Throwback: National Sarsuwela Festival 2009 at the University of the Philippines Diliman

After the success of the University of the Philippines (UP) Komedya Fiesta 2008, Virgilio Almario, National Artist for Literature and then College of Arts & Letters (CAL) Dean proclaimed that after komedya, the sarsuwela is the second national theatre form in the Philippines truly deserving to be examined. In his opening remarks in the Sarsuwela conference, Almario expressed his primary objectives of establishing and institutionalizing the sarsuwela as a second Philippine national theatre form,  “(..)and this is the ultimate goal of our Sarsuwela Festival. It is more than a celebration of history, but the discovery of the real Philippine national theatre form. Furthermore, we would like to perform the characteristics of theatre forms like the komedya and the sarsuwela in order to understand and appreciate their aesthetics and their relevance to Philippine art.”

Organized by the UP Diliman’s College of Arts and Letters for the Academic Year 2008 – 2009 and funded by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), Senator Edgardo Angara, UP Diliman Office of the Chancellor, the UP Sarsuwela Festival 2009 was a month-long festival adopted by the UP Office for Initiatives in Culture and the Arts (OICA) as the centerpiece of the UP Diliman Month. Sarsuwela performances were presented by the University of the East’s Drama Company (UEDC), Far Eastern University’s Art Theatre Clinique (FEU-ATC), Barasoain Kalinangan Foundation (BKF), University of the Philippines in the Visayas Alumni Theatre Company (UPV – ATC), and the University of the Philippines Diliman – Dulaang UP (DUP). The festival also included the following components: film screenings, exhibition, tertulia, and a conference.

Before the Festival

In July 2008, the festival core-committee led by me and assisted by Bryan L. Viray launched the sarsuwela writing competition and the outright research grant on the sarsuwela as preliminary activities before the grand opening of the UP Sarsuwela Festival 2009. By the last week of August, five research proposals were approved.

Revolving around the theme of Amor, Vida, Patria (Love, Life and Nation), the board of judges decided not to award a grand prize on the writing competion but to give a special “honorable” mention instead. The committee stated, quoting Alexander Cortez – head of the board of judges—“that although all the contestants wrote according to the theme of the competition, the weakness of the materials submitted were in the aspect of music and in the dramaturgical part of these texts.” Nonetheless, Ang Señorita at ang Hukbo (The Lady and the Soldier) by Bonifacio Ilagan with music by Lucien Letaba was adjudged honorable mention. 

The festival was officially launched on 28 November 2008 at the lobby of the Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theatre in UP during the gala performance of Dulaang UP’s Atang by Floy Quintos and under the direction of Alexander Cortez. Atang tells the story of Honorata “Atang” dela Rama, a famous Tagalog sarsuwelista (the artist of the sarsuwela) who in 1989 was conferred by then President Corazon Aquino the National Artist Award for Theatre.

Floy Quintos’s Atang under the direction of Alexander Cortez at the Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theater kicks off the UP Sarsuwela Festival 2009. (Photo: Alexander Cortez)
Ms. Erica Valerio hosts the tertulia during the launching of the festival on 28 November 2008. (Photo: Loen Vitto)

We also organized a tertulia performance before the actual performance of Atang. A tertulia was an informal gathering of the socialites during the turn of the 20th century in the Philippines where impromptu or planned agendas were discussed. Usually, in these gatherings, new works of arts were featured specifically new songs, poetry and even new plays. Most of the times these new works were critiqued. The gathering was also an opportunity to flaunt the latest fashion and for the socialites to flaunt their wealth by wearing expensive earrings, necklaces, and beaded ternos (Filipina gown). Most importantly, it was also an opportunity to talk and gossip about anything. Usually, the host / hostess served biscuits, chocolate, tea, or any kakanin (i.e. pudding) for everyone. The highlight of this event was the unveiling of the UP Sarsuwela Festival 2009 logo.

The Festival’s Opening Day (Opening Parade)

The festival opened on 4 February through a parada royale (grand parade) around the academic oval of the University. Under the direction of Lakan Bunyi, the concept of the grand parade was to inform the community on the important details about the sarsuwela – history, theme, structure, characters, etc. The parade had six stations.

