The Cuban Soprano talks with
I’ve been blessed to meet or work with many fine performing artists. A handful of these have impressed me with a special quality beyond talent, beyond personality. This handful possess a quality which I can only call spiritual. They have the ability to inspire others, in person as much as in performance. In some mysterious way, they make you feel better for having met them. Such is the Cuban lyric soprano, Bárbara Llanes.
Where does this power come from? Well, chilled though she may have been by the bitter cold of London in the grip of its worst December freeze for decades, Bárbara Llanes exuded a personal grace, a sensitive intelligence, and perhaps above all a sense of the seriousness of her artistic calling, which combined to warm up the day for myself, and for her friend and colleague the conductor Carlos Aransay, who kindly made the introductions and translated between my embarrassingly poor Spanish and Ms Llanes’s tentative but accurate English.
It almost goes without saying that Llanes possesses a remarkable instrument. She has everything you’d expect from a world-class lyric soprano in terms of pinpoint accuracy, security of support and flawless intonation in alt. Beyond that, though, the unique personality of her voice lies in the ease and complexity of the lower registers. As Aransay puts it, this is no conventional ‘operatic’ sound, with covered head and forced chest tones, but a naturally produced voice containing many and varied colours. “What’s more, I feel it’s got even richer and stronger projected during the ten years I’ve known Bárbara. And right now, it’s something extraordinary.”
Llanes has travelled to Europe to be heard by some of the major opera houses – not least the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden for whom she sang her Lucia di Lammermoor amongst other things – but she also managed to squeeze in a recital at St. James’s Piccadilly, including songs by her compatriot Ernesto Lecuona. Lucia, Violetta in Traviata, Gilda in Rigoletto are her natural Italian ground, to which she’d like to add Delibes’s Lakmé and similar roles from the French repertoire. She conveys a vulnerable, gamine quality which would make her irresistible in, say, Auber’s under-prized Manon Lescaut as much as in those immortal “warhorse” roles. What’s more she can sing all the notes, in the right order – in point of fact a surprisingly rare accomplishment! I’ve no doubt that one of the leading houses, whether in London, Berlin or Spain, will snap her up.
Llanes is determined though to keep her operatic repertoire small and focused, following one of her chief role models: “That’s what Alfredo Kraus did so well. He sang a very few roles over the years, did everything to perfection, and had a very long career as a result.” This perfectionism is clearly a cornerstone of her work. She will not sing opera, in Cuba or anywhere else, unless she feels that standards are high: “not just vocally, but orchestrally and with modern production values”. It’s significant that of the two operas she’d seen in London it was Raskatov’s A Dog’s Heart with ENO at the Coliseum, a collaboration with cutting-edge theatre group Complicite, which had impressed her greatly.
Because her work as an operatic singer is only a part of what makes Llanes so potent a force in her country’s artistic life. She is also a gifted composer and chanteuse. Her recent projects include the composition of a work for children, whilst her performing work and discography include major collaborations with Cuban luminary José María Vitier, jazz-influenced popular composer of the Misa Cubana and the score for the Oscar-nominated Fresa y chocolate.
Her 2003 CD Amor y dolor, a quintessentially Cuban mixture of songs from street, salon and stage made with star wizard-pianist Frank Fernández, brought us to Llanes’s thoughts on zarzuela cubana. She would certainly love to sing more zarzuela on stage as well as in concert: we can see and hear her singing the canción del ruiseñor from Doña Francisquita, a role which fits her like a glove, on a YouTube clip which gives a taste of her impressive vocal-histrionic powers as well as personal charm.
Three works in particular – Cecilia Valdés, María la O and Rosa la china – appeal to her, with their focus on the tragic figure of the mulata, the young woman crushed between the poor black and rich white worlds, equally desired and despised by both. Roig’s Cecilia, drawn from Cirilo Villaverde’s epochal 19th century Cuban novel, speaks to her most strongly, and her exuberant but touching recorded version of Cecilia’s salida “Si, yo soy Cecilia Valdés” certainly makes one long to see her perform the role on stage. “I also find Dolores Santa Cruz, the old negro with her song “Po, po, po” a fascinating character of great potential, as a commentator on the people and the society which makes them what they are.”
But despite a token presence in the annual cartel of the National Opera in Havana, there are practical problems in getting stage works by Roig or Lecuona properly mounted in Cuba: “For one thing, I think they need revision. The music is great, though reliable scores don’t exist, but the spoken texts need updating as they are really too old-fashioned in some respects. Another problem is that the small to medium sized theatres for which they were written don’t exist any more. In big theatres, you have to project the spoken dialogue in a way which is harmful to the singing voice. And there is so much of it!” Are there performing editions? “No. Our musicologists focus on ‘serious’ composers such as Caturla or Roldán, rather than such a great but popular composer as Lecuona. That is how things are.” It’s depressing that even in Cuba, with its apparently seamless spectrum of music, there seems to be a mistaken feeling that popularity somehow excludes quality.
There is also a serious question of money, now Cuba is no longer artistically bankrolled by Moscow. Here in the West, if the State can’t pay we can turn for funding to the corporate world, but this is not an option for Cuban artists. This means that professional zarzuela productions – when they take place at all – are basic, not reflecting modern theatrical values. So the prospects are not hot for zarzuela cubana: “We don’t have the theatres, the scores or the money to do them justice. It’s a pity, but there’s so much work to do.”
Indeed there is. And Bárbara Llanes looks to me as if she is prepared to work as hard for her country’s music as she is for her own career. With so talented and remarkable a woman as front-line musical ambassador, Cuba cannot be the loser.
© Christopher Webber 2011
15 December 2010