De Madrid a París (Teatro de la Zarzuela 2008) © Jesus AlcantaraCafé

A conversation with

Ignacio Jassa Haro
Enrique Mejías García

Madrid, 26th July 2008

  Plaza Mayor de Chueca
  El gran género chico (Teatro Fernán Gómez)
  El bateo / De Madrid a París (Teatro de la Zarzuela)
  El año pasado por agua / La revoltosa (Ópera Cómica de Madrid)
  Cádiz (José Bros, El Escorial)

Opera Comica de Madrid - El ano pasado por agua

How widely has the 100th anniversary of the death of Chueca been celebrated? The Madrid roving reporters for met to discuss this one July afternoon over two cups of coffee, and here’s a summary of what they had to say. The importance of the centennial of the composer of La Gran Vía has been covered by Christopher Webber in his article on the People’s  Musician par excellence. Here we review the current stage and institutional representation of Chueca. Has this centenary been accorded the importance it deserves? Has there really been a “Chueca Year”?

Enrique Mejías García The most revealing way to look at how things have been for Chueca during his year, would be to quickly review the sequence of musical events devoted to him, and then make a brief assessment.

Plaza Mayor de Chueca (Press Conference)

Ignacio Jassa Haro Our first stop could be the Plaza Mayor de Chueca spectacular that took place during the San Isidro festival here in Madrid, and which you’ve already written about for the website. This was an anthology that first and foremost drew attention, I think, to the strength of Chueca’s music, which without any need for much dramatic structure carried the show by itself.

EMG For sure its success was also due to the team of pop and flamenco singers who came over excitingly almost without exception, with versions of a range of songs that were at least fresh and sometimes really excellent. And the Plaza Mayor flew the flag strongly over an hour and a half for the music of Federico Chueca, and that was good news too. A well-honed show without any need for topical “relevance”, and with Esperanza Roy as an M.C. who contributed a lot to make the show so original.

IJH I noticed too that some of the numbers sung were not quite “the usual suspects”, and all the singers, each within their own style, adapted perfectly to the género chico repertoire, which makes me wonder what the secret is to this phenomenon …

Plaza Mayor de Chueca (Greta)EMG Could it be that pop performances are in the true sense of the word actually much more attuned to the music of Chueca than those quasi-operatic versions we now get in the theatre? I’m talking about vocal style.

IJH In strict terms their reading is arguably more inconsistent with the original spirit of the género chico, but …

EMG ... but really perhaps we should ask ourselves about this alleged “reading” of the genre! Perhaps Greta in her superlatively sensual version of the tango from El año pasado por agua, and Diana Navarro in her cante jondo version of the gypsy song from La alegría de la huerta,  sang these two numbers in a much more “authentic” and direct way than we hear in the concert hall.

IJH In fact Manu Tenorio with the Caballero de Gracia’s waltz was not able to hook into anything in that way, as he wanted to be more “operatic” and so rather shot himself in the foot – well let's say that he did not provide anything “different” for this suggestive piece.

Teatro Fernan Gomez - El gran genero chico (© Andres de Gabriel)

EMG But we could talk about the Plaza Mayor event for ever – let's talk about another very different anthology, El gran género chico at the Teatro Fernán Gómez (previously Centro Cultural de la Villa) from the Compañía Lírica Dolores Marco …

IJH … with a performing team without soloists, all the members of the chorus taking turns as major players, with a special emphasis on the women who were without exception really good. Some amongst the men had some serious difficulty with the more heroic numbers such as the jotas from Cádiz and La alegría de la huerta. Perhaps the most striking thing was how the show, despite some conventional moments, mixed together numbers disconnected from any of their typical contexts …

Teatro Fernan Gomez - El gran genero chico (© Andres de Gabriel)EMG ... to be honest the first half was a little slow but then, after the dialogue from La alegría de la huerta, it went up a notch and really caught the audience up.

