The Rise And Demise Of The Manila Grand Opera House, a 1900s Cultural Gem on Avenida
The Manila Grand Opera House was the country’s most popular theater in the 1900s, built on the corner of Doroteo Jose Street and Avenida, formerly the metro’s center of entertainment. Also called ‘The Grand Opera House’, ‘Opera House’, or simply abbreviated as ‘MGOH’, it gained the title “The Theater with a History,” and rightly so, as the Manila Grand Opera House famously held the stage for important political, historical, and cultural events in its glory days.
Prior to becoming the iconic stage for world-class performances, the opera house was initially designed for a different kind of entertainment: cycling events. Built by a certain N.T. Hashim in the 1890s, the structure was a circular, wooden arena with a nipa roof, featuring cycling tracks meant for the sport. Named the National Cycle Track or NCT, Filipino spectators flocked the venue to watch the cyclists zoom in laps past them, amazed to witness a European sport in their own country.
Shortly after, the arena was remodeled into a theater, in response to the public’s increasing interest in classical entertainment. Called the Teatro Nacional, the change opened its doors to international performances, including the Russian circus and other American theater groups.
In 1902, the teatro was remodeled yet again, this time to accommodate adequate seating, to install state-of-the-art equipment, and ultimately, to attract more global performers. An Italian impresario, Balzofiore, entered into contract with Hashim, proposing to renovate the theater in time for the Italian Opera Company’s visit to Manila. The renovation was completed in 59 days.
The new and refurbished Manila Grand Opera House boasted sectioned seating: It had boxed seats or the palco proscenio, orchestra seats or butaca which featured rattan chairs, and the gallery. Also commendable were its upgraded acoustics, which allowed the audience to hear even the actors’ whispers.
The theater was ready for its first show the next day, and the Italian Grand Opera Co. performed to a full house, followed by other noteworthy stages, including Pollard’s Lilliputian Opera Co., the Chinese Vaudeville, and the Bandmann Opera.
According to historian Jose Victor Z. Torres, the Grand Opera House “was the only theater that was deservedly called a teatro rather than a sinehan” at that time. It was, indeed, an opera house of its own league, giving the Filipino audience a taste of European-style entertainment.
During the American occupation, the Grand Opera House was used for many important political events. Most relevant was the inauguration of the first-ever Philippine Assembly in October 16, 1907, presided by the United States Secretary of War, William Howard Taft.
On July 31, 1907, the first elections for the members of the Philippine Assembly were held. Back then, voters had to be at least 21 years old, should have held office to a certain duration, had resided at least six months in their district, and must have owned real estate that’s worth five hundred pesos. To be qualified to vote, they also had to be literate and had to speak in Spanish or English.
Only an approximate of 1.41 percent of the population voted. Eighty members were elected into the assembly, with the Partido Nacionalista winning majority of the seats.
At nine o' clock in the morning of October 16, 1907, the 80 delegates-elect of the first Philippine Assembly entered the Manila Grand Opera Theater. According to Torres, this event was supposed to be held at the Ayuntamiento in the Walled City of Intramuros, but the venue could not accommodate the number of expected participants, thus moving the event to the Grand Opera House.
Politics and entertainment
It is often cited that perhaps the Philippines’ inseparable association of show business with the business of governance can be due to the first Philippine Assembly’s inauguration at the MGOH, a well-known entertainment venue for years.
Decades after, the Manila Grand Opera House would continue to bear witness to both entertainment performances and political meetings. In 1908, the controversial “Flag Meeting” on banning the display of the Filipino flag was held at the Grand Opera, attended by six thousand people. This move was largely opposed by the public.
According to Torres, in 1910, when Resident Commissioner Manuel L. Quezon came home to the Philippines after giving a speech in the United States Congress for our country’s independence, he was greeted with a celebratory program held at the Opera House. It also became the venue for the First Philippine Congress, where our country’s leaders gathered to push for the Philippines’ bid for independence from the United States.
In November 1938, the Communist Party of the Philippines was officially named, following a merger of the communist and socialist groups, the Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas (PKP) and the Partido Sosyalista ng Pilipinas (PSP).
Meanwhile, the Opera House also became the choice of venue for graduation rites and political movements, at a time when rallies on the streets weren’t yet the norm. It became home for many Filipino musicians and artists’ notable concerts, as well as ballet companies from all over the world, such as the Compañia de Opera Rusa.
Filipino writer and statesman, Claro M. Recto, wrote two award-winning dramas, the La ruta de Damasco and Solo entre las sombras, which were also performed at the opera house. The storyline revolves around the life of an ilustrado family, in light of the American colonization, and the cultural practices and power structures it has introduced and imposed on Filipinos.
In January 1926, the first-ever performance of the Manila Symphony Society was held at the Manila Grand Opera House, as a benefit show for the music library of the Philippine Constabulary Orchestra.
