Fabulous Philippines > Yesterdays in the Philippines > Chapter 2(b)

Italian Opera. Philippine Music. The Mercury at 74 Degrees and an Epidemic of "Grippe".

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Besides the daily afternoon music on the Luneta, a full-fledged Italian opera troupe has come to town and has begun to give performances in the Teatro Zorilla. "Carmen" and "The Cavalleria Rusticana" are on the bill for this week, and many other of the old standbys are going to have their turn later.

In respect to music, sidetracked though it is, Manila seems to be more favored than her sister capitals in the Far East, and everyone appears to be able to play on something. Such of the native houses as are too frail to support pianos shelter harps, violins and other stringed instruments, while some of the more expensive structures contain the whole selection. Of an evening -- in the suburbs -- it is no uncommon thing to hear the strains of a well-played Spanish march issuing from under the thatch of a rickety hut or to find an impromptu concert going on in the little tramcar which is bringing home a handful of native youth with their guitars and mandolins. Every district has its band, some of the instruments in which are often made out of kerosene cans, and the nights resound with tunes from all quarters. In fact the Philippine band is one of the chief articles of export from Manila, and groups of natives with their cheap instruments are shipped off to Japan, India, and the Spice Islands, to carry harmony into the midst of communities where music is uncultivated All in all, it is extremely curious that out of all the peoples of the Far East the Filipinos are the only ones possessing a natural talent for music, and that the islands today stand out unique from among all the surrounding territory as being the home of a musical race, who do not make the night as hideous with weird beatings of tom-toms as they do poetic with soft waltzes coaxed from gruff trombones.

January 18th.

Manila is pretty well, thanks. The weather has been cool and comfortable. Showers have come everyday or two to lay the dust, and one could not want a more salubrious condition of things. The sunsets from the Luneta have been more than pyrotechnic, and I now believe that nowhere do you see such displays of color as in the Orient, Land of the Sunrise. During these three weeks of my stay, so far there have been five holidays, and we had ample time to take afternoon walks up the beach, or play tennis at the club, or indulge in moonlight rows on the Pasig.

A week ago on the island just opposite the club, where lies a good village, containing an old church, there was a religious festival, which lasted all the week. this was the Fiesta of Pandacan, and all the natives for miles around came pouring down by our veranda, in bancas and barges, on their way across the river. Every night during the week, bands of music played on one side of the stream and on the other side, and then crossed to their respective opposites, playing in transitu, and then setting up shop on shore again. Then there were fireworks ,bombs, and rockets galore, so that the early night was alive with noise and sparks. On the evening of the grand wind-up we crossed over to see the sights, in one of the usual hollowed-out tree-trunk ferryboats. Crowds of gayly dressed natives surged around the plaza, near the old church, while everywhere along the edges squatted old men and women, cooking all sorts of greasy "chow" on those peculiar Philippine stoves described in the last chapter. Everybody smoked, as well as the pots and kettles, and the air was therefore foggy. The little, low-thatched houses were jauntily decorated with lanterns and streamers, and at all the open fronts leaned out rows of grinning natives.

Here and there were small "tiendas," or little booths, where cheap American toys, collar buttons, pictures, and little figures of the Saviour were sold, and great was the hubbub. The houses, as well as the people, are very low of stature, and as we walked along the narrow, almost cunning streets, our shoulders level with the eaves of many of the shanties, and above the heads of many of the people, we felt indeed like giants. Many were the pianos in those native huts, and peculiar mixtures of strikingly decent playing fell upon the ear from all sides.

The whole circus wound up with a grand pyrotechnical illumination of the old church from base to tower, and a score of loud explosions, caused by the setting off of many dozen bombs at the same time, made up in noise what the religious celebration lacked in spirituality. Then all the bands came back and played their lungs out as they crossed the river, and all the people rushed for bancas, and came chattering home. Thus this pretty little religious show consume, in noise and sparks, the contributions of a very long time.

The grand opera company which is here is doing remarkably well, and "Faust" was given the other evening to a crowded house. The theatre Zorilla is round, like a circus, and in the centre of the ring sit the holders of our regular orchestra seats, facing the stage, which chops off the segment of the circle opposite the main entrance. In a rim surrounding the central arena stretches the single row of boxes, a good deal like small open sheep-pens, separated from each other only by insignificant railings. Next come the surrounding aisle, and in the broad outside section of the circle, rising up in steep tiers, are the seats for the natives and gallery gods, who invariably bring their lunch with them, to pass away the time during the long intermissions. The orchestra is a native one, led by an Italian conductor, and does't tuck its shirt into trousers. The musicians, who battle with the difficult score, grind out their music quite as successfully as some of our home performers, who would scorn the dark faces and flying shirt-tails of their Philippine brethren.

During the performance the management introduced a ballet, whose members were native Filipinas.It was too laughable. The faces and arms of the women who formed the corps seemed first to have been covered with mucilage, and then besprinkled with flour in order to bring the dark-brown complexion up to the softer half-tints of the Italian performers. The native lady, as a rule, is unacqainted with French shoes or high heels, slippers being the everyday equipment, and when these flowery beings came forward on to the stage, saw the huge audience, and tried to go through the mazes of the dance in European footgear, they felt entirely snarled up, even if they didn't look more than half so. But this only served to keep the audience in a good humor, and everybody seemed to enjoy both the singing and the deviltry of Mephistopheles, whose part was well taken. The waits between the acts were long, and the drop curtain was covered with barefaced advertisements of dealers in pills, hats and carriages. But there were cool little cafés across the roadway running by the theatre, and one forgot the delay in the pleasure of being refreshed by Spanish chocolate and crisp bunuelos.

In front of the main entrance to the theatre stood two firemen, with hose in hand, ready to play on anything as soon as the orchestra stopped or a lamp fell, but otherwise nothing was particularly strange. The whole structure was oil-lighted with rickety chandeliers, which shed a dangerous though brilliant glare down upon a large audience of most exquisitely dressed Spanish people, mestizos and foreigners. Pretty little flowergirls wandered about tying to dispose of their wares to the rather over-dressed dudes of the upper half-caste 400, and their mammas often followed them around to assist in making sales. If it begins to rain in the afternoon, before the performance, everybody understands that the show is to be postponed, provided clearing conditions do not follow, and those who hold tickets are, as a rule, grateful not to be obliged to risk their horses and their starched clothes to the treatment of a possible downpour.

The Luneta is still a close rival to the opera, and each afternoon a dozen of us will generally meet there to refresh ourselves with the music and the passing show. Toward sundown, in the afternoons, of late, the big guns in the batteries up along the walls of Old Manila, hard by, have been used in long-distance sea target-practice, and it has been intersting, on the way from the office to the promenade, to walk along the beach and see the cannon balls zip over the water and slump into it miles from their destination. The same target serves every afternoon, and seems perfectly safe from being hit. I wish I could say as much for the fleet of American ships that are lying off the breakwater, at the anchorage.

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