The legendary star tenor-baritone Luis Sagi-Vela has died in Madrid in the small hours of February 17th, his 99th birthday. Eldest son of the great baritone Emilio Sagi Barba and his soprano wife Luisa Vela, the stunningly handsome eighteen year-old made a sensational debut in Guerrero’s La rosa del azafrán under his father’s baton, becoming the brightest star of the Hispanic stage overnight. He created over twenty major zarzuela roles, the first of which was the central character in Guerrero’s El ama, swiftly followed by Joaquín in Sorozábal’s contemporary Madrid classic La del manojo de rosas at the now-demolished Teatro Fuencarral and the not-dissimilarly patient Paco in Alonso’s Me llaman la presumida. At the same time he was appearing as a pin-up matinée idol in revistas (revues) by Rosillo and others; and running his own national, touring Compañía Lírica Luis Sagi-Vela, which employed such luminaries as the lyric sopranos Conchita Panadés and Maruja Vallojera, comedy tiple Teresita Silva, comic baritone Miguel Ligero and – testament to Sagi-Vela’s dedication to art (and commerce!) over ego – Sagi-Vela’s famous older rival Marcos Redondo.
Self-exiled to Buenos Aires during the Civil War, Sagi-Vela henceforward divided his time between the old and new worlds. He sang zarzuela in Spain with his own company and under Torroba, premiering the latter’s religiose and somewhat sugar-drenched Monte Carmelo and La caramba as well as leading his company in the first performances of Serrano’s posthumous Golondrina de Madrid and Alonso’s Manuelita Rosas. Perhaps the best of these post-war works was Torroba’s Maravilla – the hit song “Amor, vida de mi vida”, later made famous around the world by Plácido Domingo, was written with Sagi-Vela’s unique timbre and vocal range in mind. In Buenos Aires he sang opera – Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor and Alfredo in La Traviata (Teatro Colón, 1950) perhaps representing the summit of his achievement in that sphere. He also made at least two popular musical films (El huésped del sevillano and, in Rome, El último húsar) as well as recording a huge quantity of solo romanzas, operetta songs and opera arias, in addition to the complete zarzuela recordings on which his reputation will largely rest. His radio work in the USA, with Morton Gould’s WOR Orchestra in New York, brought his voice to an even wider public, and brought him personally into closer contact with the Cuban classics of Lecuona and Roig. One of the fruits of this collaboration was the fantastic virtuosity of Gould’s orchestral compilation for RCA, Lecuona Sinfónica, one of the most justly famous demonstration recordings in LP history.
Sagi-Vela shocked Madrid’s theatre-going public in 1960 by announcing his retirement from singing, at the relatively early age of forty-six, turning to vocal coaching, writing and musical composition. Still commuting between Spain and Argentina, he mentored the young Plácido Domingo, as well as the sixties icon singer-actress Marisol and many other contemporary Spanish opera and musical singers. Lured back to public performance in 1966 he enjoyed a final huge triumph as Don Quijote in the Madrid production of Mitch Leigh’s musical Man of La Mancha (opposite Nati Mistral) before returning to his other artistic and entrepreneurial activities. He also somehow found time to be President of EMI-Odeón during the late 1950’s and 1960’s.
His compositions included a piano suite for children Fun of the Chessboard (Chicago 1939), an Ave María (UME) and the successful song Cielo azul. His written works were more substantial: they include the biographical Un cierto modo de vivir (Edaf 1981) and evocative, finely-written generic memoir La Zarzuela detrás del telón (El Francotirador Ediciones - Buenos Aires 1998), as well as Historia de la música (Anaya 1977, in collaboration with the literary lion Carlos Murciano.) He continued giving masterclasses in Madrid and Buenos Aires well into his nineties, until his recent illness. His nephew is, of course, the leading regisseur Emilio Sagi, sometime Director of Teatro de la Zarzuela.
Tenor or baritone? Sagi-Vela’s wide discography, ranging from Schubert through zarzuela and opera to “The Impossible Dream” and “Ghost Riders in the Sky”, covers roles in both registers, with remarkably few adaptations; and the unique appeal of his most cultivated voice lies in a combination of popular, tenorial croon with operatic baritonal depth. His singing was never to all tastes. Some find his style affected or mannered; but the beauty, verbal clarity and sheer musical intelligence of such singing – especially in high-lying baritone roles such as Penella’s Don Gil de Alcalá, Pablo in Vives’s Maruxa and the wise, elderly Santi in Guridi’s Basque classic El caserío (opposite Dolores Pérez and Carlo del Monte) – silences criticism.
There are many other outstanding recordings: pardon the bare listing, but some fans would be mortally offended if I didn’t at least mention Sagi-Vela’s Barberillo de Lavapiés, Molinos de viento, La canción del olvido, La del soto del parral, Luisa Fernanda, El huésped del Sevillano or the outstandingly beautiful El asombro de Damasco, once again opposite Dolores Pérez. I would wish to add to those the same pair’s hugely important reference recordings of Lecuona’s Cuban classics María la O, El cafetal and Rosa la China under Félix Guerrero, without which we would have little idea of Lecuona’s instrumental intentions, as the original scores have vanished without trace. They are also marvellous performances in their own right. If forced to choose one, brief example of Sagi-Vela’s art I think I would have to go outside zarzuela, to Schubert’s Ständchen from La casa de las tres muchachas (in Sorozábal’s 1940’s orchestration). As an example of his epicurean musical delicacy, faultless sense of line and slightly occluded, perfectly controlled tone it is peerless.
The loss of such a highly cultured ‘Renaissance Man’ as Luis Sagi-Vela is no less sad because of his great age – what a pity he did not live at least another year, to make it to his centenary! His importance as an artist and entrepreneur was immense: I almost like to think of him as zarzuela’s answer to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. While he was with us, the sense of being linked to the Golden Age of zarzuela was tangible. Without him, at least the personal memories and those wonderful recordings remain for all time.