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Cuban Zarzuela

Performing Race and Gender on Havana's Lyric Stage
Awards and Recognition:

Received the Robert M. Stevenson Award from the American Musicological Society (AMS), 2011. Received the Pauline Alderman Award for Outstanding Scholarship on Women in Music in the category of best book from the International Alliance for Women in Music, 2009.

The dynamic genre of musical theater that transformed popular entertainment in Cuba

On September 29, 1927, Cuban soprano Rita Montaner walked onto the stage of Havana's Teatro Regina, her features obscured under a mask of blackened glycerin and her body clad in the tight pants, boots, and riding jacket of a coachman. Standing alongside a gilded carriage and a live horse, the blackfaced, cross-dressed actress sang the premiere of Eliseo Grenet's tango-congo, "Ay Mamá Inés." The crowd went wild. Montaner's performance cemented "Ay Mamá Inés" as one of the classics in the Cuban repertoire, but more importantly, the premiere heralded the birth of the Cuban zarzuela, a new genre of music theater that over the next fifteen years transformed popular entertainment on the island.

Cuban Zarzuela: Performing Race and Gender on Havana's Lyric Stage marks the first comprehensive study of the Cuban zarzuela, a Spanish-language light opera with spoken dialogue that originated in Spain but flourished in Havana during the early twentieth century. Created by musicians and managers to fill a growing demand for family entertainment, the zarzuela evidenced the emerging economic and cultural power of Cuba's white female bourgeoisie to influence the entertainment industry. Susan Thomas explores zarzuela's function as a pedagogical tool, through which composers, librettists, and business managers hoped to control their troupes and audiences by presenting desirable and problematic images of both feminine and masculine identities. Zarzuela was, Thomas explains, "anti-feminist but pro-feminine, its plots focusing on female protagonists and its musical scores showcasing the female voice." Focusing on character types such as the mulata, the negrito, and the ingenue, Thomas uncovers the zarzuela's richly textured relationship to social constructs of race, class, and especially gender.


“Thomas provides both an informative treatment of this allegoric play and a well-written sociocultural discourse on the relationship between gender, race, music and dance in 19th-century Havana. . . . A useful volume for students of Cuban history (particularly as it pertains to women) as well as musicology and ethnomusicology.”--Choice

"A fascinating interpretation and tightly focused look at the vernacular zarzuela ... as created in Cuba in the 1920s and 1930s."--The Bulletin of the Society for American Music

"A commendable job of fusing analytical techniques from historical musicology with broader issues from women's studies, cultural studies, and other disciplines. No other work focuses on this material with such a critical eye, and no other draws such interesting parallels between distinct zarzuelas as Thomas."--Robin D. Moore, author of Music and Revolution: Cultural Change in Socialist Cuba

"No other author addresses the Cuban zarzuela in such a distinctive manner. Susan Thomas offers revelatory musical and cultural analyses in a captivating narrative replete with unexpected twists and illuminating conclusions. Her interviews with performers are invaluable to the historical record and her methodology provides a model for others to follow. What a powerful contribution to the fields of musicology, ethnomusicology, gender studies, theater studies, and Latin American studies!"--Janet Sturman, author of Zarzuela: Spanish Operetta, American Stage


Susan Thomas is an assistant professor of music and women's studies at the University of Georgia.

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