Nothing to do with the zarzuela heroine of the same name, but in a corner of Argüelles a street called Luisa Fernanda really does exist. Close to that oh-so-evocative place name lives José Julián Frontal, one of the young baritones riding high in the firmament of Hispanic lyric theatre, one who would like – given the chance – to sing zarzuela to the whole world. In this exclusive interview for zarzuela.net Frontal describes his first steps in zarzuela, his coming appearances and dream projects; allowing us, by subtle brush strokes, to piece together a human picture of this most intelligent and promising performer.
First of all, how do we find José Julián Frontal?
Chilled to the bone! With this freezing cold worthy of Mittel Europa …
But vocally indefatigable! …
Absolutely. Before you arrived I was rehearsing the repertoire for my next recital, for the Escuela Superior de Canto. It will be at the end of March, a staged recital of Weill songs in Spanish. The Bilbao-Song, The Tango Ballad from The Threepenny Opera …
Its surprising, José Julián, to find you wearing so many hats… but how did singing come into your life?
Exactly twenty years ago … and well remembered. I am from Cadalso de los Vidrios, a town in the Madrid Region, and aged 17 I had to present myself in Toledo for military service. In the “mili” a fellow townsman suggested I join up with the band, because he had heard me sing solos in Cadalso parish church. They asked me to sing, no more no less, the solo pasodoble from Alonso’s La bejarana, with the Symphonic Band of the Infantry School of Toledo.
(Julián hums “Bejarana no me llores porque me marcho a la guerra”)
I sang… it went down well, and so just before I reached 18 years of age I began to take more account of singing. It interested (and interests) me to know the possible start of all this. I hit it off in the chorus at Toledo Conservatory, and that’s where I heard my first applause. Then I realized what it was that I liked. It was what I wanted to live for.
And your friends knew you were a baritone?
Neither they nor I knew it! … but luckily I always had good teachers. I began with Julio Pardo, an ex-member of the chorus of the Teatro de la Zarzuela, who gave me my musical baptism. He taught me almost everything I know about musicality and interpretation. Another figure to whom I owe much is Josefina Arregui, to whom I’ve been every week these ten years, for a vocal MOT.
What’s clear is that in this career there’s no let up in study. When you’re young you’re energetic and nothing fazes you. Bit by bit you learn a technique, and in time you become more reasonable and know what you can do and what you can sing. Now I learn something at every performance for the following one. So you never stop learning… or auditioning for directors and programmers! … but in the end, that’s how it is and you’ve got to accept it.
Now, turning to zarzuela… We’ve had Soto, Manojo, Parranda, Verbena… You’ve tackled them all!
(He laughs) Hey man, La del soto… was my Córdoba debut, a daft trick to pull off at 24, and all thanks to Pedro Lavirgen. Just imagine a young lad in knee-length trousers interpreting the great role of Germán. It was a boy playing a man; and now, surely, I’d approach it a very different way. The sad thing is that no theatre has asked me to do it.
Besides Germán is there another zarzuela role that you’d like to do and haven’t had the chance to try?
Listen, I feel special affinity with Mario in La leyenda del beso, Vidal in Luisa Fernanda, Juan de Eguía [La tabernera…] given time… perhaps Puck in Las golondrinas or Miccone in La dogaresa, all precious roles and well-adapted to my vocal quality.
And yes, of all the lot the one that fascinates to most is Adiós a la bohemia, a work that moves me, that I recorded eleven years ago and have not had the chance to play since then. A baritone can learn a lot playing Ramón, and I madly want to find myself sitting again opposite Trini in that desperately real café created by Baroja and Sorozábal.
Now a mere name: Curro el de Lora, by Francisco Alonso… What you can tell me about it?
There’s no question that this is a fantastic project, perhaps one of most interesting seen lately in the world of zarzuela. The initiative came from the Foundation directed by maestro Alonso’s son, with the collaboration of RTVE and under the musical direction of Juan de Udaeta. In early September this mind-blowing zarzuela will be recorded, in which I play the protagonist, a very full, lyrical role that I’ve studied deeply and which I am sure will surprise everyone. Hopefully we can manage a staging, although no doubt getting it recorded it already a great point gained. This is the main mission that should confront these types of Foundations and Associations: to record – and to record rare works, or those lacking modern versions, by composers who deserve defending.
Other upcoming stage or recording projects?
In April I’m off to make my debut at the São Carlos in Lisbon, in The Italian Girl in Algiers by Rossini. A great opportunity in such an interesting role as Taddeo, which I’ve already played in the Mozart Festival of La Coruña, conducted by maestro Zedda and with Pier Luigi Pizzi directing. I hope to enjoy this one equally and that it has a fresh success.
As for recording, in addition to the Alonso Curro, there’s an important CD and DVD recording going on sale of Il dissoluto punito by Ramón Carnicer. A revival, also by Zedda, of a very beautiful work for the Coruña Mozart Festival in which I had the privilege of taking part.
Last, José Julián, you could say briefly what singing means to you?
I can tell you in four words: it is my life.
So this cordial, extended interview with a restless spirit ends, a spirit which knows itself, knows what it wants, and knows it can achieve it because it has a special gift – that voice that can make the whole theatre ring when singing the Canto a Murcia or the Vals from La Gran Vía. All power to him in his quest for new triumphs … and a hope that the programmers have their eyes open to see where the brilliant light of stars comes from.
© Enrique Mejías García 2007