talks to
Pedro Gómez Manzanares

10th March 2004)

Francisco Matilla
Francisco Matilla

Francisco Matilla, baritone and stage director, was born in Madrid where he trained at the Conservatory and the Escuela Superior de Canto, in addition to studying economics at the Universidad Complutense. The first role in his stage career was Figaro. Since then, besides developing his career singing in opera, zarzuela, oratorio and concerts; taking part in productions with Caballé, Carreras, Domingo and Kraus; he created, in parallel, the Compañía de Ópera Estudio, was a member of the group Eurídice, collaborated in the dissemination of our lyric theatre through productions in more than a hundred cities in Spain, USA, Russia, China, Korea, UK ...

He is founder member of the Ópera Cómica de Madrid company, which has staged many forgotten works such as as Las labradoras de Murcia, Robinson, Jugar con fuego, Las foncarraleras, El niño, El hombre es débil, Entre mi mujer y el negro, Emigrantes, La señora capitana and most recently Mis dos mujeres. In concert performance at Madrid's Ateneo El juramento, El dominó azul, De Getafe al paraíso, La sobresalienta and La venta de Don Quijote. He has also directed better-known works, such as La revoltosa, El bateo, El dúo de La africana, El año pasado por agua, El barbero de Sevilla, El asombro de Damasco, La bruja and La fama del tartanero. He wrote, together with Luis Álvarez Arrieta y Barbieri, una zarzuela en dos actos. He staged the spectacular El legado de Guerrero. He is consultant to the Teatro Arriaga of Bilbao, coordinates programming for the Teatro Cervantes of Malaga and for five years has been executive producer of the Festival del Teatro Lírico Español de Asturias.

An old-fashioned, cosy café, with a particular atmosphere recalling that painted by Don Pío Baroja in his Adiós a la bohemia, which was set to music by Don Pablo Sorozabal ... At a small table, black marble veined with white, I wait for the man I'm to interview ... Robust, uncomfortable chairs, scattered around the tables, floors worn away and crumbled by the weight of the great figures who have passed this way and still do ... this is our old-fashioned, cosy Café Comercial. Unlike in Adiós a la bohemia, there is nobody reading the newspaper El Heraldo, but several youngsters talking, the odd pensioner spinning out his free time over a book. Much smoke, loud clamour. Two kids kiss in a corner whilst four septuagenarians take chocolate with churros. A young executive, standing out from the crowd, taps the keys of his laptop. Two English struggle with a streetmap of Madrid deciding where to visit. Several students discuss the group work they have to present tomorrow. The waiter emerges with the small steps made necessary by the packed salon, juggling his enormous metallic tray on which cups and glasses fight to occupy the space.

Sitting at the table I talked with Francisco Matilla, our "Don Quixote of the Zarzuela" ...

Where does the value lie in rescuing these works from the archives?

It is a duty I've imposed on myself, not to allow so many forgotten works to sleep in oblivion. The quixotic part is that I convey what's inside myself to those I work with so that everyone, even the administrators, knows that these forgotten, archived riches exist.

What is the personal and economic payoff from a production of this kind?

The sense of fulfilment, I feel satisfied. I really enjoy it from the outside, like an observer seated in amongst the audience, which is where I like to be during the performance. I watch objectively enough. My years of experience allow me to intuit how it is going to work. Previous experience, the rehearsals, the performers ... facilitate the work and ensure that few things surprise me. We know where the audience is going to laugh, where they are going to applaud. Occasions are few when someone doesn't respond predictably.

The economic result is also predictable, before starting we know the costs, the possible underwriting and how much the box office will be able to contribute. We are speaking as a private company which does not obtain grants, which you might think of as ruinous. But we do it through pride, through prestige and because the quality of this type of production is an investment which allows us to continue mounting them. We don't forget that "it's one thing to eat and another to get rich."

Do you not think it would be more profitable if your stagings were seen in more theatres, and if they were recorded on CD and/or DVD?

We are going to produce, to diversify and without thought of profit, DVD copies of Mis dos mujeres in order to help spread the word about this work. Zarzuela recordings are not profitable for the record companies and to make them privately some type of funding would be needed.

The productions are usually planned so that they can be performed in several theatres, but sometimes due to circumstances beyond our control, these plans fall through, as happened last year in the case of the production of Emigrantes and La señora capitana. We would need a network of theatres to take on this kind of work, but lack the economic capacity and sometimes interest from them. These productions require previous preparation, rehearsals on the right stage etc. and all that is usually not possible.

Without adequate conditions it's not possible to mount a work with the essential quality, we'd only be able to mount "sub-productions." It's like wanting to eat at a low price, and only eating burgers.

How do you decide, and what are the steps you take, to revive a work?

I really do not decide on my own, we are a team. And I always count on the collaboration of ICCMU and SGAE.

At root I follow the path of looking at a number of composers of "guaranteed quality", whom I trust for their eminence and their reputation. This is the case of the Golden Age of zarzuela, the second half of the 19th century, when there was clear influence from and competition with opera, in which a clear method for composing existed, and in which composers wrote the scores for certain singers, sometimes their own students. To know the name of these singers is data that can help make a decision.

