MANILA, Philippines — Singer-actress Karylle confessed not knowing a Sarsuwela song by heart that she can immediately sing to, and she is not alone.
Ask random strangers today what Sarsuwela is, and chances are they will not know one or even a song from it.
"I looked up Sarsuwela. Ano nga ba? Sabi ko, I had to look it up. So that must be a problem already," said Karylle to Philstar.com.
"I know what a Sarsuwela is, 'yung salita, pero sabi ko wala ata akong alam sa puso ko na I can sing right away like that. Sabi ko, that must be part of the problem, hence, the project, 'di ba?" she added.
The multi-hyphenate talked to Philstar.com during the rehearsal for her show, "Isang Gabi ng Sarsuwela," the first in the Out of the Box Series by the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP). The show will be staged today, June 30, and tomorrow, July 1, at the Tanghalang Ignacio Gimenez or CCP Black Box in Manila.
What is Sarsuwela?
CCP Artistic Director Dennis Marasigan said the Out of the Box series was conceptualized by his predecessor and former CCP Vice President Chris Millado, who has retired from the post in June last year after two decades with CCP.
"It's a venue for adventurous viewing, adventurous audiences and so the idea is to present programming that you won't normally find in shall we say most productions, theaters," Marasigan said.
They have decided to come up with Sarsuwela since it has been a long time when a Sarsuwela production was put up. To his recollection, the last time a Sarsuwela took the stage was the Sarsuwela Festival organized by the University of the Philippines in 2009.
He is hopeful that with the OTB series, the genre will be revived and patronized by both the theater-going audience and the general public, including the young ones who have not been exposed to the form.
Marasigan said the Sarsuwela traces its roots from the Spanish Zarzuela. Spanish troops brought the Zarzuela in the 1870s.
"The Suez Canal was opened in the 1860s, and with its opening, travel to the Philippines from Spain was shortened, from three months to less than a month," he explained.
The Suez Canal is an important and popular trade route between Europe and Asia. It is an artificial waterway in Egypt that connects the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea. Construction began in April 1859 and was done by November 1869. It remains passable and in operation to this day.
"This gave the opportunity for various performing companies to travel directly to the Philippines from Spain. In the 1870s, such zarzuela troops were imported to the Philippines and they performed in Manila, Iloilo, Cebu and they were very popular with the local audiences."
With Spanish traveling troops spreading the form, it was only a matter of time when Filipinos started performing the Zarzuela and putting their own versions of it using local music and materials.
"From the 1900s to the 1930s, you have the zarzuela troops that were performing around the country, at the same time, we have local sarsuwela troops and there are historical records of Ilocano, Ilonggo, Kapampangan and Tagalog Sarsuwelas," Marasigan said.
It pervaded until the introduction of cinema in the Philippines in the 1920s to 1930s. Some of the first films produced were adaptations of sarsuwelas that featured sarsuwela actors.
It was the time when famous singer-actress Atang Dela Rama was introduced to the big screen. She starred in several films, notably the screen adaptation of "Dalagang Bukid," where she reprises her role as the flower vendor Angelita.
Karylle is going to sing one of its songs, "Nabasag na Banga."
Its popularity was halted due to political and economic reasons, said Marasigan.
"First, when you have cinema already and the Sarsuwela performers went into cinema. Cinema, of course, became the popular medium of the 20th century, and so the sarsuwela waned and paled in comparison. There were also other forms of entertainment that came about. And then you have this mass media already so, not too many people are aware of the Sarsuwela," Marasigan explained.
He also cited the effects of World War II, which decimated many countries, and in effect, affected the popularity of sarsuwela in the country like the Philippines.
Interest in Sarsuwela was revived in the country in the late 1970s and 1980s. Tanghalang Pilipino was at the forefront of the revival of Sarsuwela. The resident drama company of CCP produced several Sarsuwelas since its inception in 1987.
Like a teleserye
Sarsuwela might be a lost word for many people today, especially the young ones. But its themes and influences are familiar especially to those who love their movies with music and love stories with angst.
"The Sarsuwela is essentially a play with music, but normally it revolves around a love story. And as it became very popular, it is a love story in the context of social reality," Marasigan said.
He added that he and many scholars believe that part of the reason of its popularity then was precisely because of it.
"You see these lovers but it is set in a context or reality that the audience is very familiar with.
"So you might get lovers who are attempting to get their love story successful in the midst of, for example, a power play between the wealthy and the poor. These two lovers might be coming from two different social status. Or, in one particular sarsuwela, the lovers come from families, where one family owes the rich family and the rich family charges usurious interest," he explained.
"Paglipas ng Dilim," which is also part of the CCP series, is a love story in the context of the Americanization of the Filipinos. It's a love triangle between the doctor Ricardo, who is torn between Estrella who espouses Filipino characteristics and Caridad who has been "Americanized."
When this writer casually commented that the sarsuwela seemed like a teleserye, Marasigan beamed.
"Exactly. You know, people are talking about the films of the 1950s, Carmen Rosales and Rogelio dela Rosa. That is the Sarsuwela gene that has been transported into films. That's why there were still so many films up to the 1960s that retained the sarsuwela form where you have these characters breaking into song. So that's really coming from the history and genealogy, as you might say, of the Sarsuwela," CCP's artistic director said.
"Isang Gabi ng Sarsuwela" features excerpts from the traditional Sarsuwelas from the 1920s to 1930s to the contemporary ones produced from the 1970s to the present.
Excerpts will come from "Walang Sugat," "Paglipas ng Dilim," "Dalagang Bukid," "Sa Bunganga ng Pating," from the early years to the '70s and present pieces such as "Ang Palabas Bukas" (1970s), "Filipina Circa 1907" (1980s), "Ang Palasyo ni Valentin" and "Hibik at Himagsik ni Victoria Laktaw," which were produced in the 1990s and 2000s.
"Isang Gabi ng Sarsuwela" will feature performances by Nenen Espina, Franco Laurel, Ayen Munji Laurel, Reuben Laurente, Lorenz Martinez, Shiela Valderrama Martinez, Jonathan Tadioan and Karylle.
WATCH: Theater favorites and stalwarts at the rehearsal for CCP's "Isang Gabi ng Sarsuwela"
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