News and Features

A Spanish Art Form, Resurrected in Dallas

Diana and Cupid, Pompeo Batoni, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Orchestra of New Spain is a Dallas-based group that specializes in Spanish music from the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries. But this week, it will turn its attention to resurrecting another Spanish art form from that time period:

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Orchestra of New Spain music director Grover Wilkins had an immediate thought when he heard that Dallas was building the City Performance Hall. This would be the perfect venue for a zarzuela.

“I made a decision that this was an opportunity now to finally put on stage something like this,” he said. “We have the theater for it, I have the contacts for it.”

Great! Only one question. What’s a zarzuela?

The answer is: It’s a combination of music, theater and dance that dominated Spain from the 1600’s all the way to the Spanish Civil War. Its sung storyline suggests opera. But its closest relative is probably American musical theater.

For his show, Wilkins is returning to the zarzuela’s Baroque roots.

That means period instruments, costumes and dance. And stories based in Greek mythology that find mortals mixing with the gods. Think of it like this – SMU’s Meadows Museum is filled with portraits of stately Spanish royals. If they hopped off the wall for a night out, it would probably look and sound like this.

“Finally, here in Dallas, we’re going to see what theater actually looked like with the kind of music that we play, the singers who know how to sing this stuff and movement on the stage … which helps express the way things were done in that time,” Wilkins says.

This performance will feature Cupid’s New Weapons of Love, composed by Sebastián Durón. It debuts on Valentines Day, and, fittingly, tells the story of Cupid losing his arrows to Jupiter. Don’t worry – he gets ‘em back thanks to Diana.

Wilkins has brought in singers from Mexico, dancers from Madrid, plus an expert in staging zarzuela – Gustavo Tambascio.

The show includes jokes that would have resonated with a Baroque Spanish crowd. But it’s not all 300 year-old humor. Dallas jokes and current cultural references are also thrown in. The point is to keep the show accessible, as it was when it debuted in 1711.

Amazingly, Wilkins and Tambascio can find no evidence that Cupid’s New Weapons of Love has been performed since then. In 2008, the Orchestra of New Spain performed the music, but without the theater and dance pieces. That’s why this presentation is being dubbed a modern world premiere.

But the question remains – why’s this show been on the shelf so long?

Tambascio blames the Spaniards.

“Spain hasn’t taken care of its cultural patrimony. Of its heritage,” he says.

But there’s more to it than that. When Romanticism swept across Europe at the end of the 18th Century, it swept anything Baroque under the rug. And that’s where, at least in Spain, it’s mostly stayed.

But Wilkins and Tambascio see their production as no less than a possible reintroduction of Baroque zarzuela to its home country. The programmer for the Teatro Espanol and other Spanish cultural dignitaries are expected to attend one of the performances.

If everything breaks right, this production could bring the zarzuela full circle.

“If we went and took this to another theater,” Wilkins says, “it would be a wake-up call to the fact that it’s time for them accept what they have and to do something with it.”

The Orchestra of New Spain will perform Cupid’s New Weapons of Love at Dallas City Performance Hall on Thursday and Saturday.