Another key factor is the librettist's name, the libretto is the base of the work, without a libretto there is no work. We should not forget that all the great Spanish writers wrote texts for zarzuelas. However, certain librettists of that period are not very recommendable. The libretto is not so crucial if we are talking of performing in concert format, as we did at the Ateneo, in that case the text is not so relevant.

If other countries had an archive like this one of ours, with thirteen thousand zarzuela-type works, full of the folkloric and the musical wealth that exists in the various Spanish regions, they would derive much more benefit from it than we do.

How do you develop in your mind the staging of a work that you've never seen and that the present public hasn't seen either?

I visualise the situations and I feel its development step by step. I search for where the work's going, its vital thread. The exposition is always good, the plot usually well managed, but the conclusion can be bad through the sin of being moralistic, fruit of the established ideas of its day and of the censorship that has existed from time immemorial. For that reason I sometimes change endings, but respect those that are classic, for example those in which love prevails.

Music is aseptic, does not have ideas, it is the libretto that contributes them.

When the time comes for casting, I begin by thinking about the interpreters who premiered the work, these are a clear guide for the decision. We do not have to forget that the key for developing a character and the text, is to know about acting and being a good actor. Zarzuela is basically an "actor's show", not so much about sets or lighting.

Mis dos mujeres
Mis dos mujeres

Your productions have innovative touches. What limits do you place on these?

The libretto is fundamental to a work, but zarzuela is sustained by its music; nothing can be modified in the scenario that spoils the musical sense, the music is "untouchable".

The exposition of a work can't be weakened; if you change something everything has to be coherent with the change, then you commit yourself to forcing the plot and in the end you're left with a mess. A key, a coherence must exist, otherwise it's better to invent a new work. Remember that saying: "first thoughts are worst", if later nothing better occurs to you, wait until a more interesting idea does.

When a forgotten work is rescued that by definition is not familiar, it is necessary to present it as it is. Only when it is very well known can one advance a step and be allowed to introduce changes.

How must zarzuela evolve?

The Ministry of Culture must not protect itself when transferring autonomy, must discriminate positively on behalf of our cultural patrimony, supporting it at national level with adequate funding contributions.

A great national company with two or three payrolls, that by appearing throughout Spain and other countries, would give an adequate return. The more performances, the more profitable it would be. It is the only way to catch and captivate the public, with good shows. Of course one would have to take care that these payrolls would not be transformed into mere administrations, that would be one step back. In parallel recordings could be planned, audio as much as video. Until this could finance itself, perhaps an initial grant that allowed its flotation could suffice. Contracts and jobs for the members of this company would be guaranteed, and with suitable programming and planning that allowed more rotations and more stagings, the costs per performance would be lowered.

It does not make any sense that the Teatro de la Zarzuela practically only revives productions for long runs, and so programmes a reduced number of productions and performances; there must be denser programming - the more rotations the better audiences and better box office. We have to learn how this matter is dealt with in other countries with opera performances.

What are you planning now?

We are going to stage, in co-production with the Teatro Villamarta of Jerez, La corte de faraón. It will be take people by surprise.

You have thought of staging Adiós a la bohemia?

Yes, I wanted to do it on one occasion when I worked at the Teatro Arriaga of Bilbao; it is one of those titles on the shortlist, but we have always come up against a slight obstacle in finding another work to accompany it, so that a definite coherence in the staging could exist. Then again it is necessary to find the right singers; it needs good singers who can also act. It is a great work, perhaps Don Pablo Sorozábal's best.

In your stagings you usually add some message of your own; do you think that they are grasped by the audience?

Fair enough, really I have to do it. I introduce messages which if everybody understands them, they're welcome. In any case there are levels of understanding; sometimes the messages are aimed at the whole audience, part of the audience, or only at the actors and singers, in which case I cannot pretend that everybody could understand them.

We remembered the production of El año pasado por agua, where certain daring touches were added that were interpreted as criticisms of the then Alcalde of Madrid, which came about through one of the actors "mistakenly" thinking that he was the director of the production.

How can we find out about your next productions and performances? Can we help you with

I promise to tell you about our forthcoming productions.

... and we promise to post the information on the net!

How would you explain what zarzuela is, to someone who has never had the opportunity to enjoy it?

It would say to them that it is a theatrical spectacle with music, close to other genres such as opera or the French opéra comique (much more than to the things we call "musicals") of great musical quality; and with an immense variety of plots, in which is seen the abundant wealth of Spanish folklore. It is our "Musical Patrimony".

Many were the occasions when we had fortuitously encountered one another, when going to see his stagings, and coming out of the performances; but never had I been able to enjoy his explanations, his clarity of ideas, or the forcefulness of his convictions, all the fruit of his experience and continued struggles in the world of zarzuela. Now it is often said that the future wealth of a country is based on the volume of activity in R+D ("Research and Development"). I ask that if the contribution Ópera Cómica de Madrid makes is not recognised in some quarters, is it not necessary to promote and support its activities strongly?

Thanks, Paco (Francisco), for the clarity of your arguments; it is an immense pleasure to learn to reflect by listening to them.

© Pedro Gómez Manzanares
y Francisco Matilla
Wednesday March 10th 2004

en español
Emigrantes & La señora capitana
Mis dos mujeres (DVD)
zarzuela homepage