It's Saturday afternoon, and the multilingual members of the Opera Factory are busy rehearsing for their upcoming production of Jose Serrano's zarzuela Los Claveles ("The Carnations"). Onstage several dancers are pirouetting to a mazurka. To the side Roberto Sapier, the stage director, is looking anxiously over the choreography. Half watching the action from her seat, Blanche Lewis, the artistic director, explains, "Serrano didn't write the mazurka. We lifted it from Luisa Fernanda, considered to be the greatest zarzuela ever written. With zarzuelas you can improvise a lot and cut and paste arias and dance numbers. They are very flexible."
Informality has always been a hallmark of the zarzuela, a form of lyric theater little known outside the Spanish-speaking world that is thought to have originated in the early 17th century. "At the hunting lodge of King Philip IV outside Madrid," says Lewis. "The king wanted to be entertained, so his courtiers lined up musicians, dancers, mimes, and jugglers and had them put on variety shows. They hired Italian composers for that Italian touch. The shows proved enormously popular with the aristocracy. Soon they were taken back to Madrid and became known as zarzuelas, named after the bramble bushes around the lodge." The first zarzuelas shared many mythological themes with the lofty Italian operas of the time, but they also commonly used spoken dialogue and a looser dramatic structure.
By the late 18th century the zarzuela had moved from the court to sumptuous theaters erected in major Iberian cities by wealthy local merchants. "The newly rich all clamored for zarzuelas," says Lewis. "At one time there were 50 zarzuela theaters in Madrid alone." As more native-born composers began writing in this genre, populist and regional elements became more pronounced. "Unlike their Italian predecessors, these composers interjected political ideas and regional customs and mores," she says. "They also used a lot more folk songs, and the music began to sound pungent, more passionate, more Moorish. The regional influences were strong enough for people to tell whether a zarzuela was from Aragon, Seville, or the Basque country."
The golden age of the zarzuela lasted from the 1860s until the eve of World War II--more than a thousand were composed. Phrases and melodies from the famous ones quickly made their way into the lexicon of Spain's popular culture. Luisa Fernanda, which uses the Revolution of 1868 as a backdrop, became an anthem of democratic sentiments, and its antimonarchy message proved to be durable. "It was revived many times during Franco's reign," Lewis points out gleefully.
Zarzuelas come in two varieties: the small zarzuela is a one-act; the grand zarzuela usually contains three acts built around a well-developed story. But according to Lewis, all zarzuelas have two things in common: almost as much dancing as singing, and a happy ending.
Los Claveles, which premiered in 1929, is a small, relatively obscure zarzuela by one of Spain's top zarzuela writers. It deals with the weighty topic of class conflict, albeit in a lighthearted vein; set in turn-of-the-century Madrid, it uses the romantic entanglements of factory and office workers as an excuse to mock shifting etiquette and moral values. "It's a lot like Gilbert and Sullivan or the opera comique," Lewis explains. "Even though the dialogue in our production will be in English, much of the satire unfortunately is untranslatable. Let me just say that the plot involves blackmail, slander, and, yes, incest."
Lewis came across the zarzuela in the 50s. "I heard some tunes on WFMT and fell in love with them right away. I was preparing for a role in Carmen at the time, so I was enchanted with anything Spanish." Slowly she learned more about the genre, not an easy task given the scarcity of zarzuela performances and scores in this country. "Friends sent me tapes and records from places like Mexico and Cuba. [Placido] Domingo's parents, who started a famous zarzuela theater in Mexico City after emigrating from Spain, had made many recordings."
In the late 70s Lewis returned to Chicago after performing and teaching stints elsewhere and started coaching voice on her own. Several years later she and several students decided to form an opera company. "We didn't want to do what Lyric Opera and Chicago Opera Theater were already good at doing. So I thought 'My gosh, nobody was doing Spanish operas. That's our niche.'" In 1985 the Opera Factory staged the first professional production of a zarzuela in Chicago in a long while. "For some reason critics still dismiss it as an exotic folk theater not on a par with classical operas," she sighs.
But Roberto Sapier, who came to Chicago in 1964 and says he's appeared in "hundreds of musical comedies and dramas," was impressed and joined the repertory company the following year. As a child actor growing up in Argentina, he was immersed in zarzuelas. "The operas were extremely popular there from the 40s through the 60s," he says. "Most people in Buenos Aires could hum at least 20 zarzuela arias."
Los Claveles, the company's fifth zarzuela, will feature Donna Sadlicka, a student of Lewis's and a veteran on the operetta circuit who thinks most zarzuela arias are the equal of the best of Johann Strauss and Ferencz Lehar: "They are drop-dead gorgeous!" Her costars include Barbara Landis, Mark Zolezzi, and Tony Castillo. After the Chicago performances the production will travel to Spain. "We've been invited by the U.S. government to perform zarzuela numbers at the expo in Seville," says Lewis. "Can you believe this? I have never been to Spain!"
Four performances of Los Claveles will be given at Angel Guardian Theatre, 2001 W. Devon. On the top half of the bill is the father-daughter flamenco team of Edo Sie and Lily Vega. "There are no flamencos in zarzuelas," says Lewis. "The Spaniards consider it a bastard art invented by the gypsies." Show time is 7:30 on Saturday, June 13 and 20, and 3 on Sunday, June 14 and 21. Tickets are $18, $15 for seniors and students; call 761-1334.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Loren Santow.