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Zarzuela or Spanish Opera?

Interview with Melodee Fernández

By Gary Murphy

Opera has its own version of multiculturalism, which in recent decades has led to an increasing awareness of such diverse national traditions as the Finnish, Hungarian and Czech. At LA Opera, audiences first experienced Spanish opera when Plácido Domingo brought El Gato Montés to its stage in 1994. But is El Gato really a zarzuela as it was described at that time, or is it part of the lyrical tradition of Spanish opera?

BRAVO sat down with Lead Teaching Artist and featured soprano Melodee Fernández, who has led the LA Opera Zarzuela Project since it began in 2012, to discuss this very conundrum.

BRAVO: We often use accepted terms and phrases to describe certain things only to find out it’s not exactly accurate. I feel that way sometimes when I talk about zarzuela. Back in 1994, El Gato Montés was described in The New York Times as a zarzuela, but is it really? What is the basic difference between Spanish opera and zarzuela?
Melodee Fernández: El Gato Montés is considered an opera because it is a through-composed* piece with sung dialogue and a tragic storyline. In the Golden Age of the 1800s, zarzuelas were either of the shorter género chico or longer género grande category and were meant to be lighthearted and fun entertainment for working class Spaniards using both comic and serious characters, peasants, military personnel and nobility, some of whom sing in an operatic verismo style and have highly dramatic moments. There’s rarely tragedy in zarzuela, but in the género grande of zarzuela there can be wars fought with lives and loves lost and the inevitable near misses where someone was thought to have died but returns alive and well. Zarzuela usually ends on a positive note, where love and honor prevail.

The biggest difference between zarzuela and opera is that zarzuela uses spoken dialogue that is unaccompanied and has no musical underscoring. At times there’s quite a lot of dialogue between scenes that helps to provide extensive details and direction to the story and characters. Most people outside of Spain and other Latin American countries don’t realize this because the recordings that have circulated since the 1950s (vinyl records and CDs) don’t usually include the dialogue. Later on, when DVDs came out, they included entire zarzuela performances with spoken dialogue. And nowadays we can watch complete zarzuelas on YouTube.

You might ask what is the importance of the spoken dialogue? The short answer is that zarzuela grew out of Spain’s long tradition of lyric theater. It is rooted in the plays of the 1600s and is akin to American musical theater, the operettas of Britain’s Gilbert and Sullivan, French opéra comique and Italian verismo opera and opera buffa.

BRAVO: Is Plácido Domingo the one person today responsible for reviving the zarzuelas we currently see on stages around the world?
MF: There have been various pockets of zarzuela happening for decades in the United States. Small zarzuela and theater companies in Florida, New Mexico, Texas, New York and even in Napa, some of which no longer exist, have introduced this music to many people. There is even an account from over a century ago that Olvera Street was the site of what may have been the first zarzuela performance in Los Angeles. There are also a couple of zarzuela songs on the Lummis wax cylinders that Charles Lummis recorded in the early 1900s at El Alisal in Highland Park, but this interesting history of ours has been lost or forgotten.

Plácido Domingo has been a huge proponent of zarzuela here in the United States and abroad. When I was first presenting and performing zarzuela in Los Angeles in the 1990s, very few people here had heard of zarzuela. After Mr. Domingo became general director of LA Opera, he spoke about zarzuela and his hope of creating a zarzuela theater in Los Angeles someday, making people curious about this exotic music.

Since LA Opera presented the Spanish opera El Gato Montés 25 years ago, then the zarzuela Luisa Fernanda in 2007, there has been steady interest in the art form. As general director of Washington National Opera from 1996-2011, Mr. Domingo was able to produce joint productions with Spain, Los Angeles and Washington D.C., to further intrigue more opera goers. Mr. Domingo included a ‘Zarzuela’ category in his international singing competition Operalia, where young singers must perform a group of zarzuela romanzas in the appropriate style to win the category, which was brilliant because this introduced zarzuela to another new audience who will and are adding these songs to their opera repertoire.

More people are using the word ‘zarzuela’ in their vocabulary because they now know something about it. Plácido Domingo with his international reputation has been a critical catalyst in exposing the zarzuela genre to Los Angeles audiences and the United States at large.

BRAVO: Tell us a bit about zarzuela’s history. I understand there are over 10,000 zarzuelas written, but we only know a few. Why is that?
MF: Zarzuela is considered a cherished national treasure in Spain and has been for a long time. It flourished in Spain, the Spanish colonies and Latin America, but wasn’t known elsewhere. Many zarzuela composers and librettists were quite prolific and composed a large number of important zarzuelas, while others churned out many that lacked musical and emotional depth. If there really are over 10,000 zarzuelas, they are not all either of a high quality and content or some of their manuscripts have not physically survived in their entirety due to aging. Many of these zarzuelas are remembered more for one or two hit songs, if any. Others have been lost to deteriorating manuscripts. Those currently being performed in Spain and abroad are most likely of a higher musical quality and story and character content.

More zarzuelas are performed throughout Spain and especially Madrid than what you would see elsewhere. There have been amazing advancements in technology that now allow us to easily access the Internet for zarzuela information, recordings, videos, performances and so much more. As interest in zarzuela grows in the United States, more theater companies will begin to mount productions like the one LA Opera did in 2007 with Luisa Fernanda, a three-act Spanish zarzuela from the género grande. Obtaining the rights to perform a zarzuela can be difficult and time consuming as well, which might cause a company to put the brakes on an intended production. But with patience and perseverance, they will succeed in bringing zarzuela to their intended audiences.

BRAVO: When I think of Spanish opera today, I immediately think of Daniel Catán’s work. I see Florencia en el Amazonas and Il Postino as two contemporary Spanish operas. Do you think they best reflect the tradition of Spanish opera and not zarzuela?
MF: Mexican composer Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas and Il Postino, both sung in Spanish, are exciting representations of contemporary Spanish opera. Their sung dialogue with musical accompaniment and through-composed musical structure combined with lyrical and passionate verismo singing and soaring high notes really put them in the operatic realm and not that of zarzuela.

If you include the boat ride that turns tragic with love lost, found and the renewal of life in Florencia en el Amazonas, the growth of the title character in Il Postino who becomes more confident expressing himself through the use of his words only to be shot dead, and the love triangle, gypsy warning and death that occurs in El Gato Montés, you could say these operas demonstrate many of the workings of grand opera.

One might agree that the LA Opera performances of Spaniard Manuel Penella’s El Gato Montés in 1994 opened the door for Florencia en el Amazonas to be embraced by American audiences a few years later. Yet we can’t forget that our own Plácido Domingo premiered the New York City Opera production of the Spanish opera Don Rodrigo by Argentine Alberto Ginastera, with himself in the title role back in 1966 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and ponder the influence this might have had as well.

* In music theory about musical form, through-composed music is relatively continuous, non-sectional or non-repetitive music. A song is said to be through-composed if it has different music for each stanza of the lyrics. This is in contrast to strophic form in which each stanza is set to the same music.

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