The first station was at the Quezon Hall where a little ceremony was initiated. Then UP President Emerlinda R. Roman and her administration posed as the family hosting the piging (banquet). To spice up the opening of the banquet, an excerpt from Dulaang UP’s Ang Kiri (The Croquette) was performed particularly the valse (a social gathering through music and dance) production number to signify UP’s invitation to everyone as the festival opens.

A small ceremony performed at the Quezon Hall or the Administrative Building of the University of the Philippines (Photo: SAPT)
The vintage cars used during the Opening Parade of the festival (Photo: SAPT)

Carried by vintage cars, UP Officials led everyone to the 2nd station at the Faculty Center where the BKF ensemble performed Ang Karayom Kung Iduro (The Needle As Pierced) as an excerpt from the sarsuwela Walang Sugat (Unwounded) by Severino Reyes with music by Fulgencio Tolentino. The performance presented three important sarsuwela props: panyo (handkerchief), pamaypay (fan), and the tungkod (cane) which after the performance were offered to the folk sarsuwelistas (represented by the sarsuwelistas from the Ilocos, Pampanga, and Pangasinan regions) as a signification of respect, reverence and acknowledgement to their contribution to the wealth of Philippine culture.

In the 3rd station at the Palma Hall, the different characters in the sarsuwela were explained through an excerpt from Juan Balmaceda’s Sa Bunganga ng Pating (In the Shark’s Mouth) by the FEU – ATC members. The 4th station (Malcolm Hall) featured an excerpt again from Walang Sugat as performed by BKF ensemble presenting the revolutionary Filipinos fighting for freedom against the Spaniards.

At the Melchor Hall (5th station), performers from the UEDC and from the Komedya ng Don Galo in Parañaque performed the fascinating intersection of the komedya and the sarsuwela in Philippine theatre history. In this reenactment, the komedyante (as represented by the Komedya ng Don Galo) and the sarsuwelista (as represented by the UEDC) literally fought for the best theatre form. But in the end, the fighting was settled.

The master of ceremonies, Jovy Peregrino, proclaimed that the komedya and the sarsuwela are alive, contrary to popular belief. This proclamation was the main point of the station. A sulo (gas lamp) was then offered by the UEDC performers to the folk sarsuwelistas as a sign of humility and in recognition of the misdeeds that the sarsuwelistas did to the komedyantes during their heyday in the 20’s.      

At the University Theater (Villamor Hall), the final station, the names of all the sarsuwelistas (actors, playwrights, directors, etc.), dead or alive were recognized by mentioning their names to the public. Folk sarsuwelistas from Ilocos, Pampanga, and Pangasinan performed excerpts from their respective traditional sarsuwelas. After which, the Roman formally opened the festival.     

Sarsuwela Performances

 After the festival was formally opened by Roman at around 6 pm, the master of ceremony invited everyone to witness Precioso Palma’s Paglipas ng Dilim (After Darkness) with music by Leon Ignacio as performed by the UEDC under Frederick Castro’s direction. In this sarsuwela, three characters are involved: Estrella, a young lady with a pure heart; Ricardo, a gentleman who just finished his studies in a medical school in the city and the son of the richest family in the town; and Caridad, a ‘modern’ woman.

Paglipas ng Dilim is the love story of Ricardo and Estrella. Because of greed, Caridad plots everything to win Ricardo’s heart. In a welcome party to Ricardo, Caridad finds the opportunity to seduce Ricardo. Caridad persuades Ricardo to drink with her until Ricardo gets drunk. While Ricardo is under the influence of alcohol, Caridad announces that Ricardo proposed to her. Estrella in desperation leaves the gathering. The next day, Ricardo learns what has happened. He confronts Caridad and seeks the forgiveness of Estrella. In the end, Ricardo and Estrella are reunited.

BKF presented its version of Severino Reyes’ Walang Sugat on the second week of the festival. Written in 1902 with music composed by Fulgencio Tolentino, Walang Sugat is one of the most popular Tagalog sarsuwelas having been staged by different theatre companies.

