The new old theatre on Corrientes Ave.

The word “brand,” as applied today to whatever identifies a company or product, comes from the burning irons used to brand livestock. The similarities do not end there: most often, corporate branding is as violent, tasteless and counterproductive to humans as red-hot irons are to animals. Case in point? Stroll up Corrientes Avenue from the Obelisco for about 200 metres and turn left. Look at the building that now stands where the old Teatro Opera used to be. Rub your eyes, take a second look: yes, it looks disturbingly like the theatre we all know and remember, an art deco landmark that stood since 1936 (and before, too: a theatre of the same name on the same lot was founded in 1872 and had to be torn down when Corrientes was widened in 1935). But the name on its emblematic billboard now identifies it as Teatro Citi.

Have we gone through the looking glass into Advertising Wonderland? Indeed. In 1999 international show promoters CIE-R&P bought the theatre and upgraded its facilities to make it the home of Broadway musicals imported as-is to Argentina. CIE (now acquired by T4F) continue to run the theatre, but have signed a 4-year sponsorship contract with Citi Bank, granting them naming rights over the theatre, exclusive sponsorship and benefits for its customers and intensive logo placement. In exchange for what? Well, yes, money, which was used to renovate the theatre (more about this below) bringing it back to its former glory – in a version of art deco that somehow assimilates 21st-century logos, that is.

The reaction. In seven days, a Facebook group started by Ricardo Watson, of heritage-historical tour company Eternautas, called “Para que le devuelvan su nombre al Teatro Opera de la calle Corrientes” (For the restoration of the name of the Teatro Opera on Corrientes street) gathered 4,000 members and counting. They were so vocal that Citi’s own FB page was flooded with negative messages demanding a reversal, and a discussion on the bank’s own forum asking people to express their views was met with 180 responses – only five supported the bank’s decision.

“You may sponsor anything you like, but in the case of catalogued buildings with cultural heritage the name gives them their identity,” said Watson to the Herald. He opened the Facebook group last Monday. On Thursday, he got a call from Citi representatives to hold a meeting the following day. They showed him round the renovated premises and explained everythying the bank had done to the place, but there was no possible agreement on the issue. “On the one hand, they claim to be interested in recovering the theatre’s history; on the other hand, they trample on its name. 10 or 20 years ago this wouldn’t have been protested, but nowadays there is much more awareness of the importance of cultural and historical heritage,” states Watson.

The bank’s argument. Citi Bank issued a statement detailing the renovations done to the theatre on their dime, and saying that “taking on the challenge of renovating the building implied a large investment which was only justifiable as an integral sponsorship of the theatre, and the form that best fit the required values was that of naming sponsor. Once that decision was made, we had a tough dilemma to solve: whether to keep the original name (with a compound variation, such as Opera Citi) or not. We evaluated the alternatives and, as appealing as the compound name was to us, it implied two different companies (Citi and T4F, owners of the brand name “Teatro Opera”) sharing this new brand, something that was not accepted by our global brand policy.” The agreement will expire on December 2012, where it may (or may not) be renewed – so watch this space for more naming debacles.

Marcela Rémoli, Citi Bank Argentina’s marketing manager, told the Herald that “there are people who defend the name of the theatre, without looking at the state the theatre was before our renovations,” emphasizing the costly (and welcome) upgrades to the façade, Petit Opera VIP lounge, entrance hall and interiors. These works brought them to as close as pristine state as could be achieved, respecting the original style (minus a sprinkling of Citi logos here and there), and were carried out under the direction of Argentine specialist Alberto Negrin. They will, too, have guided tours of the theatre, and a permanent exhibition on the history and significance of the place.

“There is a global trend to change the names of cultural venues for the name of sponsors. Other theatre owners on Corrientes avenue were delighted that this was a possibility, they even came to me asking if we were interested in doing it with them. This is a bold initiative: it is logical and valid that there are some negative reactions, we respect that. But we know the love, care and investment we placed on the theatre, and we have a history of supporting the arts: we have sponsored over 200 shows in the past three years, and are main sponsors of Latin American arts museum MALBA. Many who criticize from outside do not consider that this could have turned into a supermarket, or a parking lot, without sponsors like us.” About the choice of naming the theatre after the bank, she explains that “this is a marketing investment, otherwise we should have done it through a foundation acting as an anonymous donor. Marketing is marketing, it is logical that the name is there.”

