A theatre for a genre... La Zarzuela


Ever since its creation the Teatro de La Zarzuela -in the same way as the Opéra-Comique in Paris and the Volksoper in Vienna- has been a meeting point for several generations of audiences and for all those who are attracted to Spanish culture. At this theatre, where the Spanish musical comedy has always been cultivated, the best works of the zarzuela repertoire are still sung and performed.

The origins of modern zarzuela soon became connected with those of the first and only building erected to the glory of the Spanish operetta, the Teatro de La Zarzuela. Its history goes back to the 1850s, when the main promotors of the new genre -Francisco Asenjo Barbieri, Joaquín Gaztambide, Rafael Hernando, José Inzenga, Francisco Salas, Luis Olona and Cristóbal Oudrid-, who had set up the Sociedad Artístico Musical (Musical and Artistic Company), decided to offer the public a modern and comfortable venue-in keeping with the new mood in the city-next to Calle de Alcalá in the city centre. After several years of back-to-back success, in 1856 the architects Jerónimo de la Gándara and José María Guallart y Sánchez built a hall for the performance of zarzuelas, which were already very popular-it was an Italian style horseshoe shaped hall with three storeys of boxes.

The inauguration, on 10 October 1856, the birthday of Queen Isabella II, featured works by Arrieta, Asenjo Barbieri, Carnicer, Gaztambide and Hernando. The original decoration of the building was commissioned to the painters Francisco Hernández Tomé and Manuel Castellanos, who carried out a magnificent project that was displayed mainly on the ceiling of the hall. Those paintings, however, eventually disappeared as a result of several refurbishing works and reforms.

«All in all, the theatre is very lovely, although it is not large. The ornamentation is rich and generally in good taste. The proscenium is delightful. If the ceiling weren't so cluttered with figures, mostly portraits of our poets and artists of the past and present, we think the work of Mr Castellanos ... would have looked better. There is a great deal of fancy in the layout and depiction of the scenes. [ ...] The theatre is perfectly laid out in the horseshoe fashion and its acoustics are apparently very good, with a very pleasant optical impression throughout the whole theatre.» (La Iberia, No. 683, 11 October 1856, pg. 4). This scenario on Jovellanos Street featured the premieres of Los magyares, El juramento and Una vieja by Gaztambide; Los diamantes de la corona, Pan y toros and El barberillo de Lavapiés by Asenjo Barbieri; El primer día feliz, Gigantes y cabezudos and La viejecita by Fernández Caballero; La bruja, La patria chica and El rey que rabió by Chapí; El arca de Noé and El bateo by Chueca; Don Lucas del Cigarral, Bohemios and La villana by Vives; La Mariblanca, La mesonera de Tordesillas and Baile de Capitanía by Moreno Torroba; No me olvides, Las de Caín and La casa de las tres muchachas by Sorozábal, among many other composers and titles. Throughout the 19th century and the early 20th century the history of this genre and its Theatre was written by the musicians and poets and by the actors, actresses and singers who, day after day, through premieres and new performances, kept alive the flame of zarzuela at its Theatre.

Celebrated and popular, and aware of its own characteristics, the Teatro de La Zarzuela entered the 20th century with the works of young composers who took their inspiration from genres such as operetta and revue. But experiments were carried forth leading to the acceptance of rural and regional zarzuelas as well. A significant feature of those years was that the administration of the Theatre was arranged by various impresarios, some of the best known of whom were Lleó and Vives (1908) and Moreno Torroba and Luna (1925). Unfortunately a fire destroyed the Theatre in 1909, but soon after that the architect Cesáreo Iradier reconstructed it (a horseshoe shaped hall with three storeys of galleries, boxes on the sides and a metal structure) and it was reopened in 1913. The Theatre remained in business and survived the Civil War (1936-1939), but its activity seemed to wane significantly over the years. It was not until 1956, exactly a century after it was built and inaugurated, that the Theatre was bought, managed and reformed (stairs, decoration and façade) by the Sociedad General de Autores de España (Spanish Authors' Association); this time the architects were Antonio Vallejo and Fernando R. Dampierre. Subsequently, from 1964 to 1983, the Ministry of Information and Tourism and the Asociación de Amigos de la Ópera de Madrid (Madrid Opera Friends' Association) jointly organised a number of Opera Festivals. Starting in 1984 the Ministry of Culture, through its Instituto Nacional de las Artes Escénicas y de la Música (National Institute for the Performing Arts and Music), and as the sole owner of the building, prepared the first lyrical seasons, which in the absence of an opera theatre and an auditorium included dance, flamenco, opera and zarzuela performances. Finally in 1994 the Theatre was declared a National Monument. Then in 1998, after the latest reforms in the building, it recovered the function it was originally created for in the 19th century: a theatre dedicated to Spanish operetta. The new period was inaugurated with the performance of El chaleco blanco by Chueca and La Gran Vía by Chueca and Valverde.

It should not be forgotten that this Theatre is the representative par excellence of the musical legacy of Spain. La Zarzuela has always been faithful to its principle of being a Theatre fit for a genre... and a genre fit for a Theatre. So ends this short history of the first and only theatre built specifically for the Spanish operetta, La Zarzuela, which soon will be completing its first one hundred and fifty years of life.