When opera reigned over the Philippines

By John Silva

I’VE owned this very rare Zorrilla Theater program for many years now and will eventually be donated to the Ortigas Foundation Library.

This program (in Spanish and English) has an anarchy of Art Nouveau fonts used for the advertisers, overshadowing the opera notes of Il Trovatore, performed by the Compania De Opera Italiana in Manila and Iloilo for the 1902-1903 season.

It never ceases to amaze me looking at the variety of fonts used. Fonts can exude a particular mood but for the Filipino typographer of that period, he threw in all the fonts he relishes, like the way we promiscuously heap our plates with every one of the dishes available plus sauces too.

There’s the Gismonda font, the Teutonic, the Columbus, the Della Respira, the Legrand, the Soria and that’s just the first two pages!!! The result is a comical cacophony of visual delights and Il Trovatore, with its diminutive Didot font becoming almost an afterthought.

There’s also delightful illustrations, like a grand Smith Premier Type Writer sold by Erlanger & Galinger in Carriedo. Or a sedate looking eye to let you know of various glasses, including opera glasses, being offered at an Escolta store. All throughout are delicate ornamental strokes, sinuous and graceful adorning and framing the advertisements throughout.

Unfortunately, the dazzling array of Art Nouveau fonts distracts us from the more interesting fact that Filipinos, rich and poor, patronized Italian opera companies traveling and performing in Singapore and Manila. Italian operas, highly emotional, full of jealousies, slights, and adultery, struck a chord with the native populace.

Today’s soaps and anguished pop songs may have replaced the operas we once loved.

John Silva is the executive director of the Ortigas Foundation Library.