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