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On Her First Visit, Spanish Cabaret Singer Plans A Nod To Kansas City's Boss Tom Pendergast

Courtesy Cristina Bernal
Spanish actress Cristina Bernal says her songstress, comedian and actress character is inspired by Vaudeville.

Poking fun at current political and social events can be cathartic, especially when it incites laughter, which is what Spanish actress Cristina Bernal does.

Bernal makes her United States debut in Kansas City on May 7, in celebration of Kansas City's 50-year sister-cities relationship with Seville, Spain.

Her Vaudeville-inspired character, La Bernalina, is a songstress, comedian and actress rolled into one.

Bernal calls her character “a resurrected cupletista” — a female cabaret singer from the early 20th Century.

“She is someone who came from the past who brings those hilarious songs to the 21st century,” Bernal says, speaking to KCUR from Fire Island, New York, via WhatsApp.

Cupletistas, she says, were “heroines of their time, a time in which they didn’t even have the right to vote. They found on a stage a place of empowerment where they could have freedom of expression.”

These women were pioneers of their time, she says, like Madonna and Lady Gaga today.

Soy exquisita, soy delicada, soy un producto de distinción. Soy Bernalina, soy clandestina y lo prohibido es mi pasión, she sings in one song, which translates roughly to: “I’m exquisite, I’m delicate, I’m a product of distinction. I’m Bernalina, I’m undercover and the prohibited is my passion.”

Bernal studied music at the conservatory of music in her hometown of Cartagena, Spain, where she played the piano and saxophone because her family discouraged a career as an actress.

“But I always wanted to be an actress,” Bernal says.

So, at 21, she was admitted to the Real Escuela Superior de Arte Dramático, which she calls the most important drama school in Madrid. Two decades later, she has performed as La Bernalina throughout Europe and South America, as well as in the Dominican Republic, Paraguay, Honduras, Uruguay and Argentina.

Cuplés as an art form lasted until about 1936 — until the Civil War started in Spain, she says. The genre became less popular and nearly disappeared as artists refrained from performing for fear of retaliation if they talked about politics and criticized society, which was considered inflammatory.

“At that time, it didn’t have a place,” she says.

Today, Bernal researches early 20th Century history to find facts and figures for lyrics and dialogue, infusing her performances with location-specific history.

“I found quite interesting how, in the ‘20s, the national prohibition was meaningless in Kansas City," she says, "thanks to Tom Pendergast, who promoted Kansas City as a wide-open town with every kind of vice imaginable, combined with his professed compassion for the poor and very real role as city builder.”

So she's written a new song for Kansas City’s performance. But no spoilers here. Though she does mention that she has prepared two songs in English, Bernal won’t divulge much else about the set.

When Bernal isn’t performing, she’s teaching at her alma mater Real Escuela Superior. Teaching and performing allows her to express herself “in a poet way, my own way,” she says.

“The teaching is the food for my mouth,” Bernal says, “and the performance is for the soul.”

La Bernalina, accompanied by pianist Miguel Huerta, presented by the Kansas City-Seville Committee, 7 p.m. Sunday, May 7, on the rooftop of Lead Bank Crossroads, 1801 Main, Kansas City, Missouri, 64108. Ticket information is available here.

Correction: This story was updated to note that Bernal spoke with KCUR via WhatsApp from Fire Island, New York, not from Ireland as originally reported.

KCUR contributor Vicky Diaz-Camacho has written for multiple local and national publications, including Alt.Latino. Follow her on Twitter @vickyd_c.

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