So what? So what if they changed the name? Well, so plenty. Teatro Opera is one of those places that do not need an address: hop on a taxi and say its name, that will be all the instructions needed. Its stage witnessed unforgettable performances by the likes of Josephine Baker, Edith Piaf, Marlene Dietrich, Mina, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Amstrong, Diana Krall, New York’s Ballet Theatre, the Bolshoi ballet, Ava Gardner, Julio Bocca, the Folies Bergères and Lido companies, not to mention local musicians of all genres, including several live albums such as Los abuelos de la nada’s En vivo en el Opera, or Mercedes Sosa’s 12 historical shows in 1982, the first time she performed in our country since she had gone into exile in the 1970s, immortalized as the CD Mercedes Sosa en Argentina: grabado en vivo en el Teatro Opera de Buenos Aires. It housed some of the most successful productions of the Pepito Cibrián-Angel Mahler duo, which heralded a rebirth of Argentine musical comedy.

So what if they changed the name, if everybody else is doing it? Aren’t the Oscars held at the Kodak Theatre? Sure, but Kodak put their names on the billboard when the theatre was still a construction site – there was no Kodak Theatre before Kodak Theatre. The same happened with O2 and the O2 arena in London. Few sports arenas in the US and UK have survived the tornado of corporate branding, including New York’s Shea Stadium, birthplace of the original Beatlemania. Paul Mc Cartney recently discovered that you cannot come home any more, when he wanted to record a DVD where it all began and had to settle for the new and rebaptized space, the new stadium built next to the original Shea (which was demolished to make room for parking spaces for the Citi Field, so there goes another metaphor). There are rumors of a local cell phone company putting 40 million pesos on the table for River Plate to rename their stadium after them. Estadio Obras, a hallowed rock mid-sized arena, was branded the Pepsi Music Stadium a couple of years ago (and posters for shows always label it “Pepsi Music Stadium, ex-Obras”).

When it comes to culture and cultural landmarks, it is a much more delicate affair. When something has been in the city for 140 years, it IS part of the city. These bits of heritage make up urban identity, and heritage and memory are two things Buenos Aires is doing too little too late about: just look at the gorgeous historical constructions being demolished left, right and centre to make way for hideous apartment blocks, redefining whole neighbourhoods with no consultation or proper planning whatsoever, in places like Palermo, San Telmo or Barracas.

Theatres are also temples in their own manner, and they deserve respect. The Colón’s been in existence for 100 years, quite less than the Opera, and was so badly run down that it has been shut down for the past four years for its own (botched and outrageously mismanaged) renovations. If a sponsor with deep enough pockets offered City Mayor Mauricio Macri to singlehandedly foot the bill, why not rename the theatre after them? Welcome to Coca Cola Opera Hall. Come to think of it, the Obelisco can do with new paint: how does McDonald’s Monument sound to you?

Humberto Constantini put an enormous chunk of his own cash, much of his personal and corporate effort and his personal Latin American arts collection to open the MALBA. He put his own name after the museum’s (the front of the building reads “MALBA. Colección Constantini” – an accurate statement, for these are his own paintings on public display), and you can log on to their website without seeing his name on the home page even once. Yet, there isn’t a single person who knows the museum that doesn’t know who is behind it, and his “personal brand” took a mountain-sized leap in the public eye.

Ms. Rénoli envisions a not-too-distant future when Corrientes avenue will be plastered with corporate billboards on top of cherished buildings (if the Opera fell, the Gran Rex and Tabarís, even the Maipo, cannot be far behind), our cathedral of commercial theatre gone pop-corn. In the US or UK, she says, they wouldn’t give it a thought – but try and rename LA’s Chinese Theater, or London’s Old Vic and see how that pans out. Brands will flash expensive renovations or the very subsistence of the venues as their achievement, and will take their reward in naming rights. The Medicis sponsored much of the Italian Renaissance, but were happy to show up as cameo faces in the background – no “Medici-David” or “Pope Julius II-Creation of Adam” in Michelangelo’s day.
Should we have to choose between survival and loss of identity? Can we say “thank you so much, job well done, just let us have our traditions”? If he who pays the piper calls the tune, does he get to give the piper a new name as well?

(Publicado en el Buenos Aies Herald el 3o/3/10)

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