (As was commonpractice in theaters built at that time, theseupper-level seats have their own separateentrance off on the building’s north side.)The ticket office in the theater lobby(221-1329) sells tickets and can let youknow about upcoming performances. Andcheck the Calendar pages in the Weekendsection of The Tico Times for a listing ofwhat’s going on.

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