Our meeting was in Pozuelo, a town close to Madrid in which two generations are found, one which during the 1930's, 40's and 50's grew used to spending their summers there, and that from about 1980 to the present time, which wants to utilize every square meter of the municipal suburbs. Our subject belongs to that first generation, who after finishing the June term would decamp with his family to spend the three summer months in their house at Pozuelo.
Fronting the railway station, close to where formerly stood the Casino Cultural, I arrive with English punctuality at the appointed hour (twelve noon) outside the cafeteria where I had agreed to meet with Maestro Don José Perera, after several failed attempts to interview him.
José Perera was born in Madrid in 1920, one of six brothers of this musical family. He studied at the Royal Madrid Conservatory, founding in 1950 the "great work of his life" the Coro Cantores de Madrid. In 1956 he began directing the Chorus of the Teatro de la Zarzuela, with José Tamayo's staging of Doña Francisquita, featuring Alfredo Kraus, Ana María Olaria and Ines Rivadeneira amongst others. In 1960 he was awarded the Premio Nacional de Teatro, and in 1965 the prize given by the Arts Ministry for the Best Chorus Director.
What aficionado does not possess zarzuela recordings in which the Coro Cantores de Madrid takes part, under the direction of Don José Perera? A camomile tea and orange juice in front of us, inspire questions and answers ....
Maestro, two quick starters: in how many recordings, and how many films have you taken part with your chorus?
Around 135 recordings on disc. I remember we made our first 33rpm stereo recordings for Columbia with maestro Manuel Parada. As to the number of films to which we've contributed to a greater or lesser extent - 235. I recall some titles, perhaps not known outside Spain, but very popular here: Pequeñeces, Teatro Apolo, Doña Francisquita, Todo es posible en Granada, Marcelino pan y vino (with music by Don Pablo Sorozábal,) La casa de la Troya etc.
Tell us about that very important decade for you, 1950-1960.
(The maestro opens his briefcase and frees the memories hidden there. He hands me a book, only a few leaves, with a fascinating summary of all that happened in that decade, and with the dedication: "To Pedro Gómez, excellent zarzuelista, true friend, with much affection".)
That decade was the key one in my life, years lived and experienced very intensely. I had the luck to be around with a group of magnificent people who were also great professionals, not just those who made up the chorus, but also those soloists with whom we had the pleasure of working.
We had a children's chorus of more than twenty, some of whom had "Perera" as their last name, and so were also part of our family life.
Which singers from your choruses might be recognized by aficionados?
Many of them will be recognised, whilst others equally deserving did not reach the level they might have merited. To answer your question, I'd mention Julita Bermejo, Lupe Sanchez, Pedro Lavirgen, Rafael Maldonado, Lola Casariegos, Pepín Manzaneda, and strangely enough José Luis Moreno, better known not for his exploits as a singer, but for his work as a show producer, including zarzuelas. Also with us was a lady whom I think of almost as "family" - I am talking about Teresa Berganza. But they are not they only names who've taken part in some of the choruses I've directed. These also come to mind: Milagros Martín, Alicia Armentia, Fernando Grijalba, Ricardo Muñiz, Carlos Bergasa, Luis Villarejo, Rafael Lledó, Luis Bellido, Federico Gallart, Mario Ferrer, Rafael Campos, Pilar Lorengar, Maricarmen Ramirez, Pedro Osinaga, Carlos Cross de Castro, Max Bragado, Miguel Roa and Adolph Garcés.
Could you bring to mind some of the conductors and stage directors?
On the musical side Argenta, with whom we made many recordings; others who come to mind include García Leoz, José Luis Lloret, Manuel Parada, Toldrá, my brother Julian, Klatovsky, Senen, Estela ... We have worked with numerous stage directors, I recall Luca de Tena, Caballero, Tamayo, Perez Puig, Luis Escobar, Valeriano Andrés ...
In the decade from 1950 to 1960, with what orchestras did they work?
With the Orquesta Nacional de España, Orquesta de Cámara de Madrid, the Filarmónica de Madrid, the orchestra of Radio Nacional de España, the Teatro de La Zarzuela etc.
In that famous decade what works did they perform on stage?
La verbena de la Paloma, La revoltosa, Agua, azucarillos y aguardiente, Primavera del Portal, Noche de San Juan, Fuenteovejuna, La gran vía, Felipe II, La vida breve, Los encantos de la culpa, Dido and Aeneas and La Orestiada.
(The Maestro is touched, his eyes moisten and his spectacle lenses grow misty with the emotions evoked by the wonderful memories that we are bringing to the table.)
What do you think when singers, principally sopranos, cannot make what they are singing understood?
I think they do not articulate! One must articulate! You cannot sing zarzuela without the text being understood, there's no logic to it, the text is a key component of this type of lyric theatre.
Sometimes in radio transmissions or other media, we're told the names of the soloists in a recording, but the choir isn't mentioned. What do you think about that?
Yes, right, they forget the chorus - when just as surely as the music, the text or the orchestra, the chorus can be a key player in a zarzuela. If they're singing a terceto (trio), the names of the three soloists are always mentioned, but if the chorus is also taking part - why is it not mentioned? It really bugs me when this happens.
