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• 41 • 2 Urban Life on the Spanish Musical Stage The introduction of music to the teatro por horas happened almost by accident. The playwright Ricardo de la Vega (son of Ventura de la Vega, whose libretto for Jugar con fuego had been instrumental in the rebirth of zarzuela in the 1850s) had written a short play called La camisa de la Lola (Lola’s Shirt) to be played as a curtain-raiser. The original impresario turned down the work, citing the racy title. Vega did some rewrites, turning the play into La canción de la Lola (Lola’s Song). But in the meantime the impresario had decamped to Latin America, and Vega couldn’t interest another producer thanks to the glut of one-act plays on the market. Vega then had the inspired idea of turning to an up-and-coming composer by the name of Federico Chueca to interpolate musical numbers into La canción de la Lola. The novelty of a play with “graceful music” created a smashing success in the late spring of 1880.1 But Vega’s script for La canción de la Lola was not his father’s zarzuela. Gone were the historical figures, the high melodrama, the fixations on the difficulties of romantic love. Instead, the cast of characters includes the local blacksmith and a fireman. We are introduced to the main character not in the midst of a romantic dilemma, but as she is being berated by one of her neighbors for having gone two years without washing her face or hands.2 Nor did the work sound like the zarzuelas that had come before it. Gone were the quasi-operatic arias and the high-flown duets. Instead the musical numbers were “of the best that we know in the popular genre”: a polka, a waltz, and other up-tempo numbers fill the score—all the numbers have tempo designations of either allegro or allegretto.3 Chueca’s musical inspiration was not opera , nor was it even traditional Spanish folk music; it was the cafés and dance halls of Madrid with their music straight from Central Europe. This combination of dance music and lighthearted plots was soon to be acknowledged Music Theater and Popular Nationalism in Spain, 1880–1930 • 42 • as part of the zarzuela heritage by its new nomenclature. Vega and Chueca had reduced the extravagance of the zarzuela: hence, what they had invented became known as the género chico, or the “little genre” of zarzuela. (Technically , the género chico included both musical and nonmusical works, but for the purposes of this book I am using the term to refer to género chico zarzuelas only.) The género chico flourished on Spanish stages from approximately 1880 until about 1910, and would continue to crop up until the Spanish Civil War killed off the production of new zarzuelas entirely. The dominance of the género chico at the turn of the century meant that Spanish musical theater looked like nothing else in Europe at the time. European operettas were dominated by full-length works—either the satirical jabs of Jacques Offenbach and Gilbert and Sullivan, or Franz Léhar’s romantic flights of fancy. In contrast, Spanish theaters were dominated by one-act musical playlets that rarely had time to develop deep characterization or much of a plot. The subject matter of some of these shorter works was also radically different from that of their European counterparts. A significant number of género chico zarzuelas had contemporary urban settings. Set among Madrid’s working classes, these were operettas with what would be described today as having a hip, contemporary feel. This alone makes them different from other European operettas of the period: almost none shared the modern urban setting of the género chico. Spanish music theater was unique in this regard. Only France portrayed urban life on the music stage to a similar extent, but in the opera house rather than in popular theaters.4 The urban setting of many of these género chico works is crucial to understanding the role of zarzuela in the dissemination of Spanish nationalism. During the latter half of the nineteenth century, Spain was beginning the slow and painful process of transforming from a rural, agricultural society to an urban, industrial one. Although the majority of Spain’s population would remain rural until late in the twentieth century, the dynamics of urbanization were rapidly changing the country—and changing the...


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