The Metropolitan Theater gets a third life

Published February 4, 2021, 1:33 PM

by MB Lifestyle

Reviving the past, looking forward to the future

By Nick Tayag | Photos courtesy of the NCCA

“We step into the gloried past even as we take a step towards a radiant future.” That’s how National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) Chairman Arsenio “Nick” J. Lizaso encapsulates his manifold feelings about the imminent opening of the newly restored Manila Metropolitan Theater, which has recently been announced to the public.

Standing on Padre Burgos Avenue corner Arroceros Street, near the Manila Central Post Office, the MET is a 1930s art deco building that in its heyday before World War II was the center of the arts and culture, or what was then called “high society.”

Declared a National Cultural Treasure and a National Historical Landmark, the Metropolitan Theater (Teatro ng Bayan) or simply MET will soon take its former place as a grand stage for creative and talented singers, conductors, composers, musicians, stage directors, designers, visual artists, choreographers, and dancers from around the Philippines and visiting foreign talents from the world’s cultural capitals.

Now under the ownership and leadership of the NCCA, the newly restored MET aims to reclaim its former glory as a premiere cultural cynosure by anchoring its theatrical standards on an elevated status, with gala premieres of original works, as well as a repertoire of new masterpieces alongside the classics, staged by the most imaginative directors working in theater and opera, and will launch a series of initiatives to broaden its reach throughout the country. 

NCCA Chairman and CCP President Nick Lizaso

It’s the culmination of a long hard journey. There was a time when everybody thought it wouldn’t happen. But come what may, the MET has not only survived war but undergone several reincarnations, as if to live up to the universal theatrical credo: “The show must go on.” But let’s first take a quick look at its back story.

In 1924, during the American Colonial period, the Philippine Legislature approved the building of a theater within the Mehan Garden (now Sining Kayumanggi). 

It was designed by Juan Arellano, one of the first pensionados in architecture. He was sent to the US to be guided by one of the experts in designing theaters, Thomas W. Lamb of Shreve and Lamb. 

The construction of the edifice began in 1930 and was inaugurated on Dec. 10, 1931. It soon became the venue for the staging of different performances from zarzuelas, dramas to adaptations of foreign classics as well as performances by visiting international artists.

It was still active during the Japanese occupation showing support even for the guerrilla underground. But during the liberation, the theater’s roof and walls were partially destroyed. During the post-war period, the building was used for various purposes other than cultural and eventually as squatters’ den.

In the late ‘70s, during the Martial Law years, the theater was restored under the leadership of then First Lady and Metro Manila Governor Imelda Marcos and her executive committee composed of Executive Director Conchita Sunico, architect Otilio Arellano, and DPWH Minister Aber Canlas

Lizaso with Catriona Gray, the NCCA’s new ambassador for the Arts

It reopened on Dec. 17, 1978. From 1979-1986, the MET produced five to six shows yearly and consisted mostly of Filipino works. Despite the positive reviews, management found it difficult to sustain it financially. Sporadic events were staged to help keep it alive but eventually folded up and faded once again into oblivion and disrepair.

‘This will be a Teatro ng Bayan, a theater for our people. For our native talents.’

In 2002, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo asked the National Commission on Culture and Arts (NCCA) to allocate funds for the renovation of the abandoned MET. A tripartite agreement was worked out among the GSIS, the NCCA and the City of Manila, to revive the theater. In 2010, the National Museum declared the MET as a National Cultural Treasure and President Arroyo led its re-opening. For various reasons, however, such as ownership issues, legal impediments, and partial damage during construction, the restoration couldn’t get off the ground smoothly.

Finally, in 2015, the Department of Budget Management released P270 million from the National Endowment Fund for Culture and the Arts as payment to GSIS, its previous owner, with the NCCA, as the new owners of the MET

With the National Historical Commission of the Philippines, (NHCP), the National Museum, NCCA and the Manila City government joining forces, the MET’s restoration has been in full swing. Finally after all these years,  the MET gets a new lease on life.

As chairman of the NCCA, Nick Lizaso is the de facto top honcho of the MET as well as its artistic director. In a long conversation over several cups of coffee, he ruminates on the significance of the revival of the MET.

“I am honored the opening of the newly restored MET will be under my watch,” says Lizaso. “But so many people who had a shared dream and passion of restoring the MET paved the way for this event. So many hurdles were overcome to get us to this point.  Now that it’s here, what do we do now to prove worthy of the people’s expectations? This is the big challenge.”

Already, some quarters are asking why do we need the MET? What good will it do? Lizaso stands his ground: “It is unfortunate that we are opening it at this time of social distancing and a ban on large gatherings. But we will find a way to make this theater contribute to the Filipino’s daily life somehow even during the pandemic.”

