Agua, Azucarillos y Aguardiente: A Night at the Zarzuela

Remember that time I told myself to take Frances Mayes’s advice and make Spain new again? I’m really trying. Honest. I mean, what could get more new than a fresh coat of “pijo” white paint on our walls after the bug infestation? And a new grade at school?

Friday rolled around again, and instead of the normal school-nap-beer routine, I substituted hops for hoops – hooped skirts, that is. My friend Inma belongs to the Compañía Sevilla de Zarzuela, a sort of traveling singing group, and invited me to an encore performance of their popular Agua, Azucarillos y Aguardiente performance.

I’d heard of zarzuela, an art form made popular in Madrid in the mid 19th Century. Truth be told, I was sitting on the beach of Las Rodas on the Atlantic isle of the Isla Ciès in August 2010, laying on my stomach on white sand. My weathered old copy of Iberia, a Michener classic with reed-thin and yellowed pages lay open on my towel. I thumbed through the colossal book’s 800 pages, stopping at a black and white photo of women dressed in an old-fashioned type of dress resembling a traje de flamenco with puffy sleeves and carnations perched atop a simple white bonnet. Quickly flipping to the beginning of the novel, where Michener describes his first days on the Iberian Penninsula, I worked my way halfway through the book before lending it to a student who went to Los Angeles for three month, never arriving to the latter chapters on Madrid. Andrés, bring back my book in one piece, please!!

Agua, Azucarillos y Aguardiente is the story of a much-smitten Asia and her mother, who have come to Madrid from Valdepatatas, a forlon town with no real inspiration for the young poet from her looks of total distress when her mother suggests they move back there to relieve some debts. When the casero comes knocking for his rent money, rollers-and-housedress-clad Mamá scrambles, saying her lovesick daughter’s rich boyfriend will lend them the money.

Zarzuela surged in the latter half of the 18th century as a folly directed towards social commentary, a way to entertain the masses before the onslaught of TV and Internet by way of poking fun of plitics, current events and the vida cotidiana, daily life. Bu using exaggerations and larger-than-life characters mixed with influences of Italian opera, a new genre was born. Zarzuelas are often an eclectic mixture of song, spoken dialogue and humor.

When Asia and her mother, who has never met the rich Serafín, set out to ask him for money, they find themselves in the Recoletos park in a beautiful and wealthy area of Madrid. Here Pepa, the wisecracking barmaid, and her husband Lorenzo are having a discussion about money that Serfín has promised them on the day before the Feast of San Lorenzo. Pepa is protagonized as a larger woman who gives her husband a bit of tough love, and their height difference in the Sevilla troupe was hilariously perfect. Pepa is soon confronted by Manuela, a lovely barmaid who also sells water and aguardiente to the patrons of Recoletos. As it turns out, Manuela is the new girlfriend of Pepa’s old flame. The two women bicker about who has the right to be selling drinks in that square of Recoletos before Asia and her mother show up to wait for Serafín. As Don Alquilino, the landlord, realizes, the 100 pesetas circulating between the hands of the cast of characters is, in fact, Serafín’s, and he is using his status as the son of an ex-minister to puff up his status. Towards the end of the night, the fighting barmaids and their men celebrate the Feast of San Lorenzo and Serafín appears, realizing he has been swindled of both wallet and pants.

It was clear that the play takes place in turn-of-the-century Madrid for its mentions of Recoletos, Colón, Paseo de la Castellana, but for being a present-day sevillano production, there was mention ofthe liderazgo of Seville football team Betis in the BBVA league, of the crisis, and of sevillano speak (mi arma, duh). For being something composed in the last years of the 19th Century, the humor added to serious subjects allowed for the company to sing their way into the hearts of a packed house in Joaquín Turina. The cast was brought onstage for two encores, voices as big as the puffy sleeves on the women.

For doing something new, my faith is renewed in looking for new things to do in the Hispalense. I’ve dabbled in flamenco and done my obligatory bullfight, but I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of cultural offerings in Sevilla. The offering of humor and poking at social issues reminded me of my 18th birthday, when I took a few friends to Chicago to see a Second City performance. As the improv show was sold out, we chose the smaller stage for a show called “Pants on Fire,” a hilarious take on the Iraq War. I was practically on the floor laughing as my friends stared, dumbfounded (I have been reading the newspaper since I was barely old enough to do more than understand the comics). I sometimes feel like I live in a expat Seville bublble, far away from the economic crisis and the social reforms taking place.

All I needed was a little joke, and maybe an aguardiente, to put me back in my place.

Have you got anything I should do or see in Seville that’s not on my bucketlist? Or other ideas for the bigger cities? Have you heard of zarzuela? Are there popular artforms that are characteristic of your region or country?

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About Cat Gaa

As a beef-loving Chicago girl living amongst pigs, bullfighters, and a whole lotta canis, Cat Gaa writes about expat life in Seville, Spain. When not cavorting with adorable Spanish grandpas or struggling with Spanish prepositions, she works in higher education at an American university in Madrid and freelances with other publications, like Rough Guides and The Spain Scoop.


  1. […] I vowed to make my fifth year in Spain new (and I have been doing hiking trips, seeing theatre and exhibitions, etc.), I fell in to normal school routine. In October, this was punctuated by a work trip to […]

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