Z is for the Zarzuela


As we end April with the letter Z, let me just say first that I’ve had a lot of fun doing the Blogging A to Z challenge and I’m grateful for the wonderful organizers who thought and planned this all up.  I had decided to tackle the challenge so that I could informally round up my research on Old Manila and it sure has been an eye-opening experience – and fun, too.

So without further ado (you must be tired of all the Old Manila posts by now!), here’s letter Z, which is for the Zarzuela, a Spanish musical drama that Filipinos completely took over to be their own.

In 1657 at the Royal Palace of El Pardo, King Philip IV of Spain, Queen Mariana and their court attended the first performance of a new comedy by Pedro Calderón de la Barca, with music by Juan de Hidalgo. El Laurel de Apolo traditionally symbolises the birth of a new musical genre which had become known as La Zarzuela – after one of the King’s hunting lodges, situated in a remote countryside thick with zarzas or brambles.

La Zarzuela was often visited by clowns and actors from the city of Madrid, and perhaps the piece Calderón and Hidalgo provided, running the theatrical gamut from classical opera to low slapstick and popular song – a bit like Dryden‘s work with Purcell in England – reminded the courtiers of a typical La Zarzuela entertainment.

via Zarzuela! a brief history.

However, the rise of Italian opera made the zarzuela unfashionable and by the 1780’s, there were only a handful of zarzuelas still playing in Madrid.


The zarzuela would reach its golden age in the 1800’s again, when Francisco Arsenjo Barbieri, along with his contemporaries like Manuel Bretón de los Herreros, wrote zarzuelas that became popular all over again.  When the zarzuelas that took Madrid by storm reached Manila, the aristocratic Spanish society in the colonies took to it quite easily.

In 1878, the first zarzuela was presented in the Philippines. It was Barbieri’s Jugar con Fuego (Playing with Fire).  In 1880, Eliseo Raguer, a former zarzuela actress in Madrid and her director, Alejandro Cubero organized a zarzuela troupe composed of Filipino actors and actresses in the Philippines.  Cubero would later be given the unofficial title of “el padre del teatro español en Filipinas” for his efforts as an untiring stage director.

Barbieri's Jugar Con Fuego
Barbieri’s Jugar Con Fuego

Zarzuelas would be composed of amateur troupes as well, with the Ateneo de Manila’s presentation of Jose Rizal’s one-act zarzuela, Junto al Pasig (Beside the Pasig).  Teatro Zorilla, the famous theater, hosted the first zarzuela production, El Diablo Mundo, that featured music composed by a Filipino, Maestro Jose Estrella.  Estrella, a pianist, composer and conductor, was known as the “waltz king of the Philippines.”

“From then on, till the first decades of the 20th century, Spanish theater artists continued to stage zarzuelas not only in Manila but in rich provincial centers, like those of Iloilo, Cebu, Bicol. Among the zarzuelas they popularized were La Mascota, El Rey que rabio (The King who went into a rage), Elanillo de hierro (Ring of Iron), La Pasionaria (The Passion Flower), Boccaccio, La Marcha de Cadiz (The March of Cadiz), Chateaux Margaux, Nina Pancha, Pascual Bailon, and El duo de la Africana. To these Spanish zarzuelistas may be attributed the popularization of the form. For it was they who trained Filipino artists to act and sing for these plays (Cubero recruited talented Filipinos like Praxedes “Yeyeng” Fernandez, Patricinio Tagaroma, Nemesio Ratia, and Jose Carvajal), just as it was they who developed a taste among Filipino urban and rural audiences for this type of Musical. It is perhaps for this reason that the El Rencimiento later called Cubero “the Father of the Spanish Theater in the Philippines.”

….Formed by these various theatrical influences, the Filipino sarswela was finally born in the layers of the 19th century, with the presentation of Budhing Nagpahamak, ca. 1890, with libretto by an anonymous Bulacan playwright, and music by Isidro Roxas. Soon other sarswelas were staged in other provinces.

via What is a Sarswela? | Raindrops and Roses.

Sarsuwela-scene from an early sarswela 2

While the zarzuelas were presented in Spanish, in a few years, as the productions left Manila for the neighboring towns, it was soon presented in the local languages.  When America took over the country, the zarzuelas presented during those years showed influences of the moro-moro.

Moro-moro is believed to be an offshoot of a chivalric-heroic poem called the awit and a legendary religious poem called the corridor that had swept the country as early as 1610 up to the beginning of the twentieth century. It tells of the loves and brilliant deeds and adventures of king and queens, of princes and princesses, of counts and dukes. It also relates of giants, tigers, lions, bears, serpents, dragons, angels, saints, and devils. Often tinged with supernatural and miraculous forces, it may present poisons, magic rings, birds that drop messages, people who get enchanted in the forest. The hero is expected to emerge victorious despite all obstacles and to risk his life for the hand of his lady love (Carpio 2001).

via From Zarzuela to Sarwela | Vocalises of the Mind.

These moro-moro inspired zarzuelas depicted conflicts between the Filipinos and the Spaniards, and alwasy with the Filipinos always winning.  This also changed the traditional Spanish zarzuela into a production that used propaganda.

The zarzuela – or once assimilated into the Philippine culture, sarswela – continued to be popular throughout the American occupation years and through the 20th century although it has declined in recent years.

A zarzuela does not only introduce Filipino values to the young, but it also offers entertainment that is creatively presented. It can be appreciated by both the young and the old…

via Zarzuela: A values-filled entertainment | Sun.Star.

And there you have it – A to Z blogging challenge all done and dusted!  I hope you enjoyed reading each letter as much as I enjoyed researching and writing about them.

Till next year!

A to Z Challenge

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