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Opera in New York City Takes on a Spanish Accent

Monday, November 15, 2010

On the streets, stage and screen, New York City is no stranger to the multi-regional staccatos of the Spanish accent. Nearly 17 percent of the city’s population hails from the Spanish-speaking world—from the tip of Southern Chile through Central America and the Caribbean to Spain. That's created a movement of opera companies, ballet troupes, orchestras and film festivals focusing on Spanish-language material, which is increasingly filling seats in teatros across the city.

In the grand form of small and often underfunded New York City theaters, the Thalia Spanish Theater in Queens advertises a repertorio where "every month is Hispanic Heritage Month." The Opera Hispánica, which is in its inaugural year, is a company dedicated exclusively to Spanish-language material. Another opera, Ricardo Llorca’s work about Internet addiction, “Las Horas Vacias (The Empty Hours)," puts on an of-the-minute theme at Lincoln Center next week.

Executive Director Daniel Frost Hernandez feels that although the pieces are in Spanish, any audience will connect with the music. "These compositions are based on universal issues that are obviously of global interest—they affect all of us," he says. "It is the perspective from a Latin American or Hispanic composer that makes it Latin American or Hispanic."

Dr. Antoni Piza, the director of the Foundation for Iberian Music at the CUNY Graduate Center, is happy that New York is celebrating the extended vowels and vibrato of opera en Español. "Not only will the several million Spanish-speaking people who live in the New York City area have access to their own tradition of musical theater," he says, "the English-speaking audience gets to know something that most likely they would not encounter."

Opera’s lingua franca is traditionally Italian. In Spain and Latin America, though, the tradition of zarzuelas, or light comedic operas, dates back to the 17th century. Dr. Piza is emphatic about reminding audiences that one of the most famous operatic arias was written by a Spaniard. "Carmen's 'Habanera," he says, "of course was written by a Spanish composer," referencing Sebastián Yradier, whose song was famously plagiarized by Georges Bizet. Olé to that.

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