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Spanish Opera

Zarzuela is Spain's own style of operetta which combines spoken passages, songs, choruses and dance with traditional elements of opera and popular music.

Opera is a type of dramatic theater in which singers and musicians combine text (libretto) with a musical score. Opera incorporates many elements of traditional theater such as: acting, costumes, scenery, orchestras, and sometimes dances. Towards the end of the 16th century, opera began appearing in Italy and quickly spread throughout Europe, becoming part of the Western classical music tradition.

Opera in Spain

Opera in Spain developed more slowly than in the rest of Europe. At the time, most critics disregarded it as being less worthy due to a strong tradition of spoken drama in Spain. Despite this, in the 16th century Juan del Encina, a composer from Salamanca known as the founder of Spanish drama, was already incorporating songs into his plays.

By the 17th century, the first Spanish operas began to appear; written by such famous writers as Calderón de Barca and Lope de Vega with the collaboration of composers such as Juan Hidalgo de Polanco. New genres began to emerge in society in which vernacular speech and dialogue was integrated into the productions. These new genres, ballad opera and opera comique, opened the door for Spanish composers to develop their own style of opera which would come to be known as “zarzuela”.

Zarzuela is Spain's own style of operetta which combines spoken passages, songs, choruses and dance with traditional elements of opera and popular music. The genre was innovative because it gave dramatic function to the musical numbers and integrated them into the argument of the story. The name “zarzuela” derives from a royal hunting lodge called the Palace of Zarzuela in Madrid where the first productions of its kind were held for the Spanish court in the 17th century. The palace, and subsequently the musical genre, received its name from the Spanish word “zarzas,” or blueberry bushes, which surrounded the building. Catalonia also developed its own zarzuela in Catalan to attract the bourgeois classes. Spainish opera genre would later spread through conquest and colonization to Latin America, Cuba and the Philippines, where the art form would evolve to incorporate different traditions and styles. There are two main categories of zarzuela: Baroque zarzuela (c. 1630-1750) and Romantic zarzuela (c. 1850-1950).

Baroque Zarzuela

Baroque Zarzuela's subject matter often revolves around mythological themes and characters and mixes spoken verse dialogue and operatic style arias with popular songs and dances. The first known performance was in 1657 of a comedy called El Laurel de Apolo, written by Pedro Calderón de la Barca with music by Juan Hidalgo de Polanco, and took place in the Royal Palace of El Pardo, in the Palace of Zarzuela Complex. This event was attended by King Philip IV, Queen Mariana and their court and is traditionally recognized as the birth of a new musical genre called “La Zarzuela”.

Baroque Zarzuela would enjoy nearly 100 years of success until its decline in the 18th century when Bourbon Spain would be dominated by Italian influences, especially in the arts and theater. It was not until 1759, when Carlos II began his reign that the political climate in Spain would change allowing artists to rebel against traditional Italian influences. This transformation in mentality combined with the rise of nationalism led to the resurrection of Spanish zarzuela.

Romantic Zarzuela

Romantic Zarzuela began to appear around the 1950s and, despite some modifications to the structure and the incorporation of comedic interludes and lowlife characters, it remained essentially the same. Romantic zarzuela can be subdivided into género grande (longer productions) and género corto (shorter one-hour productions). The género chico became quite popular when it first appeared in 1868 because the Revolution had caused widespread economic crisis and the public demanded cheaper entertainment. Some of the masterpieces of Romantic zarzuela include: Barbieri's El barberillo de Lavapiés (zarzuela grande) and Federicos Chueca's La gran vía (zarzuela chico).

The greatest Spanish zarzuelas operas were written in the 1880s and 1890s but the genre continued to adapt, change and flourish well into the 20th century. However, with the onset of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), the zarzuela opera genre all but disappeared. In the 1950s, zarzuela was reintroduced by LP recordings which featured world renowned opera singers such as Teresa Berganza, Manel Ausensi and Pilar Lorengar. With the death of Francisco Franco in 1975, interest in Spanish opera has been further renewed with radio and television appearances and international tours.

Spanish Zarzuela opera is constantly evolving and continues to combine traditional operatic aspects with Spain's culture and national flavor.