Interaction Between Music and Theatre in Identity Processes: Croatian Example

Iva HrasteSočo*


This paper seeks to explore the interaction of music and theatre, especially in the form of musical theatre, and how that interaction contributes to the processes of shaping the identity of a nation. To substantiate its thesis, the paper uses the example of creation of the Croatian national opera at the end of the nineteenth century, and how it was used in order to reinforce ideas of the cultural character of the nation.
Keywords: national identity, Croatian National Opera, Ivan Zajc, Croatian National Revival, Love and Malice

The aim of this article is a) to show how the interaction of music and theatre can have significant consequences in relation to the shaping of national identity, and b) how the ideas of specificity and authenticity within a national musical idiom can play an important part in the process of creating a national cultural identity.

This paper takes the example of the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb in the second half of the nineteenth century, examining how it was used as a platform for awakening national consciousness and contributing to the idea that theatre has an important role to play in the development and preservation of national culture and identity.

National identity is a unifying term in the sense of summarizing the different identities that make up a nation, often founded on myths and legends transposed into collective memory. Jordan Jelić believes that the sense of belonging corresponds to the historical efforts made by individual nations in the process of homogenization within certain territorial units (42–44).

Božo Skoko points out that the notion of national identity, or the identity of a nation state, is the personality and recognition of a state or an individual people within the diversity of the international community; in other words, what sets them apart and distinguishes them from other states or peoples and what makes them recognizable in the world in the long term (39).

In this process, the cultural identity of a nation plays a particularly important role in rendering possible the definition of recognition in a global environment. Culture is inseparable from identity and can be defined as an external expression of identity. A characteristic of a nation’s cultural identity is its insusceptibility to being copied; that is, its distinctiveness in relation to the cultures of other countries.

The acceptability of a nation’s labels of a cultural identity within the international community is an important determinant in the process of creating a national identity. Marion Knapp underlines that national cultures create identities while producing the meaning of a nation we can identify with. National culture cannot be regarded as homogeneous, but as a dialectical process in which differences present themselves as a whole (41). It is particularly important to highlight the changeability of any given national identity, especially in its cultural dimension which is caused by dialectical social processes as well as influences from a wider environment.

Music has, from the time of the primordial community to contemporary society, mediated the construction of social identity. The musical expressions of the members of a society testified to its diversity and encouraged the homogenization of the community in a holistic sense. As stated earlier, authenticity is one of the basic concepts used to bring about the recognition and diversity of an identity in relation to the others. It can be seen as a presumed quality that exists in a specific cultural context (Hraste-Sočo 27).

The identity traits of musical idioms of a nation are used in self-recognition of a nation; that is, identification with characteristic traits that evoke a sense of belonging to a nation. Martin Stokes underscores that “places” built through music include a sense of diversity and social boundaries. He points out that relocation processes involve places, boundaries and identities of great collective importance; for example, the evocations of “places” in Irish ballads which can often be heard in Irish bars in England and the U.S.A. (3). John Baily points out that music contains characteristics of strong identity expression: due to its strong emotional component, it can act as a tool both in identifying different ethnic or social groups and in the processes of emphasizing and defining identity (Baily 48; Hraste-Sočo 33–34).

Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb. Photo: Courtesy of the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb

For centuries, the field of theatrical art has possessed the characteristics of factors in identity processes. Ever since the Classical Antiquity, through medieval ecclesiastical performances to theatres of totalitarian regimes of modern times, theatre has served politics in the capacity of legitimizing power. The very presence of a large number of participants and audiences—for example, in plays of the Classical Antiquity—reflects the ability to create a sense of community and influence creation or recreation of national identity (Lukić 117). Anne-Marie Autissier concludes that, as in many other countries, the awakening of national awareness began in Germany in the nineteenth century, and she points out that, according to the European tendency, political and social events gave birth to artistic and national ambitions (24).

Nadine Holdsworth highlights the example of the Tajik theatre in the Soviet Union: “Theatre functioned as part of civic nationalism to convey the interests of the state. In post-Soviet Tajikistan there has been a concerted campaign to revive a submerged ethno-national identity through a rejection of the previous state-imposed, Russian-influenced theatre in favour of a new, hybrid form of theatre deeply rooted in what is claimed to be an authentic Persian-Tajik tradition and its cultural heritage of music, dance and poetry” (80–81). The example above clearly illustrates how theatre art can be a factor in identity processes.

Throughout history, theatre has often been used as a platform to awaken national consciousness. As Holdsworth puts it: “Theatre has the potential not just to reflect what is happening in a nation at any given time but, via its discursive, imaginative and communal realm, to contribute to the creation of the nation through the cultural discourses it ignites, the representations it offers and the stories it chooses to tell” (80–81). An illustrative example of such processes will be shown in the case of Croatian theatre.

