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Spain's divas tackle real tragi-comic roles

IT IS tragi-comic enough to make an entertaining opera. Reaction to the fire that destroyed Barcelona's Liceu opera house last week has all the elements. There may even be a cameo role for the Prince of Wales.

First, there were the two divas, not on speaking terms, avoiding each other like the plague as photographers stumbled after them through the ruins. One of them, Montserrat Caballe, made her debut at the Liceu 40 years ago but had not sung there for years after a tiff with the artistic director.

Clutching a bouquet and accompanied by a cellist, Caballe gave a fine rendition of the Catalan 'Cant dels Ocells' (Song of the Birds). She would, those present agreed, have brought the house down had there been one. A spark from a worker's blow-torch had already done so on the morning of 31 January. Despite the lack of a roof, Caballe insisted 'it still has the Liceu's acoustics'.

Down below, Caballe's great rival, Victoria de los Angeles, cosy in fur coat and hat, declared herself moved by the sight of the ruins, though not by Caballe's presence. 'That (Caballe's presence) doesn't interest me. It makes me laugh. This,' she said, pointing to the ruins, 'is what reduces me to tears. As soon as someone dies, the vultures move in. Now we can see that there are already vultures hovering in the ruins of the Liceu.'

Others also felt that way about Caballe's new-found emotions for the Liceu. 'Look at La Caballe, with her crocodile tears, while she lives in Andorra to avoid taxes. And she's got the gall to ask us to stump up for a new theatre,' the daily El Mundo quoted a passer-by as saying.

The question of who should pay for the reconstruction has heightened Catalonia-versus- the-rest sentiments, already running high. The Catalan Prime Minister, Jordi Pujol, is pushing for greater autonomy and the right to keep 15 per cent of Catalans' income tax within the region. 'Let him pay with the 15 per cent,' many non-Catalans proclaimed.

The Prime Minister of Castilla y Leon asked why the government was talking of helping to rebuild the Liceu while the cathedral of Burgos and the Roman aqueduct at Segovia were being neglected.

Then there is Prince Charles's role. 'Charles of Wales is coming to the Liceu,' trumpeted a headline in El Pais. It was referring to the debate over whether the Liceu should be rebuilt as a replica of its former self, or modernised into what the Prince would no doubt consider something of a carbuncle. Opinion is leaning heavily towards conservatism, but there is no word as to whether the Prince is really going to make an appearance.

(Photograph omitted)