Sunday, July 29, 2012

Cuba Closes ‘Street Opera’ Project

Cuba Closes ‘Street Opera’ Project
July 27, 2012
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.

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