Opera presents the light and dark sides of Spanish art

Mike Dunham
Armando Mora and Virginia Herrera will be appearing in Anchorage Opera's production of "Hot Spanish Nights."
Photo courtesy of Teatro Nuevo Mexico
Pablo Zinger coaches Nancy Caudill during rehearsal for the 1936 zarzuela La Tabernera del Puerto March 17, 2009, in Mountain View.
ERIK HILL / Anchorage Daily News

Anchorage Opera's upcoming presentation of Iberian music, song and dance has the title "Hot Spanish Nights" -- "heat" being something of a synonym, in many minds, for all things Spanish. (Never mind that Bilbao, Spain, is farther north than Windsor, Ontario.)

Most of us are familiar with the dark, seductive, dangerous allure of flamenco; the fiery, percussive speed of Spanish guitar; the powerful energy and sun-baked languor of folk life; the smoldering, formal haughtiness of antique Spanish court dances.

But another side of Hispanic performance art revels in comic and piquant observations of human foibles, joys and weaknesses; wise-yet-flippant conversation; salty humor and even burlesque.

"Hot Spanish Nights" will present both sides. The first half of the program features international flamenco star Omayra Amaya, giving her first dance performance in Alaska, and guitarist Roberto Castellon. In addition, Anchorage pianist Juliana Osinchuk will perform the blazing "Spanish Dances" of Enrique Granados.

The second half of the program will offer a concert staging of "Tabernera del Puerto" -- billed as the most popular "zarzuela" in the world. It appears to be the first time a zarzuela -- Spanish light opera -- has been presented in Anchorage, or perhaps anywhere in Alaska.

Pablo Zinger, who will conduct the performance, compared zarzuela with American musical theater. Songs and ensembles are linked with spoken dialogue. The subjects can range from the very serious (think "Showboat" or "West Side Story") to frivolous revues (think "Sugar Babies").

" 'Tabernera' has a lot of comic relief," Zinger said. "But its center is dramatic. It deals with things like family abuse, alcoholism, slave trade, drug smuggling -- cocaine, to be precise -- which makes it rather contemporary."

The music of composer Pablo Sorobazal is strongly melodic, blending popular with operatic aria styles, more like Romberg or Rodgers than Gershwin or Porter. Sorobazal was a "sensational theater composer," Zinger said, but the hour-long abridgement to be presented here will only offer "a taste of the real thing."

Uraguayan by birth and a New Yorker for the past 33 years, Zinger is considered an expert on both zarzuela and Latin American music. He's conducted in venues in both North and South America, from California to Florida, Texas to New York, and now Alaska. "It's my first time in such an extreme latitude."

He has performed and recorded with the late tango genius Astor Piazzolla, who took the sensual dance into new universes of jazz clubs, opera houses and experimental forums like the Kronos String Quartet. After his Anchorage performance, he'll be accompanying tenor Placido Domingo in a fundraiser for the Washington, D.C., opera company; they'll be doing tangos.

Domingo has made the promotion of zarzuela a personal cause. But -- while the form has always been popular in Mexico and points south and is experiencing a renaissance in Spain -- it's been tough rowing in the United States.

Anchorage Opera general manager Torrie Allen, who has a part in the show, asked Zinger, "How come such a beautiful piece has not become more of a staple?"

Zinger said he can only conclude that, outside of Spanish-speaking countries, "The big opera companies have a very conservative and very Euro-centric view."

The Civil War and following dictatorship didn't help. "The war killed zarzuela, as it killed so much of Spain's intellectual life, with the death or exile of so many artists," Zinger said.

"Tabanera," in fact, stands as a sort of bookend to the tradition of zarzuela, which dates back to the 1600s. It premiered shortly before the war broke out in 1936.

But most people won't guess that the piece was written at a time of enormous political tension. It's one of the art form's unwritten laws.

"In opera the rule is that the soprano has to die. In zarzuela the rule is nobody dies," Zinger said. "The only exception is that someone may die off stage -- and it will be a good thing."

Find Mike Dunham online at adn.com/contact/mdunham or call 257-4332.