When Caruso came to sing in Havana my father traveled by train the 838 kilometers between his home town of Santiago and the capital. It was a 12 hour overnight ride with many stops along the way – one that I made myself many years later when I went to visit my grandmother and all the uncles and aunts and cousins who lived in my father’s birthplace.
My father was then 15, the year was 1920 and the government of President Mario Garcia Menocal was having troubles, especially in the capital, when students at the University were rioting, demanding changes in the regime and its draconian policies.
It was the so-called Period of the Fat Cows, when the Cuban economy was flush and the price of Cuban sugar in the world market was at an all time high. Things were good for a privileged upper class that loved to wear their finest regalia for the annual opera season – white tie and tails for the gentlemen, long gowns and furs for the ladies. That was the dress code back then in Havana’s tropical fall, when the thermometer tops 80 in the evenings.
The 1915 season saw the inauguration of the newly refurbished Tacon Theatre, a jewel-box built in 1776 that was brought back to life 144 years later by the high society that had missed a proper venue to listen to Verdi and Puccini.
Caruso and company arrived by ship on May 5, 1920. Signor Grattale had negotiated a fee of $10,000 per performance – ten of AIDA in Havana, and a pair of concerts, one in Santa Clara, one in Cienfuegos.
Caruso was in good and starry company, with baritone Riccardo Stracciari, basso Jose Mardones, soprano Maria Barrientos and mezzo-soprano Gabriela Bensanzoni. Maestro Tulio Serafin was the conductor.
Tickets were priced at 25 pesos (25 pesos equaled $25 back then) which was about the average monthly salary of a laborer. Scalpers were asking $60 a pop.
Meanwhile, my father and his oldest sibling (of eleven) “Albertico” were hoping that they could make it to Havana in time to snap up a couple of seats, even in what Cubans called the “gallinero” (chicken coop) section of the upper reaches of the theatre.
No such luck. All ten performances were sold out.
Disappointed, the two boys decided to give Verdi a shot anyway and they stood outside the theatre on opening night, hoping to catch a last minute cancellation, only to find out there was a crowd standing just outside the box office nurturing the very same hope.
When curtain time came, Caruso heard the hubbub of the crowd just outside the theatre and, to the amazement of everyone, demanded that the front and side doors of the august National Theatre be opened so that the crowd outside could hear the performance. For free.
Caruso’s request was obeyed and the doors were opened. My father and uncle, along with several hundred other Cuban opera fans listened in rapture to the biggest voiced cast of Aida ever, sitting on the grass, benches and sidewalks of a Havana city park in 1920.
The two de Acha brothers lingered outside the stage door of the theatre hoping to catch a glimpse of some of the stars. Back in those days, young men and women followed opera stars the way our young folks today follow rock singers.
Mardones, Stracciari, Barrientos, Bensanzoni and Maestro Serafin came out the stage door and waved to the cheers of the crowd. They were then promptly whisked away in Packard limousines that carried them to an after-theatre party at the Pennino Family Estate, with the President and the who’s who of Havana society in attendance.
The next day my father and uncle did the typical sightseeing that Cuban boys from the provinces would do at that time. And then it was back on the train to Santiago and back to school.
Exactly 33 years later, a boy of fifteen, the only child and namesake of my father, was introduced to Opera in Havana, in the Auditorium Theatre (now named Amadeo Roldan Theatre).
The opera was AIDA. Renata Tebaldi sang the title role. Again not only the two or three performances of AIDA, but all of LA TRAVIATA and all of ADRIANA LECOUVREUR – all three – were sold out.
I managed to sweet-talk an usher into letting me in. The only empty seat in the house was one in the presidential box, which was not occupied that afternoon by President Batista, who must have been busy fighting the revolution of the week.
Like my father before me and my grandfather before him on that day of that fifteenth year of my life I became a lifelong convert to Opera.
Rafael de Acha