We had agreed on Hontanares cafeteria, near Teatro de la Zarzuela, at 12:30. I arrived a few minutes before, taking a good look at the surroundings from the entrance door, which is a stone’s throw away from the granite bust of Maestro Francisco Alonso. Passers-by hurry along without looking, ignoring him, but his music still resounds in many minds and on the streets of the city where his musical life played itself out in zarzuela and revista.
The Hontanares, oft-frequented by the famous, has pictures on its walls with brief epithets from many celebrity visitors. Take a look at the signatures: Adolfo Marsillach, Manuel Codeso Ruiz, Manolo Gómez Bur, Vicente Parra, Carlos Sainz, Antonio Ozores, Irish/Spanish historian Ian Gibson… They lead the eye easily along the wall to attract the attention of the curious…
Here we find a lady from Huelva, the “Good Fairy” of zarzuela Carmen González who – inspired by Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music – began singing aged nineteen, in Rigoletto. She studied piano, being awarded the Francisco Viñas Prize, and now has many great Spanish zarzuelas and operas under her belt: Doña Francisquita, Luisa Fernanda, Don Gil de Alcalá, La generala, Maruxa, La tabernera del puerto, La chulapona, El gato montés, El barberillo de Lavapiés, Jugar con fuego, El rey que rabió, Pan y toros… a repertoire expanding season by season.
Carmen, what do you recall feeling about your debut in Rigoletto?
At 19 I was not afraid of anything. I was rehearsing La calesera with Seoane opposite Antonio Lagar, and he asked if I could sing Gilda in Rigoletto. I took a deep breath and said I knew the work and thought I could do it, though I was not entirely certain. I prepared it quickly and a few days later made my debut in Plaza Porticada, Santander. Perhaps this was “ignorance”, typical of somebody that age, but what blessed ignorance! I also remember that my great friend – and a great tenor – Ricardo Jiménez appeared with me.
I believed and firmly believe in work, study and struggling to overcome obstacles; and that was my first chance to carry out those beliefs.
Your first role as a soloist at La Zarzuela was as La Marquesita in El barberillo. What do you remember?
Also with Ricardo Jiménez, as Don Luis … and I remember, above all, meeting Jesús [Castejón], who became my other half at that time, and under whose direction years later I appeared in El niño judío and El asombro de Damasco at Teatro de la Zarzuela.
What is the difference between zarzuela stagings then and now?
The economic and physical advantages now for theatres such as La Zarzuela, are amongst the major differences. I am not referring, unfortunately, to the private companies which lack the necessary support.
I’d also stress the importance and priority being given to “what you see on stage”, the sets, lighting, mise-en-scene ... For some directors this priority is above the performers, and now there is less work done on character. I mean that they trust in the experience of the performers, so the work which was previously a priority receives less attention except as part of the “setting” and that “visual impact on the viewer”. While this is not always true, it is something that did not previously happen.
Following from that, how do you see zarzuela’s future?
Well, despite my natural optimism, I see a dark picture. In general the authorities and people in high places are not interested. And it is they who must gamble on supporting our lyric theatre. There is lack of knowledge, misinformation and ignorance about our zarzuela in these high places. The result is that their support is not enough.
Interviewer’s note: we can’t get discouraged by hearing this same message continuously. We must now again appeal to the authorities to be aware of the numbers of people who every day fill Teatro de la Zarzuela, Campoamor, Arriaga and the rest. Just remember the fans attending popular performances in so many cities and towns across the country. All of our great composers, many of our great writers, great actors, musicians and singers form part of this cultural richness.
In an interview during Calixto Bieito’s production of El barberillo you said: “We need to open the windows to let fresh air into zarzuela.” How far must stagings be innovative?
We must let the director impose his vision of the work, but within limits. We need to innovate while respecting the sense of the piece. For example, there are texts that do not have sufficient quality and cuts can be logical, but the text should not be cut to a point which prevents understanding. Cutting the text brings us closer to those concert versions which forget the dialogue entirely.
Right now we are seeing a lot of “spectaculars” associated with our lyric theatre, but we are not always staging enough zarzuela. In Madrid we should reserve Teatro de la Zarzuela for zarzuela, and let those other shows, which can appeal as much to quality and public taste, be presented by other theatres. Could not La Gran Vía esquina a Chueca have been mounted elsewhere, to allow the inclusion of a proper zarzuela in its place?
Sometimes we “confuse” the public with shows based on a particular zarzuela, perhaps well known and therefore baffling, perhaps, to the viewer. One example is the case of the recent El dúo de La africana we had in Madrid. It may or may not have been a good staging, but it wasn’t El dúo de La africana.
Talk a little about Sagi.
I’ve spent a lot of time with him and I’m very happy about it. He is a great director who knows how to organize and choose his team properly, and who makes decisions after consulting with anyone he believes can contribute something. He consults the professionals. I’ve worked with him on many shows and I’ve enjoyed them all.
Which staging has impressed you the most?
Calixto Bieito’s El barberillo.
Off the top off your head, come up with the names of one soprano, one tenor, one baritone and a bass.
Mirella Freni, Jaime Aragall, Vicente Sardinero and Nicolai Ghiaurov.
You’ve sung in Washington, Tokyo, Paris, Mexico, Buenos Aires … Let’s talk a little about that.
Plácido Domingo invited me to Washington to sing Doña Francisquita; he has always been in my life, mainly in concerts. In that city many love Spanish music in general and zarzuela in particular. In Mexico we sang Luisa Fernanda. In Japan, which listened with great interest to zarzuela, we sang El gato montés.
In Buenos Aires we appeared at the Teatro Colón in a little-known work called La zapatera prodigiosa in a modern adaptation after the play by Federico García Lorca [ed. the opera by Juan José Castro], with tortured music reflecting the protagonist’s neurosis. Given that, I could not gauge what the public reaction would have been to something from the classic zarzuela repertoire.
Last year we brought Sagi’s production of La generala to the Châtelet in Paris, and the audience there, every time, would hardly let us leave the stage. They loved the work and the staging. Then again I’ve also appeared in zarzuela elsewhere outside Spain, in Tamayo’s Antología.
What has been your most embarrassing moment on stage?
In Tamayo’s Antología, when I was singing the romanza from El cabo primero and there was only one skirt shared by myself and another soprano. She was taller than me, which meant having to wear heels about 12 cm high. Going on stage, I tripped, lost my shoe and had to sing the romanza with one foot “on tiptoe.” I remember that it was Pedro Lavirgen who found that lost shoe. Another time, in the Antología revival of ’97, the curtain dropped on my head and though mercifully my wig partially cushioned the blow, I had straight away to sing the romanza del ruiseñor from Doña Francisquita.
What work would you like to add from those few not already in your repertoire?
In opera The Marriage of Figaro (Susanna) and in zarzuela, I don’t know, maybe Sorozábal’s La eterna canción.
I really like the works of Barbieri, and I’ve already confirmed that I’ll appear in Los diamantes de la corona directed by José Carlos Plaza during next season, which will be my fourth work by this great composer.
We’d already finished the coffee accompanying our talk, and it’s time to drop the curtain. Have we opened a window for more fresh air? Will Carmen’s words help motivate “the authorities” towards greater awareness of the meaning of the word “Zarzuela”? Our companion allowed us to share her ideas, to enjoy her decided character, her optimism, her lovely voice...her ability to “convey everything she feels", just as always on stage. All this with a smile that never leaves her face.
© Pedro Gómez