Cuba Closes ‘Street Opera’ Project

Fernando Ravsberg*

“La Opera de la Calle” (The Opera of the Street) combined a cultural program with a restaurant, the proceeds of which went to pay the salaries of all the personnel and other expenses. Photo: Raquel Perez

HAVANA TIMES — One-hundred and thirty Cuban families have lost their source of income due to the closing of the “El Cabildo” cultural project, where they had worked putting on a regular musical show that mixed opera, zarzuela (Spanish musical comedy), rock, pop and Cuban rhythms – including those of African religions.

Known nationally and internationally as “La Opera de la Calle” (The Opera of the Street), the company cleaned up a vacant lot, and built a stage and a restaurant on it. From the sales of food and beverages they financed the salaries of the musicians, singers, dancers, cooks and waiters.

An article that appeared in the foreign press triggered the alarm of the Ideological Department of the Communist Party. Ulises Aquino, the director of the cultural initiative, told us that he was called to that department for questioning, and “El Cabildo” was shut down a few days later.

The group was accused of “enriquecimiento” (enrichment) for the members earning monthly salaries of around 2,000 pesos (equivalent to about $80 USD). Such a figure is higher than those paid by the government but — according to Cuban economists — it corresponds to the cost of the average family food staples here on the island.

A Cuban ajiaco (*)

A week before its closing, we visited “El Cabildo” (The Council) to do a story. We were interested in this cultural program that — availing itself of fewer economic restrictions these days — had created a restaurant that operated in parallel so as to achieve self-funding.

Ulises Aquino is an important Cuban lyrical singer who tries to promote that art form among his fellow citizens through the Street Opera cultural program by incorporating “archetypes and folklore that are identified with our society.” Photo: Raquel Perez

Its director, Ulises Aquino, explained that “the effort is called ‘opera of the street’ because we are trying to bring the lyrical art form closer to everyday people, which is why we add those archetypes and folkloric elements that are identified with our society; it’s a new form of lyrical expression.”

The show lasts about an hour and in it “we merge everything from lyrical theater, opera, musical comedy, Cuban folk music, rumba, rock and pop – everything; it’s the melting pot of Cuba,” said Ulises, who is also an important opera singer.

Economically too it was a melting pot. As Ulises went on to explain, “We’re part of the Ministry of Culture but we’re a new type of structure that has served to promote changes in the country. We believe that there must be a convergence between each cultural program and their funding.”

“My life project”

Samila Lacosta is twenty-four years old – of which six she has spent working with “la Opera de la Calle” as a second soprano. As she explained: “This is a totally different company; in my case, I trained as a singer and a dancer. This was my school, it’s a comprehensive professional approach.”

“I came here not knowing what opera was, I didn’t even know what a stage was,” explained Samila, adding that for her “this is very special; it’s the project of my life.” At that time, though, she didn’t know that just days later she would lose her job and her livelihood.

Sulay Hernandez had been unemployed but she found work in the cultural project, which “[gave] us much from the cultural and social standpoint.” Photo: Raquel Perez
Sulay Hernandez, 34, had been the chief waitress in the restaurant since this past December; prior to that she had studied social communication. “I was unemployed until I was offered this position; I’m not going to get rich off the salary but at least I can survive,” she said at the time of our interview.

Sulay lost more than a job. As she put it: “This is a family. The project gives us a lot from the standpoint of culture and society. As artists and workers, we maintain very good relations, with many common activities among everyone. There’s no class relationship.”

The fifth column

However, nothing could prevent their locale from being shut down. For Ulises this was the work of “a hidden fifth column that is attempting to stop the unstoppable movement that’s being promoted by President Raul Castro (…), it’s those of the bureaucratic class who are trying to preserve their power from a position of obscurantism.”

“They came in at 10 o’clock at night, interrupted the show and created confusion among the audience. It was a fascist approach that had nothing to do with the principles that I, the general population of Cuba and the president believe in. Just three days before he had argued for the need for a change in people’s mentality.”

130 people worked at “El Cabildo,” including artists, musicians, dancers, waiters and cooks. Photo: Raquel Perez

Aquino told us that the problem arose when the “Reuters news agency reported our story, which led to me being called in by the Central Committee of the Party to explain our program to functionaries of the Ideological Department. I thought they were satisfied with my explanation – but apparently they weren’t.”

Ulises added that, “Based on that meeting, a whole series of incidents were triggered. They accused me of ‘enrichment’ and took away my self-employment license.”

He concluded by stating, “It hurts most because I’m a revolutionary and I believe deeply in the humanistic work of the revolution.”

(*) A Cuban stew made up of many varied ingredients; a melting pot.

(*) An authorized translation by Havana Times (from the Spanish original) published by Cartas Desde Cuba.


5 thoughts on “Cuba Closes ‘Street Opera’ Project

  • The story about the closing was featured the other night on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” Glad to hear that it is to be reinstated. As Bob Dylan once crooned: “The times, they are a’changin!” The 1970’s are rapidly growing smaller in the rear-view mirror. Also, Cuba is not the DPRK (though, apparently, at least some in the PCC would like it to be). Even in the 1970’s, when the cultural commissars held sway, Cuba never fully embraced the Stalinist cultural repression. Why? Because Cuba has always had a great cultural diversity, including being the cross-roads of Spanish, African, Arabic, French and Native-Amirican cultures, not to mention the strong cultural influence, despite 50+ years of the embargo, of its neighbor to the North.

  • The shutting down of this grass roots group’s operation appears to be a disgraceful undemocratic, authoritarian and Stalinist action .
    WTF is the PCC thinking ?
    The whole world is watching and this has nothing to do with preserving the revolution but is helping to destroy it.

  • “For Ulises this was the work of “a hidden fifth column that is attempting to stop the unstoppable movement that’s being promoted by President Raul Castro (…), it’s those of the bureaucratic class who are trying to preserve their power from a position of obscurantism.””

    So, at least from Ulisses’ POV, there are at least two factions of the PCC regarding the infrastructural (ie, social and economic) reforms, being that one of the reasons they are being carried out slowly.

    From the spanish HT (thanks Isidro for the infromation):

    Parece que reconsideran la decisión…


    La Presidencia del Consejo Nacional de las Artes Escénicas informa que la Compañía de Teatro Lírico y Espectáculos Ópera de la Calle mantiene sus actividades, como proyecto cultural comunitario subvencionado, en su espacio habitual, en 4 entre 7ma y 9na, Consejo Popular Miramar, Municipio Playa. Desde abril de 2011 esta compañía ha desarrollado en ese sitio y desde abril de 2006 en el cine Arenal, del propio municipio, presentaciones artísticas, talleres para niños, actividades con instituciones docentes y organizaciones sociales, actuaciones para niños sin amparo filial y ha coordinado presentaciones de otras unidades artísticas. Esta labor ha contribuido al incremento de opciones recreativas para la comunidad y a la formación de públicos. Como se ha venido anunciando, el próximo 25 de agosto Ópera de la Calle se presentará en el teatro Carlos Marx.

    Fuente: El Consejo Nacional de las Artes Escénicas

  • Moses is obviously an expert on “enrichment”, but not logic, and can’t see anything wrong with some folks making more than others, you know, like CEOs, people in the financial industry who make obscene salaries, and on and on.

    Otherwise, hopefully Fernando Ravsberg’s article will throw a spotlight on a piece of bureaucratic bungling that needs addressing.

  • So let me get this straight….if you are good at what you do and are able to make a living doing it, you are at risk of being accused of “enrichment”? The internal blockade that Cubans face every day from other Cubans is much worse than anything the Cubans in Miami could ever do to hurt Cuba.

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