Decades ago, before rock, mellow and RnB songs flourished in the music arena, there was the zarzuela dominating the countryside. Zarzuela, nowadays, is a long forgotten form of art, which underwent a dramatic setback during the 1930s with the advent of the vaudeville and the cinema. Zarzuela is a play with music, deriving its name from the Palacio de Zarzuela near Madrid where entertainments called “fiesta de la zarzuela” were presented for the royal families. The zarzuela was introduced in the Philippines in the 19th century by Spanish director Alejandro Cubero. Soon, zarzuela became known in the Philippines as sarsuwela. It was later on adapted in the vernacular. The 20th century saw the rise of Tagalog sarsuwela through the efforts of sarsuwelista like Hermogenes Ilagan and Severino Reyes.
Severino Reyes was born on February 11, 1861 in Sta. Cruz, Manila. His parents were Rufino Reyes and Andrea Rivera. He acquired his early schooling in an institution owned by Catalino Sanchez and studies at the Escuela de Segunda Enseñanza of Colegio de San Juan de Letran, where he obtained his Bachelor of Arts. He continued his studies at the University of Santo Tomas for a degree in Philosophy. He was proficient in both Tagalog and Spanish, with a fair knowledge of Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and several Philippine dialects. A widely read man, he could converse with deep knowledge on religion, philosophy, history, literature, arts and the sciences.
He married Maria Paz Puato, a childhood friend. They were blessed with 17 children. To get way from being enlisted into the Spanish Army to fight the Muslims of Mindanao and Sulu, he accepted a clerical job at the Tesoreria General de Hacienda. However, he had hard time supporting his growing family with his low income. He quit his job and decided to put up a store at the corner of Calle Ascarraga.
In 1902, Reyes founded and directed the Gran Compania de Zarzuela Tagala, which became famous during its time. It presented its first one-act piece, Ang Kalupi in April 1902 in Teatro Zorilla. The company traveled extensively, giving shows in neighboring towns and provinces.
On June 14, 1902, the company staged his play Walang Sugat (No Wounds), a drama set in Bulacan during the Philippine revolution. Walang Sugat tackled the bravery and dedication of the Katipuneros or the local revolutionary army of the Philippines during the later years of Spanish occupation. This marked the beginning of the golden Age of Zarzuela in the Philippines. Also in 1902, Reyes staged in Manila a comedy called R.I.P (Requiescat in Pace), which called the komedya dead and ready for burial. Enraged komedyantes in full costume and riding horses stoned his house. Other Tagalog zarzuelas written by him that also received thunderous ovations were Minda Mora, Mga Bihag ni Cupido, Ang Bagong Fausto, Ang Tunay na Hukom, Ang Tatlong Bituin, Margaritang Mananahi, Ang Halik ng Isang Patay and Luha ng Kagalakan.
Severino Reyes became recognized in other countries for his mastery in drama. Governor Taft exhibited the programs of his plays in the St. Louis Word Exposition and the Panama Pacific International Exposition. Reyes is also recognized for pioneering the Tagalog literary renascence during his time, for his role in the founding of Liwayway magazine in 1922.
It was in the pages of Liwayway where Don Severino’s Mga Kuwento Ni Lola Basyang appeared, a character Reyes based on a neighbor named Gervacia de Guzman. The “Lola Basyang” stories eventually became the most-widely read prose feature of Liwayway. For many years, readers mistook the real “Lola Basyang” as an old woman full of ancient stories stuck in her ancient baul, only to find out later that she was actually man.
Indeed, Severino Reyes is one of the stalwarts of Filipino arts and literature. Until today, the name Lola Basyang is still being used by different art forms and stage and television shows. Lola Basyang became a generic name in Philippine society depicting an old grandmother who loves telling stories to her grandkids. The stories that she tells are always meant to teach moral lessons to children listening. No one can deny the important contribution of Severino Reyes from his time in the early part of 20th century until today, even after more than fifty years since his death.
During the Japanese occupation, he suffered from heart disease and was confined for a time in a hospital. He died on September 15, 1942.
Today, the zarzuela is no longer popular, having lost its appeal as a form of popular culture and is now considered a part of the older generation. But the zarzuela remains an integral part of our theatrical tradition and heritage, and because of this, we salute those organizations that are exerting efforts to revitalize the zarzuela. The zarzuela is an art that we must treasure for its expression of Filipino ingenuity.