Teatro de la Zarzuela’s
new musical director
in conversation with

Ignacio Jassa Haro

(Madrid, December 6 2010)

Cristobal Soler

Energy Injection in Calle Jovellanos

Morning of December 6, a Public Holiday in Spain, feels dreary and dozy. Maestro Cristóbal Soler had summoned this journalist to his official office, temporarily sited in Madrid’s Calle de Fuencarral during refurbishment of the headquarters on Calle de los Madrazo, only to find the outside gate locked and barred as dictated by work schedules. Fortunately we improvised a new and much more comfortable venue to hold the interview: the nearby, historic Café Comercial de la Glorieta de Bilbao, full of people this rainy morning more idle (and noisy) than usual.

Before talking to Soler in his official capacity as Teatro de la Zarzuela’s new Musical Director – a position he has held officially since the celebrations marking the end of Miguel Roa’s long-term collaboration with the company in September – I wanted to get to know the man behind the imposing title. Cristóbal told me enthusiastically about his early career in his native Valencia, a place to which he owes “very much” – he is “very grateful for the support” that it has always provided him. Those first steps of his career, first in a rondalla ensemble and then in a wind band (first as flautist and later conducting), fostered a true “passion for music” that will never leave him. From this formative period he recalls with particular affection Maestro José María Cervera Collado who became his mentor when he was given the opportunity to work as an assistant in emblematic theatres such as the Zarzuela and Liceu (Barcelona).

At twenty-two he mounted the podium of the Santa Cecilia Society in Cullera. This gave him in-depth experience for his future in the orchestra pit, having a band, a youth orchestra, chorus and stage group at his disposal – which amounted to having a complete Music Theatre Company as a testing laboratory. Five years later he was involved in the creation of the Philharmonic Orchestra of Valencia University, which in 1998 won first prize in a prestigious youth orchestra competition in Vienna. This last experience encouraged him to ask for leave to continue his postgraduate education in Munich and subsequently in Vienna, a seven year period during which he came into contact with many conductors. Great personalities such as the revered Jacques Delacôte and eminent musicologist Nikolaus Harnoncourt produced a deep impression through their approach to opera direction, combining practicality with analytical rigor and fidelity to the score.

Marta Moreno and Juanma Cifuentes in Los descamisados by Chueca. (Opera Comica de Madrid c. Cristobal Soler, Teatro Fernan Gomez, 2007)Once home, and after starting a family – he is married to mezzo-soprano Lorena Valero (one more link which “binds him to lyric theatre”) and the pair have a three year old daughter – he began to guest conduct for a number of institutions, including the Teatro de la Zarzuela, with which he has collaborated for three seasons. Yet his relationship with opera and zarzuela is not limited to this. It’s been there throughout his career, from those early wind bands for which “80% of the repertoire was zarzuela selections”, through countless concerts, opera (notably several renewals of the “Julian Gayarre” and “Montserrat Caballé” international singing contests) to his presence in the pit for Romanian National Opera and many leading Spanish  theatres, not to mention directing the Perpignan Opera Festival and teaching at leading academic institutions.

When asked about his current position Soler told me that the proposal came from the Teatro de la Zarzuela itself (“it was Luis Olmos who called me”) which offered him a one-year contract, during which time the current Artistic Director [Olmos himself] will continue in post. Of course this current season was already programmed when he took up the post, but Soler still has the important task of programming – musically speaking – the 2011/12 season. And so as not to rush into making decisions his watchword since his arrival has been “look, listen, learn...”.

Soler believes that this appointment is “the best thing that can happen to a Spanish orchestral conductor” and is very clear that his mission is “to spread, foster and champion zarzuela” something the comprehensive education he’s had in Spain, Germany and Austria has prepared him for. Thanks to that he brings to this post an energy to pursue quality work, directed not only at the core repertoire with its ready response at the box office, but also through innovative revival of works forgotten today but of undoubted artistic quality. To realize these plans Cristóbal Soler wants to “select the best singers” whilst getting the best from the “superb ensembles of the house” (the Orquesta de la Comunidad de Madrid and the Coro del Teatro de la Zarzuela) whose “spirit and talent” give so much to the Theatre.

Cristobal SolerI asked Maestro Soler if the short expiry date of his current contract substantially limits his her ability to manoeuvre? With a wry smile he immediately replied that clearly in the world of High Culture one cannot do things quickly (“you have to create bases for the future”) as one is obliged to make plans for the medium-long term, which will maybe bear fruit after one has left the institution itself. So I asked him about short-term projects. He can’t give us the specific details we’d like about the 2011/12 season as the program is still under development and current ideas can change. Yet Soler’s main objective will be to cover the different “genres and styles” as widely as possible. In short it will attempt to put its trust in the Spanish zarzuela repertoire “without any inferiority complex about opera”, with which form it shares the universal language of music. Soler believes that, given the intrinsic quality of the works and optimum production values, success should be guaranteed.

