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Miami Through its Spanish Performing Arts Spaces

Lillian Manzor, Author

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     Another sign of attachment to the old country manifested itself in the kinds of shows favored by the new art and theater organizations. Whether dedicated to lyric theater, comedy, or drama works, they continued important traditions well established in the island such as opera, zarzuela, and sainete, among others. The zarzuela is a genre of lyric theater coming from Spain, which alternates between spoken and sung scenes as well as dances dating back to the 1600s and responding mainly to an aristocratic audience. By the 19th century, zarzuelas incorporated regionalisms both in dance styles, musical genres, and characters and their speech. The first zarzuelas arrived in Cuba at the end of the 18th century, were performed in Havana’s Coliseo, and found their most hospitable and fruitful/regenerative soil in the New World. By the end of the 19th century, Spanish and Cuban zarzuelas were being staged throughout the island. The golden age of Cuban zarzuela began during the 1920s and 1930s, marking as a musical genre Cuba’s path to modernity. The transculturated Cuban genre blends the Spanish zarzuela, Italian operetta, Cuba’s popular blackface tradition and other comedic genres. Musically, the Cuban zarzuela is the site of development of Afrocubanism, where one can here elements of US Tin Pan Alley music behind the son and the tango-congo that were created for zarzuelas. Thus, Cuban zarzuela composers Ernesto Lecuona, Gonzalo Roig, and Rodrigo Prats created a national musical genre that, not unlike other performance genres, was a result of an ongoing two-way exchange between the island and metropolitan centers in Europe and the US. Women were zarzuela’s most important actors and audience base while men continued to be the primary authors of librettos and scores. Zarzuela’s plots, however, portrayed female roles that followed the “virgin” / “whore” dichotomy thus playing an important pedagogical role for Cuba’s nascent “liberated” women. As Susan Thomas has analyzed, “the zarzuela evidenced the emerging economic and cultural power of Cuba’s white female bourgeoisie to influence the entertainment industry. It was this audience and their desire to see theatrically portrayed the racial and gender vision of their class, as well as to have their cultural supremacy musically celebrated” (p. 107).
     If the zarzuela was the theatrical genre favored by Cuban audiences in the first half of the 20th century, it is not surprising that the early exiles, composed mainly of Cuba's upper-middle classes, very soon started to produce in Miami the lyric genre in general and zarzuelas, both Spanish and Cuban, in particular. Lyric theater from the European tradition helped sediment an audience that already identified itself culturally with Europe. The early exiles set the tone for culture and taste in Spanish Miami. Even as its class, racial, and age profile changed, zarzuelas served to create an "imagined community" that continued to ally itself to the upper-class Cuba that no longer existed on the island or in exile. As an early program states, the zarzuela specifically was considered one of the best examples of the Spanish traditions important to Cubans and to those from other Latin American countries who were settling in Miami during the 1960s and 1970s. The zarzuela enthusiasm among the exile community even generated its own composers. Zarzuelas were, and are, for the exilic imagined community, the most prestigious social and cultural event, much like the Opera was for Republican Cuba’s upper classes and the bourgeoisie. 
     Sociedad Pro-Arte Grateli is the one responsible for bringing the zarzuela to Miami since their first production in 1969 of the classic La verbena de la paloma.Since then and to this day, they have rented Miami-Dade County Auditorium for most of their productions. By the mid-1970s, Miami was undoubtedly the U.S. capital of zarzuelas, and even the leading voices from the New York City Opera and the Metropolitan Opera were lured to the city by them. Zarzuela's dance and musical numbers and conflicts appealed to the personal and collective struggles of communities trying to put down roots in a foreign country. Grateli and other companies satisfied their audience’s fantasies by transforming an afternoon or evening in Miami-Dade County Auditorium into Imperial Vienna or Madrid. They could temporarily escape from their immigrant troubles and life on Little Havana and enjoy walking through Madrid’s Alcalá Street or a Parisian cabaret. The popularity of lyric theater in general and zarzuelas in particular, within a Latino community in the making, demonstrates the ways in which music and spectacle worked not only as a projection of social status but as construction of ethnic identity. The 2011-12 season of the Florida Grand Opera opened with the zarzuela, Luisa Fernanda, brought directly from Spain’s Teatro Real, proof of the relevance of zarzuela’s legacy for Miami’s culture.
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