Manolito looks decidedly uncomfortable. A small frown clouds his chubby face from time to time, and he can't help reaching up occasionally, tugging at the blue veil that covers his hair, although he knows thousands of people are watching him.
It is August in Catalonia, he is heavily overdressed, and there is an enormous, elaborate gold halo radiating from the back of his head like a surrealistic sunflower. He is singing the role of the Virgin Mary in a 600-year-old opera.
Manolito is an 11-year-old soprano in "The Mystery of Elche," a music drama enacted annually since the year 1266 in the Spanish city of Elche. Scholrs think it may not have begun until a century later-but that still makes it the longest-running show in the history of Western theater.
A camera filmed the performance last summer, and it will be shown twice on Channel 26: at 10 p.m. tomorrow to celebrate Easter; and at 3 p.m. next Saturday to mark the Week of the Americas.
The play, dealing with the death of the Virgin Mary and subsequent event on earth and in heaven, is an example of the mystery play: a form that had a lively existence in medieval Europe but has been extinct for centuries-except in ancient manuscripts and the annual Elche performance.
The 110-minute begins with a tour of the city and looks at the lives of some of the performers before presenting excerpts from the drama-sung in medieval Catalan, with occasional voice-over narration in English to help viewers follow the story line.
Elche today is an industrial city of 160,000 voting in the district runs heavily in favor of communist, socialist and anarchist candidates. Many of the performers in the annual staging of the Mystery (butchers, mechanics, office workers) never go to church except when the play is staged in the city's basilica. The roles of God the Father and St. Peter are reserved for members of the clergy, and the role of the Virgin is always sung by a boy soprano because in the medieval tradition men and women did not perform together on stage or in choruses.
According to Gudie Lawaetz, codirector of the film with Michael Dodds, seeing this ancient drama still performed in a modern city "is like seeing a dinosaur in Central Park. You think: 'you should be extinct.'"