The Metropolitan Theater of Manila has a long and illustrious history, and it’s a scandal that it has gone to seed the way it has—another example of the government’s cavalier attitude toward important structures and monuments. Known in its heyday as the Met, it is among the tragic cases of Philippine heritage structures either abandoned to neglect or demolished for development, tragic because of its grand history and the many (futile) efforts to revive it.
But hope springs, because now there’s another move aimed at its restoration.
The art deco building, the “Grande Dame” of Manila’s many theaters, was designed by architect Juan Arellano and constructed in 1931 under the aegis of then Mayor Tomas Earnshaw and the Metropolitan Theater Company, which raised P1 million for its completion. The Met combined Western and Eastern design cues and could hold 1,670 spectators; the lobby displayed murals by National Artist for Visual Arts Fernando Amorsolo. It was the showcase of many great performers, beginning with the violin prodigy Ernesto Vallejo, among others. Music historian Pablo Tariman recalls that great operas such as “Faust,” “La Boheme” and “Aida” were staged there. It would be host to the performances of artists as diverse as pianist Cecile Licad and the rock band Wolfgang.
The Met’s reversals of fortune are nothing short of dramatic. World War II left it in ruins, and it kept transforming—from boxing arena to hotel, from warehouse to squatter colony. In the late 1970s, then first lady Imelda Marcos took charge of the restoration efforts, declaring, in her typical language, that the Met was “dedicated to a singular goal: to surface the true, the good and the beautiful in the Filipino in Metropolitan Manila.” But in time it slipped in and out of usefulness, fading from the bright light of public attention, and began falling apart.
It was officially shut down in 1996, amid a dispute between the Government Service Insurance System, which owns the 6.7-hectare land on which it stands, and the City of Manila. In 2004, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, GSIS and the city government signed an agreement to restore the Met; then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo allocated P50 million for the purpose. It didn’t work. In 2007, then Mayor Alfredo Lim formed a six-member committee to figure out what exactly happened to the P50 million and what else would be needed to restore the Met to its old glory. A year later, he promised that the Met would be opened by the end of 2008, with the planned restoration estimated at over P200 million. “We hope to open it to the public by December,” Lim said. “If we have to work around the clock just to rush its restoration, we’ll do it.” That didn’t happen either.
In 2010, there was more talk of a “new” Met opening. That same year, the National Museum declared the Met a national cultural treasure—but the Met continued its way to oblivion. The 2011 Wolfgang show was the Met’s last. By 2012 Lim had changed his tune. “The Metropolitan Theater used to be owned by the Manila city government but now it is owned by GSIS. So why blame me?” he said.
In 2014, Mayor Joseph Estrada led a city government effort to buy the Met back from GSIS for P267 million. “There is a need to preserve the structure which has been declared a national heritage and restore its original grandeur befitting the country’s center of arts and culture,” the Manila City Council said in a resolution. The GSIS has yet to accept the city’s offer, but that hasn’t stopped the Met saga from continuing.
Now comes perhaps the most promising approach to saving the Met. Apart from restoration efforts, the Manila government will reportedly open an “Institute of Performing Arts” in one part of the structure, under the Universidad de Manila’s College of Physical Education and Sports that will offer classes in music, dance and drama. The training for budding stage artists will hopefully be high-caliber—an initial step to making the Met and Manila both symbol and center of the arts.
That dream is, of course, rife with challenge, the sort that requires, at the very least, money thrown at it. The Inquirer’s Erika Sauler inspected what is left of the Met today and found this: “The creaky stage had gone into disrepair, with many sections already damaged, after years of neglect. Water has also seeped into the orchestra pit.” With grassroots training for the nonce instead of the grand performances of old, the Met will be starting over.
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