Walang Sugat deals with the aristocracy of the Spanish friars on Filipino prisoners accused of subversion. It is the story of Julia separated from her sweetheart, Temyong, who is fighting the Spaniards. In obedience to her mother, she vows to marry Miguel, the kura paroko’s(parish priest) nephew. On the day of the wedding, Temyong appears – – wounded and ‘dying’. Temyong asks Julia to marry her before he dies. Everyone but Miguel agrees for the sake of the dying Temyong. After Temyong and Julia are united by the priest, Temyong rises unwounded deceiving everyone for the sake of his love with Julia.

On the third week, FEU-ATC presented Julian Cruz Balmaceda’s Sa Bunganga ng Pating under the direction of Joey Ting. Music by Leon Ignacio, Balmaceda’s sarsuwela is a social satire critiquing the corruption and cruel treatment of landlords to their tenants, employees, and servants.

The closing tableau of Walang Sugat at the University Theater (Photo: Courtesy of Aurea Lopez)
Far Eastern University’s Art Theatre Clinique in their rendition of Sa Bunganga ng Pating (In the Shark’s Mouth) under Joey Ting’s direction. (Photo: Gari Buenavista)
The performance of Ang Kiri by Dulaang UP (Photo: Courtesy of Aurea Lopez)

The UPV – ATC performed a devised sarsuwela billed as Ilo-Ilo Sarsuwela: Padayon ang Istorya  (Ilo-Ilo Sarsuwela: The Story Continues), which was directed by Alfredo Diaz on 23 – 24 February. This sarsuwela is a combination of five Visayan sarsuwelas: Dumut Cag Huya (1912; Anger and Shame), Sa Tiangge Ni Takay (1928; Takay’s Small Store), Mga Anak ni Sisa (1926; The Children of Sisa), Pinustahan Nga Gugma (2000; The Game of Love), and Ma Pa Ta (1927; Mother, Father and Children). This devised sarsuwela was originally staged in UP Iloilo campus as part of the centenary celebrations of the University of the Philippines. Although, the festival committee considered it as a sarsuwela performance, the piece was actually more like a musical revue from these Ilongo sarsuwela pieces.

Ang Kiri (1962; The Croquette), under the direction of Dexter Santos, served as the festival’s closing sarsuwela performance on 25 – 27 February. Ang Kiri by Servando de los Angeles with music by Leon Ignacio, is about a young woman with suitors of wealth and political power, who falls in love with a country boy. When he marries his country sweetheart, she realizes the folly of her ways, and accepts the faithful Jose, poet and longtime suitor.           

On the last night of Ang Kiri, the festival closed with a large banquet hosted by the UP Diliman administration led by then Chancellor Cao.

Other Components

As mentioned earlier, the festival also had other components: sarsuwela sa pelikula (sarsuwela on film) or the film component, tertulia, zarzuela-sarsuwela exhibition, and the national conference on the sarsuwela

Four “sarsuwela” films were carefully selected by the film component committee (headed by Elena Mirano, then chairperson of the Department of Arts Studies): Carlos Vander Tolosa’s Giliw Ko (My Love) (1939) screened on 18 February, Octavio Solis’ Tunay na Ina (A Real Mother) (1939) screened the next day, Mar Torres’ Maalaala Mo Kaya? (Will You Still Remember?) (1954) screened on 25 February, and Lino Brocka’s Stardoom (1971) screened on 26 February. All films were screened at the 800-seat UP Film Institute at 10 am and 2 pm.

Husband and wife Lionel and Cynthia Guinto open the tertulia performances at the Vargas Museum. (Photo: Loen Vitto)
The Mabuhay Singers performing during the opening of the exhibit Zarzuela‐Sarsuwela. (Photo: Loen Vitto)

The tertulia performances were held at the UP Vargas Museum Lobby where a replica of a turn of the 20th century sarsuwela theatre was erected. Every Thursday at 2:30 in the afternoon, a tertulia performance had a specific theme. On the 13th, husband and wife tandem Lionel and Cynthia Guico performed the love songs from three popular sarsuwelas: Severino Reyes’ Walang Sugat, Nicanor Tiongson’s Pilipinas Circa 1907 (Philippines ca. 1907), and Hermogenes Ylagan’s Dalagang Bukid (The Maiden from the Country). On the 20th, the tertulia featured the typical characters in a sarsuwela bida (protagonist), kontrabida (antagonist), don (the landlord), doña (the landlady), the muchaco (confidante to the male bida), and the muchacha (confidante to the female bida). On the 27th, the tertulia featured excerpts from sarsuwela performances in the provinces of Ilocos, Pangasinan, and Pampanga. This tertulia was also part of the closing ceremony of the conference component of the festival.

