Enrique Ruiz del Portal, the young Madrid tenor-actor, was a singing graduate of the Madrid Conservatory, later studying in the postgraduate School of Singing. Since 1990 he has been one of that group of singers whom we see season after season appearing with almost all the major zarzuela companies. Last year he appeared at the Teatro de la Zarzuela as Goro in Los Claveles. Before that he performed there in La revoltosa, El dúo de La africana, La del manojo de rosas, La chulapona, Jugar con fuego, La del soto del Parral etc. His career has now taken him into several musicals successful in Spain. In addition to all this he has recorded, amongst other things, Luisa Fernanda, Doña Francisquita, La del manojo de rosas and Madama Butterfly.
It's Sunday September 28th - and in a cafe next to the theatre where he has been performing for several months, we talked with this young tenor, methodical, meticulous, responsible, with clear ideas, a good talker ... plenty of qualities that will ensure us a clear perspective on zarzuela, with a fresh and immediate point of view. Coffee and tonic water drunk, Enrique had to go off to work, and so we continued our conversation two days later in the same place. Two congenial conversations, then. For the first time in many months it was raining in Madrid, which was a good sign - water brings a sense of well-being, joy, optimism, and all of this was evident throughout our conversation. We'd been looking forward a long time ago to this encounter and at last here we are. As Ruben Darío wrote "La perseverancia siempre da una flor" (perseverence always flowers ...)
Tenor or Comic Tenor?
Tenor! When I talk with tenors I say that I am a comic tenor, when I speak with comic tenors I say that I am tenor. When people think about a comic tenor they usually recall Moniquito, Carracuca, Perico, "light-heeled comedy tenors" and similar roles. Comic tenor also covers: Lamparilla (El barberillo de Lavapiés), Txomin (El caserío), Cardona (Doña Francisquita), Tomillo (La bruja) etc. As you see they do not have much in common with one another. I consider myself a tenor and I include this second group of characters within that definition.
What do you remember of your first "rungs on the ladder"?
Coming from a family of actors, my life has always been very much bound up with theatre. When I was fourteen I was already part of the chorus with Evelio Esteve's Ases Líricos company, and I worked every summer (in winter I concentrated on my studies) until 1988, when at the end of my military service I knew this was going to be my profession. Later I worked with Amengual, who gave me my first small parts and comic tenor roles, and after that with practically all the private companies in Spain.
Why was that Gran Vía in which you took part set in a circus?
That was the production of La Gran Vía staged completely in a circus ring. They were an actors' cooperative, with little money, and they had assigned a small budget for the show from which we had to achieve the maximum return. The idea of the staging was really from the director Gustavo Tambachio, always controversial in his productions. Controversy itself is always well received, but not necessarily the provocation that goes with it. Sometimes directors have creative ideas which they introduce into their productions without explanation, thinking that audiences will latch onto their idea; but usually it doesn't happen that way, and it is necessary to give more "clues" to the public. The creative process in zarzuela is dead for two reasons - the same works have been produced for 80 years, and in addition new works have not been appearing. That is why they need "creativity" in staging, and some directors therefore go for it.
Speak about Marta. What work would you like to perform together? [Marta Moreno is his wife]
It is one of the great injustices in our business, when in addition to being a great actress, she has a good voice - that they offer her few roles where she can demonstrate this, something which does not happen with the acting roles which she plays to perfection and for which she is much more in demand. [I have seen and heard Marta many times, and can confirm this] With Marta I would like to do El barberillo de Lavapiés, with her as Paloma and myself as Lamparilla; or El caserío.
Do you think there's as much hypocrisy inside theatre as outside? Why so?
Close your eyes and tell me how you see zarzuela in 2023
I am pessimistic in one way. I recall a phrase in the novel I Claudius where someone says that "... theatre is never what it was" which reflects what I'm trying to get across. There are two valid options to reinvigorate zarzuela; one would be to leave it in public hands, so that the Teatro de la Zarzuela explores our lyric theatre through two state-funded companies, one fixed in Madrid and another touring throughout Spain. That way we'd present major productions made with all our money, to everybody. This alternative would brutally damage the private companies, but it would be strategy favourable to the diffusion of zarzuela. The other option would be to stimulate private initiative with the necessary government aid. What won't work is a mixture of both, in which the big productions aren't shown throughout Spain, despite the costs which they incur, and where private initiative is not suitably supported either.
