Pablo Zinger


Pablo Zinger, the multi-talented conductor and musical director, pianist/accompanist, lecturer and writer, has justly been called the USA's "King of Zarzuela" (in Opera News, July 1997).

Born in Uruguay, Zinger came to New York in 1976. Since then he has worked widely in theatre, opera and the concert hall throughout the Americas and in Europe. His many recordings include the 2001 Grammy award-nominated crossover album The Clarinetist with Paquito D'Rivera, as well as two ground-breaking CDs of music by Carlos Suriñach, Tango Apasionado with Astor Piazzolla and the Video/DVD of Luisa Fernanda at the Jarvis Conservatoire.

Pablo Zinger

He responds to questions from Christopher Webber . . .


How did your early years in Uruguay shape your musical interests?
The works of Albéniz, Granados, De Falla and other Spanish composers were an important part of the pianistic repertoire I used to study in Uruguay. In addition, I was always very interested in the music of Latin American composers, like Ginastera, Villa Lobos, etc. My first musical direction job was the tango opera Marta Gruni by Jaurés Lamarque Pons, a Uruguayan composer, which marked the start of my whole conducting career. The repertoire we played included a lot of French, Russian, and a larger variety of "ethnic" European and other composers (Chopin, Grieg, Dvorak, Prokofiev, Khachaturian, Gershwin). In contrast, when I arrived in the U.S.A the emphasis was much more exclusive on the German-Austrian composers. I believe that the American musical culture carries the weight of a very Germano-centric past.

When and how did you first encounter zarzuela?
I never heard a zarzuela in my native Uruguay. My first contact with the genre came in 1981, when upon my return from a major Latin American tour with the Spanish Repertory Theatre of NYC, Artistic Director René Buch asked me to look into it. I promptly proceeded to Lincoln Center's Public Library, where I heard El Barberillo de Lavapiés (loved it) and Marina (hated it) among others. From then on, we produced Doña Francisquita, Luisa Fernanda, La corte de Faraón, La Generala, La viuda alegre (Merry Widow), La vida breve, and anthologies of Cuban and Puerto Rican music which included zarzuela selections, plus an Anthology of Zarzuela.

What most appeals to you about the genre? What are your favourite works and why? Which would you most like to conduct at the moment?
I love exploring "virgin" territory. I never liked doing what everybody else is doing. I enjoy performing material that has little or no "performance tradition", because I can look at it as if it had been written yesterday. When an American audience sees a zarzuela, a large majority has not seen it ever before. That's an exciting feeling.

My favorite works are Luisa Fernanda, La verbena de la Paloma, La tabernera del puerto, and on the lighter side, Las Leandras and El dúo de La Africana. I would love to conduct all of these and many others.

How do you feel zarzuela is comparable with other national schools of ‘sub-operatic' theatre?
I know this was not your intention, but I dispute the term ‘sub-operatic', since it could be construed as something "under" or inferior to opera. I believe that musical theatre is different but not necessarily inferior to opera in any way. I think this applies to American Musical Theatre, Gilbert and Sullivan, Opéra Comique, etc. After all, Carmen was written with dialogue … The role and scope of zarzuela in Spanish culture is greater than in most other cultures (except American musical theatre).

Do you approach zarzuela in a different way from opera? What if any are its special demands on performers, conductors and stage directors?
Both with opera and with zarzuela or musical theatre I emphasize the importance of the word. First of all I am a stickler for diction. Much too often words are not understood by the audience. Singers need to understand that speaking or singing clearly is not enough. There has to be an enhanced, exaggerated diction, in order to compensate for the diffusing effects of hall acoustics and the singing range. Once the singer/actor understands the words and makes them understood, there is the issue of making artistic decisions on what meaning we give to the words, i.e. interpretation. I encourage singers to spend less time singing and more time thinking (about words, music and interpretation).

Luisa Fernanda, Repertorio Espanol NY
Luisa Fernanda, Repertorio Español NY, 1985. Salomé Martínez, Angelo Cruz. d. René Buch, c. Pablo Zinger

One particular challenge of zarzuela and musical theatre is the need to not only sing but to speak convincingly. I believe (and so does Mr. Domingo) that zarzuela is an excellent training for singers in terms of acting.

Your work in New York has covered a variety of approaches to the genre, some based primarily on modern, theatrical stage values, others on more traditional musical ones. Which seemed to you most fruitful?
Undoubtedly there can be great or bad traditional presentations as well as "avant-garde" ones. Personally, my preference (probably because of my Repertorio Español training with René Buch) is for innovative approaches which depart from an understanding of the original but take chances...

Since the death of Pablo Sorozábal in 1988, the romantic zarzuela has been almost exclusively a "museum" art. What are its prospects for creative renaissance as a living stage form?
I believe the chances of survival of zarzuela depend on the operatic "establishment" embracing the genre or not. It's an uphill battle, and time will say.

In your revealing 1996 article for the New York Times, you wrote about "low standards of performance and recording" leading to zarzuela carrying "an unjust stigma". With what in this negative professional, critical or public attitude to zarzuela would you take issue?
Tradition can be a heavy burden. Sometimes bad singing and hammy acting pass as a zarzuela standard, and that does not serve well an art form which has great musical value. The quality of zarzuela libretti tends to be inferior to the music, but there are indeed some good ones out there. I often feel that it is good for non "zarzueleros" to approach the genre, so that they don't bring that old baggage with them. One example of this is the concept of the "tenor cómico". While I respect and appreciate the contributions of non-operatic singer/actors, who can bring a fresh approach to comic roles, this does not mean that we should have bad singing as a standard! The role of Cardona in Doña Francisquita, for example, requires somebody who can sing very well (and high) and act splendidly.