 On 11 February, Roman and Cao led the opening of the Zarzuela-Sarsuwela Exhibit at the UP Vargas Museum. Escorting the UP Officials were students of theatre arts who performed an interpretation of a poem on the sarsuwela written by Riya Lopez before Roman and Cao invited all the guests to enter the gallery.

The exhibition at the Vargas Museum (Photo: SAPT)
The exhibition at the Vargas Museum (Photo: SAPT)

The exhibit area housed a replica of a Manila sarsuwela theatre house during the turn of the 20th century; allowing the viewers to situate himself or herself in the social milieu of the time through sound, image and performance. It evoked a “Teatro” (a theatre house) of the period, including a lobby, a small stage and performance area as well as backstage area. It was in this area where the Philippine Mabuhay Singers performed a 45-minute musical number.

The Edge Gallery provided a firsthand experience of the sights and sounds of the historic Philippine sarsuwela. Visitors, as they entered the gallery, could hear selections from various sarsuwela performances in Manila and other provinces. The gallery had nine panels providing significant information on the sarsuwela.

Since the University of the Philippines Diliman is still, after all, an academic institution, teachers, academic scholars, students in theatre and performance studies including theatre practitioners met to engage with each other as a community, who strived to theorize and historicize the present condition of the sarsuwela, its over a century year of existence, its aesthetics, its history and link vis-à-vis Spain.

Carrying the theme, “Amor, Vida, Patria: Re(dis)covery of the Nation in the Sarsuwela,” the conference had four keynote addresses, four panel sessions, four conversation sessions and a discussion responding to the theme. National Artist Virgilio Almario opened the conference with an introductory agenda of establishing Philippine National Theatre. Particularly, Almario proclaimed that after the komedya, the sarsuwela is the second national theatre form.

Following immediately was the first keynote address on the Hispanic Zarzuela delivered by Javier Suarez-Pajares, a specialist on Hispanic musical theatre performances from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid in Spain. The second keynote was a continuation of Suarez’ presentation as Nicanor Tiongson discussed how the Hispanic zarzuela was first introduced in the Philippines in 1878 and its evolution to the present day. During the third keynote address on the 26th,  Cecilia Locsin-Nava presented how sarsuwela may be viewed as a social drama as in the case of Silay sarsuwela in the Visayas. The Closing Keynote by Ramon Santos (now a National Artist) discussed the etymology, characteristics and importance of music in the sarsuwela.

Panel sessions included a discussion on the characters and representations in the sarsuwela, issues on translations, adaptations and modernity, sarsuwela performances in the provinces, and issues on aesthetics. Panel conversations were an integral part of the conference as sarsuwela practitioners discussed the praxis of the form. Conversations included important personalities in the Philippine sarsuwela, sarsuwela in the provinces, sarsuwela performances in commercial / professional theatre, and sarsuwela in film.

Priscelina Patajo-Legasto responded to the theme of the conference, which aimed to recover and understand the concept of the nation (or its coeval term bayan, nacion, patria, Filipinas) of the sarsuwelas of the early 20th century (and related terms like nationalism, national identity, Filipino, nationalism), to see whether these concepts as articulated through the sarsuwelas have something to say to Filipinos of the 21st century especially in the age of globalization.

This essay originally appeared in my previous blog at MULTIPLY. In 2010, the essay was expanded into a critical essay, which I co-authored with Amihan Bonifacio-Ramolete, who is now the Dean of the UP Diliman College of Arts and Letters. To read the entire critical essay, click here.

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