A favored space for the intangible revelations of dance, music and opera, the Alicia Alonso Grand Theater of Havana is located on Paseo del Prado, right beside the Capitolio Nacional de Cuba.
Like always, we return to its history and tradition; especially this year, when this symbolic, privileged site of performing arts in Cuba, is celebrating its 180th anniversary.
Its origins date back to the times when the island was still a Spanish colony. The establishment was inaugurated in 1838 and named the Tacón Theater, after Miguel Tacón, Capitan General of Cuba from 1834-1838, who had the idea to build a large theater in the city.
According to historians the Spanish governor also received certain benefits with the construction of the theater, including as a sizeable fortune, titles, and it would serve as a distraction from his repressive politics.
The responsibility of building the theater fell to Tacón’s friend Francisco Marty y Torrens from Catalonia, given his experience in the world of performing arts as director of the Diorama, one of the two theaters which existed at that that time in Havana (the other being El principal).
In his book Gran Teatro de La Habana: cronología mínima 1834/1987, Francisco Rey Alfonso investigates how the theater came to be.
The Tacón, designed by architect Antonio Mayo, was officially inaugurated on April 15, 1838 with a performance by Gregorio Duclós’ Spanish Dramatic Arts Company, of Don Juan de Austria (Delavigne) starring famous Cuban actor Francisco Covarrubias, considered to be the founding father of vernacular theater (today’s establishment features a hall bearing his name) and Costumbrism in Cuban literature.
“Both rich and elegant […] only the principal theaters in Europe’s largest capitals can match that of Havana’s in the beauty of its embellishments, grandeur of its light fittings, and in the elegance of its spectators…” according to one of Cuba’s earliest authors, María de las Mercedes Beltrán Santa Cruz y Montalvo, Countess of Merlín, in her book Viaje a La Habana.
In 1840, the Countess herself organized a dramatic-lyrical benefit at the Theater to build a new facility for women suffering from mental health problems in Havana. The program featured scenes from the operas Norma and Lucia de Lamermoor.
Throughout the 19th century, theTacón’s stage played host to a long list of stellar artists from the worlds of theater, opera, ballet, and music, names which today feature in the global history of culture; such as the debut of ballerina Fanny Elssler in 1841; a performance by Swedish soprano Jenny Lind in 1851; and another, Adelina Patti, accompanied by pianist and composer Luis Moreau Gottschalk, in 1854; as well as a recital by pianist Teresa Carreño in 1863; and performance by Sarah “the Divine” Bernhardt in 1887, to name just a few.
Meanwhile, the Robreños and Martínez Casados, two of the most renowned families in the history of the Cuban arts scene, made a name for themselves at the Tacón, alongside pianists and composers José White, Nicolás Ruiz Espadero, Manuel Saumell, and Ignacio Cervantes, and violinist Claudio Brindis de Salas.
Other key moments in the history of the Grand Theater include its 1847 restoration, and the appointment of Antonio Meucci as the establishment’s director general, who in 1851 developed a voice-communication apparatus that several sources credit as the first telephone; in 1865 a staircase made of Italian marble was installed, and which soon became one of the Theater’s crowing glories, while a cinematograph was installed in what was formerly the accounts office by Gabriel Veyre, representative of the Lumiere brothers, where the first film projection in Cuba took place.
Shortly before the turn of the century the theater’s grand chandelier (Havana has three wonders: the Morro, the Cabaña, and the Tacón’s chandelier) came crashing down; some claiming that the cable which fastened it to the ceiling had broken, while other more adventurous theorists, assert it was the result of a public disturbance following a poor quality show.
The theater was purchased six years later by the Galicians Benefit Society. The site was later demolished, and between 1910 and 1915 the current establishment was built by Belgian architect Paul Beleu.
An architectural beauty, the theater’s main façade features four groups of white marble sculptures by Giuseppe Moretti, representing the figures from the Benefit Society, education, music, and the theater.
The Coliseum on Prado reopened its doors on April 22, 1915 with the staging of Aída, followed by spectacular seasons featuring the top artists of the age, including transcendental names such as pianist, Ignacio Paderweski; Antonia Mercé; and the stellar ballerina Anna Pavlova in 1917; the heavenly Bernhardt who returned in 1918; Arthur Rubinstein (1919); violinist Misha Elman, and tenor Enrico Caruso (1920); in 1922 Esperanza Iris and the Lola Membrives company under the direction of Spaniard Jacinto Benavente, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature that same year; 1923, an exceptional year which saw performances by pianist and composer Serguei Rachmaninov, violinists Jascha Heifetz, guitarist Andrés Segovia and cellist Pablo Casals; in 1924, two renowned actresses: Eleonora Duse and Margarita Xirgu; in 1944 Erich Kleiber directed the Philharmonic Orchestra, while Pepita Embil and Plácido Domingo, parents of the renowned Spanish tenor Plácido Domingo junior, triumphed in the opera Luisa Fernanda.
Those were also outstanding years for Cuban culture with the premier of operas La esclava, by José Mauri, and El caminante by Eduardo Sánchez de Fuentes; a concert by Ernesto Lecuona; the debut of soprano Zoila Gálvez; inaugural concert of the Havana Symphony Orchestra founded by Gonzalo Roig and Lecuona; recitals by pianist Jorge Bollet; the premiere of works by Lecuona, Amadeo Roldán, Alejandro García Caturla; and performances by stellar artists Esther Borja, Rita Montaner, Ignacio Villa “Bola de Nieve”, Rosita Fornés, Alicia Rico, Candita Quintana, and Blanca Becerra.
1950 marks a highpoint in the theater’s history that would last throughout the 20th century with the premiere, in the Grand Theater, of the Alicia Alonso Ballet featuring the prima ballerina assoluta dancing The Dying Swan and Aurora’s Wedding.
Since 1960, the coliseum on Prado served as the headquarters for the National Ballet of Cuba (BNC) welcoming figures and companies such as the 20th Century Ballet, directed by Maurice Bejart; flamenco with artists such as Antonio Gades, Cristina Hoyos; ballet stars including Maya Plisetskaya, Carla Fracci, Vladimir Vasiliev, Julio Bocca; and international companies like the Bolshoi Ballet, the Marinski, the Royal Ballet of London, Milan’s Scala Ballet, the New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and Teatro Colón Ballet from Buenos Aires.
The Grand Theater also hosts seasons dedicated to Contemporary Dance of Cuba, the opera, and saw the debut of the AcostaDanza company, founded by globally renowned Cuban dancer Carlos Acosta.
The theater’s main hall is named after Granadan poet García Lorca, and in 2015 the Council of State of the Republic of Cuba bestowed the name Alicia Alonso on Havana’s Grand Theater.
After undergoing a two year restoration process from 2013-2015, the theater reopened its doors on January 1, 2016. The impressive building is now ready to celebrate its 180th anniversary in all its splendor.