del Portal

Pedro Gómez

March 2007)

Enrique del Portal - Premio SGAE
Enrique del Portal - Premio SGAE

Enrique del Portal, the fine madrileño tenor and actor, recently won the Premio Federico Romero for his long service to Spanish lyric theatre, dating back to 1962. He made his Teatro de la Zarzuela debut in El caserío and has appeared with the most important zarzuela companies, singing opposite great Spanish singers such as Pepita Embil, José Carreras and Alfredo Kraus.

We’ve long wanted to be able to feature an interview on zarzuela.net with one of zarzuela’s major players. Along with his son, Enrique Ruiz del Portal (“Quique”), we were sitting in a corner of a popular cafe, right next to the artists’ entrance of the Teatro de la Zarzuela in Madrid.

I’ve seen, enjoyed and applauded Enrique in scores of performances, in Madrid and cities over the last few years. In this short but vivid interview our subject did not confine himself to merely answering the questions, He declaims! His voice is clear, bright, forceful; conveying joy, optimism and irony. Everything tells of his huge experience and dominance over the scene over so many years during which we’ve delighted in the good fortune of seeing him.

At a small circular table sit a father and son to whom zarzuela owes much. This was the scene for a conversation from which we’ll extract only the most important details. Close your eyes and imagine Espasa from La del manojo de rosas, Cardona from Doña Francisquita, Leonardo in La bruja, José Miguel El caserío, Jenaro El niño judío or Don Hilarión in La verbena de la Paloma … that’s our man.

How did you enter the world of zarzuela?

You won’t believe this. It was listening to Jorge Negrete [ed. the popular Mexican singer and actor] which encouraged me to sing, accompanying myself on a guitar given me by my father. Later my uncle Emilio, my father’s brother, suggested I go to the conservatory and there I went, in the Calle San Bernardo. Later I left, married very young and later returned again, this time with my first singing teacher Ernestina de la Gándara. But it was Maestro La Salle who introduced me to the stage. He told me he wanted me in Don Manolito. To test my voice he asked me to sing “No puede ser” from La tabernera del puerto. He didn’t let me finish, before saying: “Never mind Don Manolito, you going to sing Los gavilanes!”

What has changed in zarzuela since you began?

Enrique del Portal - Don Hilarion

Zarzuela was written for and about the people, it is a special theatre genre and must remain so. When the curtain rises we must begin enjoying ourselves. Today’s audience is more respectful than it used to be. In the old days, when something didn’t please them, people stamped. Now protest takes a different form. Sets tend to be solid, as opposed to the painted drop curtains and flats we used to have, although there have been many innovations that don’t always work.

There are fewer “actor’s directors” than we had before. I remember with much affection a great director and friend: Luis Bellido Sr., who has been always a yardstick for me. Later I had the luck to be the favourite tenor of the great actor’s director José Luis Alonso, with whom, until he died, I worked constantly in the Lírica Nacional company. He requested my appearances in roles, such as Atenedoro in La revoltosa and Cardona in Doña Francisquita, which I’ve been doing during five decades.

Finally, the orchestra now is much bigger. Before it was normal to see a single piano, or an orchestra of ten. Now you rarely see an orchestra with less than eighteen musicians.

We have a soft spot for Sorozábal. You knew him well. Can you tell us about him?

Sorozábal: Magnificent musician! A total genius at composing and orchestrating. It was pure inspiration. I would say that there are some good composers, some very good… and Sorozábal. He was a great friend to his friends. He did not believe in politicians nor in statesmen, he was an anarchist. We met frequently in the Café Comercial in Madrid’s Glorieta de Bilbao. (My favourite spot, too, where I’ve conducted many interviews.)

Sitting with the Maestro would be Rafael Castejón, Tomás Álvarez, Teresa Tourné, the great impresario José de Luna… The Maestro would ask for red wine, cheese and bread. He said to us: “Nobody touch that bread but me”. The reason was that he divided it into pieces, soaked them in the wine and then ate them. I remember he took me to his house to rehearse his zarzuela La tabernera del puerto, he let me know how to sing and interpret it as he had created and imagined it. On another occasion, doing Don Manolito in the Teatro Principal of San Sebastián, he asked me to rehearse the chorus in the “ensalada madrileña” whilst he conducted the orchestra and supervised everything from the pit. That was an experience.

I’ve many great memories of the Maestro. I sang “No puede ser” from La tabernera del puerto at the Teatro Victoria in Barcelona and had to encore it three times because of the applause. Before singing the last one, I advanced to the stage box and sang it kneeling, to a lady of a certain age who was sitting there. That was exciting.

Tell us about Juan José, Sorozábal’s unperformed opera.

