Nave Cultural Center, Santiago, Chile. Ópera (Opera) by Ana Luz Ormazábal, after Eliodoro Ortiz de Zárate’s Lautaro. Music: José Manuel Gatica, directing: Ana Luz Ormazábal, set design and costumes: Toro. Cast: Esteban Cerda, Diana Carvajal, Nicole Sazo, José Ignacio De Vries, Camila González, Manoj V. Mathai, Samantha Manzur, Macarena Rozic. Date of the premiere: 19 August 2016.
Ópera is the third project of the Chilean theatre group Antimétodo, led by director and playwright Ana Luz Ormazábal. Since 2012, the group has created three spectacles, all of them connected by the premise of using the stage more as a space for aesthetic experimentation than as a place to perform a seamless show. In Ópera, the company focuses their reflection on a specific question about the Chilean theatrical tradition: what has been the role of opera as an artistic form, within the Chilean culture, in general, and as a scenic art in Chile, specifically? Antimétodo does that by expanding on some of the resources already used in their two previous shows, Concierto (2012) and Agnetha Kurtz Roca Method (2015), such as the use of humor; the exploration on the boundaries between sound, words and music; language and multilingualism; the ironic use of titles and images; and an interdisciplinary approach to the scenic creation.
Opera—the art form—was first introduced to Latin America in the nineteenth century. During that period, theatre buildings were built in every big city of the continent to receive the sounds coming from Europe, especially from Italy. Along with the libertarian ideas of romanticism, some of the earlier popular Italian composers presented were the romantics Rossini and Verdi. Opera was the entertainment par excellence of the creole elite, while the popular taste was later fulfilled with the development of other forms of musical spectacle, such as zarzuelas and sainetes. Performances of Italian operas were, by the end of the nineteenth century, complemented by local compositions with nationalistic overtones, often using indigenous heroes, idealized in the vein of the noble savage as their central motifs.
In Mexico, Guatemotzin (1871), by Aniceto Ortega, revolves around the conquest of Tenochtitlan and the fall of Cuauhtémoc. In Peru, José María Valle Riestra composes Ollanta (1900), an operatic version of the colonial Quechua drama Ollantay. Lautaro (1902), the “first Chilean opera,” with music and libretto by Eliodoro Ortiz de Zárate, also focuses on an indigenous leader who headed a rebellion against the colonial Spanish authorities. Rather than a way of acknowledging the indigenous influence in the—by then—new independent countries, the display of indigenous characters and topics was a recurrent source for enhancing nationalistic discourses against the former Spanish imperial power. In fact, Lautaro was staged fewer than twenty years after the end of the so-called pacificación de la Araucanía (Pacification of Araucanía), a nationalistic military campaign devoted to occupying indigenous territories where the Mapuches lived, creating an ethnic conflict that remains unsolved by Chilean authorities to this day.
World premiered in August 2016, and still performed in theatre festivals today, Ópera begins when the audience steps into a bare black box theatre, just to discover eight mannequins hanging from the ceiling, covered by white synthetic leather costumes. The museum-like space, and the absence of seats, invites the audience to walk through the space to inhabit it. Soon after, eight performers show up speaking in different accents, mixing Italian and Spanish, each one telling to the audience members that circles around them, their personal version of the same story: they are the latest generation of the Italian travelling troupe of the Pantanelli family. They are coming back to Chile after one century of absence, to restage Lautaro, the first opera composed by a Chilean artist.
Ópera builds its fictional narrative over the real theatrical events that occurred in 1902, when the bilingual—Spanish and Italian—lyrical drama Lautaro was first staged in Santiago. The play deconstructs the original drama, and as in the original piece, mixes recitative and sung parts, revolving around the events of the conquest of Chile, the arrival of the Spaniards and the revolt of the Mapuches, led by the indigenous leader Lautaro. The play unfolds in the first act by summarizing the whole story, deploying a series of successive tableaux, in the fashion of a nineteenth century melodrama. This particular moment of Ópera works as a self-reflecting move in a double sense. First, establishing a dialogue with the aesthetic conventions of romanticism, as they were conceived at the time in which the original piece was produced. Second, by creating a clear rupture with opera as an art form: it is a silent opera.
This rupture is taken to the next level in a later act, when the performers actually sing in operatic style passages of the 1902’s Lautaro. However, the singing is not as technically correct as it could be in the case of real opera singers, because they are actors singing as opera singers. As they are not mimicking the technique, but actually using it without fully mastering it, what becomes evident is the vocal training, the use of the technique itself. Another subversion regarding the original piece comes along with the irruption of the big absence in the 1902’s version: the Mapudungun, Mapuche peoples’ language, which, in this version, makes its way between the original Spanish and Italian, just to highlight that the lack of knowledge of indigenous culture among the Chileans remains today pretty much the same way it was over a century ago. In fact, even today, most of the audience is unable to understand a single word told by the actors in Mapudungun.
If the problematic relation between Chileans and its indigenous people is at the center of Ópera, the Eurocentric cultural project of the creole elite is also a topic addressed in the play. In fact, in the fiction, the Pantanelli family is coming back to the same country in which more than one century ago the company failed to impress the audience in performing Lautaro, implying that the Chilean taste was too vulgar back then to appreciate the cultural value of the piece. The Pantanellis are returning with the hope that people in Chile had refined their taste in the span of time since their absence. In this way, Ópera poses also a satirical view on the still standing idea of cultural backwardness of Latin America, vis-à-vis the central European cultural production. This premise is also tested in another scene, ironically entitled intermezzo, in which the members of the fictional company gather with the actual audience, sharing drinks and talking about politics and culture. This scene also poses an openly satirical comment on the social ritualism of opera’s attendance in Chile.
A first approach to Ópera could confine the political dimension of the play to the satire it builds regarding opera in Chile, as a quasi-antiquarian art form, as an elitist entertainment, which lacks of the so valued self-reflection of contemporary performing arts. However, the play also poses some other political questions, even more pressing than the former, that regard the contemporary Chilean artistic production. For instance, we could ask, what makes this very performance less an elite art form than the opera? And, even more, what makes us, the contemporary audience members, different from our ancestors of six generations ago, regarding our own lack of knowledge—and to some extent acknowledgment—of indigenous people? In that way, Ópera departs from a scenic question, which echoes on several levels, as a criticism of an elitist culture, and its use as a means to create and impose a nationalistic discourse during the nineteenth century. It is also a reflection on the ideological role and the means of production of contemporary theatrical activity, as well as a sharp criticism on the long lasting exotic approach to indigenous cultures in Chile.
*Fabian Escalona is completing his Ph.D. in Theatre and Performance at the Graduate Center of CUNY, City University of New York. He studied Art History and Theory at Universidad de Chile, and has a background in Latin American Studies. He worked as assistant editor for the Journal of American Drama and Theatre from 2014 to 2015 and wrote theatre reviews for the Chilean magazine Revista Sangría from 2010 to 2016. His academic research focuses on contemporary Latin American theatre, political theatre and post-Colonial studies.