Madrid’s Torre San José, an iconic social housing tower from the nineties, surrounds a public courtyard crowded with hundreds of expectant people. They are attending an opera in the streets of Vallecas, a traditional working-class neighborhood and one of the lowest income areas in the city.
Dozens of curious neighbors look out of their windows to follow the show from their homes. Everyone stares at a man in a fancy black and white striped suit that stands over a bright yellow structure while he reminds us that we are in the year 2054; “The fossil fuels have run out, the polar ice caps have melted and half of Europe is submerged.” But, crisis can be turned into opportunity, the man in the striped suit cries out. To wide acclaim, he shouts; “Now we have beachfront apartments in the hills of Vallecas! Our neighborhood finally has a seaport!”
This is the starting point of Kópera, a collaborative opera of more than 150 people held on the streets of Madrid last March. Promoted by Imagina Madrid's program for art in public space, artists worked through everything from the libretto to costume creation with neighbors and local associations, collectively composing a humorous and critical piece. They assembled a choir of 70 neighbors and coordinated a performance of six popular musical themes chosen to evoke memories of Vallecas.
While the choir performs one of the first songs, a man attending the opera from his window records the scene on his cell phone: “I hope this gives a positive image of Vallecas, because I am tired of the media talking only about negative issues, which are among the least of the things that happen here.” His child does not take his eyes off the outstanding spectacle that is taking place in his courtyard.
With a plot based on housing challenges faced in the Vallecas community, Kópera uses humor to work through the history of the neighborhood. The plot draws from collective memory and criticizes urban dynamics linked to real estate speculation and displacement. Professional and amateur actors play the main roles of this story, which takes place over three acts, each one in a different public space.
"The idea was to first listen to the place by interviewing residents, and then to write a piece to display their stories. We have tried to activate this public space, to reinforce community, and to learn from each other," explains María Dilemas, one of the artists who, along with Daniel Torrego (LHRC) and Vivero de Iniciativas Ciudadanas (VIC), has carried out an intense process of artistic community co-creation, working alongside numerous social and professional entities based in Vallecas.
Not only did Kópera organizers hire professionals, but they also used volunteers, without whom the Kópera would not have been possible. According to co-author Daniel Torrego, “The main work was to mediate between so many people with different interests—it is fundamental to be close to all agents in the whole process. We had to cope with conflicts sometimes, but I accept this as part of collaborative projects and in general I am happy with the result.”
The result of a long process of research, design, and production, Kópera has brought a new identity to this area in Vallecas, which, despite its high-density housing and public school, was once characterized by underused public spaces. In a matter of 15 months, the project has created an intangible legacy. Kópera has forged new connections, thoughts, ideas, activities, and even small conflicts—all vibrant signs of life in Vallecas.
Kópera is one of the nine ongoing projects of Imagina Madrid, a public art program that explores new forms of public space activation, based on ideas co-created by citizens and artists. The program is coordinated by Intermediæ-Matadero, a “do-tank” that promotes citizen involvement in the cultural production of the neighbourhood and the city, a part of Contemporary Art Center Matadero Madrid.