In one of those meetings I spoke about, Don Pablo surrounded by his artist friends announced to us that they were going to premiere an unpublished opera and he wanted some of us to take part in it, its title was Juan José and it was based on a drama by Joaquín Dicenta. It was really happening. When speaking to the Ministry of Culture, the Maestro had got agreement to use baritone Tomás Álvarez, comic tenor Rafael Castejón, and tenor Enrique del Portal. The Teatro de la Zarzuela programmed the work, but not in the way the Maestro desired. He wanted to impose his criteria. He did not accept the power of the establishment outside that. He insisted on things being done just as he had proposed, and if the contrary were to be the case, said “cripple the score, I’ll close it and leave”, and he went… He couldn’t agree with presenting it in this version. Joaquín Deus, the man in charge of these things at the Teatro de la Zarzuela, who said that he would compensate us for the rehearsal period according to our signed contract, and so we presented with great success La del soto del Parral. It’s odd that this zarzuela has been always a reference point in my professional and private life.

El barberillo de Lavapies (2006) - father and son
El barberillo de Lavapiés (2006) - father and son

I asked your son in the interview I did with him: is there more hypocrisy in theatre that outside it?

Yes, but it’s not always like that. It is not easy to respond to a colleague when one thinks he has not done something well, perhaps it is better to avoid answering. But then surely, in my case, that given my years of experience in the theatre I can be allowed to give a little advice to some of my colleagues without bothering them.

Who’ve you felt most comfortable working with?

With Luis Bellido Sr., he was an example to imitate. But also with María Teresa Paniagua, Pepa Rosado, Amparo Madrigal - and the great baritone Guillermo Palomar. (The name of Luis Bellido Sr. is frequently on his lips.)

Which composers and writers you have known?

Many, in addition to the Maestros Sorozábal, Moreno Torroba and Jesús Romo, the librettists Federico Romero, Guillermo Fernández Shaw, Luis Fernández de Sevilla. Him I have admired and loved since his death, because I am married to his granddaughter Nieves Fernández de Sevilla, who lived with him for 28 years and adored him. Today I live in this notable writer’s house, which even now still feels full of his presence. I also remember the story when one day I passed some time with Federico Romero, and said to him by mistake: “Goodbye Don Guillermo!”, which upset him greatly. You see, at that time relations between the two of them [ed. Romero and his co-writer Guillermo Fernández Shaw] had deteriorated greatly.

One of the best memories of my career was knowing Alfredo Kraus. With him I recorded almost all his zarzuela discography. For example, I won’t forget that after the recording one set, namely Doña Francisquita in which I played Cardona, I went to get my pay and was surprised by the excessive amount of cash, far beyond the fee we had agreed. When I said that they were paying me more than the promised amount, his agent Laureano Irazábal said: “Alfredo has told me to give you this money, and if Alfredo says so…” He was a Maestro par excellence and a good friend too.

Which is your favourite character?

When I was a tenor, José Miguel in El caserío; (Quique puts in, “the tenor Pedro Lavirgen said to me once… ‘it is very difficult for another tenor to take on the role of José Miguel after your father) also Leonardo in La bruja, for whom I got the best plaudits of my life. I remember affectionately Casto José in La corte de Faraón, where I discovered myself as an actor. Today as an actor I enjoy playing Don Hilarión in La verbena de la Paloma and Sr. Evaristo in Los Claveles. Really with any character, when I used to step onto the stage I felt that the world was mine. Now before entering, I pray for aid to Papá Luis (as Luis Fernández de Sevilla is popularly called.)

How you would define zarzuela?

For me it’s how I spent my whole youth, my prime years as a man, in which I dedicated myself completely to that spectacle made for the public, leaving behind other options that would have made me more money.

La leyeda del Beso - father and son

Quique: what you would like to ask your father? I believe that it would be interesting to know how my father imagines zarzuela in twenty years’ time. You remember, Pedro, you asked me this question during my interview?

Marcos Redondo said: “Zarzuela is dead, I am from another era”. The truth is that zarzuela has died, revived, died again… and always like the Phoenix it rises from its own ashes to show the splendour of the genre.

(Quique adds that perhaps the way it’s presented is changing. Already there are virtually no repertory companies. Time after time they give money for one-off projects, and the permanent companies disappear.)

Quique, one last question for your father. Very well. What part did necessity play and what part was your desire to change from tenor to actor?

The transition came of itself, little by little. I understood that the moment was coming to stop singing the tenors and changing over to actor-singer roles, and it was in a way important to follow that on stage, I had to understand that Gustavo in Los gavilanes, with which I began my tenor career, could not be condemned to turn 60 with me. That was the exclusive right of my admired friend Alfredo Kraus.

Luis Perezagua came over, moments before beginning his performance next door at the Teatro de la Zarzuela, in El barbero de Sevilla in which he plays, with great success, the role of Don Nicolás. He quipped: “Enrique, how much you look like your son!”

© Pedro Gómez Manzanares 2007

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Enrique Ruiz del Portal (son)
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