Barcelona's tragic finale: Penelope Chalmers watched as fire destroyed one of Europe's grandest opera houses this week

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The Independent Online
BARCELONA, Monday - Today I have witnessed the death of one of the world's most beautiful theatres, the Gran Teatre del Liceu. The theatre, five tiers of gold and red built in 1847, was the largest in Europe, seating more than 3,000 and with the most extraordinary acoustics.

I have been in Barcelona for four weeks working on the opera Mathis der Maler by Hindemith, as understudy to the American soprano Karan Armstrong, whose husband, Gotz Friedrich, brought this production from the Berlin Opera. It is German opera on a huge scale, with battles and scenes of crowds burning books.

I had heard that the Liceu was a beautiful theatre, but when I first walked into the auditorium I gasped. It seemed so vast and yet so intimate. Later, when I sang on the stage and gazed out at its towering galleries, it seemed impossible to fill it with one voice. And yet the quietest note, sung upstage, travels to the top of the theatre. An opera director's dream: singers could look at each other and sing, not always having to 'cheat out' the audience.

As an understudy, I was contracted to remain in Barcelona for the six performances. The fourth was last Saturday, and I decided to watch from the wings. I saw the technicians light the gas flames for the book-burning scene, helmeted firemen close at hand with fire extinguishers. It was to be the final performance in the Liceu.

In the 10 days since the premiere, the days between performances have been free. I have been getting to know Barcelona, and coming to understand its proud Catalan outlook and heritage. My circle of acquaintances has become large - singers, directors, stage staff, theatre administrators, chorus members, orchestra - people from all over the world: from Argentina, the United States, Hungary, Iceland, Germany and France, as well as from Spain, and myself as the lone Brit.

We tended to bump into each other on the Rambla, the old city's famous tree-lined promenade on which the Liceu stands. There are news-stands, where we buy our home newspapers at lunchtime and which sell porn magazines and opera videos side by side. There are flower and bird stalls, buskers, chess players gathering crowds, painted people masquerading as statues. But mainly people just stroll. It is a wonderful atmosphere.

Today all this was shattered. From my balcony I saw a small plume of smoke across the roofs. I thought a chimney was on fire and wondered where it was. I had just spoken to the artists' manager at the theatre by phone and we had agreed to meet in an hour. I found out later that five minutes after my call she and the theatre secretaries had to escape to the street down a small, rarely used staircase, their normal exit blocked by smoke.

From my balcony I saw the smoke plume grow and suddenly burst into flame. I let out a cry, as did two builders on the roof opposite my balcony. A fellow singer rang me from his hotel room across the road to break the news that he was watching the roof above the stage falling in and, only minutes after the first plume of smoke, I could see balls of flame bursting into the air.

I went to his hotel. From my colleague's balcony, the sight of the burning theatre was unbelievable and heart-breaking. At that point the auditorium was intact, but we both groaned as we saw flames licking the roof above the domed building. Within half an hour this, too, had fallen in, and terrifying balls of flame filled the sky.

We went out on to the Rambla, knowing we would meet theatre people. We first met Mr Antik. We knew him well because he paid us our money. He was ashen-faced - he told us his apartment was burning on the fifth floor of the theatre. His wife had just jumped to safety from a balcony and was now with him on the Rambla.

At our feet was Miro's cobbled mosaic; we had often wondered why no one had walked off with the cobble that had Miro's signature on it. Standing nearby was the stage doorman, Antonio, whose English was much better than my Spanish. We had greeted each other every day for four weeks. I put my arm round his shoulder and said how sorry I was. He put his arms round my neck and wept. He has worked at the Liceu for 35 years.

We stood behind the plastic barricades and watched as the firemen worked. One fire engine crashed into a van as it manoeuvred into position. Fire engines packed the narrow, densely populated streets around the theatre. There seemed little the firemen could do. The crowd gasped as another huge ball of fire blasted hundreds of feet into the air, and people began to run away. Because the theatre's facade was unaffected by fire, it was not possible to see from the Rambla the devastation that we had seen from the hotel balcony. But people stood silently, some shaking their heads in disbelief, others embracing each other and weeping. The Liceu had been emblematic of Barcelona's pride - a focus for all sections of the population.

By now an hour and a half had passed and the theatre was completely gutted. The politicians began to turn up. The Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballe came to be there at the end.

Further down the Rambla, outside another theatre used for rehearsals, stunned members of the Liceu huddled together. The stage manager told me how it was believed the fire had started: two contractors were soldering near the iron safety curtain. A spark flew, caught a curtain and fire exploded. The iron curtain could not prevent the fire spreading into the auditorium. In the orchestra pit, double basses, cellos and timpani burned. The conductor lost all his scores.

As people tried to comprehend that the theatre was by now gone, the politicians met nearby. The result was a declaration that jobs would be saved and the theatre rebuilt in record time. People felt loath to go home, they needed each other. Those of us who had spent a month working in the theatre were badly shaken - how much worse for those whose lives and livelihoods it had been for years.

As darkness fell one of the singers from Mathis decided to throw a cast party on his balcony overlooking the smoking wreck of the theatre. We drank champagne and toasted the theatre for its achievements over almost 150 years. It was the best we could do. One of the singers had planned to work in the chorus room at the top of the theatre this morning, but delayed it to go and buy a handbag. This may well have saved her life.

We all went off to our favourite restaurant but ate little. We swapped addresses and kissed each other goodbye - we are all off to our homes tomorrow.

The writer is an opera singer.

(Photographs omitted)