in conversation with
Pedro Gomez Manzanares

Interview with

(Madrid, 10th April 2000)

Emilio Sagi
Emilio Sagi

After several rainy days, on the afternoon of April 10th the sun finally made a sheepish appearance, an omen of what very soon would happen to me.
In the same nook where Pablo Sorozábal once gathered his thoughts, the café Comercial de la Glorieta in the Bilbao quarter of Madrid, at 5.00pm I had the pleasure of listening for just under an hour to the thoughts, ideas and opinions of a man with huge experience and knowledge in the field of the zarzuela - Emilio Sagi.
Even the noisy building works from the floor above failed to disturb this stimulating interview. Armed with a sheet of paper, filled with carefully-prepared questions, I introduced myself to Sr. Sagi. In the light of the wealth of material that I heard, I limited myself to listening, asking the occasional question, quite forgetting the pre-prepared notes on my lap.

Emilio Sagi, first a Stage Designer, then Doctor of Philosophy and Letters at the University of Oviedo, who completed his musicological studies in London, began directing in 1980 with La Traviata in Oviedo. In 1982 he made his debut at the Teatro de la Zarzuela in Madrid with Don Pasquale, becoming Director in 1990, a post he has held for ten years. He has directed in theatres and festivals round the world: Venice, Bologna, Lisbon, Paris, Los Angeles, Buenos Aires, Santiago in Chile, Tokyo, Hong-Kong, Washington, Düsseldorf, San Francisco, Rome, Puerto Rico, Havana ...

Amongst the other operas he has directed are Mefistofele, Adriana Lecouvreur, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Tristan und Isolde, I Puritani, Idomeneo, Pagliacci, La Cenerentola, Die Zauberflöte, La fille du Règiment, Un Ballo in Maschera. From the Spanish lyric repertoire: El Gato Montés, Marina, La Verbena de la Paloma, El Bateo, La Montería, La del Manojo de Rosas, Doña Francisquita, Margarita la Tornera.

Without doubt the family blood runs in his veins, for this Sagi is the grandson of Emilio Sagi Barba and nephew of Luis Sagi Vela. His name figures on many pages of the internet, something which was a surprise to him, in reviews, interviews, performance notices etc. some of which we alluded to in the conversation that followed.

Don Emilio, since Tamayo produced his "anthologies" in the seventies, from my own point of view the most important milestone for our zarzuela has been your work as director at the Teatro de la Zarzuela, in particular the opportunities you have offered to new talent. Do you agree?

I believe that my work as head of the theatre was a continuation of the work initiated prior to my arrival, by good friends and experts such as José Antonio Campos, with whom I had the good luck to collaborate. Since then, with the unearthing of forgotten zarzuelas, the discovery of young voices and the founding of the youth programme, everything has been a logical progression from those first steps.

How do you view the zarzuela at the present time?

Zarzuela is enjoying a golden time which should continue if it maintains its distinct personality, if it is mounted with adequate means, without complexity, with fine voices, with the better actors who know how to personify the characters, with the orchestral and choral means that are specified at each moment. And all of this within "a tight budget".
If it is not granted adequate finances, the competition can injure it. Remember the huge budgets available to the people who make videos, films, operatic productions, music magazines ... In staging "one must always keep ones eyes to the front".

Was this the motive for your remark, in one interview, that the zarzuela was like Agustina de Aragón?

Yes, absolutely. Against brutal competition, in the struggle to maintain its public and capture new audiences, la zarzuela has to be a heroine. What's more, the singers that are attracted to zarzuela tend to succumb to superior offers from the operatic field.

How do young people take to zarzuela?

The first thing is to make zarzuela approachable, it must connect with them, attract them; always taking care not to alienate the older generation at the same time.

How would you most like to see zarzuela develop?

There is much to be done, but one "blockbuster" would be to take the large-scale productions that have been mounted in the Teatro de la Zarzuela to the provinces. As you will know, some of the theatre's productions have been recorded by TVE, and I hope that soon they may be within reach of everybody.
Another leap forward would be to develop new productions, sponsored by collaboration between a group of theatres, helped by local, regional or national subsidies, allowing stagings worthy of our lyric theatre.

From the Director's point of view, what differences are there between opera and zarzuela?

Without doubt, the dialogue, the spoken parts create difficulties additional to the direction of the musical numbers.

Where would you like to direct a zarzuela, outside of Spain?

In London, New York, but above all in Italy. No doubt that there, a work such as Doña Francisquita, for example, would enjoy great success.

What aspects give you most pleasure and pain when you direct a zarzuela?

In actual fact I always enjoy directing. Nevertheless, it makes me uncomfortable to come up against the bad habits picked up by singers and actors, who've been playing parts a certain way for years or using the same stale gags.

In an interview on the internet, you say that in staging a zarzuela "never forget that it is no longer the era in which it was written". How interpret that idea in a staging?

When one loves zarzuela, one should not flinch from "cutting and pasting" text or scenes. We must make stagings more alive, better adapted to our own times.
That's what we did with El barberillo de Lavapiés and La corte de faraón. In the latter case, perhaps I would not have staged it exactly like that; nevertheless I support that production. For whatever reason, both productions caused much debate, and that is not negative when they led to such great publicity for the shows. Nobody can deny that they enjoyed great success with the public. In the case of La corte de Faraón, a lot of young people saw the show.
Did the directors and conductors of the first productions perform everything exactly as it was written? So what's different now, in another era? Some of those who criticized those productions may perhaps one day recognise their mistake.
When I staged Doña Francisquita, it was said that the settings and atmosphere were too idyllic, but did not that reflect the idyllic quality envisaged by its creators? Does it not seem to you that the Madrid of those years was very different to the one they imagined?
We should not forget that zarzuela is based on texts and that "the text is the life", and so must be brought to life. Zarzuela is something that must go "Straight to the heart".

So can zarzuela be translated into English, come to life in interpretations outside Spain?

Outside of Spain zarzuela is known and thought about, like all Spanish things. It was wonderful to see what they thought of zarzuela in Japan.
Did you know that the German Ambassador to Spain said to me that El juramento is "like a little Mozart"? Some politicians have suggested that to open doors outside of Spain, nothing is better than a zarzuela production.
To answer your question directly, a well-staged zarzuela, with good singers and actors in English would be very interesting. I would very much have like to have seen the London production by your friend Christopher of The Girl with the Roses.

Don Emilio had words of praise for many of the performers who are working with him, or who have worked with him in the past. He mentioned during our conversation important and less important artists, to whom he has always extended recognition: Milagros Martín, Mari Carmen Ramírez, Domingo, Beatriz Lanza, Juanita Ruiz and her husband Andrés, Luis Bellido, Emilio Carretero.
He also spoke respectfully of colleagues such as Tamayo, Amengual, and music critics such as Luis Gutierrez, Juan Angel Vela del Campo ... with great admiration of them all.

Now Don Emilio feels "free" and says that "if anyone suggests some project that attracts me, I will accept it gladly".

Emilio Sagi
Emilio Sagi

A novice in the Arts of the Interviewer, I had made the crass mistake of not turning up armed with a tape recorder, so had to write up the interview with the sparse notes that I was able to scribble down. His assistant was waiting for him, and we had to end our conversation. I could have listened for hours, but all good things must come to an end.

I was left with the feeling of having listened to a man both open and affable, with lucid ideas, respectful to all - but first and foremost a "romantic zarzuelero". His ideas will now be transcribed onto the Web in English and Spanish, placing them within the reach of millions of people.

© Pedro Gómez Manzanares
Villaviciosa de Odón 16/4/2000

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