Connected with this, do you feel the legendary series of Alhambra recordings under Ataulfo Argenta and others did the genre a disservice? Which post-War performers and/or conductors of zarzuela do you admire?
The recordings by maestro Argenta were among the better ones in the genre, and some of the more recent Auvidis/Valois series as well as the late Kraus Doña Francisquita were excellent. Among my favorite zarzuela performers are Mr. Domingo and Teresa Berganza. It is unfortunate that Victoria De los Ángeles (my idol ...) never recorded a whole zarzuela, but her disk of zarzuela arias is a constant source of inspiration. Moreno Torroba and Sorozábal were both accomplished conductors, but they did not always get the orchestras they deserved.

Many critics in the past have stated categorically that zarzuela does not ‘travel' outside the Hispanic world. Do you agree?
I don't think that a zarzuela like Luisa Fernanda is inferior at all to any opera, and the libretto (with judicious cuts) deals with universal issues (loyalty in love and politics). In fact, I know few operas which have such an uninterrupted succesion of "hit tunes"! I believe there is a perception in the U.S. operatic world that Spanish music is "exotic" and outside the mainstream. This is due in part to the fact that Hispanics in the U.S. are viewed as working class immigrants and culturally inferior. Many opera companies consider zarzuela only as a device to "attract new audiences". In other words: if we present "your" music (zarzuela) perhaps you'll come and see "ours" (opera) and we'll hook you into our suscriber base. I think this is a patronizing attitude, which views zarzuela as a marketing ploy, instead of a genre with intrinsic values, which anybody can appreciate, if they keep an open mind, and if its presented with respect and quality. Cultural prejudices die hard.

What are your feelings about ‘zarzuela in translation', at least in the USA?
I have never done zarzuela sung in English. My experiences with "bilingual" zarzuela (sung in Spanish, spoken in English) have been excellent. In the U.S. the audience gets to enjoy the singing in the original language (the expressivity of the music and supertitles help along), while the subtleties of the dialogue in English come accross to almost everybody. Washington Opera did very well with a full Spanish version (people even laughed at the spoken jokes).

Do you find a difference between the Spanish and Hispano-American attitudes to the zarzuela heritage?
Zarzuela is a "majority" art form in Spain, and a "minority" one in the U.S. The Spanish have been very good about supporting their national art forms. They have subsidized touring companies, made great advances in publishing proper performing versions of zarzuelas and recorded them extensively. Madrid has a Teatro de la Zarzuela. We don't ... yet.

International Festival de la Zarzuela, El Paso, Texas, 1995
International Festival de la Zarzuela, El Paso, Texas, Summer 1995 (mus. dir. Pablo Zinger)

How - if at all - and in what ways has the place of zarzuela changed in the USA, since you began work in New York? Has funding for Hispanic culture become easier?
Zarzuela has stagnated or retreated in the last few years. Most significant efforts were led by Mr. Domingo (Doña Francisquita in Washington, El gato montés in Los Angeles). Most other efforts have been carried out by smaller opera companies or independent producers, but zarzuela remains a rarity. Interest in Hispanic culture remains high in all the arts (visual, literary, cinema, instrumental music, etc.) but opera lags behind. After September 11, economic difficulties, conservative opposition to public funding of the arts and the latest war, funding for the arts is difficult to get for anybody. My own series in Town Hall, where I had presented Lecuona's María la O, Roig's Cecilia Valdés, Barbieri's El Barberillo de Lavapiés and Piazzolla's María de Buenos Aires and Pueblo Joven has been put on hold because of funding cuts at the city, state and private levels. Do you know any zarzuela loving millonaires out there?

If I did, they'd be funding zarzuela here in London! Do you feel, as some do in Spain, that zarzuela audiences in the USA are getting older and smaller?
The jury is still out. Since the U.S. is a more "virgin" territory, I see ample potentialities for audience development among the younger generations.

How interested and informed are performers in the USA about romantic Spanish music from Barbieri onwards? Do singers take easily to the stylistic and linguistic demands of zarzuela?
I get numerous requests for coaching in NYC every week. Operatic singers are fascinated by the musical riches of zarzuela. The recently published anthologies of arias are quite popular here. I have offered workshops in NYC about Singing in Spanish in general, and I have recently self-published a Diction Guide which includes two CD's of spoken examples, geared directly to singers' needs. These discuss all of the rules of pronunciation, and the various accents (Spain, Latin America, Caribbean, Ríoplatense).

You have worked with - and interviewed - Plácido Domingo, who has been fighting a crusade on behalf of zarzuela for many years. How have professional contacts with him affected you?
Mr. Domingo is a universally admired figured. We just need more Domingos to go around ... When I was Assistant Conductor for the Washington production of Doña Francisquita, Mr. Domingo was personally involved with every aspect of the production. I remember him discussing the verisimilitude of the prop oranges that were supposed to roll on the floor! That was inspiring.

What are your current plans and future ambitions in zarzuela?
What are your current plans and future ambitions in zarzuela? I have had some interesting activities working alongside maestro James Demster with the Compañía Mexicana de Zarzuela Domingo Embil (promoted by Ms. Pepita Serrano), and I have been contacted by Orlando Opera about a possible Luisa Fernanda in May 2004. I hope that zarzuela will win its deserved place among other operatic/musical theatre genres. I would love to be involved in that process in whatever way I can. I am thinking of developing a "Pocket Zarzuela Company" of soloists, that could travel easily and present zarzuelas in semi-staged form, and promote interest in the genre.

© Pablo Zinger 2003


Pablo Zinger lives in New York City
and can be reached at:

Pablo Zinger website

zarzuela homepage