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Lecture Series: From Havana's Stages to the Silver Screen: A Reconsideration of the Cuban Zarzuela's 'Death by Film'

Event Type
Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies
101 International Studies Building
Apr 16, 2013   2:00 pm  
Susan Thomas, Associate Professor. Musicology and Women's Studies. University of Georgia
Angelina Cotler

The Cuban zarzuela flourished for a brief period of time, from the late 1920''s to the early 1940''s. Providing the Western hemisphere with some of its best-loved melodies, the zarzuela developed musical and dramatic codes for representing both hegemonic power and social marginality.  Composers took preexisting racialized theatrical types and created a phenomenon that was as pedagogical as it was entertaining, instructing Cuba''s growing bourgeoisie about the need for social and racial stability.  The zarzuela trafficked in desire, supporting a white supremacist ideology while simultaneously advocating the consumption of blackness, a strategy that it shared with the larger afrocubanismo movement (Moore, 1997).  Blackness also served as a subversive signifier, however, and the performative codes of the musical stage created an ambivalent tension through which black bodies''and the sounds they produced''could critique existing power structures (see Moore,1997; Lane, 2005, Thomas, 2009). Several scholars, including myself, have blamed the zarzuela''s truncated lifespan the rise of cinema, which offered lower admission prices and greater theatrical realism. In my talk, I problematize this earlier view by suggesting that rather than replacing the zarzuela, the emerging Cuban and Mexican film industries absorbed and transformed it, appropriating its plots, performance practices, composers, technical designers, and the performers themselves.  Additionally, one of the zarzuela''s most powerfully emblematic representations of difference, the use of blackface, was enthusiastically adapted to the screen''often rubbed onto the very same bodies who had popularized the practice on the Cuban stage.  

This transformation is examined through Lecuona''s 1930 zarzuela, Mar'a la O and the eponymous 1948 Cuban-Mexican co-production starring Rita Montaner, for whom the zarzuela''s title role was created. The film''s negotiation of its borrowed content is instructive in understanding how the radicalized codes of the zarzuela were reworked to speak to larger Latin American audience. I suggest that in removing specific cultural markers, filmmakers effectively excised any sense of subversive ambivalence from their original source material, engaging in a ''flattening out'' of radicalized discourse and performance practice that mirrored trends emanating from the U.S. and Europe.

Dr. Susan Thomas, Associate Professor of Musicology and Women's Studies at the University of Georgia, received her Ph.D. in musicology from Brandeis University in 2002 and earned masters degrees from Tufts University and the New England Conservatory. Her research interests include music and gender, Cuban and Latin American music, transnationalism and migration, embodiment and performativity, music and race relations, and opera studies. Her book, Cuban Zarzuela: Performing Race and Gender on Havana's Lyric Stage (University of Illinois Press, 2008), received the Robert M. Stevenson Award from the American Musicological Society (AMS), 2011 and the Pauline Alderman Book Award for feminist research from the International Association of Women in Music.  Other recently published articles and chapters include "Did Nobody Pass the Girls the Guitar? Queer Appropriations in Contemporary Cuban Popular Song," Journal of Popular Music 18/2 (2006), ''Musical Cartographies of the Transnational City: Mapping Havana in Song,'' Latin American Music Review 31/2 (2010); and chapters in Cuba Transnational, Fern'ndez, ed. (2005), De la zarzuela al cine: Los medios de comunicaci'n populares y su traducci'n de la voz marginal, ed. by Doppelbauer and Sartingen (2010), and ''Music, Conquest, and Colonization''  in W.W. Norton''s Musics of Latin America, ed. by Robin Moore, among others. Currently, she is preparing a book manuscript on the transnationalization of contemporary Cuban music.

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