"Zarzuela - Spanish Operetta, American Stage" (Janet L Sturman)

Zarzuela -
Spanish Operetta, American Stage

Janet L. Sturman

University of
Illinois Press


reviewed by
Christopher Webber

Janet Sturman's valuable book contains a wealth of information on the history, context and production of zarzuela in the United States of America. After a brief overview of zarzuela’s Spanish history, she examines its growth in Central America and the Caribbean, before homing in on the main focus of her research - the performance history of zarzuela in New York. In recent times, this effectively means a detailed study of its place in the repertory of the city’s two major Spanish theatres - the Teatro Repertorio Español, and Thalia Spanish Theatre.

Heroes and heroines emerge … Thalia's evergreen founder Silvia Brito, upholder of zarzuela's traditional stagings and values … the innovative - some audiences would say iconoclastic - René Buch at TRE … the tireless musical director Maestro Pablo Zinger. Elsewhere in The States, the pioneering work of Richard Traubner for zarzuela in English with Ohio Light Opera, and of William Jarvis in Napa, California, emerge as bright torches for the cause.

The professionals and many others are quoted at length, and what they have to say is often fascinatingly revealing. The gentleman in the audience at TRE who criticised the zarzuela costumes for looking too new … Buch's forthright opinions on the generally low quality of zarzuela texts … Plácido Domingo's impassioned statement on behalf of Hispanic music's right to a place in American culture … these are simply three vignettes amongst many.

Sturman's painstaking research into New York zarzuela audiences culminates in her definition of the AZP, or "Average Zarzuela Patron" - he/she is 41, Hispanic, college educated, professional and financially secure! Her analysis and conclusions on the political and artistic questions represented through the genre's American performing history are clear and astute:

"...The musical numbers are the truly portable features of any zarzuela. They are what people hum or sing informally .... The presentation of zarzuela in the United States is more than a musical issue; it is a political issue as well. The genre's continued existence here is based on affirmations of power and the social status that accompanies power ..."

Sturman has a useful chapter on networking in the Spanish musical theatre world, including the internet; and there are full appendixes, footnotes and a particularly useful glossary of zarzuela terms. There is some repetition, even within the modular chapters - some people, such as Spanish language theatre historian John C. Miller, are introduced to us more than once; but the author's decision to begin nearly every chapter with a vivid personal recollection helps mitigate the inevitably careful tone of some of her historical narrative.

The only part of the book which seems less than fully focussed is the incidental discussion of the zarzuela repertoire itself, especially individual works. Given the particular concern of her book, Sturman's readiness to rely on criticisms of individual works other than her own is fair; but there are a handful of mistakes and small misapprehensions, of no great import in themselves, which taken together create a shadow of doubt as to her reliability in such discussion of the repertoire as she needs to support her conclusions.

The omission of Pablo Sorozábal from the chapter giving a historical overview of zarzuela, points to an underestimation of zarzuela's socio-political impact on home soil (even in London 1999 some critics found his The Girl with the Roses too hard-edged for their light operatic tastes!) The Babylonian Couplets in La corte de Faraón are not sung at least in the original by the star singer, but by a soubrette slave-girl - so the song can hardy "concern Lota's sexual frustration" (p.116). The great ensemble in La verbena de la Paloma is not a seguidilla [sic.] but a habanera (p.114).

La Revoltosa is hardly "a zarzuela with operatic pretensions" (p.115) as the music only lasts just over 30 minutes and neither hero nor heroine has a solo number. And does Chapí's quintessentially streetwise sainete really include "...references to Wagner"? I can see both these comments applying to La verbena, but not to the masterpiece of Bretón's great rival. La viejecita is not an operetta (p.166), but a one-act zarzuela based on the English farce Charley's Aunt. And was not the Manuel [sic.] Moreno Torroba who - according to the great Cuban musicologist Alejo Carpentier - toured Cuba in 1955 (p.107) really the more familiar Federico?

So much nit-picking, agreed, but Sturman somewhat undermines our trust in her judgement by these little errors and omissions. In every other way Zarzuela - Spanish Operetta, American Stage is a highly absorbing and revealing book, and Janet Sturman is to be congratulated on a notable achievement.

© Christopher Webber 2001

Zarzuela homepage

Book review index