What changes would you make to zarzuela?
First, to "clear the decks", I would clear that protective covering that prevents us seeing the essence of zarzuela for what it is; what is zarzuela? how does it differ from other genres? that way we'd get "the key" that's to be found in differing stagings and productions.
But do you think the key is the same for the whole genre, or is there a different key for each work?
Yes, I believe that there is a key to be discovered for each work; the same essence won't be found, for example, in Jugar con fuego and a Madrid sainete - the sensations, the meanings are quite different ... It is not necessary to repeat works in the way they were performed the first time, that is archaeology; one has to look for what's essential, to interpret it and bring it to the stage. It is vital to "shake off the dandruff", the stiffly conventional. You cannot sing a romanza admired by the public "because it's always been done like that"; you've got to sing it thinking of the person by whom you are inspired.
How did your participation with the Ópera Cómica company begin? What have you performed with them?
Because they asked me. Alfonso Leoz proposed I should work with Ópera Cómica in Jugar con fuego, under the direction of one of the great stage directors of zarzuela, Francisco Matilla, in 1992 at the Teatro Madrid. I have continued working with him to this day. Paco [Francisco] has rescued many forgotten zarzuelas: Las labradoras de Murcia, De Getafe al paraiso, Los dos ciegos, Las foncarraleras, etc. Ópera Cómica is one of the few companies that does not seek to stage "fossilised" or "scurf-inflicted" zarzuela.
[Note: 7-8 November 2003 we can see Ópera Cómica in Móstoles, performing Barbieri's Mis dos mujeres]
How does a musical (such as the one in which you have been playing for some time) compare with zarzuela? [Ed. Since September 2002 Enrique has been playing M. Andre in The Phantom of the Opera at the Teatro Lope de Vega in Madrid]
There's a lot to be said on this subject, but in short I would say that there's no difference. No doubt this assertion would require a deeper explanation, but as I say we would need more time. In reality, without broadening the argument - is there more difference between the musical Oklahoma and Molinos de viento, than between Molinos de viento and Jugar con fuego?
Why did you record María Blanca?
Ricardo Vidal, a retired military veteran, placed a press announcement looking for singers. I appeared with my c.v. under my arm, looking for a "big contract". Ricardo, crushed, told me he was trying to record something in an amateur way. It appealed to me to do it; and so we did it, in his house, with his recording equipment, myself with Montserrat Muñumel, Rafael Coloma, Rosary Ruiz and Angel Walter. This piece had been premiered in 1946 or 1947 by the company in Astarloa, which also featured his wife Lina Huarte and María Fernanda Caballer. I remember a lot about it, it was all an experience. Ricardo Vidal also had written other zarzuelas: Bekralbaida, with an exotic setting and Con derecho a cocina, a sainete madrileño. He also composed several songs that he wanted me to record - and I recorded them, but I don't know what happened to them. I should get in contact with him again.
A role in which you excel - Cardona. What you feel when you are "inside" him? Do you refer to Antonio Palacios Espejo?
Of course, I have Antonio Palacios' recordings. He defined one way of playing Cardona in Doña Francisquita. This character is one of my favourites, I love him! On one occasion Luis Gutierrez did an interview with me, and I commented that for me, this role is like the River Guadiana "always rising" - always coming up to be played. The recording which I did in 1993 with Plácido Domingo of Doña Francisquita was a big surprise for me. I have always thought that if I had recorded it five years later I could have brought more experience to it, although I am very satisfied with it.
What do you think is missing from the zarzuela.net website?
I don't think anything is lacking. It is interesting and enjoyable. Perhaps an option on the homepage to have it in Spanish ...
You have an email address so lovers of zarzuela can contact you?
Once more the time has come when to prepare for the performance, Enrique must return to the show, his dressing room, his audience ... The rain keeps falling, the good feeling persists.
© Pedro Gómez