It was inevitable that zarzuela would take root in New Mexico. Nuevomexicanos have always loved to perform, beginning with the first comédia produced on the banks of the Rio Grande in 1598 to celebrate the first European settlement of the region.
While there is evidence that zarzuela excerpts were performed in the tent shows that followed the railroad workers into northeastern New Mexico in the 19th century, zarzuela activity here truly got its start in 1952 when Frederick Sommer, an Arizona found-object artist, discovered hundreds of zarzuela manuscripts tossed in a mountainside town dump in Jerome, Arizona. He found handwritten, hand bound orchestra scores and libretti, enough to fill twelve cardboard boxes. He gathered them up and donated them to the University of New Mexico where they went into deep storage until 1972.
In 1972, the collection was moved to the university’s fine arts library where this reporter spent the next four years researching the collection and its former owner as part of a master's thesis (The Manuel Areu Collection of 19th Century Zarzuelas, 1976, UNM). According to his handwritten memoirs, the collector, Manuel Areu (1845-1944), was born in Madrid to a theatrical family. He became a musician, performer and presenter of theater works in Cuba and Mexico after leaving Spain as a young man. Before emigrating, he played violin at the Price Circus in Madrid; a friend and fellow musician in the circus orchestra was Tomás Bretón.
Areu flourished in the Americas. He married a French ballet dancer who had accompanied Maximilian and Carlotta to Mexico. Together, they had six children, five of which became performers and toured Mexico presenting zarzuela, sound-enhanced silent films and other stage acts. After a command performance for Pancho Villa in a blockaded Chihuahua, they were allowed to take a train north to the U.S. They settled in Jerome, Arizona, to wait out the revolution, but then moved to Los Angeles after several years.
Even in the worst of the revolution, the aging Areu managed to travel with eight trunks of zarzuela manuscripts, including libretti, conductor’s scores and all orchestral parts for zarzuelas. When the family left Jerome to resettle in Los Angeles, the family left the trunks in their Jerome house, under the care of a neighbor. Areu died and was buried in Mexico City in 1944. In 1952, Mr. Sommer found the manuscripts in the Jerome dump. In the early 1970s, this reporter made contact with the family, which had more manuscripts, including a single hand-bound booklet of handwritten memoirs that Areu began writing while in Jerome. The collection now resides in the Center for Southwest Research at the University of New Mexico. Its complete contents are listed online here.
Inspired by the presence of the Areu collection in New Mexico, La Zarzuela de Alburquerque was organized in 1981 as a grassroots, community theater company. A second company, ¡Viva Zarzuela!, focused on professional performances of anthologies and full productions, as well as educational outreach. The company, founded by Carmen Acosta, José Daniel Apodaca, Mary Montaño and Sally Bissell, was invited to perform La verbena de la Paloma at the Chamizal International Zarzuela Festival in El Paso in 1987. They returned to the Festival in 1988 to present El barberillo de Lavapiés.
In 1993, Albuquerques Opera Southwest produced a double bill of La revoltosa and La verbena de la Paloma at the KiMo Theater. Opera Southwest regularly produces new or unusual works, so zarzuela further extends its charm to new and appreciative opera audiences.
Beginning in 2004, the new Teatro Nuevo México (TNM) began producing zarzuelas at the new National Hispanic Cultural Center theater in Albuquerque: Luisa Fernanda in 2004; La del manojo de rosas, 2006; Zarzuela Cabaret (anthology), 2006; La tabernera del puerto, 2007; El barbero de Sevilla (Giménez/Nieto), 2007 and November 2008; La corte de Faraón, 2008; and La verbena de la Paloma, 2009. The series is named The Patty Disney Zarzuela series, after its generous principal funder, a life-long zarzuela devotee.
Where La Zarzuela de Alburquerque used zarzuela as a tool to instill cultural pride among Nuevomexicanos, ¡Viva Zarzuela! sought to present the highest quality productions possible on a limited budget. With TNM productions, the funding was available to meet both goals. All of TNM’s productions have been presented under the musical direction of Pablo Zinger and stage direction of Salome Martinez-Lutz, who are veterans of New York’s Repertorio Español. Maestro Zinger is an acknowledged expert in zarzuela performance.
TNM guest performers have included Kirstin Chavez (born in New Mexico, trained in New York), Virginia Herrera (New York), José Garcia Davis (Los Angeles/NM), Mabel Ledo (New York), Armando Mora (New York/México) and David Robinson (Los Angeles). Local performers, including university voice students and community theater regulars, fill the remaining roles and choruses, and the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra provides the musicians.
Says Pablo Zinger, "The wonderful thing about The Patty Disney Zarzuela Series is the bringing together of veteran local zarzuela performers with bi-coastal, multi-national soloists who have active international careers; of fluent Spanish speakers with years of performing experience on one hand, and novices vanquishing the difficulties of the language and the demands of theatre discipline on the other. We've had singer/actors in their 60's sharing the stage with 13-year old middle school students, mother and daughter teams, and former high-school students graduating into talented, disciplined performers eager to take direction and grow."
Because New Mexicans have been hearing zarzuela music in theaters and schools since the 1980s, TNM productions are casting second-generation zarzuela performers. Also, encouraged by the increasing success and audience size of each production – and by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts – TNM presented its first Zarzuela Institute in July 2008 to educate and train singers of all ages for future productions, and to encourage the appreciation of zarzuela in the Southwest. The two-week intensive is intended to be an annual offering.
Director Martinez-Lutz said recently, “For years, Spanish has been marginalized in New Mexico’s schools and cultural circles; Spanish theater has all but withered away in the last decade and younger generations of Nuevomexicanos are learning and speaking only English. So our efforts in producing zarzuelas and reaching new audiences are doubly important in reviving Spanish as an organic part of our community once again.” Zarzuela in New Mexico is not only reviving interest in Spanish, but introducing elements of the complex Hispanic performance culture hitherto unknown in a region that was once one of Spain’s most isolated colonial outposts.
Text and photos © Mary Montaño 2009
Mary Montaño writes and teaches on the Indo-Hispanic arts of New Mexico for the University of New Mexico. She is the author of “Tradiciones Nuevomexicanas: Hispano Arts and Culture of New Mexico,” UNM Press, 2001.