Due to the onset of World War II, the Opera House, along with the rest of the structures surrounding Avenida, met its decline.
When the Japanese took over during the Second Philippine Republic, the Japanese forces seized the home and factory of shoe magnate Don Toribio Teodoro, hailed the shoe king as the owner of Ang Tibay Shoes, the ‘local Ferragamo’ of its time. Having to seek shelter for his family, he fled to the next available building, which happened to be the Opera House.
The Manila Grand Opera House was already then in its sorry state, looking more like a warehouse than former theater, and Teodoro was able to purchase the ruined structure for a song. Unfortunately, in 1943, the MGOH saw further damage due to floods, and, months after, was engulfed in flames as its neighboring structure, the Department of Labor, caught fire and spread to the Opera House, leaving only the basement theatre intact.
In a grand turn of events, Teodoro was able to rebuild the theater after the war, thanks to the profits he had earned from supplying the Philippine Army with combat boots during the time of President Quezon. It reopened in 1950, and was christened “The Theater with a History.” The new theater was more spacious, well-ventilated, and featured top-class audiovisuals and acoustics.
To commemorate its re-opening, an iconic oil mural, depicting 60 illustrious Filipinos was unveiled at the refurbished lobby of the theatre’s second floor. The personalities were chosen by then National Library director Eulogio B. Rodriguez, and painted by Cesar Amorsolo.
Teodoro’s daughter Cecilia Teodoro-Dayrit and son-in-law Jose Dayrit took charge of managing the new Opera House, and the pair brought back the place’s old prestige, making it the prime venue to watch quality stage shows once again. The Grand Opera House also became the default venue to commemorate Rizal Day, often celebrated with a program featuring the National Hero’s kundiman compositions.
All these happened at a time when movies were slowly replacing the classic zarzuela, and many film theaters have begun opening up along Sta. Cruz. Still, the Manila Grand Opera House remained as one of the best venues for movie openings. Notable was its first-time local screening of Duel in the Sun, starring Gregory Peck and Jennifer Jones, who were the popular film stars in their heyday. Two Roberto Rossellini films, Paisan and Open City also famously screened at the new Opera House.
For a mere 85 centavos, Filipinos could watch a stage performance—plays, concerts, and vaudevilles, and a movie premiere, or second-run movies as double features.
Most notable from the Manila Grand Opera House’s daily repertoire were the dramas presented and directed by National Artists Lamberto Avellana and Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero. Composer Jose A. Estrella was also famous for his works at the theater.
The Opera House was also deemed the “ultimate place for singers, dancers, and stage players to perform”, with the likes of theater performer-turned-first Filipina film actress Atang de la Rama, soprano singer and National Artist Jovita Fuentes, opera diva Isang Tapales, and the Queen of Filipino Jazz and Queen of Bodabil Katy dela Cruz, among the headliners of the vaudevilles and zarzuelas.
Among the most-loved names in the line-up also included matinee idol Rogelio de la Rosa, actress Carmen Rosales, Elvis Presley of the Philippines Eddie Mesa, the, The Golden Voice Diomedes Maturan, Asia’s Queen of Songs Pilita Corales, Queen of Kundiman Sylvia dela Torre and soprano Conching Rosal, and the legendary actresses and actors Shirley Gorospe, Gloria Romero, and Bobby Gonzales.
The theater’s popularity also paved the way for future screen idols’ careers, such as Rogelio de la Rosa and Leopoldo Salceda, and comedians Dolphy and Panchito, Bayani Casimiro, Bentot, Chiquito, Lupito, Pugo and Tugo, Tugak and Pugak, Dely Atay-atayan and Chichay, German Moreno, among others, who also rose to stardom for their famed comedy skits held at the Opera House. For dance, Nieves and Rene were the performers who showed off the latest moves onstage.
In the 1960s, Philippine Ambassador to Laos Antonio L. Cabangon Chua acquired the Opera House property from the Teodoro clan, and turned it into a plain cinema. The decline in demand for stage shows was inevitable vis-à-vis the rise of television and cinema houses at this point.
During the war, Cabangon Chua, who was an Ermita-Born Manileño, fled to his mother’s hometown in Mandaluyong. When he finally returned and worked on the construction of the hotel after the war, it was seen as his grand homecoming.
Decades after, the cinema was transformed into what would become Manila’s biggest night club, called “Chicks o’ Clock”. Soon commercialism would take over Avenida completely, killing the once thriving entertainment scene. The theater-turned-club would soon be completely demolished. Particularly giving way to the construction of the Light Rail Transit system or the LRT-1, many establishments in the area were shut down.
Named after the iconic establishment that once stood on the same grounds, the Manila Grand Opera Hotel is a hotel and casino complex, with eight stories and 250 rooms. It maintains a historical marker to commemorate what was once the Manila Grand Opera House.