A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

operas and other works of imagination

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on April 14, 2009

After making A serve as my grapefruit guinea pig last weekend, our conversation turned to more general developments in Lebanon – and specifically, to the post-war fate of Martyrs’ Square.

Its amazing how different it looks today compared with before the war, A said.

I agree, I said. Starting in the late 1800s, Martyrs’ Square (known then as the Bourj, or the Place des Canons) became the heart of downtown life, with shops, banks, cafes, and other businesses springing up around its perimeter, a public garden covering the square, and a pay garden – for the wealthy – at its heart. Today, Martyrs’ Square is basically a nothing space.

And what I love best is that the Virgin Megastore replaced the old opera house, A continued, smiling.

I stopped smiling and started to fuss.

Why does this “opera house” canard persist? I understand its appeal: it allows people to use the replacement of opera by dance music as a metaphor for post-war Lebanese culture – but I don’t see any historical evidence for it. No rhapsodies by turn-of-the-century Lebanese or visiting foreigners about opera, no “news of the weird” pieces about how Beirut used to be a major stop on the European opera circuit. (By contrast, we all know that Aida premiered in Egypt.) Is there some secret Beirut opera history of which I am unaware?

From what I have read, the Virgin Megastore is housed in the old Cinema Opera. I.e., the cinema’s name was “Opera”, just like there was a Cinema Roxy, a Cinema Metropolis, a Cinema Empire, and so on. There was no Beirut empire, and there was no Beirut opera house – at least, as far as I can tell. (I’m eager to be corrected, if I am wrong – so if you do have evidence to share, please don’t hold back!)

Here’s what I have found on the subject. In Fin de Siècle Beirut, scholar Jens Hanssen states that the Cinema Opera was built in 1923, on part of the old palace grounds of Fakhr al-Din. A number of cinemas were indeed originally built as theaters and then adapted as technology and tastes changed (for an interesting overview of Lebanese theater, you can read the relevant sections in the World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theater, Volume Four: The Arab World here), but it seems that this cinema was built as just that.

Hanssen is a very well-respected younger scholar, who spent a good deal of time doing research in Beirut – at the German institute, I believe. His use of footnotes and primary source research leads me to trust him far more than I trust the many journalists who blithely state that Virgin replaced an opera house.

For a bit of additional color, I suggest this: The cinema does make an appearance in one well-known journalist memoir: Robert Fisk’s Pity the Nation (a book I like, by a journalist I don’t always trust) – as a beaten-up, run-down building weakened by the war:

Zarab took us into a tottering ruin upon whose bullet-scarred facade were the words ‘Opera Cinema’ … In the gloom of the interior, we could make out the faces of other Palestinians, sitting on mattresses on the floor. But Zarab took us straight across to some very narrow wooden slits that had been built into a mountain of rusting oildrums and sandbags at the far end of the building. We were behind what would have been the cinema screen; sunlight streamed through the wooden apertures. Through them, we could see undergrowth, a forest of bushes and trees spreading far across what had once been Martyrs’ Square. (p. 342)

I suspect that this facade didn’t make it through the end of the civil war (the story Fisk recounts above was from 1982), and that with time, memories of the “Cinema Opera” faded into memories of a building known as “the opera”, which outsiders assumed referred to an opera house. (But again, if I am wrong and there actually was a Beirut opera house here, please tell me.) That’s fine: this is how social memory works.

What I like less is the metaphor that seems to have emerged from this mis-remembering: that Lebanese culture has chosen the flash of pop and dance music over the serious art of opera. To me, this not only does a disservice to contemporary Lebanon, but also to the Beirut of the early 1920s – a modern, culturally rich space that embraced cosmopolitanism and whose inhabitants were ‘early adopters’ of many new innovations, including cinema.

In any case, this seems to have turned into a more strident post than I intended. Basically, I’d like to know more about the history of the building, so that we can put the proper historical metaphor to work. For those of you currently in Beirut – or for those who have spent more time at the downtown Virgin than I have – are there any commemorative plaques on it that might shed some more light on its history?


4 Responses to “operas and other works of imagination”

  1. S. Worthen said

    I suspect (with no further evidence!) that you’re right. I can see why the name would confuse. On the other hand, the last time I was at the London Coliseum, I read its history, as posted on the wall. It started off as a music hall, was later renovated into a cinema, and later still, renovated into an opera house.

  2. Mo Ali said

    The opera building was indeed a cinema. The building is too small to be an opera house anyways. I’m not sure how true this is but my father once told me that entrance to that cinema was free, however you had to pay to get out… In the old days this area was the transport hub of Lebanon since all buses and taxis going to other towns and villages in Lebanon were based in the vicinity of Martyr’s Square. Much like the cola intersection in current day Beirut.
    The closest thing, I would imagine, to an opera house in pre civil war Beirut would probably be the “Grand Teatro” which is right before the Lazarieh building on the street connecting Riad El-Solh square with Matyrs square. This is where popular singers like Umm Qulthum used to perform. Incidentally it’s also the only building in that sector of the BCD that has not been renovated yet. I think Solidere was planning to turn it into a Boutique Hotel but faced a lot of objections. I would assume they’re waiting until people forget about the building’s heritage so that they can go through with their plans. I hope I’m wrong though.

  3. Qifa Nabki said

    Mo Ali is right about the Grand Theatre. See Omar Naim’s excellent documentary film (“Grand Theatre: A Tale of Beirut”) for more on this fascinating landmark.

    It began life as an opera house/concert hall (people say that it was built as a copy of the Garnier Opera in Paris); it eventually turned into a cinema (where, incidentally, my great-grandfather worked as a projectionist); and eventually, during the war, was used to play pornographic films for the militiamen who braved the sniper alleys along the green line to get to it.

    I highly recommend the film.

  4. S, thank you for the support 🙂

    Mo Ali and QN, I do know the Grand Theatre, and am glad to know more about its history. Well, except for the blue films! QN, I’d love to see the movie – and laughed when I pulled up your link. But I don’t see it for sale anywhere – any suggestions?

    H took what we might delicately describe as a “self-guided tour” of the Grand Theater last summer, and has some really wonderful photos. I hope it doesn’t get totally remade, but it is a shame to have it empty and inaccessible.

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