Interview with

(Cafe of Hotel Suecia, 28 April 2006)

Pedro Gómez Manzanares

Maestro Miguel Roa

Biografía D. Miguel Roa (español)

“The light dims in the auditorium, darkness fills the space, a silence falls in the air... moments of uncertainly... a quick creaking noise from under the stage, the door opens, by the glare of one pin-spot we see the silhouette of a man in black who advancing to the podium from which he will weave together the separate strands of the work. A light illuminates his face, the hall breaks the silence with loud applause. Once again Maestro Roa, with his orchestra, faces a new challenge.”

The name of Miguel Roa is synonymous with Spanish Zarzuela all around the world. Yet his famous association since 1975 with the Teatro de la Zarzuela has not precluded concert hall and opera house engagements throughout Spain, Europe, and in the United States - where performances at Washington Opera with Plácido Domingo, and a memorable Carnegie Hall concert with the Orquesta de la Comunidad de Madrid (2001) have proved notable highlights in his remarkable career...

Miguel Roa

Your beginnings in zarzuela. How did you arrive at the Teatro de la Zarzuela?

The first zarzuela I conducted was in 1965 at the Teatro Calderón in Madrid: La del manojo de rosas, with an amateur group from the company Butano, S.A., with whom I later did Molinos de viento.

In 1984 Benito Lauret asked me to direct Chorizos y polacos in the Teatro de la Zarzuela, where I became Musical Director in 1985.

How has the Orchestra of the Teatro de la Zarzuela evolved over those twenty-one years?

The orchestra has changed its name three times. It was first formed by musicians who had not been taken up by other major orchestras, many came from military bands, great veteran professionals; but preparing programmes in those days, on very few rehearsals - although, yes, very intense - presented not a few problems.

In 1981 it became the Orquesta Sinfónica de Madrid, full of youth and ambition. These were they who later moved on to the Teatro Real. They were splendid years.

In 1991, as the Orquesta de la Comunidad de Madrid they achieved a great advance on all fronts, and they've done some crazy things, tours to Mexico and New York performing in the Carnegie Hall.

In general musicians prefer opera to zarzuela and their performances reflect that. In general foreign musicians like zarzuela more, and appreciate it more than we Spaniards... always the same, sad song.

It's said that you “call the shots” at the Teatro de la Zarzuela.

No. I do not like to have to contract people, nor get into negotiations. After 44 years “in the business” I dislike confrontation. I feel anguish when I have to make decisions about other people's bread. I recall a phrase (I think from Napoleon) “When I have to choose a Marshal from amongst my fifty generals, I make forty-nine resentful and one an ungrateful”.

I consider myself a very ordered person, I sleep little, I read plenty and work at my desk a lot. What I fear most is popularity, but life has given me the opposite.

Miguel Roa

Do you believe that the conductors who direct zarzuela nowadays “have a feel” for what they are conducting?

Forty years ago many conductors despised zarzuela and only conducted it when they had no option. Fortunately, many much younger colleagues than I have intuitively understood the possibilities of the genre, and undertake it with open minds - and wonderful results.

To conduct zarzuela three key principles have to be in order: first, to have the knowledge adequate to conduct. After that, stylistic knowledge of the genre, of its spoken and musical language. And finally, knowledge of Spanish customs and love of the genre. If this is not there, the conducting is flat, a bore - away with it.

It is not easy to find a quality orchestra, many impresarios who risk much on productions, try to cut costs on the orchestra, and go on to claim that they are supporting “our zarzuela”...

Miguel Roa

If you had to choose a single instrument, which would be the one that you would most identify with zarzuela?

The trumpet, without doubt. In the repertoire there are many trumpet solos, it is an instrument with surprising sonic possibilities.

How do you see zarzuela changing with the times?

Theatre is based on two elementary pillars: having something to say, and somebody to say it.

In some stagings what we see does not correspond with what we hear, music is written within a context, with a message and in one time, we cannot distort what the composer wanted to communicate through his music.

If we try to place a work in a setting different from where it was conceived, on the moon for example, when its music was written with reference to other surroundings, it's better to write a new work to avoid distorting what the composer wanted to communicate. It is as if in attempting to rebuild an old house, we threw everything out and left the old wooden beams.

To sum up, we cannot dissociate what it happens on the stage from what is communicated from the pit.

In the theatre, we are always led by technological progress. A painting, a sculpture, a building... are works that the artist finishes. In theatre and music, works are never finished, those who direct them and those who perform them give life to them, renew them day by day, performance after performance.

(The Maestro ask me about Christopher Webber's experience mounting The Girl with the Roses in London, and I share with him my positive impression of the staging and its great reception by the audience.)

“Innovate or die”? Or perhaps “Conserve and perish”?

I could not put this question to the Maestro, although very interested to know his answer, but I have found part of an interview he had with Ángel González from La Voz de Asturias on 18th February 2006, in which he was asked for his opinion of the controversial staging of El barberillo de Lavapiés: “Since I was young I have adored controversy because it always makes a positive impact at the box office, ensuring continuous work. Many people go because they have been told the production was very good, others because of the scandal, and there is no doubt that these attitudes keep zarzuela alive”.

Miguel Roa

Does zarzuela require dinner jacket and white tie from the musical director in the pit?

No. Dinner jackets are a 19th century imposition, it was the night suit which society used for those special events. Now, more and more, musicians and conductors limit ourselves to black. I am very happy with the Chinese-style suit I wear. It is most comfortable.

That does not mean that for some special events I don't still use a dinner jacket.

What problems do you face in front of the orchestra nowadays?

Some members of the audience, luckily only a few, who won't stop talking in the front row.

The distractions these bad-mannered spectators cause with their running commentaries put important obstacles in the way of building atmosphere within a scene, when the music gives way to a spoken section and later returns when the right atmosphere for that moment must be found.

Would you think about composing zarzuela?


He continues to talk, sharing anecdotes, curious stories, some of which he asks me not to mention, about his tastes, his enthusiasms. Electronics “go over his head”; he thinks the new technologies “serve those whom they serve”. He likes the complex crosswords in La Vanguardia, saying he's done about five thousand. He likes to read press reviews, opinions, editorials, interviews, but nothing about politics.

Sadly we have to stop, as Maestro Roa has to leave for the theatre.

As the Maestro said during our conversation: “life is full of coincidences” and so it proves. I cannot finish without highlighting the coincidence that today, May 1st, as I am writing up the interview from a few days ago I hear on the radio that Miguel Roa has been awarded a new prize for his career. This time the President of the Comunidad de Madrid, Esperanza Aguirre, who gives him the Premio de Cultura de la Comunidad de Madrid in the musical sphere - an award which Roa dedicates to all his colleagues in the profession.

Pedro Gómez Manzanares
Villaviciosa de Odón, May 2006

© Pedro Gómez Manzanares 2006
translation © Christopher Webber 2006

Biografía D. Miguel Roa (español)
Entrevista a Miguel Roa (español)
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