Afro-Cuban Puppet Opera: Manita en el suelo
Join us for the U.S. premiere of the 1934 puppet opera, with libretto by Alejo Carpentier and music by Alejandro García Caturla, directed by Doug Fitch.
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Manita en el Suelo is a “mitología bufa afro-cubana” for narrator, marionettes, chorus, and orchestra in one act and five scenes (1934) with music by Alejandro García Caturla (1906–1940) and text by Alejo Carpentier (1904–1980). Manita en el suelo is a playful parody for puppets and one living character, the legendary Papá Montero, who narrates the action while the puppets reenact it. This production will be the piece's U.S. premiere as well as its world premiere with puppets, as the authors intended.
Three fishermen, Juan Indio, Juan Esclavo, and Juan Odio—who represent Cuba’s three main ethnicities in colonial times—are caught in a storm. Suddenly, the Virgin appears and calms the seas, protecting the three men sailing on the same canoe (which represents Cuba itself). Famished after their ordeal, the fishermen eat Manita's sacred rooster, Motoriongo (the titular character is based on a historical figure, an abakuá practitioner who lived in Havana in the late nineteenth century). Manita resorts to a baile de santo to summon the saints and reveal the identity of the fishermen who killed and ate his sacred rooster. Enraged, the ñáñigo (Manita is a member of a secret religious society) punches the moon down from the sky, creating darkness in the world. Destroying the poets’ muse, however, is a crime for which Manita faces imprisonment and death at the hands of the Captain General of Spain and his guards. Suddenly, as a traditional deus ex machina, Chino de la Charada appears to contrive a merry ending.
The original concept was developed by Caturla and Carpentier as a fusion of traditions, infusing modernist musical language with Cuban popular music. The composer was fascinated by Afro-Cuban folklore, which influenced his compositional style. Caturla was assassinated in 1940, leaving behind a piano score of the whole piece and two fully orchestrated numbers.
Americas Society Music Director Sebastian Zubieta followed the composer’s indications to create a chamber orchestra version of the score, Doug Fitch created the puppets and directs, and musicologist and Latin American opera specialist Malena Kuss lends her expertise to the production.
Manita en el suelo
Opera buffa in one act and five scenes
Music by Alejandro García Caturla
Libretto by Alejo Carpentier
Orchestration by Sebastian Zubieta
Directed by Doug Fitch
This performance represents its world première with puppets, as Carpentier envisioned it, in the style of Manuel de Falla’s Master Peter Puppet Show (1923); its Cuban première on February 15, 1985, was performed with dancers replacing the puppets.
The scene is adorned with palm fronds, paper flags, etc. as Cuban villages are decorated on holidays. In the background, a forest, or a semi-rural landscape. In the center there is a small theater with a thatched roof, intended for the action that requires changes of atmosphere, which will reenact what Papá Montero narrates. On one side of the small theater, a table for the narrator Papá Montero. General atmosphere of carpa, or tent theater.
A mangrove landscape with the port of Havana in the background. Juan Odio, Juan Indio, Juan Esclavo, sitting disconsolately on an overturned boat, are sewing a net.
Interior of the house of the sorcerer Ta Cuñengue, ritual specialist. An altar with images of Saint Barbara, Los Jimaguas, Saint Lazarus. In the center, Candita la Loca, sitting on a stool. Manita en el Suelo awaits the result of the consultation.
On a green blanket, wavy in the corners, is the boat of the three Juanes. Each corner of the blanket is held by a Little Devil who shakes it. From time to time, the Rooster pokes his head over the tempest.
The Captain General of Spain enters with a huge firefly in his hand, which gives off a green light. He is followed by eight cardboard Civil Guards.
Cast (in order of appearance)
Papá Montero/Gallo Motoriongo: Héctor Herrera Álvaro
Manita en el Suelo/Juan Indio: Christian García Roque
Capitán General de España/Juan Odio/Ta Cuñengue: Ricardo Rivera
Chino de la Charada/Juan Esclavo: Ricardo Sepúlveda
Virgen de la Caridad: Joy Tamayo
Candita la Loca: Morena Galán
Flute: Anna Urrey
Oboe: Michelle Farah
Clarinet: Juan Ruiz
Bassoon: Steven Palacio
Horn: Kevin Newton
Trumpet: Grace Fox
Percussion: Jess Tsang, Keisel Jiménez
Violin: Maiani da Silva
Viola: Stephanie Griffin
Cello: Elis Regina Ramos
Double bass: Andrew Roitstein
Choir: Hirona Amamiya, Cara Caponi, Gabriel Nichols, Joseph Beutel
Piano and Assistant Conductor: Adonis González
Conductor: Sebastian Zubieta
Puppeteers: Madeleine Dauer, Stella Feldschuh, J Hann, Dorothy James, Andy Manjuck
Supertitles operator: Eugenio Monjeau
Production: Gina Portale
Lighting: Marien Vélez
Costume design: Nasheli Ortiz
Musical and staging consultant: Malena Kuss
Stage design and director: Douglas Fitch
Set, Props, and Puppets fabricated by Douglas Fitch, Madeleine Dauer, Stella Feldschuh, J Hann, Dorothy James, Andy Manjuck, and Nour Ragab
In the liner notes for the recording of the first performance of this work (Manita en el Suelo. La Habana, EGREM, 1985. Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de Cuba and Coro Nacional, conducted by Rembert Egües), Cuban musicologist Hilario González wrote:
In 1930, while in Paris, Alejo Carpentier had to reread and make some changes to his first novel, Ecué Yamba O, written in a Havana jail in 1927, to send the revised manuscript to his publisher in Madrid. This revision, published in 1933, provided Carpentier with the plot and characters for the “misterio bufo” he had promised Alejandro García Caturla before going into exile in 1928. A year after that 1930 revision, in 1931, García Caturla received in Remedios the libretto for this work. [...] In 1934, García Caturla had finished a sketch of the opera for voices and piano in three and four staves while also making headway on the orchestration, which, after his assassination in 1940, included notes on instrumentation throughout the piano part. [...]
