The Book of Life: Testimony of a Shared Heritage?

For centuries the United States (and what were once the British colonies/US territories) has been intertwined with the people who live in the area today known as Mexico. In fact, part of the USA, the state of Texas and much of the Southwest was part of Spanish territory. Although in the north of the USA one does not readily feel this legacy as strongly, it is quite obvious in the region that used to be part of Spanish territory/Mexico, and that currently share a border with Mexico.
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As a child growing up in New York City, Spanish was always there, but there were no (or very few) Mexicans. The majority of Spanish speakers were Puerto Ricans or Nuyoricans, and perhaps some Cubans. Gradually this began to change and today in New York City (and its tri-state area, including New Jersey and Connecticut), Spanish speakers hail from all over Latin America and Spain. There is even a sizeable Mexican immigrant population–even though some of them hardly speak Spanish, but indigenous languages.  It is fascinating to see today that Mexican culture has spread from the Southwest to the East Coast via more recent immigration. The midwest already had a Mexican-American population which came by early railroad to work in agricultural and meat packing industries some four generations ago.

Words like “fiesta,” “cinco de mayo,” “loco”, “no problema” are now part of the American English lexicon. Americans not only eat at Mexican restaurants and fast food joints, but also have been preparing chile, tacos and other Mexican-derived foods for decades. Go into any grocery store in the country and you’ll find tortillas, guacamole, tortilla chips, jalapeños and salsa. In spite of the love-hate relationship with Mexico–the rejection of it expressed through rabid xenofobia and prejudice against Mexican immigrants, and the acceptance through the consistent use of cheap immigrant labor and more positively, the cultural mixing–it cannot be denied that there are certain areas of the USA that have always been hispanic. These are: Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. For sure,  Mexico and many things mexican, are now in our blood.

The Alamo. San Antonio, TX

The Alamo. San Antonio, TX

The fun and colorful children’s film The Book of Life (in Spanish: El libro de la vida) is a reflection of this history and cultural intermingling. It unites a cast of talented, mostly latino voice actors to tell a love story–the triangle between Manolo, Joaquín and Maria. Guillermo del Toro, of Mexican descent produced the animated feature and Plácido Domingo (opera) and Zoe Saldana (Star Trek) and Kate del Castillo (Mexican soap operas and Bajo la misma luna) are well known international celebrities that lend their talents.

The Mexican holiday, Dia de los muertos, The Day of the Dead, is prominent in the film. This holiday has Aztec origins but was tolerated by the Catholic Church in Mexico. The Day of the Dead is a remembering of those that have passed on. But unlike the somber funeral of mourning, that is characteristic of death in U.S. culture, it is celebratory and festive. The Day of the Dead is often celebrated as two days in some parts of Mexico. One day is in rememberance of the infants and children who have died and the other day is for the adults. The concept behind it is that by remembering what these people were like, one will feel their presence on The Day of the Dead.  They will return in spirit. Mexican people who celebrate it, go to cemetaries with flowers, music and food and have a big party to welcome back their dead ancestors. They also make altars at home too, with candles, skulls, mask, and figurines that represent their dead loved ones and ancestors. There is a special pan de muertos (bread for the dead) that is baked for this holiday. The figurines show their deceased family doing activities that they enjoyed doing while alive and other foods and beverages that they liked are also prepared. All of these features of the holiday appear in the movie and the characters even look like the skeletal dolls that represent the dead on the altars.

Day of the Dead figures

Day of the Dead figures

The movie is lighthearted and the characters endearing. It is full of color, music and folklore. It is spoken and sung mostly in English, but there is a Spanish version that is playing in Spanish speaking countries. The Book of Life meshes the Mexican with the United States language (English) and its manner of presenting the story is simple and accessible to most. It is perhaps consoling to Mexican-Americans living in the Southwest, and familiar to a younger generation of “anglos” who have learned of Day of the Dead in school or in community events. At any rate, this is an uplifting and fun story that is educational and enjoyable to watch unfold. Go see it!

Luisa Fernanda: Encore!

One beautiful woman, 2 men–a triangle. The stuff of love stories. One of the men is young and flaky. The other is established and mature. Who will she choose? Then enter the duchess! Dangerous liaisons develop within this quartet. This flirtatious noblewoman captures the attention of both men, originally devoted to the serious Luisa Fernanda. 

