- Cuban Zarzuela: Performing Race and Gender on Havana's Lyric Stage
The cover graphic of Susan Thomas's monograph neatly sums up its approach: it is a composite of four photos of Rita Montaner (1900-1958), the quintessential Cuban soprano of this era, made up and costumed as each of the four stock character types of the Cuban zarzuela—a genre of operetta, originated in Spain in the 17th century, with spoken dramatic action interspersed with sung and danced musical numbers. Consideration of the dramatic and musical characterization of these stock characters—the mulata (mixed-blooded woman), the negrito (black man), the white ingenue, and the galán (well-born white man)—and their sociohistorical context form the crux of Thomas' monograph.
This book is a welcome contribution to scholarship on Cuban music: it is the first monograph in English dedicated to addressing this relatively neglected repertoire, which played a key role in popularizing Afro-Cuban musical genres such as son and rumba, in stylized form, at a time when Cuban society discriminated against their practitioners. Furthermore, the Cuban zarzuela is a rich vein from which to draw examples of musical exoticism and syncretism—and semiotically potent ones, at that—as it drew inspiration from diverse European and Afro-Cuban sources, including Spanish zarzuelas, European operas and operetta, Cuban vernacular theater, and popular music of the day. In concentrating on works dating from 1927 through the 1930s, when the Cuban zarzuela was at its zenith, Thomas's book complements Robin Moore's monograph on the popularization and nationalization of Afro-Cuban culture in Cuba, Nationalizing Blackness.
Thomas should be applauded for collecting the archival material necessary to discuss the music in detail: no score of a Cuban zarzuela has ever been published in its entirety, and it is difficult to obtain access to manuscripts, many of which are only available in the archives of the Museo de la Música in Havana; furthermore, just a handful of commercial recordings exist, some of which are only available in Cuba (although a number [End Page 124] of performances can now be seen on YouTube). Such discussion of the music itself has largely been absent from works on Cuban zarzuela (in Spanish) by Victoria Eli Rodríguez, Clara Díaz Pérez, Enrique Río Prado, and others, who have tended to concentrate on historical, textual, and biographical matters.
As Thomas is a professor of women's studies as well as musicology, it is perhaps not surprising that the book is particularly strong when it considers feminist viewpoints on the subject. After a brief discussion of the antecedents of Cuban zarzuela (mentioned above) in the first chapter, the second plunges into the female-focused nature of Cuban zarzuelas in the 1920s and 30s. Identifying the target audience of these zarzuelas to be middle- and upper-class white women, Thomas informs us that women of such status in Cuba had historically led more circumscribed lives than their counterparts in Western Europe and North America, making the theater one of the few social spaces accessible to them. Writers and producers of zarzuelas catered to this female-dominated market by featuring female protagonists in the drama and female voices in the music, whose sheet music, in the form of piano-vocal scores, could be sold to the aspiring sopranos among this audience.
Thomas then focuses her feminist lens on the stock characters she discusses, beginning with the mulata in chapter 3. She describes how the mulata came to symbolize sexual desire, racial contamination, and Cuban nationalism in the literature and theater of the 19th century. In Cuban vernacular theater of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the mulata is typically a flirtatious and fickle comic character; in contrast, the mulata in Cuban zarzuelas of the 1930s tends to be a tragic figure. In a stereotypical plot, she is deeply in love with an upper-class white man, who forsakes her to marry a white woman...