“Tann(z)häuser” Behind the Scenes in Cuba

Behind the scenes of “Tannhäuser”
Behind the scenes of “Tannhäuser” | Photo: Andreas Schiekofer

Richard Wagner in Cuba? It may sound strange, but they blend very well! The “Tann(z)häuser” project initiated by the Goethe-Institut now had its celebrated premiere in Havana. The bumpy pathway to the premiere was captured in an illuminating report by the 3sat programme “Kulturzeit”. The full-length show can now be watched online on the Mediathek.

Cuban society is presently experiencing openings in many areas: in the economy, research and not least in the arts. “We’re right in the middle of that with our project,” explains director Andreas Baesler. He put together a production of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser in socialist Cuba that premiered as an interdisciplinary blend of opera, dance and visual art. Renamed Tann(z)häuser, it is the first Wagner production ever to be held in the Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso.

The report “Tannhäuser in Havana” takes a look behind the scenes of this ambitious project. Writers Britta Zekorn and Jochen Beckmann observed and interviewed the ensemble of artists from Germany, Austria and Cuba during their work. It was broadcast during the 3sat programme Kulturzeit on 15 April and will be available to watch in its entirety for another year on the broadcaster’s online Mediathek.

The Cuban leads Johana Símon and Marcos Lima sing the opera in German, which is no easy task. Although the two went to Bayreuth in 2015 on scholarship, opera does not have a long tradition as an art form in Cuba. Operas were not welcome under Fidel Castro. Even today, the socialist island state has hardly any conductors and directors dedicated to musical theatre.

This makes German-Cuban coproductions like Tann(z)häuser, mounted by the Goethe-Institut liaison office in Havana together with the Teatro Lírico Nacional de Cuba opera ensemble, the Danza Teatro Retazos dance company and the International Association of Wagner Societies, all the more crucial. This is the second Wagner premiere in Cuba in recent years. In 2013, The Flying Dutchman was performed in Havana in German with some of the same personnel.

In addition to looking at rehearsals, the Kulturzeit report illuminates the living and working conditions of artists in Cuba. Many have to pursue other occupations on the side to earn their livelihood. For this reason, Austrian conductor Walter Gugerbauer explains, he hardly ever had a complete cast at the rehearsals. The Tann(z)häuser production itself is also a reflection of the nation as it is the story of an artist who yearns to make it in mainstream society.