A theater in Hungary’s capital will spend a cold and quiet winter after its managers decided to close it rather than pay skyrocketing utility prices that are putting pressure on businesses and cultural institutions across Europe.
Budapest’s 111-year-old Erkel Theatre, one of three performance spaces of the prestigious Hungarian State Opera, will close its doors in November after exponentially rising energy bills made heating the building unsustainable. 1,800 seats.
“We had to decide how we can save,” said Szilveszter Okovacs, director of the Hungarian State Opera. “While it hurts to decide to close Erkel for a few months, it is completely rational.”
The institution’s energy bills have become “eight times more expensive, sometimes ten times…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 take a heavy financial toll. It is an example of the pain hitting countries across Europe as energy prices soar due to Russia’s war in Ukraine, forcing some factories to close, making living more expensive and fueling fears of a recession. imminent.
Hungary’s government declared an “energy emergency” in July in response to rising prices and war-related supply disruptions from Russia. He also made cuts to a popular utility subsidy program that since 2014 has kept Hungarians’ bills among the lowest of the 27-member European Union.
As a result, many businesses and households saw natural gas and electricity bills increase by as much as 1,000% month over month.
In an effort to curb energy consumption, the Hungarian government mandated a 25% reduction in the use of electricity and natural gas in public buildings, including cultural institutions, and mandated that their heating be kept at a maximum of 18 degrees Celsius (64 degrees Fahrenheit). ).
Beata Barda, director of the Trafo House of Contemporary Art in Budapest, said her theater’s electricity bills have tripled since June and there is an “uncertainty factor” about what kind of gas bills they might receive heading into winter. .
To cut costs, the theater will present 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 stage lighting.
“We would like to avoid shutting down or canceling performances, so obviously we have to scale back in a lot of ways,” Barda said.
With inflation in Hungary running at nearly 16% and the national currency hitting record lows against the dollar and euro, households are also struggling with rising prices, something that could lead to a drop in theater attendance and a spiral. subsequent financial problems in the cultural industry. , she said.
“Our audience also has wallets and their spending has increased as well,” Barda said. “How capable or willing will they be to come to the theater? This is a really important question.”
At Budapest’s massive Comedy Theatre, one of the city’s oldest, the lights in the building’s ornate lobby and winding corridors have been turned off, even on weekdays, to conserve energy.
The gas bill for the 130,000-square-foot theater has risen from 40 million Hungarian Forints ($92,000) annually to 250 million ($577,000), an increase of almost six times.
“Until now, we were able to pay our utility bills with ticket sales from two or three people out of 100 in the audience,” said the theater’s chief financial officer, Zoltan Madi. “Now, we must forward the price of every second person’s ticket to pay for our utilities.”
The struggles facing theaters in Hungary are not limited to the capital. Local governments across the country have announced that theaters, cinemas, museums and other cultural institutions must close for the winter to avoid high heating and electricity costs.
As the energy crisis deepens, more theaters in Hungary could be threatened with closure, something that stage director Krisztina Szekely of the Katona Jozsef Theater in Budapest said would have negative consequences for the cultural life of Hungarians.
“I think that if these institutions fail or are not available in any city or society, it will have a significant impact on the mental state of the society,” he said.
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