As someone who shares a passion for the arts, this writer can’t agree more. Now more than ever, the world needs the arts. A piece of music or song, a dance, a short story or a play, can give us words of comfort and hope to steel us even if they hold up to us a mirror of the harsh, hard realities that we must face to be able to move up the hill.

“The MET can contribute to people’s well-being,” Lizaso elaborates, waxing poetic. “They want to forget, if only for a moment, about the problems facing our world every day. I look forward to shows that will entertain people, provoke them, uplift their spirits, find consolation or catharsis and bring them together. The MET will provide them a beautiful eye-pleasing setting to help them escape and have their spirits be soothed and renewed.”

This somehow echoes what one poet said: “There must be space for grief and horror and hope and a breath for joy in our daily life.”

When asked why invest in another theater when we already have the CCP, for instance, Lizaso counters: “Why not more theaters? To me, the more the merrier. If we can have so many venues for sports, why not more venues for the performing arts? Creative expression in live theater is essential to any society.”

Visibly stirred up, Lizaso goes on: “This will be a Teatro ng Bayan, a theater for our people. For our native talents. We abound in talent for theatrical performance, whether music, dance or drama. Filipinos compete in reality shows all around the world. Why not add one more beautiful venue for them to shine on stage here in Manila so they don’t have to go to other countries to showcase their talent?”

But beyond the artistic beneficial impact, there is the immediate economic contribution. Aside from being providing a much needed shot in the arm for artists and performers who have been idled and whose sources of livelihood were disrupted by the long lockdown, the MET will be a major employer, spawning some sort of cottage industries for set designers, prop makers, stage hands, and so on. Not to mention retail food entrepreneurs and merchandisers. 

There is also another meaningful purpose for the arts, which Lizaso and this writer agree on. Art is the touchstone that we go back to when we have to remind ourselves of the history that we stand on and the future that we stand for.

For Lizaso, the MET is our cultural bridge to the glorious past and to the future of our nation’s culture. He expounds: “This newly restored MET is part of our cultural legacy. I see it as a continuum. If this theater provided so much cultural enjoyment for our people during the pre-war years, why not let it continue to provide cultural enjoyment for today’s generation? Aanhin natin ang isang gintong pamana kung walang pakinabang dito ang henerasyon ngayon?”

He vows that he will not allow it to be a white elephant but a self-sustaining tourist destination, drawing domestic as well as foreign tourists. He points out the fact that music, dance, and theater are often key features of cultural promotion intended to attract tourists and regularly feature in the itineraries of tour operators: “Kung may West End sa London or Broadway sa New York, dito may Metropolitan Theater tayo. The best shows, the best programs, best performances would be experienced live by our people from all walks of life. On the other hand, foreign visitors too would want to see our shows, our talents, our music, our performers. Our MET will be that venue where they can experience the best that our performing artists can offer.”  

Coming from the world of theater, TV, and cinema, Lizaso knows only too well that theater is a shared physical experience. For where else can 50, 500, 1000, or more people sit together, breath the same air, and share a one-time-only experience, in which the audience and performers agree to journey somewhere together? Lizaso admits that he can’t wait for that experience to become real again as soon as it is safe to come out after the pandemic. 

While recent write-ups about the new MET have all been harkening back to its gloried past, about bringing back the good old days, Lizaso is already looking forward to building its future glory.

He is most concerned about making the MET relevant and appealing to members of the “digital generation” who are steeped into multimedia pop culture and now reside in the realm of the digital and virtual. Anticipating that challenge, Lizaso assures this writer that as early as now, his team is drawing up a year-round repertoire of activities that will keep the venue alive with various programs and a thriving pivotal hub of the arts. He is even open to the idea of making MET performances accessible on digital streaming platforms. “At the CCP and the NCCA, we have in fact launched many online programs during the pandemic so it’s nothing new to us,” he adds. 

While he believes the government needs to subsidize the MET during its initial phase, he is counting on private corporations and sponsors and patrons to keep it going in the long term. He is realistic enough to know that ticket sales would not be enough to cover everything. Besides he wants the ticket prices to be within the reach of Filipinos young and old from all classes. Ever the dynamic manager, Lizaso is determined to be aggressive in promoting the MET. “I would actively try to persuade corporate entities to divert some of their advocacy budgets to sponsor MET shows,” he says. “After all, being associated with a prestigious cultural entity like the MET would be good for their branding.”

As we took our last sips of strong coffee, Lizaso caps our conversation with his vision of what the new MET should become: A self-sustaining, thriving Teatro ng Bayan for all seasons, for all reasons for all Filipinos.