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by Antonio Perez Outeiral and Peter Bloch

The Zarzuela is the specifically Spanish form of musical theater, the Spanish folk operetta, frequently using rhythms and traditions of Spain’s rich musical heritage, with plots often featuring popular types you might have met in Madrid of yesteryear (or elsewhere in Spain).

This form of lyrical theater can trace its lineage to the EGLOGAS (amorous shepherd plays) of Juan de Enzina, which flourished at the time of the Catholic kings (15th century), to the PARXAS (comical impersonations) of Lucas Fernández and in the AUTOS (plays of a pedagogical character) of Jil Vincente, LOS VILLANCICOS (songs that tell real-life stories), RONDELLAS (songs dedicated to the woman of the house, many of them amorous). TONADAS, ENSALADAS (songs of mixed contents) and other musical compositions interpolated in dramatic presentations of the 15th to 17th centuries, sung by the women of the theatrical companies, were other lyrical elements that by and by brought about the form of the ZARZUELA.

All the great Spanish playwrights of the 17th century understood that they could make the verse more expressive, the dramatic situations more effective by associating their works with vocal and instrumental music. Among those who cultivated this type of drama with music are Lope de Vega, Calderón de la Barca, Vélez de Guevara, Tirso de Molina, Avellaneda, Fernández de León, Zalazar y Torre, Bances Candamo, and among their musical collaborators noted composers like José Peyro, Juan Hidalgo, Carlos Patino, Mateo Romero, Francisco Clavijo, Risco, Garay, Marín, Juan de Navas, Juan de Palomares, Blas de Castro, and Sebastian Verdugo.

King Phillip IV and his court would see shows of music and comedy at the palace of La Zarzuela near Madrid (today the residence of Spain’s royal family). The name is derived from the word “zarza” blackberry bush, as these bushes surrounded the building. The king then ordered the construction of a theater in the Palacio del Buen Retiro en Madrid. After its completion in 1648, a musical Jardin de Falerina in two acts with a book by Calderón and music by Juan Risco was performed there.

“Tonadillas,” brief dramatic or satirical sketches with music, became popular as a Spanish answer to the strong influence of Italian opera especially in the 18th century. Less important artistically, they nonetheless signified a survival of Spanish music in the theater.

In the Napoleonic era the influence of French Opera Comique was dominant. In mid-19th century Jacques Offenbach’s Parisian operettas stimulated composers and lyricists in Austria and Spain. Franz von Suppé started the Viennese operetta in the eighteen-sixties. It is true that a Zarzuela El Novio y el Concierto, written by Basilio Basili with lyrics by Bretón de los Herreros, had been presented in 1835 in Madrid with some success, but the Zarzuela, as we have known it, began to blossom in the late eighteen-sixties, coinciding with the birth of the Viennese operetta. Hundreds of Zarzuelas were written within a decade! And the movement continued for almost seventy years. While the Viennese operetta, too, includes figures from the “lower” classes, the principal personages generally belong to the aristocracy or the wealthy bourgeoisie or have some connection with the nobility (Franz Lehár’s Eva the Factory Girl is an exception). In the Zarzuela it is not the aristocracy but the “common” people: working class people, lower middle-class people, “marginal” people of the city and country folk, that generally occupy the foreground.

We can distinguish between two types of Zarzuelas: the “genero chico” with two-act comedies on folk life and the three-act “Zarzuela grande” with a “heavier” play and a larger cast.

The golden age of the Spanish Zarzuela ended with the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), but its popularity has maintained itself, and even Spain’s most eminent opera singers include zarzuela numbers in their concert repertoire. Moreover, the Zarzuela branches out into other Hispanic countries, especially Cuba where, through Ernesto Lecuona and Gonzalo Roig, steeped in that country’s musical tradition, it has dealt with specifically Cuban situations and problems (such as race relations), sometimes in a tragic manner. In Puerto Rico the great song composer Rafael Hernández wrote a Zarzuela Por Aquí pasó el Amor.

A late flowering of the Zarzuela was to take place in France after World War II when a Spanish émigré, Francis López, a former dentist, became one of the most popular song composers in France and wrote several “Zarzuelas grandes” with French lyrics, starring Spanish tenor Luis Mariano, which became big hits.

Coming back to the golden age of the Spanish Zarzuela, we notice that in the 19th century the género chico dominates. Eventually the Zarzuela composers show an ambition to fill larger forms looking toward comic opera. However, in most cases the harmonies remain simple.

The structure of the Zarzuela, as it is known today, was brought about by composers like Oudrid Gatzambide, Hernando Inzenga and Francisco Asenjo Barbieri. Some of the foremost composers of Zarzuelas in the late 19th and mostly in the 20th century are Tomás Bretón (La Verbena de la Paloma), Emilio Arrieta, Federico Chueca, Ruperto Chapí, Amadeo Vives, (Doña Francisquita), M. F. Caballero, Pablo Luna, José Serrano, Reveriano Suotullo y Vert, Jacionto Guerrero, Pablo Sorozábal, Jesús Guirdi, José María Usandizaga, Jerónimo Jiménez, Rafael Millán, Federico Moreno Torroba, Antonio Moya. But there are many more who have written faily successful zarzuelas.

Just as in the nineteen-twenties, with Jerome Kern’s Show Boat, America’s musical theater found its own voice and language, Spain’s musical theater evolved its most characteristic and perfect expression toward the end of the 19th and in the 20th centuries. In the last few decades the Zarzuela has been winning many new friends in the United States. It continues to be an enchanting garden, inviting us in for our untiring enjoyment.