“But Maestro,” I came back at Soler, “how will these ambitious plans square with the advertised drastic budget reductions?” (25% less than last season!) He replied that “clearly in difficult times you must sharpen your wits”. The easy solution would have been to reduce the season length by another 25%, that is to remove at least one more stage production from the programme, but the new Music Director was clear from the outset that this was unacceptable. “We need to optimize resources, especially for the Theatre’s Orchestra and Chorus,” says Soler, at the same time adding that “all our artistic collaborators must make a sacrifice to this sad situation, by adjusting their fees to the Theatre’s budget”, in order to maintain or increase the quantity and quality of programmed works.

Expanding the role of the Theatre as a public institution serving the whole society, an important initiative that Soler wants to bring in is a major series of auditions for singers. Soon more than sixty young voices will have the opportunity to show their quality and perhaps go on to enrich the Theatre’s large company for next season (“there is a great need of singers as we have stagings with two or even three casts”). “Hopefully some of the names that will shortly make their debuts in this House can’t come back when I call them in five years time, because they have to sing at The Met or La Scala,” suggests the smiling Soler.

Los diamantes de la corona, c. Cristóbal Soler (Teatro de la Zarzuela, 2010, © Jesús Alcántara)

I want to know what importance Cristóbal Soler puts on the possible policy of making recordings away from the House. Does he share the idea that the current blockage of activity has negative consequences on the possibilities of extending the audience for zarzuela, by preventing access to the genre, for example to the young or people from other countries? “Yes,” he says emphatically, “this is one of our priorities to resolve.” The Theatre has made digital recordings of recent productions, which when the current “administrative problems” are solved, may find their way to commercial DVD.

But leaving aside the Theatre itself, Cristóbal Soler is worried about zarzuela recording, whoever is wielding the baton. A recent case in point: a few days ago after a major success in a zarzuela gala with the Orchestra of Navarra in Pamplona, he encouraged the orchestra’s managers not to forget, after completing their Sarasate project with Naxos, the two great lyric composers of Navarra – Joaquin Gaztambide and Emilio Arrieta – whose discography is  unforgivably small. According to what the founder of Naxos, Klaus Heymann, said in his interview with our Editor Christopher Webber last June, we are optimistic about the possibility that the Hong-Kong based label may be involved in projects of this nature.

What other plans does Cristóbal Soler have outside his major, new responsibility? “My priority now is the Teatro de la Zarzuela and the Spanish lyric genre.” However, Soler is also Principal Guest Conductor of the Orquesta Clásica Santa Cecilia, a private concern mounting symphonic programmes at the National Auditorium every two months, and will remain a regular collaborator with the Orquesta de Valencia and the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra. One intriguing upcoming assignment is the first modern revival of the Italian [Eng. Ed. sic] opera L’Indovina, music by Salvador Giner to a libretto by Temistocle Solera, with the  Valencia Orchestra and an outstanding cast. There will be a recording and a critical edition.

Una noche de zarzuela - An Evening of zarzuela (Teatro de la Zarzuela, 2009, © Jesús Alcántara) Text by Luis Olmos and Bernardo Sanchez, c. Cristóbal Soler and Enrique Diemecke

Finally I asked Cristóbal for a personal opinion. Through his experience and training in Valencia through to the Germanic world, what does he think love for music in these places is based on? And going forward how can our society be cured of this current alienation from music? Soler does not hesitate: “Education is the key to change, something which can only produce results over the long term. Music needs to be inculcated in schools, taught in a practical way to small children, encouraging them to work together in choral and orchestral groups. Only through a general music education can we have a “prepared audience, open, unprejudiced” which can appreciate performance in the here and now, as something that makes for instance each night of a music theatre production different and unique. “When I conduct the same work twenty-two nights running, all twenty-two are different, but I give of my best in each one, finding different permutations  that ensure not one is the same as the next. That’s why I defend live music.”

An hour’s relaxed but intense talk gave me great hope for the new phase at Teatro de la Zarzuela – this is a man in command, both cheerful and positively engaged. How many times over the last few years have we noted that although the Teatro de la Zarzuela’s ship is travelling in the right direction, with productions during the last few seasons growing in musical and theatrical quality, the propellers are only turning at half speed. The energy Soler transmits led me to believe strongly, that finally someone is involved enough to make the boat sail at full speed in a reasonable time, whilst of course taking care not to drop those artistic standards which have become the Theatre’s calling card. Only then can it pursue a policy that allows a full program, combining the more popular repertoire of the genre which the public demands, and the vital recovery of zarzuela’s forgotten treasures, with all their untold musical and theatrical wealth.

© Ignacio Jassa Haro 2010
(slightly abridged) translation © Christopher Webber 2011

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