(The Maestro is so engrossed in conversation, he has not yet touched his orange juice)
Tell us about Tamayo.
The first contact I had with him was for a staging of La verbena de la Paloma in La Corrala. He then took me with him to the Teatro de la Zarzuela to mount Doña Francisquita with Alfredo Kraus. I will tell you a story about the dress rehearsal before a staging of Vives's Bohemios. It occurred to Tamayo, that very day, that in the well known "Bohemians' Chorus", the chorus should advance, in time to the music, from the back towards the front of the stage, so that the last note should coincide with the arrival of the chorus on the very edge of the stage. It seemed to us a bold change, especially right before the dress rehearsal, but everything went perfectly at the premiere and it was a success. Since then the move has been copied in other productions.
You knew that Pedro Lavirgen made his debut as a soloist in Marina? That day the tenor was "off", chorus-member Pedro knew the role perfectly, and his voice made the substitution possible. It was his countryman Rafael Maldonado who suggested Pedro to me for inclusion in our group.
(We had the luck two years ago to meet Rafael Maldonado in person, in his house-museum located in the pretty town near Córdoba, Aguilar de la Frontera.)
Tell us about the homenaje (tribute) paid to you last year in the Teatro de la Zarzuela.
All right then, yes. It was a very touching thing, they gave my name to a theatre box, indeed the one next to that dedicated to Plácido Domingo. All that happened on the 13th of June 2004. You remember seeing us there?
(We were there that day, too. Many friends accompanied the maestro, representatives from his chorus, politicians, journalists, family members.)
What do you remember about your first experiences of Spanish lyric theatre?
We were a family of musicians, all of us brothers played the piano and we came to spend the summer, after the June school exams, in Pozuelo. We did fiestas, verbenas in the gardens and at the Casino Cultural we held dances and children's shows at first, and later more serious theatre. There I began by playing the role of Don Hilarión, in the children's theatre, at nine years old! My brother Plácido, who was a fine pianist, wrote and performed an operetta there and my brother Julian also took part frequently in these shows, he gave singing classes. I remember we mounted El puñao de rosas, La revoltosa and many others.
We lived in Madrid at Conde de Romanones No.8-10, we lived through the civil war, bombing after bombing, there - when this happened we descended to the cellar where we took refuge until the danger had passed, we even managed to sleep there on improvised beds, made simply out of tables.
(The maestro here expressed a wish to return home, which seemed a good moment for relinquishing his enjoyable conversation, his knowledge and anecdotes.)
I'll conclude this interview with the written words of "notables" from our lyric theatre. In order to avoid extended quotation, I've extracted those phrases each of them dedicated to Don José Perera:
Teresa Berganza: "My dear friend, brother almost, Pepe Perera, who with the help of everyone has made these years of success possible."
Jesús Guridi: "... ten years the chorus Cantores de Madrid has existed, with fertile music making, in which the voices, intelligently directed by José Perera, have come to us leaving unforgettable memories of the widest repertoire."
José Luis Lloret: "... emotional pressure does not weaken the rhythmic precision or enthusiasm, thanks to the expertise of José Perera."
Muñoz Molleda: "... magnificent, choral sensibility, whose great musicality is down to the direction of José Perera."
Lola Rodriguez Aragón: "... due in part to its director José Perera, as modest as he is a great musician, my major partner in the toils of the Teatro de la Zarzuela, founder also, of the chorus of that selfsame Teatro."
Pablo Sorozábal: "The Cantores de Madrid, so precisely directed by José Perera, came to fill an important gap in Madrid's musical life... in Madrid it seemed that this mode of music never would materialize, but Perera with his Cantores de Madrid, has proved the opposite."
[ English Ed. addition. "Bloody good chorus work!" (Simon Joly, director of the BBC Singers, on hearing the Coro Cantores in those Sorozábal recordings) ]
José Subirá: "Through the many and varied merits of their ten years of life (1950-1960) the Cantores de Madrid have made a point, directed by their maestro José Perera, to emphasize what they have brought to the service of the national lyric theatre."
Eduardo Toldrá: "There are few more pleasant things than to give just praise with sincerity. That is what happens when I raise my voice for my beloved Maestro Perera and his chorus Cantores de Madrid, for their noble aims and exemplary work."
We only have time to leave a thousand things floating in the air around us. Will there be another chance to listen once more to the Maestro?
He still lives in Pozuelo with his wife, also a chorus member, and daughter. More than an hour has passed, almost two, reliving the past with the Maestro, recalling his experiences. I must express my feeling for José Perera in many respects, especially from the personal point of view. Several times during this interview I could imagine I was speaking with my own father.
He is a great man, an honoured person living surrounded by friends, for how could it be otherwise? Thanks Master!
We leave the cafeteria, cross the street, take our leave ... the Maestro, with his briefcase full of memories, returns to his house with calm and measured steps. It has been an encounter we will not forget.
Pedro Gómez Manzanares. Villaviciosa de Odón. June 2005
© Pedro Gómez Manzanares 2005