Encountering the ‘Noli’ at the opera

Rizal’s two novels, “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo,” shook me to the core of my being when I first read them as a young student for reasons that I could not explain. No other books have since had that kind of impact on me.

They were dangerous in their time, and they remain dangerous to this day, because, I think, these books challenge us to reflect on what it means to live in an unjust society protected by arms and sanctified by religion, in which those at the top rule by deceit while looking down with contempt on their cowed and gullible subjects. It is easy for literary works of this nature to become no more than repositories of resentment, inciting among the weak an anger that dissipates before it could fuel the instinct to rebuild a life through struggle. But not the “Noli” and “Fili.”

In these novels, Rizal not only exposed the excesses of Spanish colonialism but also, more importantly, diagnosed the disease that afflicted the minds of the dominated. In doing so, he produced an enduring portrait of the subjugated individual that will always serve as a mirror for Filipinos of all generations so long as freedom remains an enjoyment of only a few.

It was these thoughts that I brought with me the other night to the Newport Performing Arts Theater at Resorts World Manila, where a grand production of Felipe de Leon and Guillermo Tolentino’s opera “Noli Me Tangere” was having its gala evening. I had regretted not being able to watch Dulaang UP’s production of the same opera a few years ago. The Wilfrido Ma. Guerrero Theater at Palma Hall was so close to where I lived that I kept postponing when to go, until it was too late. But a chance to reconnect with an old friend from UP days, Loida Nicolas-Lewis, the moving spirit behind this marvelous production, prodded me to brave the rush-hour traffic and go all the way to the Resorts World Complex fronting Naia 3. I was very glad that I did.

The performances were stirring, punctuated by ovations, and the gala night was not crowded at all. I expect that the cavernous Newport Theater will fill up with students and teachers coming in buses from all over Luzon to watch the show, which runs from Sept. 11 to 28.

It is heartwarming that Loida, who does not hesitate to stake her considerable wealth and influence behind worthy causes, has mounted this effort, securing contributions from the country’s leading business groups so that subsidized tickets (the price of a movie) could be

offered to Filipino students and teachers. It will be a stunning experience for our schoolchildren who may know Rizal but have not really read any of his works, who may have seen movies about Rizal, but have never been to the opera.

The “Noli” is a complex work that can be read at different levels. Every character stands for a distinctive figure in colonial society. For many, however, its most compelling character is Sisa, the mother who lost her mind desperately searching for her missing sons, Basilio and Crispin. I cannot forget how my mother shed tears when she first told me about the “Noli.” The story she narrated was all about Sisa, and only tangentially about Crisostomo Ibarra coming home from his studies abroad and being thwarted for wanting to share the blessings of education with the children of his town. I thought of Sisa as our beloved country.

I was in Grade 6 when one day my father brought home the English translations of Rizal’s novels by Charles E. Derbyshire. I think it was the first time my parents, who were students at UST before the war, read Rizal’s novels. It must have been, for them, the equivalent of eating the forbidden fruit. My father talked of nothing else for weeks but the hero’s unique vision.

Yet, it was my mother’s infectious story-telling that drew me to the novels—like a moth to the flame, to use a more apt metaphor. They were the first books that I read from cover to cover. At 11 years old, I probably did not understand half of what I was reading. But, thanks to my parents, I knew more or less what the books were about, and I was keen to know for myself what dangerous ideas they held that had made them prohibited reading.

It wasn’t just Rizal’s criticism of Spain or of the clergy that made these works subversive. What made them so rather was his unwavering belief in the emancipatory power of education.  He knew that, for as long as they were mired in ignorance, his people would not be able to see and articulate their situation for what it was. It had nothing to do with courage or lack of it; it had everything to do with their inability to step out of the skin of the colonial culture in which they were trapped.

No one has put this point more eloquently than Rizal. Replying to Vicente Barrantes, a Spanish writer who negatively reviewed the “Noli” and portrayed its author as “a spirit twisted by a German education,” Rizal bristled: “[T]he spirit that breathes in me I have had since a child before leaving the Philippines, before I had learned a word of German.  My spirit is ‘twisted’ because I have been reared among injustices and abuses, because since a child I have seen man suffer stupidly and because I too have suffered. My ‘twisted spirit’ is the product of that constant vision of moral ideals succumbing before the powerful reality of abuses, arbitrariness, hypocrisies, farces, violence, and other vile passions. And twisted like my spirit is that of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos who have not yet left their miserable homes, who do not speak any other language but their own, and if they would write or express their thoughts, they would leave my ‘Noli Me Tangere’ very puny indeed and with their volumes there would be enough to raise pyramids for the corpses of all the tyrants.”

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