Wednesday 13 May 2009

Dancing in the Street

The streets of Madrid are filled with music. Usually the performers are buskers of varying degrees of talent and limited repertoire. There’s something a little different going on now.

The Plaza Mayor has been converted into a theatre: Stage, lights, sound systems are installed and the players have been rehearsing for weeks. Or perhaps for all their lives, because this isn’t just any performance. This is opera. This isn’t just any old opera. Madrid is perfectly well equipped to give us Wagner, Mozart, Puccini et al at the Opera house. Foreigners all. This week we have the homegrown stuff - The Zarzuela.

Nearly every visitor to Madrid will visit the area around the Plaza de Chueca. Why not, there are some excellent restaurants and bars there. But as you walk around Chueca and along the nearby streets of Valverde, Barbieri, or Belen (or even Arrieta – but that’s near the opera house,) remember you are in the thick of Madrid’s musical heritage.

The Zarzuela is Spain’s answer to Britain’s Savoy Operas, the French Opéra Comique and German Operettas. Or it could be said that they are the answer to the Zarzuela, as the early form of Spanish light opera predates all of them.

First introduced in Spain in the 16th century the stories are rooted in musical theatre. The performance alternates between sung and spoken scenes with dances, chorus numbers and evocative solos. Often the works were short and cheap to appeal to masses.

If I were to get above my artistic station, because I will be the first to admit that I don’t know much, but I know what I like, I could tell you that the Zarzuela has two forms: Baroque, which were performed by wandering actors in the 15th and 16th centuries, and the later Zarzuela Romantico, which began in the mid 1800s and were still being composed until the 1950s. It’s the latter which Madrileños still go to see this week.

The opera house or even the Plaza Mayor are somewhat different venues from where these operas began their life. In 1657 King Felipe IV and his queen Mariana attended the first performance of El Laurel de Apolo, by Pedro Calderón de la Barca and Juan de Hidalgo, at a hunting lodge in the grounds of what is now the Palacio de Pardo. The venue was outside in an area thick with bramble bushes, or “zarzars”. Hence the name.

The style was revived by Francisco Barbieri and Joaquin Gaztambide in the 1850s as a Spanish ripost to the somewhat risqué French and Italian operettas that were all the rage at the time, but were also reviled by the church for their ludeness and by the inteligencia for their low form of humour.

On the night of the 16th of October 1851 the Teatro de Circo saw the opening of Barbieri’s “Jugar con Fuego”. It was a great success. He soon followed this with “Los Diamentes de la Corona” (1854), “El Diablo en el Poder” (1856), “Entre mi Mujer y el Negro” (1859), and the national favourite, “Pan y Toros” (1864). His comic masterpiece though, has surely to be “El Barberillo de Lavapies” (1874).

Barbieri had a pupil; a young man whose parents wanted him to be a doctor but whose musical talent led him to greater things. This was Frederico Chueca who, as well as being a skilled photographer, was chief conductor of the Teatro de Variedades, and wrote several zarzuelas including “El Chaleco Blanco” (1890), “Las Zapatillas” (1895) and “El Bateo” (1901). Although most people regard “The Gran Via”, written in 1886 with a mix of satire, and popular song and dance, as his greatest work. At that time the Gran Via was still only a developers dream and the name “Gran Via” was used sardonically by those opposed to its construction, which eventually began in 1904.

With its satire, asides to the audience, the ridiculing of high persons and unpopular beliefs, the Zarzuela, like the Gilberts and Sullivan operettas in Britain, could be subversive and irreverent, and so were a great hit with the ordinary people. Chueca’s reputation as a composer of patriotic music, (in1865 Chueca wrote his famous “Hymn to General Prim”, which was adopted by the military as the “March from Cadiz”), and his very hummable tunes, made him a great favourite; The Spanish Paul McCartney of his day.

The Plaza named in his honour connects with the Calle de Barbieri, named after the man that Chueca called “My father in Music”.

But he was only one of more than thirty composers who wrote regularly for the Zarzuela stage. Valverde, with whom Chueca worked closely, Ruperto Chapi, Thomas Breton, Emillio Arrieta and many others. They have left a body of work that is very Spanish, and peculiarly Madrileño.

On Friday and Saturday the crowds will flock to the Plaza Mayor where the Zarzuela "Cien Puñaos de Rosas", by Ruperto Chapi will be performed at 10 pm. On Thursday evening, you can pop along and watch them rehearse.

Ruperto Chapi died one hundred years ago. This year he is not only being honoured with a performance of "Cien Puñaos de Rosas", but the Madrid Symphony Orchestra will give a free concert of his music in the Retiro at midday on the 17th.
The You Tube clip that comes with this post is a scene from “La Verbana de Paloma”, by Thomas Breton, and possibly the most loved of all the Zarzuelas. Its story can be found here.

How many of you, like me, see a similarity between the YouTube video and the classic movies “My Fair Lady” and “Mary Poppins”? I loved those and I am beginning to love the Zarzuela (even though a friend despairs at my pronunciation of the word!). They are a rich part of real Madrid history and culture and a very enjoyable way to learn about it.

If you have been educated, informed, entertained, or even inspired by this post, please feel free to leave a comment below. B-b-blogger sometimes stammers and you might have to enter your comment twice.


  1. Your posts are very well done, - when is the travel guide coming out?

  2. Spent a lot of time in Chueca when I visited Madrid. Thanks for sharing some of the history of the city.

  3. When do you write the book? Love reading these blogs....