Close to the Plaza del Biombo in Madrid, opposite the Moorish-style church of San Nicholas, lives Inés Rivadeneira. Walking through the labyrinth of houses approaching the diva's home is to feel oneself returning to another time, another world where to sing zarzuela was the most precious prize to which a singer could aspire. But this house is no reliquary of old memories, no place to be humming Ascensión and Joaquín's ¡qué tiempos aquellos! Chatting in her sitting room La Rivadeneira is at ease, younger than ever, strong enough to carry on initiating todays generation of singers into the secrets of her technique and matchless style, recreating that vocal quality which at one time the connoisseurs called pure poetry.
How did you discover your voice, your musical facility?
I began singing in a chorus, in Valladolid, with the Dominican Mothers, aged 13 or 14; it was a priest who opened my eyes to my vocal potential. This excited me greatly, and when I came back home all enthusiastically I told my mother, who just said That priest has been pulling your leg. But from that day onwards, I was made restless by singing, interest in music, and I began to study solfeo in Valladolid, winning a grant to come to Madrid when I was 16.
Once in Madrid, who were your teachers?
Lola Rodriguez de Aragón, who taught a whole generation, with whom I studied throughout my time in Madrid; and Ángeles Ottein, also in Madrid, with whom I studied operatic repertoire, and who also taught Pilar Lorengar amongst others. Later I obtained a scholarship to Vienna, where I continued my studies with Erik Werba, working on lied and oratorio.
What do you recall of your relationship with Lola Rodriguez de Aragón?
It was extraordinary. Aside from being teacher and advisor, she was like a second mother. All we students told her about our lives, our backgrounds, our loves... A wonderful guide highly intelligent, very vital, a woman with a vision of the future.
What do you owe most to her as a singing teacher?
At that time it was difficult to find somebody able to equip you to sing a line of work, enabling you to interpret lied or oratorio. In Spain at that time there were few people specializing in this area, and that made work with Lolita different.
And Ángeles Ottein...?
As we all know La Ottein was a great singer who performed in Milan, New York... and I had the luck of having her as my teacher in the operatic repertoire. In that respect I owe much to her.
What memories do you cherish of your student years in the conservatory, of your friends and the atmosphere of Madrid then?
Fantastic ones. Just think of these three friends Iriarte, Berganza, myself who sang as three mezzosopranos together in what later would become on the initiative of our teacher the National Chorus of Spain, directed by Roberto Plá. I was 17 years old, and to gain through the chorus a little money to top up my rather small scholarship funds, seemed to me a wonder. In addition, you learn plenty in a chorus: musicality, discipline, moderation, refinement... everything. Aside from us three, there were [Ana María] Olaria, [Alicia] Nafé, Chano González...
And that Madrid you ask me about was much more lively, more intimate... Sometimes, at the end of the month, we students were penniless, nevertheless we fixed everything by singing, laughing... and now youth is bitter, sad, sitting by themselves... I think less of it.
Let's go back now to 1956, the reopening of the Teatro de la Zarzuela, and that legendary Doña Francisquita...
Yes, with Alfredo Kraus and Ana María Olaria. It was very thrilling. I had sung in opera before, but this was my first time in Madrid, whats more my first zarzuela on stage. It was a success, amongst other things, because the director was Tamayo... It made a huge impression we were in repertory more than two years with the Vives work, they formed queues!... I have very happy memories of it.
A little while later we sang Las golondrinas, this time with Ausensi and Lorengar, also staged by Tamayo.
At that same time a project arose to perform zarzuela in the Teatro Español, with Iriarte, Rosado, and under the baton of Ataulfo Argenta. What memories do you have of that Maestro?
Of Argenta, the best. He was the godfather of my son and I learned much from him. He might have been the Spanish Karajan; he had a vigour, a force, a soul... something outside the ordinary. In Spain I have not since seen anything like him.
At 25 you received the Premio Nacional de Lírica. For so young a singer, how did you value this prize and how did it help your career?
