A comic opera taking on Spain’s economic crisis offers a rousing alternative to mass demonstrations.
By Guy Hedgecoe
15-M, or los indignados, are two years old this month and in the last few days I’ve been to two very different events marking that anniversary which give an idea as to where the movement is going.
The first was a demonstration on May 12 in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol. I’ve given up trying to work out how many people are at such protests, as has the media in many cases, because the versions given by the authorities and those taking part are so utterly contradictory. But while there was an impressive turnout, there were fewer people than on the corresponding date last year – and nothing like the number that turned out in May 2011.
The second was a comic opera. Solfónica, an orchestra made up of 15-M activists, performed the premiere of El crepúsculo del ladrillo (or ‘Twilight of the Brick’ – a nod to Wagner) at Madrid’s La Tabacalera, a semi-abandoned tobacco factory, on May 19. It is, as far as I know, the first opera to tackle Spain’s economic crisis, with a libretto by renowned economist José Manuel Naredo telling the story of a small town seduced into rampant consumerism before falling prey to the slump.
“You have to resort to other ways of communicating, such as through comic opera, to get across how absurd our crisis has been,” Naredo told me during one of the last rehearsals before the premiere.
The performance itself was deeply moving. Not just because of the emotive yet playful music, written by Solfónica leader David Alegre, but also the context. The arts are one of the many areas facing deep cuts under this government’s austerity program. All of those involved in El crepúsculo del ladrillo were volunteers, from the stagehands to the lead violin and entry to Sunday’s two performances was free, leading to a long queue snaking around the Tabacalera building in Embajadores.
As the final, jubilant aria ended, there was a deafening applause, followed by several minutes of chants of Sí se puede.
Only around 300 people were squeezed into La Tabacalera for each of those performances, whereas there must have been at least 100 times that number in Sol the week before. Yet the future of the 15-M, and its success, would seem to lie in labour-intensive, imaginative projects such as Solfónica, rather than in mass gatherings at Sol. Bringing together in one place the same number of people who might go to a Lady Gaga concert is no mean feat, but with so many protests constantly taking place across Spain, it’s getting harder and harder to work out which ones really matter and which don’t.
Immediately after the “grito mudo” at the Sol demonstration (which was, incidentally, followed by a rousing Sí se puede), people had started to leave in droves, their protesting over for the day.
The contrast with the passion and dedication of those I spoke to taking part in El crepúsculo del ladrillo was striking.
None of which is to say that the “conventional” indignados do not have a role to play in crisis-ravaged, corruption-riddled, democratically flawed Spain. They do. But they should be aware that protests as we know them are swiftly losing their currency and need imaginative alternatives in order to revalue.
Will a comic opera seen by a few hundred people save the country from ruin? Of course not. But its rousing arias will stay with the audience and the performers for a long time and that’s no small achievement.
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