In addition to the text set to vocal lines in the score, there are two versions of the libretto with notes on set design and stage action, which is quite simple:
Papá Montero, narrating the action almost a cappella on a toque de clave, tells the story of how Manita en el Suelo, curro del Manglar and ñáñigo, extinguished the moon with his fist, submerging the world in darkness and thereby obliterating love, romance, and poetic inspiration. Why did he do that? Because The Three Juanes, in their canoe, were casting their nets and only catching starfish. Hunger is a clear allusion to the economic crisis besetting Cuba during the final years of Gerardo Machado’s dictatorship in the early 1930s. The Three Juanes, Juan Odio (a Spaniard), Juan Indio, and Juan Esclavo or Moreno, who represent the three ethnic roots of the Cuban population—indigenous, Hispanic, and African—cook and eat a ceremonial rooster, or Gallo Motoriongo, to survive. The Rooster is essential for Manita’s Abakuá initiation ceremony and he swears vengeance. Only a miracle can save The Three Juanes (the hungry population of Cuba) from this predicament, and the miracle takes the shape of a deus ex machina when the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre (Patron of Cuba) appears as featured in commonplace Catholic stamps sold in the streets of Havana. This buffoonery, which mocks Manita’s male prowess (“A ñáñigo’s fist cannot ever quell the moon), brings to the mix the Chinese of the Charade, the Sorcerer Tata Cuñengue, the “medium” Candita la Loca, and even the Captain General of Spain, who, with his Civil Guard, bets gold coins on the entrenched practice of gambling.
And, who was Manita en el Suelo, “ñáñigo del tiempo antiguo”? His huge hands and long arms that almost touched the floor earned him from early on this derisive nickname. His real name was Manuel Cañamazo and, on one occasion, he defeated a rival by predicting a lunar eclipse that took place moments later, thereby becoming the Power who could turn off the moon with his will. The combination of weapon and eclipse suggested to Carpentier the buffo version of a deflated moon. Manita, that is, Manuel Cañamazo, died in an assault to the Havana jail (the same jail in which Carpentier wrote Ecué Yamba O) led by Abakuá in November of 1871 to liberate medical students in whose homes they were servants or cooks. They could not prevent the execution of eight of those students and many corpses of the Abakuá who led the assault were found thrown around in Havana neighborhoods. The opera, however, had to have a happy ending. The Virgin intervenes, Manita does not die but is imprisoned and goes to jail, the Chino de la Charada comes up with a new moon from his bag of riddles, and all order is restored. To close the farce, they sing: “May The Three Fishermen/Juanes live forever” surrounded by a plentiful sea, symbol of the People, immortal.”
In Manita en el Suelo, Caturla utilizes, as basic compositional materials, iconic genres of Cuban music: the danzón for the overture; the guajira for the Three Juanes; the son for the romanza of the Virgin; pentatonic melodies for the Chino de la Charada; and toques de bembé for the invocation of the saints, etc.
Studies of Manita en el Suelo by Malena Kuss include “The confluence of historical coordinates in Carpentier/Caturla’s puppet opera Manita en el Suelo” in Musical Repercussions of 1492: Encounters in Text and Performance, edited by Carol E. Robertson. Washington, D.C.: The Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992, 355–381 (Proceedings of the symposium on Musical Repercussions of 1492, Quincentenary Program, Smithsonian Institution, 1988); and “Modernismo rumbero in Carpentier’s and Caturla’s Puppet Opera Manita en el Suelo (1931–1934),” Review 82: Literature and Arts of the Americas (New York, Americas Society), 44/1 (2011), 136–142.
About the Artists
Visual artist, designer, director Doug Fitch’s several productions with the NY Philharmonic include Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen, A Dancer’s Dream: Two Works by Stravinsky, and HK Gruber’s Gloria – A Pig Tale. Mr. Fitch has also created productions for Los Angeles Opera, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Santa Fe Opera, and Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra, and for Bard’s SummerScape Festival. His Tanglewood production of Elliott Carter’s What Next? was conducted by James Levine, filmed and later screened at the Museum of Modern Art.
Fitch directed and designed Matthew Aucoin’s Orphic Moments at National Sawdust, a production, later remounted at Salzburg’s Landestheater, then reconfigured for Master Voices at Lincoln Center’s Rose Theater. At La Jolla Summerfest, he performed a live-animated version of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition with Inon Barnatan. His cabaret, Doug Fitch’s Art Gallery Variety Show, has appeared at National Sawdust and Maison Francaise at Columbia University.
Mr. Fitch is a co-founder of Giants Are Small, which, in co-production with Universal Music and Deutsche Grammophon, developed Peter and the Wolf in Hollywood — a digital album featuring Alice Cooper as narrator and the German National Youth Orchestra. Recent highlights include LA Opera’s remount of Hansel and Gretel, Le Grand Macabre at the ElbPhilharmonie in Hamburg, and Punkitititi, commissioned by Rolando Villazon for Mozart Woche 2020 with the Salzburg Marionette Theater, featuring Geoff Sobelle, and Pan, developed in collaboration with composer Marcos Balter and flutist Claire Chase.
He is a Hermitage Fellow and lives in Brooklyn, NY
The MetLife Foundation Music of the Americas concert series is made possible by the generous support of Presenting Sponsor MetLife Foundation. The Spring 2022 Music program is also supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of the Office of the Governor and the New York State Legislature, and by the Howard Gilman Foundation.
This concert is also supported, in part, by the National Endowment for the Arts.