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Zarzuela is closely linked to the most traditional Madrid. The city has been the source of inspiration for many a zarzuela, a genre that deals with the social realities of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Zarzuela, often defined as Spanish opera, is a theatrical play that contains musical acts. Characters usually represent the working classes: chulos (men wearing peculiar clothes and making extravagant gestures), ratas (thieves), nannies, policemen…

The origins of this typically Spanish music genre go back to the seventeenth century, when the Zarzuela Palace turned into the meeting place of the royal court and local artists. They threw big parties, and it was here that these traditional Spanish operatic works emerged. Some experts believe that Pedro Calderón de la Barca was the first-ever author of zarzuela librettos, with works like La púrpura de la rosa (The Purple of the Rose) or El laurel de Apolo (The Laurels of Apollo).

Ups and downs

Of course, zarzuela has had its rises and falls. When the Bourbon dynasty accessed the throne in 1700, the genre fell into oblivion, since the new monarchs didn’t speak Spanish and were fond of Italian opera instead. However, Ramón de la Cruz managed to bring zarzuela back to life in the mid-eighteenth century, with pieces like Las segadoras de Vallecas (The Reapers of Vallecas) or El Licenciado de Farfulla (The Farfulla Bachelor), both depicting the daily life of the society of his day. When he died, the brightness of zarzuela faded away only to be replaced by tonadillas (light comic operas).

In the second half of the nineteenth century, zarzuela made a comeback with works by Mariano Pina, Joaquín Gaztambide, Francisco Asenjo Barbieri and Emilio Arrieta at the Teatro de la Comedia and the Teatro del Drama.

In 1856, the Teatro de la Zarzuela opened on Calle Jovellanos to put on zarzuelas whose main topic was the opposition to the contemporary Italian ministers. A nice example is El barberillo de Lavapiés (The Little Barber of Lavapiés).

Madrid and género chico

In the 1860s, zarzuelas were only one hour long, with fewer acts. They came to be known as ‘género chico’. They featured catchy songs and tickets were cheap, which meant they attracted large lower-class audiences. The stage recreated the streets of Madrid and the main characters were mostly working-class people. Chotis dance and music had their place on stage too, thus representing Madrid’s most traditional customs.

In 1886 there was the premiere of Federico Chueca’s La Gran Vía and Cádiz – a harbinger of the genre’s greatest prosperity. From then on, until 1900, the theatres of Madrid put on a huge number of zarzuelas: La Revoltosa, by Ruperto Chapí, Agua, azucarillos y aguardiente, also by Chueca, Gigantes y cabezudos, by Manuel Fernández Caballero, La verbena de la Paloma, by Tomás Bretón, and many others.

Although the early twentieth century witnessed the performance of important plays like La Dolorosa, by José Serrano, or Las Golondrinas, by José María Usandizaga, the género chico gradually disappeared. However, classic zarzuelas are still staged today.


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