Energy Costs Close Hungary’s Theaters for Winter

    09 October 2022

    A theater in Hungary's capital is likely to go unused through a cold and quiet winter.

    Theater operators have decided to close buildings rather than pay high prices for heating and electricity. High energy costs are making it hard for many businesses and cultural institutions across Europe to stay open.

    The 111-year-old Erkel Theatre in Budapest is one of three performance spaces of the Hungarian State Opera that will close in November. The operators can no longer pay to heat the 1,800-seat building.

    A performer looks up while sitting on the stage of the Trafo House of Contemporary Arts in Budapest, Hungary, Sept. 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Bela Szandelszky)
    A performer looks up while sitting on the stage of the Trafo House of Contemporary Arts in Budapest, Hungary, Sept. 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Bela Szandelszky)

    "We had to decide how we can save," said Szilveszter Okovacs, the director of the Hungarian State Opera. "Even though it close Erkel for a few months," he said, it makes sense. He added that people's pay is "the most important."

    The group's energy bills have become eight times and sometimes 10 times more costly than ---usual.

    The temporary closure of the Erkel Theatre is one of many cases involving cultural institutions in Hungary. Many are struggling to stay open. High inflation, a weakening currency, and energy costs are hurting many businesses and groups.

    This situation is taking place across Europe as energy prices skyrocket, or greatly increase, because of Russia's war in Ukraine.

    High energy costs are forcing some factories to shut down, making products more costly and fueling fears of a recession.

    In July, Hungary's government declared an "energy emergency." It was a reaction to rising prices and supply problems linked to Russia's war in Ukraine. The government also reduced a popular utility payment aid program. Since 2014, that program has kept Hungarians' costs for energy and water among the lowest in the 27-member European Union.

    As a result, many businesses and households saw natural gas and electric bills increase by as much as 1,000 percent from one month to the next.

    In an effort to save energy, Hungary's government ordered a 25 percent reduction in the use of electricity and natural gas in public buildings. This includes cultural institutions, such as museums and theaters. Now they are required to keep temperatures inside buildings at or below 18 degrees Celsius.

    Beata Barda is director of the Trafo House of Contemporary Arts in Budapest. She said her theater's electricity bills have risen 200 percent since June. Barda added that there is an "uncertainty factor." That means she does not know how big her gas and electric bills are going to be this winter.

    To cut costs, the theater will show about two-thirds of its normal winter program. Also, parts of the building that do not need to be heated will be shut off from the rest. And the number of rehearsals that need full-stage lighting will be cut down.

    Barda said, "We'd like to avoid shutting down or having to cancel performances, so obviously we've got to cut down in all sorts of ways."

    In Hungary, inflation is at nearly 16 percent. The national currency is reaching historic lows against the dollar and euro. People are also struggling with rising prices. Barda said few people could go to the theater. This could lead to financial troubles for the entire cultural industry.

    "Our audiences have wallets, too. And their expenses have also risen," Barda said. "How able or willing will they be to come to the theater? This is a really important question."

    The Comedy Theatre of Budapest is one of the oldest in the city. The lights in the building's entrance area and long hallways have been shut off -- even on working days -- to save energy.

    The gas bill for the large theater has gone from $92,000 a year to $577,000.

    Local governments around the country have announced that theaters, museums, and other cultural centers must close for the winter.

    As the energy crisis deepens, more of Hungary's cultural centers could be threatened with closure. Krisztina Szekely is a stage director in Budapest. She said closures would be very bad for the cultural life of Hungarians.

    She said she believes that if these institutions fail or are unavailable, it could affect the mental state of the entire society.

    I'm Anna Matteo.

    Justin spike reported this story for the Associated Press from Budapest, Hungary. Anna Matteo adapted it for VOA Learning English.


    Words in This Story

    institution –n. an established organization

    currency –n. the money that a country uses

    skyrocket –v. to increase quickly to a high level

    utility –n. a service that provides needed things like water, electricity, gas, and other things

    rehearsal –n. an event in which a person or group practices a performance to prepare for the public performance

    obviously –adv. in a way that is clearly understood

    wallet –n. a small container used to hold money, credit cards and identification