LA TRAVIATA IN HAVANA IN 1957

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In 1957 I was a fourteen year old kid living in Havana. It was July, school was out, and it must have been blazingly hot. In the countryside Castro’s revolution was gaining momentum with the Castro Brothers and Che Guevara up in the mountains of eastern Oriente Province, and Camilo Cienfuegos leading a new outbreak of guerrilla warfare in Las Villas province.

In Havana the students in the public high schools and the universities were starting to make trouble for the government, but in Catholic La Salle School, where I had just finished my first year of high school we were mostly oblivious to what was happening outside the school’s walls.

At fourteen I had inherited my love for opera from my father and from his father, Don Alberto de Acha, who had left us a vast collection of 78’s which I played on an old Victrola and sang along with in our second floor apartment in El Vedado, to the consternation of our neighbors. And it was the time for the annual Opera Season at the Auditorium Theatre, presented by the Sociedad Pro-Arte Musical.

The main attraction was the Italian soprano Renata Tebaldi, who surrounded by a mix of then up and coming young American singers (Norman Treigle, Walter Cassel, Nell Rankin, Robert Merrill) would be singing AIDA, LA TRAVIATA, and TOSCA all three within the span of a week.

By the time I heard about this major musical event all the performances were sold out. Undaunted I took a bus to the theatre on a Sunday afternoon hoping to catch a returned ticket to LA TRAVIATA.

Not a chance.

I must have looked close to tears when a lady usher took one look at me and taking me by the hand led me to the mezzanine of the theatre and into a box where a European-looking gentleman sat, wearing a white linen suit. It was the presidential box I had entered, but President Batista who supposedly hated opera was not in attendance.

Who the well-dressed gentleman seated in the same box with me was I have no idea to this day.

The cast, by the way, had Tebaldi in the title role, Robert Merrill as Germont, and an Italian tenor whose name I cannot remember (and never heard again) who must have been a protégée of Tebaldi’s since he sang the tenor leads in all three of the operas (which makes no sense at all). The sets were rickety with backdrops depicting Parisian landscapes (for La traviata), ancient Egypt (for Aida) and 1800 Rome (for Tosca) that swayed to the movement of the singers.

But in spite of the general tackiness of the staging, I was transfixed from the moment Fausto Cleva gave the downbeat for the prelude to Act one of La traviata.

That turned out to be my very first live opera and it made me a convert for life.

Here she is in a live performance in 1957: https://youtu.be/L3xh7Ll1DLQ

Rafael de Acha      http://www.RafaelMusicNotes

 

3 thoughts on “LA TRAVIATA IN HAVANA IN 1957

  1. This was a most interesting story, and one in which I feel both the excitement of the moment, as well as the benefit that hindsight and life experience tells you was even more special than perhaps you realized when you were that 14 year old kid!

    My first operatic experience was at 16 while on a trip to Europe with my family. I was given a ticket at the last moment to attend “an opera” at a well known theater. I couldn’t read the program and no one informed me of what I was seeing. I was stunned by it all – especially that the mezzo sounded to my inexperienced ears like a baritone! Upon my return home, I heard the tune of one of the choruses from that opera on a TV commercial. I promptly memorized it, and ran to my high school choral director who identified it as a chorus she’d sung with Robert Shaw! So, after all that, I learned nearly a year later that my first opera had been Il Trovatore, at the Bolshoi in Moscow.

    (I guess sometimes it takes a village, a TV commercial, a choir director and Robert Shaw combined, just to get an answer!)

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  2. What an awesome way to experience your first opera, Rafi. Again, I say, thanks for sharing. I listened to the Tebaldi piece … she must have been a terrific talent.

    Michael

    Hope we can continue in the Fall!

    Sent from my iPhone

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