10 Fun Facts about the Grand Theatre of Havana Alicia Alonso (and Tacón Theatre)

Posted by Jeremy John on 25-05-2020 13:55:20

The Grand Theatre of Havana Alicia Alonso - ‘Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso’ in Spanish - stands proud in heart of Havana, and is the country’s most prestigious location for opera, ballet and performing arts. It is home to the Cuban National Ballet company. Its history dates back to 1837, when it was constructed as the Tacòn Theatre. The theatre was expanded and renovated in 1914 into the building you can see today, which is considered one of the finest examples of Baroque Revival architecture in Cuba. 

Here are ten fun facts about this must-see location.

  1. The original Tacón Theatre was named after the Governor of Cuba 

General Miguel Tacón was the colonial governor of Cuba between 1834 and 1838. Remembered as an autocratic ruler, during his four years he oversaw a range of building projects in Havana, including the creation of boulevards and promenades such as Paseo del Prado and Carlos III that are today some of Havana’s busiest thoroughfares. 

  1. A notorious criminal was behind the first construction in 1837 

Francisco Marty Torres arrived in Cuba from Catalonia, illiterate and penniless, but eventually became a millionaire through a mixture of activities, including slave trafficking, smuggling and a fishing enterprise. General Tacón was a close friend, and requested for him to help fund the building of the Tacón Theatre. As an added incentive to get Francisco on board with the construction, General Tacón promised him the right to hold six masquerade balls during carnival season. These balls would have increased Francisco Marty’s fortunes considerably. 

  1. Legendary Italian double bass player Giovanni Bottesini made it his home 

Born in Parma, Italy, Giovanni Bettesini was a 19th century pioneer in double bass playing. He wrote extensively about the instrument and was also a renowned composer. Many of his solo works are still performed by accomplished double bassists today. 

Between 1846 and 1851 he travelled seasonally to Havana to perform at the Tacón Theatre. His first opera ‘Cristoforo Colombo’ had its premiere inside the theatre in 1847. Bettesini returned again to Havana in the 1854-55 season to become the orchestra director at the theatre.

  1. Parking outside was a problem in the 1850s 

Go there today and you will see vintage American cars, Russian Ladas and a whole host of other vehicles passing by. It is one of the busiest parts of the city. But traffic in this area is nothing new, even before the era of the car. In 1855 the traffic had got so busy that the city was forced into issuing new regulations for parking with carriages on the nights when performances were taking place at the Tacón Theatre. 

  1. Galician immigrants funded the 1914 expansion 

The Tacón Theatre was expanded and renovated into the building you can see today after members of the local Galician community, which had been frequenting the building in large numbers since the turn of the century, decided to fund its enlargement into a more prominent community centre. As well as adding lots of rooms to the building, the renovation also helped install a better circulation system into the main auditorium. As a result of the role it played for the Galician community, until the 1960s the building was commonly known as the Galician Centre (Centro Gallego). 

Note, the main auditorium still contains much of what was the original Tacón Theatre, and although the building was extended, you can still see the exterior of the original Tacón Theatre from the corner of the streets San Rafael and Consulado. 

  1. The facade contains four large sculptures by Giuseppe Moretti and Geneva Mercer 

The Italian sculptor Giuseppe Moretti, who won numerous medals for his works in the early 1900s, was an eccentric artist who was known for always wearing a green tie. His most notable work was the Vulcan statue in Birmingham, Alabama, USA, that is still considered to be the largest cast iron statue in the world. 

Geneva Mercer was an American artist who became apprenticed under Moretti from 1907-1909 before becoming his assistant. They moved to Havana around 1911 and stayed for several years, setting up a workshop and working on various projects in the city. The four large sculptures on the facade of the Grand Theatre are their most prominent stamp on Havana. They depict four different aspects of the activity intended to take place inside: charity, education, music and theatre. The female in each of the statues is modelled on Geneva Mercer. In total, the pair made over a hundred statues and decorative figures for the theatre. 

  1. It hosts the biennial International Ballet Festival of Havana 

Every two years the Grand Theatre plays host to a week long festival of ballet, with performers coming from around the world, including: the London Royal Ballet, the English National Ballet, the Scala de Milan, the American Ballet Theatre and the New York City Ballet. It also plays host to an annual Spanish festival known as ‘Huella de España’, and various other events throughout the year besides the regular opera, ballet and theatrical performances. 

  1. The theatre is now named after Alicia Alonso, who transformed Cuban ballet 

Alicia Alonso was a Cuban ballerina and choreographer that defied lifelong problems with her vision to become one of Cuba’s most famous dancers. She founded her own ballet company in 1948 that in the 1960s became the Cuban National Ballet company, and it has resided at the Grand Theatre ever since. She remained artistic director until her passing in October 2019 at the age of 98. Her funeral included a long procession through Havana, her home city, with thousands of people lining the streets. 

Since 2015 the theatre has been named in her honour, and in 2018 a sculpture of Alicia by the Cuban sculptor José Villa Soberón has been installed in the lobby. The sculpture is called ‘Giselle’, the name of the ballet in which Alicia had her breakthrough performance in 1943. She had taught herself to dance much of that performance in her mind two years earlier when she was temporarily blind and bed-bound for a year whilst recovering from a series of eye operations. 

  1. It has some of the cheapest opera and ballet tickets in the world 

For tourists, the ticket price is usually around 30CUC (roughly £24). Considering the world class quality of most of the shows all year round, this gives yet one more reason why going to a show at the Grand Theatre is an unmissable experience.

Incidentally, for residents of Cuba, the ticket price is usually around £1!

  1. In the daytime you can go on a guided tour of the building 

The building’s interior, like its exterior, epitomises the elegance of the Baroque Revival style. For a small fee you can arrange a tour at the theatre entrance, and climb the fine marble staircase that is surrounded by a beautiful mosaic, and be led by an informed guide to the sculptures and various other enchantments waiting to be discovered.

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