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Rediscovering the ‘Noli’

This was something I was not prepared for—turning emotional over Jose Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere” through the opera based on the novel. I only meant to join the Department of Education (DepEd) celebrate its 121st anniversary at the opera’s performance at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) as a matter of duty and camaraderie, as I had already watched the show at Resorts World Manila a few years ago.

I was quite impressed that the DepEd had chosen to mark its milestone by sponsoring several performances of the opera, making the needed statement that culture is an essential part of learning. (Incidentally, “the people’s opera,” as it was described, is also for the 50th anniversary of the CCP.) I was proudly reminded by Education Undersecretary Anne Sevilla that the DepEd was marking its 121st anniversary this month, tracing its beginnings to soon after the republic’s declaration of independence—an executive department deemed so important.

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It is amusing the way Secretary Leonor Briones narrates how the DepEd and “Noli” got together. One of her undersecretaries had accompanied his high school child who had to watch it for a class assignment. The parent’s surprise reaction was to enjoy the opera and finally, “na-gets” (he got) the meaning of the novel. Thus was born the idea of exposing the DepEd teachers and students to the novel via the opera.

As has been lamented by Rizal scholar Ambeth Ocampo, “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo” are revered works we know of—but how many have actually read the novels? How are they to influence and move if they are not read?

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Briones, who is a singer, a music aficionado and a book lover, has watched the opera four times and has not grown any less enthused about it—and not only because the opera makes the book easier to relate to, especially for those who deem it formidable reading,  and is several notches more entertaining for today’s students. More importantly, Briones hopes watching the opera would help the audience remember “what has been in our hearts and all that we went through as a people.”

It is significant that this opera was composed in 1957 by National Artist for Music Felipe Padilla de Leon, with a libretto written by National Artist for Sculpture Guillermo E. Tolentino. It is considered the country’s first full-length opera. How I wish I knew more about the collaboration and the friendship of these two great minds.

Friends who watched with me had mixed reviews: that the political issues were lost; that Ibarra was acting rather than being convincing enough to be the hero; that it did sound dated. But I was completely drawn to the travails of Ibarra and Maria Clara and the unforgettable Sisa scene with the falling leaves as the opera ended. Was I completely engaged, or was the screen for the projected subtitles much too high for easy viewing, that it was only halfway through when I happily noticed that, finally, the CCP had that technology?

One thing was certain—that the opera, thought to be a discouraging medium for today’s audience, succeeded in introducing “Noli” the novel in an entertaining and friendly way. At the very least, it piqued enough curiosity to finally read the book.

I was curious to know how a young boy reacted to the performance. Benedict Xavier Pijano, 13, is a history buff who was interested to watch it with his grandmother Chita. His comments: “I found it very amusing that we Filipinos made an opera for the world to see even though no one can understand our language. The English translation (on the screen) went too fast and sometimes I could not keep up with it.

“I liked the last part when the kid was trying to find help for his dying mother because he was singing with all his dignity. He was my favorite character from the story.”

Theater as a powerful medium for teaching and learning was proven by the “Noli” opera. May we continue to find other such avenues to make learning alive and more interesting in and beyond the classroom.

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Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ([email protected]) is chair of the National Book Development Board and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.

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TAGS: CCP, DepEd, Noli Me Tangere, Opera
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