The awakening of national sentiment in Croatia is linked to the Croatian National Revival; that is, the Illyrian Movement, a period when efforts were made, especially by the affirmation of the Croatian language, to stimulate the awakening of national consciousness among members of the Croatian people in the then-Habsburg Empire. In the process of national integration, the field of theatre arts played a major role. As Nikola Batušić points out: “The New bourgeoisie, who began to gather around the Illyrian program, . . . became the basis for overall revival aspirations, among which theatre, quite understandably, occupied a significant place” (Povijest 208). Batušić underlines that in this period Croatian theatre became, for the first time, an integral part of cultural politics (Hrvatsko 27).

Theatres of national importance also required a certain type of repertoire that would serve a cultural and political purpose. This is confirmed by Boris Senker who argues that “. . . theatre, first of all, had to strive towards ensuring that the repertoire and artistic level of the performances did not lag behind the analogue institutions in other ‘educated’ peoples. It was required to raise awareness nationally, encourage politically and enlighten its audience culturally” (67).

Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb. Photo: Courtesy of the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb

The Croatian Theatre Day is traditionally celebrated on November 24 to mark the day when the actor Vilim Lesić, during the period of heated national emotions in 1860, announced during the performance that, from the next day on, performances on Zagreb stage would only be held in the Croatian language. The processes that began much earlier made such a proclamation possible. As early as February 7, 1835, during the performance of Die Magdalenen Grotte bei Ogulin, Ljudevit Gaj’s budnica[[1]] “Horvat’s unity and union” was performed, which was subsequently proclaimed an Illyrian hymn (Batušić, Povijest 229).

The so-called Illyrian Reading Room, which was focused on establishing a national theatre, went a step further, enabling the printing of Kukuljevic’s play Juran and Sofija or the Turks near Sisak, in 1839; it was performed by the National Theatre Society on June 10, 1840. Batušić points out that “. . . that day is considered the birthday of the modern Croatian theatre because on that day not only was the first dramatic text of recent Croatian dramatic literature shown in the public theatre, but also the members of a professional acting group, who had all the prerogatives and characteristics of a national theatre, performed on public stage in štokavski dialect” (Povijest 232). It is clear, therefore, that in the Croatian case, theatre was used to manifest and multiply the national feeling in the process of attempting to separate the identity from the then-state structure.

It is important to note that it was precisely the field of theatrical art that the legislator wanted to codify. This is also due to the suitability of the theatrical art for the development of the national feeling in a direction that was desirable to governing structures. Thus, on August 25, 1861, the Croatian Parliament adopted (although it was never endorsed by the central government) the article LXXVII, “A statutory article on the staff reorganization of the national theatre,” which classified the theatre in St. Mark’s Square in Zagreb as a national institution (Povijest 241). Almost 130 years later, and after Croatia gained independence from Yugoslavia, the Law on Theatres was passed (November 1991) as one of the first regulations of the new state. This Law defined theatre as a part of cultural and artistic national value (“Law on Theatres”).

It is clear that the interest in theatre activity did not arise solely from concerns for artistic improvement and development, but also from cultural and political imperatives related to ideas of national identity creation. This is also confirmed by Nadine Holdsworth: “Theatre is deeply implicated in constructing the nation through the imaginative realm and providing a site where the nation can be put under the microscope” (6).

The concept of a national theatre emerged in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a result of the desire of rulers to communicate their political messages with the aim of maintaining power. Wilmer highlights the Comédie Française as the “grandaddy of European monarchial theatres.” It would be followed by the Vienna Burgtheater, the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen and, briefly, the Hamburg National Theatre. Holdsworth emphasizes the theories of Rousseau and, in particular, Schiller that theatre can represent, not only the nation, but also be a vital tool of nation building. She quotes Schiller’s thesis:

If in all our plays there was one main stream, if our poets reached an agreement and created a firm union for this final purpose—if a strict selection led their work and their brushes dedicated themselves only to national matters—in one word, if we had a national stage, we would also become a nation. (28–29)

It is interesting, given the relatively small Croatian territory, that there was an aspiration for the establishment of a Croatian national theatre, in addition to the previously mentioned larger theatre centres and theatres in Slavic countries. Batušić confirms the thesis of the possibility of affirmation of national identity through the theatrical and musical arts, saying, “Seeking their statehood, that is, fighting for it within the framework of Austria-Hungary or earlier Austria, those in the grand, visionary, but also difficult to achieve plans of their revivalists in the mid-19th century, bestow the theatre with the aureole of a national temple” (Povijest 239).

Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb. Photo: Courtesy of the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb

It is precisely in the countries that were part of the Habsburg Empire that there is a strong sense of a need for distinction and political independence that could not, in that period, be achieved through political means. Philippe Ther points out that the development of culture and cultural institutions served as a substitute for political expression where nation building was concerned (49). This is illustrated by the example of the Czech National Theatre, through which an attempt was made to emancipate Czech culture from German culture; this was part of the Czech national movement, which aspired to international recognition of Czech national identity. The initiatives in the Czech theatre had a direct impact on the Croatian one and on June 30, 1881, the decision was made to construct a (new) building of the Croatian National Theatre; the Czech influence was strongly felt both in organisational and artistic terms.

Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb. Photo: Courtesy of the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb

Musical theatre played an important role in the emergence of the Croatian national theatre, not only for artistic reasons, but also because of the lack of dramatic works written in the Croatian language. Also, the shortage of experience in the field of musical theatre felt like an impediment to the establishment of a permanent opera ensemble within the Croatian National Theatre.