IJH In musical terms, you’d think a little orchestra with just a few musicians would be in itself a good idea (some other places might have marketed it as “authentic”!) but I felt it was placed wrongly. It was behind the stage and drowned out by the chorus, quite the opposite of what usually happens!

EMG The safest course is to do everything not to cover up the voices, but it’s quite nice to listen to the instruments too! The orchestral numbers, such as that frantic pasodoble from La alegría de la huerta, were a bit lacklustre as a result.

IJH Yes but some of the vocal experiments went very well, where the male voices did parts originally written for tiples (Mazurca de los organilleros, Coro de las calles etc.) To sum up, it was a show with beautiful moments, visually very successful too, although we would have liked to see the same company performing a couple of zarzuelas by our brilliant composer in a double bill, one of them – why not? – unfamiliar. Maybe next season they’ll dare something similar for Chapí.

El bateo (Teatro de la Zarzuela 2008) © Jesus Alcantara

EMG Coming to a radically original Chueca tribute, we thoroughly enjoyed the double bill with which the Teatro de la Zarzuela closed its 2007/2008 season. The familiar sainete El bateo together with the first modern revival of the fabulous revista De Madrid a París, composed in collaboration with Joaquín Valverde.

IJH It was really another little dab of paint for the picture that the music theatre world is building up, through revivals, of an exceptionally valuable heritage; and fortunately Teatro de la Zarzuela did the job without any needless complication, by placing the revived work in a position of honour, closing both the double-bill and the season itself. What’s more it opted for an unknown title, with a score of undeniable value which matches Chueca’s best. For me the script has suffered the passage of time, coming over as a bit weak …

EMG But still I think that this is a weakness with all revistas, except for La Gran Vía – we are too used to that good libretto by Felipe Pérez y González! Even so, they opted to use actors (who were singers to a greater or lesser extent) and the public liked the show a lot. The journey from Madrid to Paris really flew along, much more so than El bateo! It was almost a spiritual experience, with such good work from actors such as the “Catalans” Luis Varela and Lola Casamayor, Eva Diago’s showgirl, “Mr Frog and Mr Lizard” (Miguel Rellán and Alfonso Blanco,) and “spoilt brats” Daniel Moreno and Natalie Pinot …

De Madrid a París (Teatro de la Zarzuela 2008) © Jesus Alcantara

IJH I think the real problem of De Madrid a París stemmed from director Andrés Lima; and if I can explain – I mean that El bateo offers no complexities, he directed it the way he wanted, a mix of absurd black-humoured caricature, expressionism...

EMG … like an Edgar Neville film!

IJH That's right! But in De Madrid a París I had the feeling that there was no definite decision on anything and the staging was half-hearted. If you were looking for an exercise in style – something that the beautiful scenery and costumes, even the choreography, seemed to indicate – then the staging was contradictory … it was inconsistent. I think the director was tentative, and maybe thought it was a trivial work, so didn’t look to find the key to anything more profound in a piece that might seem on the face of it to be just a tremendous joke, but could have been done much more gracefully.

EMG Well, I found it to be so! Set, as well, as a rehearsal in which everyone was drunk (“that wine was not good stuff from Atrezzo”)...

IJH ... yes, yes, but I think what was seen on stage lacked unity of approach. I am not saying that it did not work from scene to scene and, without doubt, thanks to the masterful performances from many of the actors, it worked. And the work, like any revista from that era, is by nature incoherent.

EMG Whatever, it highlighted what we already know about Chueca and the greatness of his genius, reminding us just how many gems are lost in oblivion: ¡Hoy sale, hoy!, De la noche a la mañana, La caza del oso, La canción de la Lola… quite a few surprises are waiting for us in the archives. And maybe the sin of this centennial has been its failure to be daring – there has been only one rediscovery!

El bateo (Teatro de la Zarzuela 2008) © Jesus Alcantara

IJH A nice detail of the Teatro de la Zarzuela staging was to unify the show by having Maestro Chueca appearing to attend “rehearsals” of both works. They even closed the evening by having music from Agua, azucarillos y aguardiente and a reminiscence from El bateo played at the piano ...

EMG ... for me it was an ending of extreme delicacy and haunting effect. A tribute simple but intensely expressive. Beautiful, not at all hackneyed, with the endearing Luis Perezagua as Chueca, nothing lachrymose about it. A tribute to the very act of putting on a show, including the stagehands ...

IJH … much more than just a couple of works paired at random. Chueca claims such tribute with any of his works, that’s his greatness ... here in 2008 we feel that equally or even more strongly than in his own time.

EMG The sad thing is that circumstances have stopped the Teatro de la Zarzuela from opening its season with a straight La Gran Vía, as had been announced in previous press releases; that would have allowed revival of another work as well.

IJH However, it is not going to mount “just another staging” of Chueca and Valverde’s revista, because it will be directed by Paco Mir who is bravely bringing out a new, full-length adaptation called La Gran Via … esquina a Chueca.

Let’s not forget that Chueca Year was really kick-started by a prelude of some importance, with last year’s revival by Ópera Cómica de Madrid of his zarzuela Los descamisados, at what was then still Centro Cultural de la Villa, in a double bill with La verbena de la Paloma. Although this got a bit lost amongst the 2008/9 celebrations it was on sufficient scale to be considered a fully fledged revival – something for which we owe gratitude, as always, to the company headed by Francisco Matilla.

Opera Comica de Madrid - El ano pasado por agua

EMG This summer in the Sabatini Gardens the company mounted El año pasado por agua coupled with La revoltosa by Chapí, as part of the Veranos de la Villa festival. This was another demonstration of how these works still have plenty of life left in them. El año pasado por agua was substantially modernised, with new “book and lyrics” and a strong dose of madcap Dadaism, plus characters dressed from the most varied historical eras (oh yes) ... and yet it worked well! The new text was good, the situations too …

Opera Comica de Madrid - El ano pasado por aguaIJH What we saw on stage was “relevant”, but set to Chueca’s music (much more graceful than anything from our own age!) The zortzico in which an allegorical figure representing the national Spanish Football team pleaded that Luis Aragonés should remain Spain’s manager and not head off to Turkey was a good example of this.

EMG A very successful idea that connected big time with the audience precisely because it brings in our contemporary world, like many songs which have become hits by finding the right moment. Then elsewhere we were reminded almost didactically of those pieces that have became legendary – such as the mazurca de los paraguas – or asked to recall the Teatro Apolo. It was a tribute done so lightly, without forcing ... as when the Scottish character asked himself “what is casticismo?” Perhaps what many people now claim to be “castizo” is a historically false construct. Certainly we must avoid stiff lectures which fossilize the genre.

Opera Comica de Madrid, Juan Manuel Cifuentes - El ano pasado por aguaIJH Indeed, the character of New Year, the Scottish personage you mention (Juan Manuel Cifuentes rigged out in full kilt) provided a first-rate excuse for explaining that castizo dance par excellence: the schottisch or chotis! It was ingenious, of course, and the perfect start to a double bill which finished with a La revoltosa production which we can say was clean, spontaneous, vivid, true.

EMG A work we've seen many times, but were grateful to see freed from those commonplace tics in which always tends to deface it. It was rejuvenated once again, it seemed like a blank ready to be coloured in afresh ... what else was there?

IJH In truth, very little. Although I shouldn’t fail to mention the premiere of the fantasia Por las calles del viejo Madrid on motifs from La Gran Vía, composed by Fernando Bonete and premiered last March by the Banda Sinfónica Municipal de Madrid at the Teatro Monumental. Bonete had already written another fantasia, Paseando con Chueca, which he premiered in September 2006 with his own Municipal de Albacete band in that capital of La Mancha: this one was constructed on themes from another four Chueca classics – Cádiz, Agua, azucarillos y aguardiente, El año pasado por agua and El chaleco blanco.

EMG The truth is that we’d like to have done a year-end Chueca review like this featuring six or seven more shows, though I fear that isn’t going to happen. There has been no organizational or administrative structure to celebrate Chueca Year as such – something that is going to happen for the centennial of Alicante composer Chapí in 2009.

IJH So “Chueca Year” was the sum of isolated initiatives by a few interested institutions, individuals and companies.

EMG Its thrown up a lot less, too, in the area of musicology, in the form of academic conferences and seminars, than are in preparation for “Chapí Year” in Valencia.

Cádiz (San Lorenzo de El Escorial)

IJH It is a pity that the authorities in the Community of Madrid, at the heart of the composer’s own home world, have had almost no involvement of any kind in Chueca’s centennial. Sure, they are “offering” the theatre-auditorium at San Lorenzo de El Escorial and their Chorus to present Cádiz in concert with the Orquesta Sinfónica de Galicia under Víctor Pablo Pérez and with singers of the calibre of José Bros and Isabel Rey, as part of the “Golden Age” cycle funded by Fundación Caja de Madrid. [Whilst editing this conversation the Escorial concert has taken place with great success – José Bros was in specially powerful form, with a committed chorus and orchestra alongside a large team of experienced soloists, all adding lustre to Chueca and Valverde’s great work.]

EMG It’s also to be done in A Coruña albeit with a different cast. The good news is that Decca will record and market the work for what we hope will mark the beginning of a new series of recorded zarzuelas, widely distributed.

IJH In the recording world there aren’t many more surprises: we assume that one day the Agua, azucarillos y aguardiente recorded by Deutsche Grammophon alongside La tempranica with María Bayo and María Rodríguez (also under Víctor Pablo Pérez) will see the light of day. Like Decca, DG are part of the Universal group.

EMG The Ensamble de Madrid has brought out what is, for now, the only Chueca CD of the year, with fantasias for piano sextet from several of his zarzuelas, including first recordings taken from Los descamisados, De Madrid a París and the forgotten Las zapatillas, which we hope will soon get a stage revival to merit the vital spark of its music.

IJH Equally notable by their absence have been DVDs, that medium so vital to lyric theatre. It is a pity that Teatro de la Zarzuela has not managed to resolve the legal obstacles that prevent it from issuing recordings of stagings as good as El bateo/De Madrid a París... and yet again it was down to the private initiative of a “minor” company, Ópera Cómica de Madrid, which has marketed a unique and attractive double bill of Agua, azucarillos y aguardiente and El bateo, recorded at Teatro del Bosque in Móstoles during 2006.

Little more remains to be added, the coffee’s finished and so is our chat. We turn off the recorder and take a stroll around a Madrid that’s essentially not much changed in the hundred years since the death of “Don Federico”. Maestro Chueca, all hail! Your last name is now synonymous for many people with a cheerful, riotous part of the city, modern, liberal – and one that, for sure, you’d feel proud of, you who wrote in your time hymns to freedom and the republic, you whose only idea of how to compose was to convey the joy of life to the people, who even today remember you so fondly.

Chueca (right) and friendsTwo months on … Since then almost all the Spanish lyric theatres have announced their seasons, and thanks to his centenary Chueca has made it into several programmes. The Villamarta in Jerez opens with La Gran Vía in Ópera Cómica de Madrid’s “complete” version following the ICCMU critical edition. The Jovellanos in Gijón has a gala tribute to Chueca with the local symphony orchestra and chorus. Teatro de la Zarzuela’s double bill premiered on the centennial day itself will go to Teatro Campoamor in Oviedo to open the Asturian capital’s next grand zarzuela festival, although this theatre has already mounted its own tribute to Chueca with a double production of La Gran Vía and Agua, azucarillos y aguardiente, premiered this summer. Dr Ramón Sobrino’s promised monograph will possibly be published before the year end. Altogether the varied events discussed here have sufficient coherence to truly justify the designation of 2008/9 as “Chueca Year.”

© Enrique Mejías García e Ignacio Jassa Haro 2008
tr. © Christopher Webber

 en español
 Federico Chueca (biography)
 La Gran Vía (texts and translations) frontpage

10 October 2008