April 9th, a rainy Madrid spring day. The harsh afternoon encourages passers-by to fill the few remaining free tables in our usual refuge. The heavy rain prevents us seeing what is happening outside through the huge glass insulating us from the bustling street. People come and eagerly look for a place to sit where they can chat with their companions, bringing the bustle inside with them. After the lecture on the next production to be staged at the Teatro de la Zarzuela, I am talking with Luis Álvarez in our old, messy but much-loved Café Comercial.
A tonic and a peppermint tea, served by the kindly Antonio, accompany our next two hours. Behind Luis is a huge mirror reflecting the movement of people entering the enclosure and trying vainly to distract me. Hispanic Philology, studies concerned with a long training as musician, writer, singer, actor… recordings of Juan del Encina, villancicos, tonadillas, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, zarzuela… a repertoire covering Bach, Debussy, Mozart, de Falla, Haydn, Schubert, Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Rossini… and the great Spanish composers.
Luis Álvarez, “The Aristocrat” of zarzuela.
Luis, how do you think of yourself just now: as an singer-actor, actor-singer, actor, singer?
Both aspects are equally important, I would say about fifty-fifty. Both facets are needed to play zarzuela. If we compare actors and singers, I think that these days it is easier to get a good singer to act than to make a good actor sing. It is very important for an actor to have the necessary musical training.
Currently in Spain, there is a breakthrough in the spoken parts, they’re increasingly better acted. Training in this aspect is much better and current stage directors are contributing much in that department. A zarzuela is a sum of song and spoken dialogue, but if the music goes well the rest is very likely to succeed.
Who were your teachers?
Though I come from a family of lawyers I studied Hispanic philology, but what I liked most was music. I studied at the Escuela Superior de Canto de Madrid, after joining the Coro Nacional. There he studied vocal technique with Teresa Tourné from whom I learned a lot. Also repertoire with Valentine Elcoro, with whom I enjoyed reading scores, and with the fine pianist Miguel Zanetti. And finally, I studied stage performance with José Luis Alonso.
Your books: Music and Society, Principles of the Traverse Flute…
It’s funny, but after so many years Music and Society is still in print, a text that we wrote for high school tutoring at a distance.
As for Principles of the Traverse Flute, that’s a translation from the original French of 1720 made in collaboration with a fellow flautist. I recently saw on the Internet that someone quoted some paragraphs of the translation on a specialist website, and I contacted him to ask him to acknowledge the author’s name, which he did very politely.
I also worked on several text adaptations for Ópera Cómica de Madrid, and I published some articles in the Fundación de la Zarzuela’s magazine when I was its editor.
How is the influence of your extensive musical training, your recordings and your vast repertoire manifest in your performances and recordings of zarzuelas?
I think the world of zarzuela should be open, should experiment musically and theatrically. All should work with other styles, other types of music. It is enriching. This helps us produce works differently, with another perspective, eliminating this terrible obligation to stage things in a set way as they were done at the premiere.
Actually it’s not so long ago that I came to the world of zarzuela – before that I was in another musical world. A musical world to which my brother introduced me, with music played on his LP turntables and discs from that excellent Reader’s Digest collection.
What does zarzuela lack?
It could do with an extra dose of professionalism. I refer to things such as the need for more rehearsals, so that everything necessary is prepared, with better knowledge of what has to be done. Sometimes we make do with less than what could be called a “Professional Corps”, larger and more adequately trained to help provide or find a musician, actor, chorus or solo singer needed for a particular staging.
Also a commitment in what is done, to “push a little further”, not being content to do things as they have always been done. The number of people who saw zarzuela years ago, even some of them present at premieres, is diminishing and with them also the memories in their minds. The determined recovery of our historic repertoire is another thing zarzuela needs.
How do you imagine zarzuela in 2012?
The first thing I imagine is that there should be a lot of zarzuela outside Spain. Now you have decent performing materials, where only a few years ago there was difficulty. I think if this does not happen we could squander the “treasure” of our countless zarzuelas.
New directors are bringing new ideas. For example, thanks to José Luis Alonso we had a very different Dúo de La africana. With that extra professionalism I mentioned before, we can do great things. With new ideas, we will see great productions. But remember that the key is to “operate” musically. We have a new and young generation of conductors who have a great future and are taking some good opportunities at the Teatro de la Zarzuela.
What does the libretto mean for you?
A key part of zarzuela, indispensable and inextricably linked to music. What would Wamba’s coplas [from El bateo] be without the text? What would Don Hilarión’s be without the music?
Often we hear the view that zarzuela librettos are very weak, falling short of the music and so forth. I think it’s an argument without foundation, similar to another one which made us think for many years that Spanish 19th century painting had no real value. A careful and empathetic reading of many of those texts makes us see the mastery with which they are constructed and, in the case of género chico, its absolute originality on the contemporary European theatre scene.
The text of a work is written in the reality of the moment, and we must approach it with the same respect and humility as we do the music.
Say something about La Fundación de la Zarzuela.
I was working on it in its infancy which was a very interesting experience. I think we should reach out further. They could be many ways – and not very expensive ones – to give our lyric theatre and the Foundation itself a greater presence in various fields.
Let’s talk about this great group called Ópera Cómica … .
Well… it was “my godfather”. I was there right at the beginning, I believe in 1987, when they presented Viva la opera, a Spanish adaptation of Donizetti’s Le convenienza ed incovenienze teatrali. At that time the group was not linked solely to zarzuela. Ópera Cómica, with its productions and concerts, has considerably expanded the repertoire for a varied public; Robinson and Mis dos mujeres by Barbieri, Las labradoras de Murcia by Rodríguez de Hita, Las foncarraleras by Galván, El conjuro by Arrieta, Buenas noches, señor Don Simón by Oudrid are only a few examples of Ópera Cómica de Madrid’s interest in reviving forgotten titles.
Today the company wishes for larger development, an expansion commensurate with the seriousness and ambition of its projects. Productions are costly, leading to much effort, time and money being exhausted in only a few performances. There’s a lack of any great injection of daring into the programming of our theatres in this country, often the result of bureaucratic rigidity. I suppose it’s this very rigidity that is the cause of the productions of the prime zarzuela theatre in the world, La Zarzuela in Madrid, not being seen so far in commercial recordings.
Where is the boundary between the actor with style, class, with mastery of the stage, compared with the “cheap” or “vulgar” actor?
The actor must always think about what surrounds him on stage. Just as important or more than what he does, is his ability to empathise with others. Hassane Kouyaté, actor and frequent collaborator with Peter Brook, used to repeat in a workshop which I was privileged to attend: “Do not say: I am going to do this. Ask yourself: can I do this?”
Respectful towards everything around him, overflowing with musical culture, influenced by the classics and French music of the eighteenth century, lover of art, of nature… Living by what matters, by talk and dreams, transmitting hope, careful not to hurt. Such is our “aristocrat” of the zarzuela.
Pedro Gómez Manzanares