Europe’s energy crisis forces century-old Hungarian theater to close for winter

A theater in the Hungarian capital will endure a cold and calm winter after its managers chose to close it rather than pay soaring utility prices, which is weighing on businesses and cultural institutions across Europe .

Budapest’s 111-year-old Erkel Theater, one of three performance spaces for Hungary’s prestigious state opera, will close in November after exponentially rising energy bills made the building’s heating unhealthy. 1,800 places unsustainable.

“We had to decide how to save,” said Szilveszter Okovacs, director of the Hungarian State Opera. “Even if it hurts to decide to close Erkel for a few months, it is completely rational.”

The institution’s energy bills have become “more expensive by a factor of eight, sometimes tenfold… the order of magnitude is huge,” Okovacs said. “Something had to be done because, after all, people’s salaries… are the most important thing.

The temporary closure of the Erkel Theater is just one of many cases of cultural institutions in Hungary struggling to stay afloat as high inflation, a weakening currency and energy costs weigh heavily on finance. It is an example of the pain in Europe as energy prices soar due to Russia’s war in Ukraine, forcing some factories to close, making life more expensive and fueling fears of an impending recession.

The Hungarian government declared an “energy emergency” in July in response to rising prices and supply disruptions linked to the war with Russia. He also cut a popular utility subsidy program that since 2014 has kept Hungarians’ bills among the lowest in the European Union at 27.

As a result, many businesses and households have seen their natural gas and electricity bills jump by up to 1,000% month-to-month.

In an effort to reduce energy consumption, the Hungarian government ordered a 25% reduction in the use of electricity and natural gas in public buildings, including cultural institutions, and demanded that their heating is maintained at a maximum of 18 degrees Celsius (64 degrees Fahrenheit).

Beata Barda, director of the Trafo House of Contemporary Arts in Budapest, said her theater’s electricity bills had tripled since June and there was an “uncertainty factor” in the type of gas bills that they could receive in winter.

To cut costs, the theater will stage about two-thirds of its normal winter schedule, insulate parts of the building that don’t need heating, and reduce the frequency of rehearsals that require full theater lighting. stage.

“We would like to avoid closing or having to cancel performances, so obviously we have to cut back in all sorts of ways,” Barda said.

With inflation in Hungary nearing 16% and the national currency hitting historic lows against the dollar and euro, households are also grappling with rising prices, which could lead to lower footfall. theaters and a subsequent spiral of financial difficulties in the cultural industry. , she says.

“Our audiences also have wallets and their spending has also increased,” Barda said. “To what extent will they be able or willing to come to the theatre? This is a really important question.

In Budapest’s vast comedy theatre, one of the oldest in the city, the lights in the building’s ornamental hall and winding corridors have been turned off, even on working days, to save energy.
The gas bill for the 130,000 square foot theater has risen from 40 million Hungarian forints ($92,000) to 250 million Hungarian forints ($577,000), nearly six times as much.

“Until now, we could pay our utility bills with the ticket sales of two or three people out of 100 in the audience,” said the theater’s financial director, Zoltan Madi. “Now we have to transfer the ticket price of every second person towards the payment of our public services.”

The struggles facing theaters in Hungary are not limited to the capital. Local governments across the country have announced that theatres, cinemas, museums and other cultural institutions must close for the winter to avoid being hit by high heating and electricity costs.

As the energy crisis worsens, more and more Hungarian theaters could be threatened with closure, which according to director Krisztina Szekely of the Katona Jozsef theater in Budapest, would have negative consequences for the cultural life of Hungarians.

“I believe that if these institutions falter or are not available in a city or a society, it will have a significant impact on the mental state of the society,” she said.

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Laura T. Thrasher