University of Illinois Press


Cuban Zarzuela - Performing Race and Gender on Havana’s Lyric Stage (Susan Thomas)

Cuban Zarzuela – Performing Race and Gender on Havana’s Lyric Stage
Susan Thomas

University of Illinois Press 2008 ($40)
ISBN 978-0-252-03331-5I (250pp)


Zarzuela cubana enjoyed tropical growth, brief but luxuriant. Between Niña Rita (1927) and Amalia Batista (1936), Ernesto Lecuona, Gonzalo Roig, Rodrigo Prats and their librettists fashioned a run of pieces both popular and distinct from the mainstream Spanish repertoire. It is a fascinating flowering, well worth in-depth study; and – with the modest exception of my own chapter on these three composers and their major works in The Zarzuela Companion – Susan Thomas is the first writer to address the subject, in English or Spanish, with the seriousness it deserves.

Let me say at once that my admiration for Cuban Zarzuela is great. Thomas’s scholarship, learning and analytical acumen are formidable. She has focussed on the right composers and the right works. This is a pioneering book which may sadly turn out to be the last word on the subject, for the reasons which she outlines and which have frustrated would-be researchers in the past (present writer included!) Revolution, tropical weather and termites have played their part in the dispersal and destruction of libretti, musical manuscripts and performing materials. None of these zarzuelas, not even the celebrated María La O or Cecilia Valdés, have been published. Some of the most tantalising, such as Roig’s El Clarín, are unperformable owing to the loss of the libretto. Others, such as the same composer’s La busca-bulla, lack music.

Thomas begins with a brace of contextual chapters, one describing the trajectory of the island’s lyric stage from the early 19th century onwards, the other examining Cuban zarzuela’s strongly feminine (though far from feminist) preoccupations, convincingly showing how the genre was tailored to appeal to female at least as much as male audiences. This was a point of departure from zarzuela in Spain, and the fact enables Thomas to launch her thesis examining the twin theatrical portrayals of race and gender in these Cuban stage works.

The remainder of the book is thematic, allowing discussion of the major composers and works in an ordered but elegantly unhackneyed manner. Chapter 3 focuses on the famous mulatasMaría la O, Cecilia Valdés, Amalia Batista – and their memorable salidas, or entrance songs. Chapter 4 examines the negrito, or comedy black man. Thomas is specially cogent here, as she reveals how in El Cafetal (1929) Lecuona and his partner Sánchez Galarraga brought a new type, which she sensibly christens the negro trágico, to the stage. She underplays the temptation to make political capital from this, in favour of the unsentimental explanation that these “noble savages” (as Dryden might have termed them) satisfied the fantasies of both sexes in zarzuela’s white, largely well-heeled audiences.

Next comes “Ingenues and Fallen Women”, where Thomas brings Rosa la china on stage, clarifying as far as she can the vexed question of the heroine’s ethnic origins. China is primarily a term of endearment, and Rosa is not Chinese, nor a mulata, but a poor, white prostitute. Her nickname comes from her dwelling in Havana’s Chinatown, but may also hint at some Chinese blood, or more likely her fashionably slanting eyes. This chapter also examines Lola Cruz and aspects of Julián el Gallo, the Lecuona zarzuela prominent also in last main chapter “Ambivalent Heroes and Sensual Peasants: The Galán and the Criollo”.

Music Example: Amalia Batista (Prats) CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGEThere’s a short epilogue examining recordings and the depressing lack of serious (or indeed any) modern productions, either in Cuba or from the Florida émigrés across the water. Those performers who knew and worked closely with Lecuona and co. are departing, and knowledge of the zarzuelas is dying with them. Thomas’s researches have come just in time to tap the memories of some of the last significant survivors, notably Lecuona’s charming “personal secretary”, the comic tenor Pedrito Fernández. Aside from the usual editorial apparatuses she adds an invaluable appendix, with full chronologies of the lyric works of the three major composers covered by the book.

Cuban Zarzuela is not flawless. Historically and aesthetically, it seems to me that the work and achievement of Jorge Anckermann from the earlier generation merits some space at least. True, judging from their synopses, his major zarzuelas might have proved square pegs for the round hole of the book’s thesis, outlined by Thomas’s unappetising subtitle. But given that the sociological thesis itself is outrun in most places by the book’s musical scope and her own wide sympathy, good taste and sheer common sense, more room should have been found for him. Another question: why is Thomas content merely to hint at a more obvious angle on the “femininity” of Ernesto Lecuona’s work with Sánchez Galarraga – that “camp” which screams of gay sensibilities in play? Maybe the question had to remain hanging in the air … her Cuban interlocutors had enough difficulty coping with the idea of Havana prostitution, let alone homosexuality!

Another, more substantial blot is Thomas’s failure to give a fair idea of the extent to which zarzuela cubana relied on Iberian models. Spanish zarzuela is the elephant in the room, scarcely mentioned and rarely examined. A reference to “Arrieta’s extremely popular zarzuela Los gavilanes” (p.173) is the kind of howler any of us could make, but it does ring alarm bells about Thomas’s grasp of the broader field of which zarzuela cubana is one small plot. Jacinto Guerrero wrote Los gavilanes in 1923, and it deals with the question of the New World expatriate; his operetta-zarzuelas from that period, like those of Pablo Luna, were performed successfully in Havana, and influenced the popular styles of Lecuona and Roig for sure.

1920’s Spanish demotic zarzuela and revista provided contemporary structural frameworks for the Cubans, and also displayed numerous examples of those “exotic” elements which the Havana composers developed so individually. This is not considered. Nor does Thomas look to Spanish drama for the tropic origin of the (here often black as well as poor) comedy couple, who function as sensual mirror to the “whiter than white” hero and heroine. These comedians, rather than as Thomas states helping the audience “maintain a sense of racial superiority”, do quite the reverse in performance. They undermine the fantasy of romance, and emphasise earthy realities of which a sophisticated and doomed society is only too well aware.

The book is also afflicted with circumlocutory clotted cream. The quasi-scientific tone of some of Thomas’s writing recalls Robin Moore’s in Nationalising Blackness, that powerful and penetrating (if sometimes infuriating) overview of racial elements in Cuba’s 20th Century music. She doesn’t fall into his self-righteousness, but is not wholly free from his academic obscurantism. In the midst of a rich discussion of the mulata, for example, Thomas states that such characters “do not necessarily affirm their assigned identity… [they] often use the tropes of their type self-consciously, sometimes fulfilling them, sometimes dismantling them”. I get the point that these self-consciously theatrical heroines can surprise us by stepping outside the conventions, but I’d have preferred to have it expressed in English rather than Mooreish.

It would be churlish to dwell on these pitfalls, because in sum the book clears them. In particular, the quality of Thomas’s extensive musical and dramatic analyses is impressive, closely argued through printed examples from the scores themselves, and revealing a huge amount about the nature of the material. Her intelligent, balanced and clear presentation of the American context of Havana’s Golden Decade is as valuable as the sheer amount of information she has unearthed about this enticing cadet branch of the zarzuela family. I for one will be returning often to her enlightening and indispensable book.

© Christopher Webber 2009


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15 January 2009