Zarzuela, from the king’s court to the streets

Times Staff Writer

SINCE Placido Domingo took over artistic leadership of Los Angeles Opera in 2000, local opera-goers have been hearing a lot about one of his favorite forms of music, zarzuela, a product of his native Spain. His parents were both zarzuela singers, and Domingo has often declared that zarzuela flows in his blood.

Although samples of zarzuela music have turned up in its recent concerts and galas, opening today at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion is L.A. Opera’s first full-length zarzuela, Federico Moreno Torroba’s 1932 “Luisa Fernanda,” with performances through June 24.

Now that the art form is becoming so much a part of the local conversation, what is zarzuela, exactly?

The word is often defined as “Spanish operetta,” but “Luisa Fernanda” director Emilio Sagi, who created this production for Milan’s La Scala in 2003, says that description doesn’t quite capture the essence of the art form.


“It’s more than Spanish operetta,” insists Sagi, former general director of the Zarzuela Theatre in Madrid. Like Domingo, Sagi descends from a family of well-known opera and zarzuela performers.

“The most similar genre is the French and Austrian operettas, but the Spanish zarzuela has more popular roots,” Sagi continues. “In Austrian and French operettas, sometimes the protagonists are counts and marquises. In zarzuela, always the protagonists are real people. They love freedom; they fight for freedom. Even if they are aristocrats or very wealthy people, they are very involved in the problems of the people.” The stories, he adds, are often rooted in the politics of their time.

What else makes zarzuela ... well, zarzuela? With the aid of Sagi and other sources, we have put together a sort of zarzuela primer, a 101 short course -- useful, we hope, for those who want to broaden their knowledge of this music of Spain, as well as those seeking to impress their seatmates at performances of “Luisa Fernanda.”

Look it up: Encyclopedia Britannica defines zarzuela as “a Spanish musical play consisting of spoken passages, songs, choruses and dances.” (The word can also mean a sort of a stew, as in zarzuela de mariscos, a Spanish variant of the French bouillabaisse.)

Don’t call, don’t e-mail: Yes, we know that L.A. Opera presented Manuel Penella’s “El Gato Montes,” often called a zarzuela opera, in 1994; that production was also directed by Sagi. But purists believe that, because the work does not contain any of the spoken passages characteristic of zarzuela, “El Gato Montes” is a Spanish opera, not zarzuela. It’s a fine-line distinction.

And don’t think you’ve experienced zarzuela if you’ve seen the company’s various productions of Bizet’s “Carmen.” That’s an opera set in Spain but written by a French guy and virtually always sung in French -- castanets optional.

History: The first of the genre that would come to be known as zarzuela was the comedy “El Laurel de Apolo” by playwright Pedro Calderon with music by Juan de Hidalgo, performed at the Royal Palace of El Pardo for King Philip V of Spain, Queen Mariana and their court in 1657.

Foliage fact: The style was named zarzuela after one of the king’s hunting lodges, La Zarzuela, located in an area choked with zarzas, or brambles.

Heyday: After a period of popularity as an aristocratic entertainment, zarzuela declined in the late 17th and 18th centuries as Italian opera became the popular choice. But zarzuela experienced a revival in the mid-19th century, when low-priced variety theaters flourished and, says Sagi, Spaniards flocked to see zarzuela the way modern audiences go to the movies. The golden age of zarzuela ended after the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Pablo Sorozabal, considered the last great zarzuela composer, died in 1988.

Sagi says zarzuela retains its power with today’s audiences, especially in Spanish-speaking countries but also in Western Europe and Japan. “Even if you don’t speak Spanish, it is music that goes directly to the heart,” he says.

Home base: Madrid’s Teatro de la Zarzuela was opened in 1856. In 1909, the ornate building, patterned after Milan’s La Scala, was nearly destroyed by a fire and has since undergone various remodelings and changes of ownership.

Two types: Zarzuela evolved into two varieties: genero chico, or one-act comic zarzuela, and grande zarzuela, a more serious musical play in two to four acts such as “Luisa Fernanda.”

Madrid’s Nuevo Apolo theater, the permanent home of the Antologia de la Zarzuela company, stands on the restored site of the old Teatro Apolo, where zarzuela has been performed since the 1930s. In its early days, the Teatro Apolo would present an evening of four genero chico zarzuelas, and, says Sagi, “the best one was always the fourth -- all the people would want to enter the theater for the ‘cuatro Apolo,’ the fourth Apolo.”

Flamenco vs. zarzuela: What’s the difference? Sagi describes flamenco as Spanish folk music and dance. Zarzuela, he says, is a popular art form but calls for trained opera singers.

“Luisa Fernanda”: Along with Amadeo Vives’ 1923 three-act opera “Dona Francisquita,” Sagi says “Luisa Fernanda,” the bittersweet saga of a love triangle in which a generous farmer sacrifices his true love to a hotblooded youth, is among the most famous zarzuelas. Other noted zarzuela composers include Emilio Arrieta, Tomas Breton, Federico Chueca, Ruperto Chapi and the celebrated Francisco Asenjo Barbieri, who with others founded La Teatro de la Zarzuela.



‘Luisa Fernanda’

Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles

When: 7:30 tonight, Tuesday, Wednesday, June 12, 14, 16; 2 p.m. Saturday, next Sunday

Ends: June 16

Price: $35 to $220

Contact: (213) 972-8001