Blog post

Rosario Soler, Spanish soprano performer

Popular singer and actor of the 'zarzuela' genre

colourised photograph of Rosario Soler

Rosario Soler was a famous actress and soprano singer who performed in Madrid at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. She performed works of what is known as the 'género chico' (literally, 'little genre', a Spanish genre of short, light plays with music).

colourised photograph of Rosario Soler who wears a long pink dress

Rosario Illescas Sánchez was born in Málaga on August 16, 1879. Her parents were Salvador Illescas and María Candelaria Sánchez, and she took the artistic surname Soler from her cousin because it sounded very musical for her.

Rosario started her career at the Teatro Vital Aza in Málaga, where her brother was the stage manager. She took part in small roles and soon became familiar with the artists and the performances.

At the age of sixteen, she moved to Madrid. She performed at small theatres until she made her debut at Príncipe Alfonso Theatre with the work Cuadros disolventes, which received a great reception from the public.

colourised photograph of Rosario Soler who wears a large scarf over her head

Cuadros disolventes is an example of 'theatre by hours', a popular, cheap form of theatre with comic and satirical purposes. It is a form of Costumbrist theatre, a literary form involving interpretation of local everyday life, mannerisms, and customs which became a revolution in the Madrid scene at the turn of the century. In this type of theatre, several works could be represented on the same night, but none of them exceeded longer than one hour in length.

This type of role gave Rosario great versatility in her performances.

colourised photograph of Rosario Soler who wears a colourful dress

In August 1896, she travelled to Mexico and premiered the 'zarzuela' (a Spanish lyric-dramatic genre) La marcha de Cádiz at the Principal Theatre, obtaining great success from public and critics who praised her performance in the Dúo de los Patos ('duck duet'), which earned her the nickname 'La Patita' ('The little duck').

cover page of La march de Cádiz play

In this theatre, she also performed La revoltosa ('The Troublemaker') for the first time and was acclaimed for the duet of Mari Pepa and Felipe.

Other zarzuelas premiered by Rosario in Mexico were La buena sombra ('The good shadow'), El mantón de Manila ('The manila shawl'), La viejecita ('The old lady') or El paraíso perdido ('The lost paradise'). This latter was criticised for being somewhat provocative for the time.

colour photograph of Rosario Soler who wears a colourful shawl around her shoulders

The invention of the cinematograph was also an opportunity for Rosario and, in 1899, she filmed the movie Rosario Soler en sevillanas in Mexico.

page from a newspaper with a photograph and text

In 1901, Rosario left Mexico to arrive in Havana, where she premiered the zarzuela La Parranda ('The party'), which was very well received too. Her stay there was short because, at that time, she dreamt of studying singing with a great teacher. She moved to Milan to do this until 1903, when she returned to Madrid.

sepia-toned print of La Scala opera house in Milan

In the capital city, she performed at the Teatro de la Zarzuela three pieces 'by hours': La buena sombra ('The good shadow'), Venus salón and Parador de las Golondrinas ('Swallow's Inn'). She also worked at the Eslava, Tívoli and Novedades theatres, discovering that the 'theatre by hours' could also be performed on large stages.

colourised photograph of Rosario Soler

In 1904, some pieces sung by Rosario at the Teatro de la Zarzuela were banned because they criticised the government. Led by Prime Minister Antonio Maura, the Civil Governor of Madrid closed this theatre and arrested several interpreters. Everything was resolved with the theatres agreeing to no longer stage any more political couplets.

black and white photograph of Antonio Maura

After undergoing an operation on her vocal cords, Rosario continued her work at the Zarzuela, where she was known as the 'real' Mari Pepa from La Revoltosa ('The troublemaker').

cover of La Revoltosa

In 1907, she was already the first soprano of the Apolo theatre, and her grace, beauty and inspiration were praised. That same year she began to record several albums that were re-issued until the 1920s.

colour print of a street in Madrid

In June 1908 Rosario performed Las Bribonas (“Las bribonas”) in this theatre, her most eagerly awaited premiere after years of not having new repertoire.

colourised photograph of Rosario Soler who stands beside some flowers

Las Bribonas is a one-act zarzuela divided into five scenes with a libretto by Antonio Martínez Viérgol and music by Rafael Calleja. Its plot ridicules the pious women of a town who were scandalised by the arrival of a variety troupe. In it, Rosario, in the role of Trini La Jerezana ('Trini from Jerez'), singing the frivolous couplet La maquinista del amor ('The driver of love'), which qualified this zarzuela as 'negligible genre'.

colourised photograph of Rosario Soler and actor Carrión dancing in character

Rosario was so highly appreciated that advertising brands used her image. In the following picture we can see her sponsoring a hair product in a newspaper advertisement.

black and white advert from a newspaper featuring a photograph of Rosario Soler

In 1910 she left the Apolo theatre and joined the Lyric Theatre, making her last two premieres in Spain,* El poeta de la vida* ('The poet of life') and El país de las hadas ('Fairyland'), before returning to Mexico, where she stayed until 1919.

colourised photograph of Rosario Soler

In 1910 Rosario wrote a story for the Cuentos Galantes magazine entitled 'The 25 kilometre man', which was a naïve story about an unfaithful man who pretended to be doing sport with his bicycle to be with his lover. Press reviews were not favourable.

In 1920, she married Jacques Sittler Daesslé, from Alsace, who removed her from the scene for a time during which she travelled around Europe.

In those years, the 'género chico' was witnessing its decline and was disappearing from both small and big theatres, as the public already found it 'sappy, puerile'. Cinema made it disappear definitively, with longer shows such as opera and 'grande' zarzuelas returning to theatres, as well as those with a more frivolous tone like varieties and revues.

colourised photograph of Rosario Soler

In 1923 Rosario, who was living in Nice, returned to Spain and performed, although she did not want to submit to the new variety trends. But Jacques's health brought them back to Nice where they bought a villa by the sea.

In 1931, she returned to Málaga to collaborate in charity events and the couple settled in the town Alahurín de la Torre, where they were seen driving around in their 'magnificent Cadillac'. Shortly afterwards, Jacques passed away.

Caricature drawing of Rosario Soler and others dancing in character

With a life now completely away from the stage, Rosario Soler, 'The little duck', died on November 22, 1944 in Malaga at the age of 64.

colourised photograph of Rosario Soler

Thanks to Sara González Contreras at Hispana for help with translating and revising this blog.

Women's history Spain Performing arts