In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Zarzuela

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference
  • Shorter Surveys
  • Revista (revue)
  • Librettists
  • Singers
  • Catalan Sarsuela
  • Zarzuela in the Americas

Music Zarzuela
Christopher Webber
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 April 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0162


Zarzuela was the dominant mode of Spanish lyric theater from the mid-17th century until the 1950s. Precise definition is impossible for a stage genre that evolved over such a broad time span and embraced so many musical and theatrical forms; but it may be described in general terms as operatic drama with spoken dialogue, parallel in the Baroque era to English semi-opera, and related in the Romantic period to French opéra comique. Developed as a royal entertainment by the playwright Pedro Calderón de la Barca, who created the earliest examples with court musicians such as Juan Hidalgo, it soon became popular in Madrid’s public theaters; and in the succeeding two hundred years zarzuela, with its late-18th-century offshoot the tonadilla escenica, held its place as the vernacular, native-language alternative to imported Italian opera. The century after 1850 was the “Golden Age” of zarzuela, marked by the emergence of many significant composers, multiple changes of style, and much polemic as to its aesthetic and national importance. In particular, the debate persisted as to whether zarzuela was the country’s true national lyric genre or whether it should instead function as a stepping stone toward the development of a school of through-written Spanish opera, able to challenge the dominant Italian, German, and French forms on their own ground. This “question of genres” continues to into the early 21st century, when through-written opera in Spain continues to receive subsidies far in excess of the “mixed” native form. Another contested debate concerns the relative values of (perceived) subgenres: in some eras, full-length género grande (“large style”) exemplars were elevated to an aesthetic importance above the one-act subgenre of género chico (“little style”), which is for many the essential expression of zarzuela. While both have traditionally been valorized above zarzuela ínfima (“trivial” or “decadent”) works from the early 20th century, this assumption is also now contested, as is the mid-20th-century intellectual perception of zarzuela as a reactionary genre. Many Spanish-speaking colonies (notably Cuba) developed strongly individual zarzuela traditions, and in the 21st century there is growing interest in the American history of the form. Much of the recent surge in academic literature and critical editions of individual works has, naturally enough, been in Spanish; but zarzuela’s challenge in the global age is to become better known outside the Hispanic world, and there is a growing amount of worthwhile material available in English, French, and German.

General Overviews

Overviews of the genre have been thin on the ground. This is perhaps not surprising: even though zarzuela was a popular theatrical entertainment, few writers thought it necessary to produce handbooks to explain it. There are many books devoted to historical accounts of particular periods, such as the 19th Century or subgenres, such as Género Chico; but few provide an overview of the entire phenomenon. Temes 2014 is now the most recommendable in Spanish and is an informative and judicious guide covering many aspects of zarzuela beyond the works themselves. Alier, et al. 1982 remains recommendable for its alphabetic organization and sheer quantity of information; although Alier 2002 has a useful extended essay on the genre’s history. García Franco and Regidor Arribas 1997 punches above its weight in terms of the amount of reliable, factual information contained in a small space. For English speakers, Webber 2002 provides a balanced starting point for exploration and modern study of the genre.

  • Alier, Roger. La Zarzuela. Barcelona: Ediciones Robinbook, 2002.

    One-volume (Spanish) guide, different in scope than Alier, et al. 1982. Prefaced with an adroit 130-page essay on the genre’s history and notable for its account of zarzuela during the Spanish Civil War. Short entries on composers, librettists, and works are pruned down from Alier’s earlier book. Good illustrations.

  • Alier, Roger, Xosé Aviñoa, and F. X. Mata. El libro de la zarzuela. Barcelona: Daimon, 1982.

    Still the best one-volume, alphabetically arranged guide in Spanish. Despite a fair sprinkling of factual errors, this provides a wide-ranging, well-organized overview of zarzuela’s history and creators; many short synopses of individual works; and an emphasis on Catalan composers.

  • García Franco, Manuel, and Ramón Regidor Arribas. La Zarzuela. Madrid: Acento Editorial, 1997.

    Brief but information-rich (Spanish) guide to the genre, with short historical overviews devoted to each century and mini-biographies of many 17th–20th century composers. Also includes special sections on Cuba, the Philippines, “Zarzuela and Film,” and a short bibliography.

  • Temes, José Luis. El Siglo de la Zarzuela, 1850–1950. Madrid: Ediciones Siruela, 2014.

    Sociocultural history of the “Golden Age,” with a refreshing eschewal of the traditional divisions of zarzuela into subgenres, in favor of a wide-ranging cultural discussion of theaters, recordings, and literary criticism devoted to the form, as well as its musical values. Also includes good material on Catalan sarsuela and Cuban zarzuela.

  • Webber, Christopher. The Zarzuela Companion. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2002.

    Standard guide in English, and a good starting point for study. It contains a brief history of the genre, biographical chapters on the major 19th- and 20th-century composers, and synopses of their major works with critical commentaries. Also special chapters on librettists, singers, Catalan and Cuban zarzuela, and a discography.

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