Zarzuela: what it is, meaning, characteristics, origin, authors and more


What is the zarzuela subgenre?

Within the dramatic genre, the zarzuela is one of the most important subgenres, since it consists of a form of stage music that includes both instrumental sections that may be accompanied by choirs, duets or solos, but also spoken parts, although in a few zarzuelas the use of the spoken section is usually avoided.

Both the subgenre and the lyrics and music are called zarzuela. On the other hand, its musical fragment is one of the most characteristic elements of the zarzuela and the one that allows it to distinguish itself from other dramatic subgenres.

Significance of the zarzuela subgenre

The modern zarzuela comes from -tonadilla-, which refers to a kind of song with amorous or satirical themes, especially political. However, with the passage of time the tonadilla begins to take place mainly within the scenic framework in Spain, when it begins its development to consolidate itself as one of the most important musical theater performances in Spain.

From then on, an important evolution begins, promoted by a great variety of writers among which we find Lope de Vega, Calderón de la Barca, Barbieri, Chapí, Moreno Torroba, among many others.

What is the zarzuela subgenre

Definition of the zarzuela concept

This subgenre, born and developed in Spain, comprises one of the most important types of musical theater that works and alternates the spoken word with sung fragments or the interpretation of musical instruments for its staging.

History and Origin of the zarzuela

It is considered that the term comes from Palacio de Zarzuela, an enclosure that is located in the outskirts of Madrid and that included a theater in which this subgenre became known from several representations. This is how authors such as Lope de Vega and Calderón de la Barca appeared, the latter being the one who decided to take zarzuela completely for his compositions. An example of this is “El golfo de las sirenas” which dates from 1657.

Although it was born and developed in Spain, the truth is that the zarzuela does not stay only in this country to be represented, but such is its success that even manages to touch countries belonging to other continents, as is the case of America, where zarzuelas begin to be produced in countries such as Argentina, Cuba and Venezuela. It should be noted that with the arrival of the zarzuela in these countries, other modifications to the musical theater of this modality are also incorporated, such as language and stage locations.

Characteristics of zarzuela

Below we present a series of key characteristics to identify and understand the subgenre:


In an amusing way, zarzuela represents on stage a great variety of aspects that are part of Spanish life, which is why it is considered a fundamental subgenre for its tradition and culture. In this sense, it includes aspects such as festivities and customs, showing the ways of life through characters that at the same time tell amusing anecdotes. This, without leaving aside an important musical catalog of its composers.


One of the most important particularities of the zarzuela is related to its point of origin and development, since it is considered as a subgenre of the Spanish tradition for having been configured there not only the birth of the type of musical theater, but also its development, which was carried out by the hand of great authors of Spanish literature.


As we mentioned, zarzuela combines both the musical and the theatrical aspects, so that by mixing these two elements it gives rise to a type of musical theater that begins to recover a series of spoken forms to expose them within their representations. These elements can be presented in duets, trios, instrumental parts, songs, etc.

Form of composition

The first thing is that zarzuela is a type of musical theater that consists of the spoken word, which alternates with the musical sound, where another series of fragments appear that are sung or can only be interpreted with musical instruments. On the other hand, the use of resources within the composition may vary according to the time and the fashions developed at the time.

Extension of the zarzuela

Another of the most important characteristics of the zarzuela is that its extension can vary considerably, so that we can find zarzuelas consisting of one or several acts at the same time with very diverse resources and equally varied musical forms.

Types of the zarzuela subgenre

There are two types of zarzuela:

Género breve o corto

En esta modalidad se reconocen obras de zarzuelas que manejan representaciones de un solo acto, considerado dentro del teatro por horas. 

Gran zarzuela o grande

A diferencia de la anterior, aquí se manifiestan todas aquellas obras que estén constituidas por varios actos, algunas de ellas de extensión similar a la ópera grande. 

Sin embargo, se reconoce una segunda clasificación que involucra propiamente el tema o argumento, pues algunas obras se caracterizan por tener un carácter más costumbrista, otras más de escenificación europea, algunas más cercanas a lo típico del país, etc. 

Authors and most important works

Calderón de la Barca is recognized as one of the most important authors of zarzuela with his work “El golfo de las sirenas”, as well as other relevant authors such as Lope de Vega with his work “La selva sin amor”, in addition to “Los celos hacen estrellas”, written by Juan Hidalgo de Polanco and Juan Vélez de Guevara, “Las segadoras de Vallecas” by Ramón de la Cruz, among others of this time. For the twentieth century other works appear such as “El puñao de rosas”, “Doña Francisquita”, “La alegría del batallón” by Amadeo, “La calesera” by Manuel Fernández Caballero, and some other works written by Jacinto Guerrero, Francisco Alonso, Rafael Calleja, José Padilla, José Serrano Simeón, Pablo Sorozábal, Pablo Luna, Federico Moreno Torroba and Tomás Barrera Saavedra.

Authors and most important works

Example of the subgenre zarzuela

The following is an excerpt from the play “La selva sin amor”, written by Lope de Vega:

Mis penas, mis desmayos,

my amorous longings, my fatigues,

move the mountains and the hard beasts,

with being human enemies;

you alone persevere

in being more fierce and hard.

Oh, grave misfortune!

that what a mountain moves,

does not move a tender breast,

A fair face, a human heart.

Art thou marble? O Philis, art thou snow?

Receive from my hand

this pious prison

of tender and painted goldfinches,

Which I have treacherously seized to imitate thee.


I will joyfully receive

this prison of simple little birds,

and not to please you,

but to open the door,

that like the air they go by uncertain path,

so free of love I depart.


Oh, fierce one!

If only your hand would give me freedom!

You want them to try their own in the air,

merciful to things they do not feel;

Open the door to my prison, ungrateful;

the souls, not the birds rescue.

O condition of thy tyrant disdain!