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COT (Concert Operetta Theater) led by Daniel Pantano in Philadelphia, boldly takes on a difficult challenge with one of the most famous (if not THE most famous) grand zarzuela, Luisa Fermanda, by Spanish composer, Moreno Torroba.  José Melendez as Musical Director and pianist, is the backbone of this endeavor. A big hurdle in producing zarzuela outside of Spain and other spanish speaking countries, has always been casting. In Spain zarzuelas are still done, even some of those composed in the 18th and 19th centuries. There is a tradition and a background knowledge of the cryptic historical intrigues and politics that comprise many of the libretti. In addition, the public and the performers are familiar with the genre and speak the language. In the United States at least, the performance of classical music (and zarzuela as a form of operetta floats between musical theatre and opera) in Spanish has lagged behind that in French, German and of course Italian. Even Russian works are done more often. Spanish diction has just started to be taught in some conversatories and music programs.

In addition to the language barrier, zarzuela  includes spoken dialogue and dance as well as singing. The nature of the lead roles especially, require an operatically trained voice (or at least one which attempts the training) and musicianship to learn the parts well enough to be able to follow an orchestral conductor.  The “comedy couple” in some zarzuelas (and there is none in Luisa Fernanda) is often cast with less glorious/less trained voices BUT, this couple must dance and act well since they deliver most of the laughs. In essense, for some of the zarzuelas, you need a triple threat opera singer (or zarzuela singer in Spain) who speaks and sings Spanish. These requirements make it difficult and expensive to produce a zarzuela. Remember, that there are full orchestras that go along with all this stage action and design, so in addition to a budget that can rival a fully staged opera, and assembling a qualified cast, there is the issue of marketing and getting “butts in the seats.” Outside of New York City, some parts of California, New Mexico, Texas and Florida, with strong hispanic populations, this requires much more work than getting people into an opera or a musical in English. The heydey of zarzuela in the United States, was in those areas, from the 1980s to the early 2000s. Plácido Domingo himself, and Pablo Zinger of New York City, were instrumental in promoting the genre during this time. Later, it seemed that people just ran out of funding, or  perhaps the energy, to produce as much.

COT is able to skirt some of these issues with a concert version. There are no sets or costumes, and acting while speaking is reduced to the minimum. The singers wear formal wear, suits for the men and gowns for the ladies. Since there are scores and music stands visible and the audience knows it is a “concert version,” they come prepared to enjoy the music without the elaborate sets, authentic costumes, dancing and dialogue. A screen was set up to the left of the stage, and titles were projected in English, facilitating comprehension for the non-Spanish speakers.

During the concert on Sunday, October 19, 2014, I missed at first, the costumes, movement and set, but then the voices in this production made up for it. In particular, tenor, César Delgado, delivered a rendition of “De este apacible rincón” that rivaled that of Plácido Domingo!

Laura Maria Reyes who played Luisa Fernanda, (and on 5 days notice!) and Jorge Espino as Vidal, also displayed solid technique, diction, beaultiful vocalism, and idiomatic expression. The rest of the ensemble, some not native Spanish speakers, held their own in the dialogue and navigated the somewhat awkward vocal lines that often plague zarzuela. Although the end results are very charming and sometimes cute, zarzuelas are not that easy to sing. One interesting change was to have mezzo Chrystal E. Williams sing the roles of Mariana and El Saboyano. El Saboyano is usually sung by a tenor, but she owned it! The best actor in the spoken dialogue by far was Valentine Fernández-Buitrago. He seemed at home with this kind of acting and with good reason as he began performing in it very young in Puerto Rico. As Duchess Carolina, Eugenia Forza embodied this persona. Although there were no costumes, she appeared to have stepped out of a Goya portrait–Cayetana in the flesh–and I mean that as a compliment. Her stance, her expressions, her “look” fit the character of quasi decadent nobility.

My favorite part of this zarzuela has always been the duet “Cállate, corazón.” To sing it or hear it is just heartwrenching. I had to stop myself from standing up and yelling “Can we get rid of the music stands??” This was the one point where I just wanted to see them be Luisa Fernanda and Javier and forget that this was a “concert.” That is the one negative about a well done concert version: It always makes you want more and to long to see the work fully realized. Hopefully, this is the start of something in Philadelphia. COT needs to do this show again and other local companies need to think about repertoire in Spanish. COT proved that this zarzuela’s music could stand on its own. Without all of the trimmings (and the expense and complicated casting), perhaps this is a way to still enjoy this unique genre.

To view a complete Spanish performance of Luisa Fernanda: