in conversation with
Ignacio Jassa Haro

(Madrid, 1st December 2004)

Jesus Castejon, "hombre de zarzuela"
Jesús Castejón

I took the opportunity to interview Jesús Castejón, "man of zarzuela" in the triple capacity of singer, actor and stage director. After the day's rehearsals finished for what is his third production here, he met me in one of the salons of Madrid's famous theatre on Calle Jovellanos. His powerful, empathic personality captivated me straight away. A restless man, Castejón uses his rich family inheritance (his famous parents are only the penultimate chapter of an important zarzuela story) as an incentive to work incessantly for zarzuela, present and future. Let's start with the topic that has given us the excuse for this interview. The Teatro de la Zarzuela is about to launch a new production of El asombro de Damasco. What can you tell us about the staging you've directed?

Jesús Castejón: I can tell you one or two things without unveiling the mystery that must always be kept for the theatre. The staging aesthetic is down to Ana Garay, who has taken care of the settings and costumes. We have tried to move away a little from the 1001 Nights, that is to say, from Hollywood-style silk, gauze and tinsel, which was something that did not interest us at all. This is much more a Mediterranean story. All the colours and fabric textures are very Turkish. And the settings are based on the internal architecture of the Ottoman empire, very rich and massively exuberant, in silver, azure, turquoise and copper tones. At the same time as Spain was building monasteries and other grand, serious things in stone; and in which we had a king fixated on a dark and gloomy Christianity; the Muslims of the Ottoman Empire lived at the height of their cultural expansion immersed in a celebration of colour. And that is the atmosphere we have tried to recreate.

We have here a libretto and music very entertaining and interesting, but with the lightness of operetta; and the compactness of text and music precluded dragging other things into the story or using any aesthetic that clashed with its frivolous plot, a kind of vaudeville where characters make their entrances and exits one after the other with only one thing in mind - to win the favours of Zobeida, a woman who is "the wonder of Damascus". Then we were after a uniquely theatrical spectacle in which the only things which come across are light, shade ... and scents(!) because we perfume the space so that people coming into the theatre experience another ambience. And we've created a sort of "peep show" in the street, where a gossip allows the "infidel" public - Muslims excepted - to enter and observe Zobeida's beauty. The work is only inspired by the 1001 Nights, since such a story does not quite exist; but we find similarities between this literary work and characters, names, places and situations we meet in this zarzuela. Will you maintain a stylistic unity with your previous production of El niño judío? What similarities are there?

Jesús Castejón: No, this new production has a quite different aesthetic. El niño judío was set in Syria and India. The characters were travellers who set off from Madrid and entered into an absurd trip through time. Continuity comes from the fact that be that El asombro de Damasco is part of a trilogy which maestro Pablo Luna set in the orient, along with El niño judío and Benamor. Talking of Benamor, when we will be able to see that zarzuela?

Jesús Castejón: That's just a project in my head and in that of Miguel Roa, the theatre's Musical Director. We are going to review that operetta’s text and score to see if it has sufficient substance to complete the trilogy. But even if Miguel and I consider it's worth the trouble to present the project, the theatre would have to approve it.

El asombro de Damasco (1916)
El asombro de Damasco Teatro de la Zarzuela (1916) A complete change of subject. What concerns a singer when he takes on the role of stage director? What does someone who understands the musical aspect bring "to the other side"?

Jesús Castejón: I have seen a lot of terrain. I have journeyed through all the difficulties that singers have when exposing themselves to the stage. Sometimes the directors take little account of these difficulties and request impossible things from us. In lyric theatre one has to aim for the same results when putting on a work with singers - the real protagonists - as one would if they were actors. This is complicated, but I never throw in the towel; singers have to allow for the discipline of singing, languages etc. compared with actors, who when they begin do not have more than their body, voice and talent.

And then I try to bring to bear my knowledge of this genre, which I got from my grandmother as she rocked me in my cradle. I’ve been hearning zarzuela in the house since I was tiny, and my family has been connected with La zarzuela since several generations back, from the Gorgé family onwards - my maternal grandmother was born with that name. [Ed. The family of the great baritone, Pablo Gorgé.] Your previous staging - as with productions by other directors, not just in this theatre - is marked by a fresh approach to zarzuela, unprejudiced and absolutely confident in the intrinsic quality of its musico-theatrical heritage. Can we speak of a new maturity of zarzuela staging? and might we be considered to have passed the critical takeoff point after so many years of maltreatment?

Jesús Castejón: I'd hesitate to speak of maturity, since these are complex matters - though not because that maturity isn't something we've all aimed at. But yes, what I create is done in a way initiated by other directors before I began to direct. This way we can show that the genre can be modernised, so long as two conditions are respected: the score and the libretto. You can't change the plots, but texts can certainly be cleaned up and made more comprehensible, lighter or topical. And that's what engages the public with theatre - musical or any type - something which nowadays has become almost a crusade. Multimedia and the speed at which life is lived means that what you offer the audience to keep its attention for three hours sitting in the stalls must really interest them or have a special dynamism, since in their own armchairs at home they can have hours of guaranteed diversion just by pushing a button. This without mentioning the act of faith - and generosity - that the public makes on arrival at the box office, when they come inside and do not know what they're in for until they experience it.

As for the way in which zarzuela has been presented, this theatre which beard the name "de la Zarzuela", has been the leading protagonist. It's been this way because past initiatives have ensured it. Here directors, young and not so young, have planted the seeds of a new focus on this genre. And I believe that up until now there has been no lack of respect towards them - or towards me either. It is another viewpoint on the genre, dynamising it, approaching it from the society of today. For example, starting the spectacle in the street so that people see that a different thing is taking place, and that this is not a theatre of "mink stoles". I believe that a way forward has been glimpsed which is worth the trouble of following. Can you tell us about future projects?

Jesús Castejón: My next project will be to act in a film by Agustín Diaz Llanes on the story of Captain Alatriste. It's inevitable, but also a pleasure, to go back to your family's artistic background, to which you've already alluded. And as you say your parents, Pepa Rosado and Rafael Castejón, famous actors in addition to being brilliant examples of comedy zarzuela singers, represent just one chapter in an artistic saga in which we must also mention your brother Rafa and sister Nuria. What was it like to live from childhood on the border of that magical world? and how did the family atmosphere influence you in your choice of profession?

Jesús Castejón: My parents are like old masters. Sadly there has been never been a school for zarzuela singers, and knowledge has been handed down from parents to children. For that reason it was my good fortune to have been born into this world. My theatre apprenticeship has been always been in zarzuela. It would be a good idea for there to be a lyric stage school, where singers and actors could at least acquire a style; that would give a unified approach when it came to interpreting this sort of work. And the last maestros are disappearing by the laws of nature. We will see what their legacy is when they leave us; at the moment we have them as a reference - a good reference. My parents have dedicated their whole life to the genre not just here but in Spanish America, when on the other side of the ocean they had more than ten lyric companies doing zarzuela. In this production you're joined by the other members of your generation which has taken its inheritance.

Jesús Castejón: Yes we are all here. In addition to my brother Rafa [in the role of Alí-Mon], my sister Nuria is in charge of the choreography and my wife takes one of the soprano roles [Carmen González, who will play Fahima]. Although she is an opera singer, she has also done plenty of zarzuela from the start, and she has never left off singing it. In this country the world of the opera is complicated, and as a result zarzuela is a more accessible way for a young singer to begin to develop their career. In fact all the great opera singers have sung zarzuela at some point of their life. Before finishing the interview I'd like to ask you to tell us a family story.

Jesús Castejón: Something comes to mind from a few years ago. Although I have worked a lot with my father and with my mother separately, we never had all the family working together on the same project. And it was in this theatre on the occasion of the double bill of Gigantes y cabezudos and La viejecita when we finally made it: my parents, my brother, my sister and I all at once. There was much commotion and interest to see the whole family together. Just imagine, the only time, after so many years. Who knows when we'll manage it again...!

[Ángel Barreda, Head of Press at the Teatro de la Zarzuela, who introduced me to Jesús Castejón and who looked over this interview after sitting with us throughout, couldn't help adding another, more recent memory of this great family saga of zarzuelistas: "The last time that the theatre revived La chulapona, Jesús had to pair off with his own mother, Pepa Rosado, which was absolutely brilliant once you knew their real relationship."]

Rafael Castejon snf Pepa Rosado in "La chulapona"
La Chulapona - Rafael Castejón and Pepa Rosado

Jesús Castejón: Yes, that was a character created by my father in the production, and when he relinquished the role it was me who had to "put it up" to my mother. For me, with my background and as part of the younger generation, it was no problem, but to her it was at first a major nightmare! Very many thanks Jesús, for giving us some quality time during full-out rehearsals. We wish you the greatest success with the production of El asombro de Damasco.

Jesús Castejón: Many thanks to you also. I hope you enjoy it.

© Ignacio Jassa Haro & Christopher Webber (trans.) 2004

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