Personally, receiving it was an honour. In addition, it provided a professional launch-pad as for that reason the theatres were more interested in me. That same year, Alfredo Kraus received the same award in the male category, which lends the event a special emotion. For me Alfredo was outside the norm, an exceptional colleague.
Before your debut as Beltrana [in Doña Francisquita] you say you had already sung operatic roles...
Yes in Bilbao, Oviedo, all the official seasons which meant very few. I played Ulrica (Un Ballo in Maschera) with Richard Tucker, Maddalena in Rigoletto opposite Raimondi and Olaria, Preziosilla (La Forza del Destino), Siebel in Faust, LAmico Fritz, Amaya, El Giravolt de Maig, Goyescas, Le Nozze de Figaro, and even LIncoronazione di Poppea and Khovantchina... But my big success was Carmen, which I sang from 1962 to 1966 on innumerable occasions, at the Liceu amongst other theatres. In addition I toured it with Tamayo, alongside Lavirgen another great colleague singing it upwards of fifty times inside and outside Spain, even at La Maestranza! [ed. the bullring in Seville, where Bizets opera reaches its climax]
In 1964 you took part in the world premiere of El hijo fingido by Rodrigo. What do you recall of the opening and rehearsing the work with so illustrious a composer?
He was very approachable, very affectionate. I have a special affection both for him, as I do for his wife. When I saw him in the distance, I would sing a few bars of his work and he would immediately recognize me with joy. El hijo fingido did not achieve the success it deserved, perhaps because the public did not have cultural background and sensitivity sufficient to appreciate the work's qualities. It is not a work for the masses...
That same year, the seasons of opera at the Teatro de la Zarzuela began.
So they did. That was when I sang amongt others La Forza del Destino opposite Bergonzi and Capuccilli, great figures from whom I learned as much as at any time in all my career. I listened to them with true passion. From them, I learned how to solve certain points of vocal technique: taking a high note, a piano... All this has served me very well as an education.
When did you retire from the stage and begin your teaching work?
I was 45 years old, still at the zenith of my career, when I was offered a chair at the Escuela Superior de Canto. I thought I could combine the teaching with theatre work, but soon realized it was impossible. That was when I decided to end my stage career with a final flourish La vida breve with Victoria de los Ángeles at London's Albert Hall . A complete success; they continued calling me up for new productions, but I had firmly decided to dedicate myself exclusively to education. Yes, I agreed to give one solitary concert later, in London, conducted by Ernesto Halffter.
For me, to teach is as rewarding as to perform, or even more so. My students have been always been my friends, or more so a few days ago two former students came over from Mexico, now married, so that I could listen to the voices of their two children and evaluate their possibilities. This sort of experience fills me with pride and satisfaction.
What does Inés Rivadeneira want to leave as a musical inheritance to her students?
One of the points on which I am most insistent is relaxation in singing. Now in some singers, as much in modern as operatic style even famous figures one can hear a certain tension, a constant vocal effort. Think of Kraus or Montserrat Caballé, listening to them we will understand this facility with difficulty to which I refer. That is what I want to hear in my students. I do not allow them to tighten, to sound effortful, that make ugly gestures... Rather, to sing with the greatest possible naturalness, as if they were speaking...
For me the Italian technique is the best: work on breathing and support in the facial mask, something which not all singers do properly. Thus I was taught, and thus I strive to pass on myself.
How have singing and music formed your personality?
It is a gift from God, a kind of exaltation; one who is within music lives as in another world, perhaps unreal, but always better that the one in which we live. Possessing it makes me consider myself different from the people who surround me... I am more and more proud to call myself a singer. When you are a true artist, you have a good heart and spirit. I, at least, have not known vile people within the world of music.
With these words we left, leaving the mezzo-soprano to her work. Perhaps this was an ideal day to remember the Canto alegre de la juventud [Glad Song of Youth, from Doña Francisquita], the youth that is the Soul of Old Madrid and which lives on in her teachers, workers and inspirational people such as Doña Inés Rivadeneira.