Question: A “zarzuela” is (a) a royal palace in Spain, (b) a briar bush, (c) a Spanish operetta, (d) a seafood concoction, or (e) a Spanish word guaranteed to throw non-Spanish speaking people for a loop? Answer: All the above!
Don’t let the word confuse you. It’s easy to pronounce–ZAR-ZWAY-LA (THAR-THWAY-LA, if you want to be authentic). Just three syllables initially meant an area where briar bushes (zarzas) grew. These plants were quite profuse in an area outside Madrid where the royal Habsburgs who then ruled Zarzuela–and the palace existed until the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s when it was severely damaged.
Under Franco, the palace was torn down, and a new one erected with all the modern conveniences of the day to be inhabited by then Prince Juan Carlos and his young family. The palace became their home–so much so that even after he ascended the throne, the present royal family refused to move to the ornate Palacio de Oriente in downtown Madrid. They continued their residence at la Zarzuela and reserved the impressive Royal Tower in the heart of Madrid only for State occasions.
However, the palace acquired another connotation under the Habsburgs of the 17th Century. When the Court followed the King to his hunting domain, what was left to do after the sun went down and there was no hunting? (Outside of the romantic royal shenanigans…) Entertainers came from Madrid for the amusement of the King and his Court. Because this was the Golden Age of Spanish Drama, most entertainment centered around plays; some of these plays tended to be heavy viewing in the warmth of a summer evening - especially after a long day of hunting.
The Court wanted something shorter, happier, and more amusing. So, the idea of a short one-act play incorporating verse, music, song, and some dancing was born. These musical events became known as “divertimientos del palacio de la Zarzuela”–for short–zarzuelas. Later, as these companies returned to Madrid, these innovative plays caught on with the people, and the genre became part and parcel of the Spanish capital.
Zarzuelas continued to flourish throughout the 1600s until the advent of the Bourbon dynasty to the Spanish throne in the early 1700s. The French brought with them a love for the classics, and zarzuelas were considered a tad déclassé. Consequently, the genre lost its popularity, and it was not until the middle of the 19th Century that they once again raised their banners. When Europe was succumbing to the world of opera, Spain dragged its feet and clung to their musical theatre–the Zarzuela. Spanish audiences considered opera pretentious, foreign, and less enjoyable than their zarzuelas. No one ever dies in a zarzuela or even gets sick!
Despite some very serious and gifted composers, the one-act Zarzuela (known as genero chico) was the popular choice. The more involved genero grande in three acts was never as well accepted among the people, although some notable exceptions exist. When in the 19th Century, many Spaniards came to the colonies of Cuba and Puerto Rico, they brought their love for the Zarzuela with them. Large theatres in Havana and San Juan attracted professional companies from Spain to the Americas to present these works.
Ybor City was not far behind! Settlers from Spain and Cuba moved into our infant settlement with the desire to see and enjoy theatre. As early as 1892, companies were coming over to present these musicals at the old wooden Centro Español and some commercial theatres on 7th Avenue. Even the Italian Club hosted traveling companies that would stop on their way to or from Mexico, New York, and Havana. By 1905, a theatrical publication from Spain, “El Arte de Teatro,” noted the many performances in Ybor City (Ibor as they spelled it).
The Zarzuela thrived here in our community, with performances from professional touring companies and amateurs. The Centro Español, the Centro Asturiano, and the Circulo Cubano all had a “Seccion de Declamacion y Teatro” where young men and women of the community were trained in the art of Zarzuela. Even the Italian Club presented zarzuelas. Professional actresses, musicians, and directors remained in Tampa to direct these amateurs in local productions and provide choruses for the visiting “stars.”
Among the notable professional figures who remained in our community, we find Carmen Ramirez, her sister Pilar, and their husbands, Ernest Esperante and Luis Mayoqui. The two ladies continued to perform into the early 1950s. Josefina Rodriguez, a beautiful soprano, also settled in our community and, for a while, was married to cigar manufacturer Jose Llaneza before resuming her professional touring career. Matilde Reuda and Isabel Marquet Rigau were two other excellent sopranos who made Tampa their home. Manuel Aparicio, a noted actor and stage director, was active locally as late as the WPA period, dividing his time between live theatre and as a lector in the cigar factories. His wife Julia and sister-in-law Luisa Ferrandis were also quite active in the local theatre world. Pianist and conductor Máximo Echegaray made Tampa his home and was well-known and respected on the Tampa music scene.
To this list, we must add talented local artists. Most notable among them was Arturo Moran–a cigar maker by day and actor by night. Also, the Martinez sisters - Chela and Velia. The latter left for Havana to pursue her career and is well remembered in the United States for her performances in “Qué Pasa USA?” Pablo Galindo (known in Cuba as Paul Diaz) also left the area to become a top star in Cuban radio and stage.
The Zarzuela began to disappear on the local stage by the early 1940s. Professional companies no longer made Tampa a stop. A rare stint by the company of Federico Moreno Torroba in the late 1940s was a financial flop, even though it was a first-rate company featuring both the mother and father of Plácido Domingo. Local productions ceased to exist when age caught up with the professionals who had made Tampa their home. Motion pictures had also made inroads into the entertainment of our community, with both the Centro Español in Ybor and West Tampa converting to movie houses - the Casino and the Royal.
It wasn’t until 1959 when the Spanish Lyric Theatre began, that zarzuelas were once again performed locally. Of interest was the appearance on the opening night of two local icons–Carmen Ramirez and Arturo Moran, who gave the group moral support as the curtain rose at the Centro Asturiano. These artists were later joined in the audience by Josefina Rodriguez, who now resided in St. Petersburg, and Chela Martinez, who never missed a performance. Máximo Echegaray served as Musical Director for the group for three years until he died in 1965, and Manuel Aparicio would come up from the cantina at the Centro Asturiano to see the rehearsals, give constructive criticism and show up for the performance.
The baton has been passed to a new generation with a vision towards preserving an art form that has been so much a part of the cultural fabric of our Hispanic population. Today, the Spanish Lyric Theatre is in its 64th consecutive year, with most of its performances at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and yearly appearances in Ybor. They have become the living museum of the traditional arts of Spain, Cuba, and Latin America.
CIGAR CITY MAGAZINE- MAY/JUNE 2007
Art & Photography Contributors: Hillsborough County Public Library, Tampa Bay History Center, The Florida State Archives, The Tampa Tribune/Tampa Bay Times, University of South Florida Department of Special Collections, Ybor City Museum Society, private collections and/or writer.
MARILYN L. FIGUEREDO
Marilyn was Cigar City Magazine's co-owner and managing editor until her passing in 2007. Marilyn was born in 1948 in Tampa, where she lived her entire life and, more specifically, her early childhood in Ybor City. After a successful 30-year career at Delta Air Lines, Marilyn embarked on what became her true passion: reinvigorating the colorful, multicultural history of Ybor City through the lives and personal stories of the families and individuals who made up the uniqueness of this Tampa quarter. She did this primarily through Cigar City Magazine, serving on various committees and organizations, and attending cultural events throughout Tampa. Her work alongside her niece Lisa Figueredo, founder and Publisher, was instrumental in producing Cigar City Magazine.
Marilyn's legacy will live forever throughout the pages of Tampa's first historical magazine–CigarCityMagazine
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