The Croatian National Revival period has often been described as very important in the history of Croatian music in terms of the authenticity of the national musical idiom. The first Croatian opera, Love and Malice by Vatroslav Lisinski (the libretto of which was reworked by the champion of the Illyrian Movement Dimitrija Demeter), was performed to great success on March 28, 1846, in Zagreb and, according to Vjera Katalinić, recognized as a national opera for its libretto and its Croatian language. It influenced the beginning of the national theatre (141–48).

Video 1
Vatroslav Lisinski: Love and Malice, Vladimir Ruždjak (Albert), baritone

Opera as an organisational unit, was incorporated into the structure of Zagreb Theatre in 1870. The composing of the first Croatian opera certainly triggered the flourishing of the Croatian music scene: the frequent performances of operettas and the founding of the music-singing society “Kolo,” reaching its peak with the arrival from Vienna to Zagreb of the composer and conductor Ivan  Zajc. With his work Mannschaft an Bord (considered the first Croatian operetta), performed in 1867, Zajc became the person who could establish a permanent opera ensemble. Indeed, he did create it, complete with an orchestra and a choir. The date October 2, 1870, when his opera Mislav premiered, is considered to be the founding day of the Croatian national opera (Povijest 278).

Sanja Majer-Bobetko points out that Zajc’s dominance among Croatian composers is expressed in the fact that this period was even named after him. Zajc’s contribution is especially visible through his national opera trilogy (Mislav, Ban Leget and Nikola Šubić Zrinski), as well as throughout his oeuvre of musical and stage works (19 operas and 26 operettas) (67).

Katalinić points to an important period of “genuine national opera,” during which the strength of national culture and tradition was evident (“first professional opera”), and in which Zajc’s operas were produced, for the most part, within this specific socio-political and organisational context (81). Katalinić also points to the importance of staging and costume design when, during this period, national and foreign symbols are contrasted in order to emphasize patriotism (316–17).

Batušić believes that events in the Croatian theatre did not happen by chance during this period: “The Croatian Theatre Movement of the 19th century is, in its first iteration, a political one. Like many Slavic peoples, from their professional beginnings, Croats have been striving for a solid legalization of theatrical reality, which at the same time meant the artistic establishment of a central theatre as a national institution” (Povijest  239).

Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb; curtain, Vlaho Bukovac: Hrvatski preporod (Croatian National Revival), 1895. Photo: Courtesy of the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb

Martina Petranović offers an interesting perspective on the historiographical representations of Croatian theatre in the context of the construction of national identity. She points out that whereas, in older works, resistance to foreign theatre as a counter-national element was expressed primarily in antipathy to German theatre, later developments in Croatian theatre took the organisational forms and structures of German theatres and the Burgtheater in Vienna as role models (154). The author points out that some historiography exaggerates the importance of the national idea in the early Croatian theatre, especially at times when it was threatened. Such historiography overlooks the nuances, contradictions and inconsistencies in the development of the Croatian national theatre. Petranović underlines the importance of a more objective approach (158–59).

Drawing on examples from different countries, we can see the usefulness of theatre as a tool in many cultural and political processes. The Croatian example shows how musical theatre and, in particular, the creation of a Croatian national opera was central to the process of creating a Croatian national identity.

Today, national theatres still carry out their mission as guardians of identity, whilst also being an incubator of contemporary artistic considerations that will shape the theatrical canons of their nations, influencing the future life of their national cultural identity. According to Dragan Klaić, “the term ‘national theatre’ is still fought for as a way of signaling cultural autonomy, distinctiveness and legitimacy, particularly where national cultures have felt subsumed by a dominant neighbour” (qtd. in Holdsworth 38).

It is obvious that theatre arts, both dramatic and musical, fulfill more than just an artistic mission. Today, as in the past, they also have the potential to contribute to the shaping of national identity.

Ivan pl. Zajc: Nikola Šubić Zrinski, Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb. Photo: Courtesy of the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb


[1]Patriotic songs that had a role of awakening the national consciousness while their artistic value was not a first priority. 


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*Iva Hraste-Sočo, PhD, is an opera singer, diplomat, scientist and university teacher. She graduated from the Music Academy (University of Zagreb), solo singing; in 2012, she obtained her PhD on festival policy from the same university. From 1989 to 2003, she was engaged permanently in the Croatian National Theatre in Zagreb as a soprano but also performed abroad. She worked as a cultural counsellor in the Croatian Embassy in Vienna (2005–09) and as Assistant Minister for performing arts and international cultural cooperation in the Ministry of Culture (2009–19). From 2012 until today, she has taught theatre and festival production at the Academy of Dramatic Arts, University of Zagreb, and at the Music Academy as an Assistant Professor. She is member of various expert groups and her scientific work consists of books and papers published in the fields of Musical Theatre, Theatre, Music Sociology, Cultural Policy and Cultural Studies. Presently, she holds also the position of a special adviser to the Minister of Culture.

Copyright © 2020 Iva Hraste-Sočo
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