Pampanga was the first province to try the vernacular zarzuela. As Mariano Proceso Pabalan Byron (1863-1904) observed after watching performances of visiting zarzuela troupes, “True enough, Spanish is sweet and soft; Kapampangan is hard and stiff. But is it only Spanish that can be set to music?”
On 13th September 1900, the play made its debut at the Teatro Sabina and was met with thunderous acclaim. Teatro Sabina, Bacolor’s 1st theater, was named after the aunt of Don Ceferino Joven, the first civil governor of Pampanga during the American regime. A repertory of performers, Compania Sabina, often rehearsed at the spacious house of Don Mateo Gutierrez, father of Jose Gutierrez David, himself an accomplished zarzuelista. Don Ceferino put the Compania under the supervision of Juan Crisostomo Soto with Pascual Gozun as the stage manager.
Teatro Sabina supposedly had three water-filled wells dug at the rear to improve stage acoustics. VIPs had their own private entrance leading to their bleachers facing the main stage, while the hoi polloi sat at the sides, necks craned at an angle. On this venerable theater, renowned Kapampangan zarzuelas were stage including Crissot’s “Ing Paninap ng San Roque” (San Roque’s Dream, 1901) and “Alang Dios” (There is No God, 16 Nov. 1902). Pabalan also read his moving Kapampangan version of Rizal’s “Mi Ultimo Adios” here on 30 Dec. 1901.
Aside from Teatro Sabina, there was also a Teatro Trining in Guagua, where a 3-act zarzuela, “Ing Mangaibugan” (The Greedy One) by Jacinto Tolentino was staged in 1901. Naturally, a whole slew of drama troupes were established as interest in theater grew. Among these were Compania Paz, Compania Ocampo in Candaba, Compania Dramatica in Bacolor and Compania Lubeña in Lubao.
The zarzuela tradition ended with the arrival of the great white American culture which taught that English should only be the language for literary use; anything else is inferior. It cannot be denied however, that in the long and colorful history of the Philippine theater, Pampanga led the way in shaping the golden age of the country’s performance arts with its pool of homegrown actors, playwrights and directors, who, with their boundless creativity and sheer talent, were always imitated but never equalled.
(29 June 2002)