The Tapia is the oldest permanent theater in Puerto Rico. Construction was completed and the building inaugurated in 1832. During the 19th century and the early 20th century, it was known as the “Municipal Theater” or “Coliseum.” It is located in Old San Juan on Fortaleza Street in front of Plaza Colón, at the entrance to the islet. The structure was designed by engineer José Navarro y Herrero. Its architecture represents the neo-classical style that became popular in the middle of the 18th century and reigned through the middle of the 19th century. It aspired to the norms and tastes of the classic Greco-Latin style. A great number of operas, plays, operettas, ballets and a variety of concerts have been presented in this theater.
In 1824, responding to the lack of an adequate site on the islet of San Juan for presenting theatrical works, Governor Miguel de la Torre asked the city council to approve the construction of a public theater. With the approval of city hall and the church – which did not object to the construction of a theater because it was agreed that the earnings would be used to found the Diocese Council Seminary – construction began the same year and lasted for eight years. To pay for the project, the tax on a pound of bread was raised by a fourth and taxes on most alcoholic beverages were increased. The final cost of the construction was approximately 155,000 pesos.
By about 1830, the central nave of the theater had been built and was used for holding official dances, and in 1832 the construction of the building was completed. The façade presented neo-classical style architectural features and the interior, which was in the shape of a horseshoe, had box seats and an orchestra pit, as well as a ballroom for dancing. The interior was decorated by well known Spanish romantic painter Jenaro Pérez Villamil. The stage curtains and machinery were imported from Europe. The capacity was about 600 people.
In 1832, the Coliseum was inaugurated with a concert by English tenor William Pearman and his wife. That first season was characterized by presentations of concerts and works by foreign theater companies, which relied on the sponsorship of local and foreign businessmen. Among the shows that took to the stage during this period were Blanca y Montcasin (tragedy, 1833), Nueva invención (an Italian work, 1833), La mancha de sangre, (play, 1844) and El Olimpo (an Italian operetta, 1848).
It was not until the 1850s, with the rise of Puerto Rican opera, that a work written by a Puerto Rican author took the stage. The first was Guarionex, by Puerto Rican composer Felipe Gutiérrez, a work based on the novel La palma del cacique, by Puerto Rican writer Alejandro Tapia y Rivera. Later, in 1857, came the debut of Bernardo de Palissy, the first drama by a Puerto Rican author to be presented in the Coliseum.
The Tapia Theater has passed through various stages of renovation over time. Work took place in 1873, 1948, 1976, and finally in 2006. During the reconstruction of 1948, under the administration of Mayor Felisa Rincón de Gautier, the Municipal Theater or Coliseum was named the Tapia Theater, in honor of the outstanding playwright and novelist of the 19th century. The repairs done in 1976 consisted of restoring the theater’s original façade and modernizing the interior. The most recent renovation began in 2006 and lasted nearly two years. The doors opened once again in August 2008.
Throughout its history, the Tapia Theater has been the scene of a great number of classical and popular shows, as well as the site of numerous theater festivals, such as the Puerto Rican Theater Festival and the International Theater Festival, both created by the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture.
Author: Grupo Editorial EPRL
Published: September 08, 2010.
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