‘The Sorozábal Singer’

Javier Galán in Black, el payaso
Javier Galán as Black, el payaso

Interview with...
Javier Galán

Pedro Gómez Manzanares

The first time we spoke was in a Villaviciosa café, where five zarzuela-lovers have been taking Saturday morning breakfast and debating the subject over many years. That particular day I looked behind us and saw someone who looked familiar. So familiar, that I realised I had seen him just the previous night at Teatro Español. It was Javier Galan, breakfasting with a friend. The venue was certainly nothing like the old café in Adiós a la bohemia, nor was anyone reading The Herald newspaper, nor could the tunes of Maestro Sorozábal be heard distantly in the background. It was a bustling, modern cafe that would certainly have shattered the Maestro’s dream.

Now we were meeting in the cafeteria of Madrid’s Palace Hotel, close to Teatro de la Zarzuela, where – just an hour later – he was to perform in the production of Carmen that was going on in Madrid at the time.

What do you think of the new vision of Carmen you’re singing at Teatro de la Zarzuela?
Those who come to Carmen will have the opportunity to see and hear the adaptation Gerónimo Giménez made for productions in Spain, translated into Spanish. As for the staging, the director has tried above all not to treat the Carmen myth as it’s found out there in so many hundreds of productions, but with a more poetic vision. As for the musical preparation, it seems to me flawless – the conductor, Yi-Chen Lin, is a tireless worker with an orchestral control of the orchestra that eases the work of those of us on stage.

Galan in Las de CainSince you have not sung one-act género chico works, and therefore haven’t ‘fallen into the nets’ of its misguided detractors, what do you think of the ‘other side’ of zarzuela – those in two, three or four acts?
When we’re talking about our heritage, it is true that there are works of much interest and others not so interesting; but it’s our duty to make them known, revive them where necessary, and the result will serve everyone. It’s a shame that much of this heritage is still awaiting rediscovery. I had a big surprise when I sang Sorozábal’s La eterna canción and Las de Caín when they were revived at Teatro Español. They were such a success that they were revived the following years, and they had to hang up the ‘Sold Out’ boards most nights. When word of mouth got round about the quality of the works and the production, the house was filled with audiences coming to see them again and again – some people told me they’d been more than five times. If these are not worth reviving…

Librettos and plots sometimes require revision to make their mark in our day. Those texts were written for particular places with particular conventions. That context weighs heavily on them. Many pieces were written in a few hours, to meet the production demand for ‘instant consumption’, and that affects their quality. But it is still interesting to revive them and make them available for aficionados and the general public.

Galan in Black el payasoLa eterna canción, Black el payaso, Adiós a la bohemia, Las de Caín, Katiuska, Don Manolito, La del manojo de rosas, La tabernera del puerto. An expert in Sorozábal. Maybe a singer who’s sung more Sorozábal than anyone. What do you think of him?
He was a master, with a knack for uniting within one score contemporary dance rhythms with more classical and traditional ones. A master of harmony, a master of orchestration. A great connoisseur of the voice – an important aspect for singers. After singing so many of his works I have really got to know this composer. There were twenty-seven performances [at Teatro Español] of Black el payaso and Adiós a la bohemia, and I sang them all from first to last, from Tuesday to Sunday without a break. If they had not been impeccably written I should not have been able to perform such a feat.

And the work of Mario Gas in Adiós a la bohemia, as with Ignacio Garcia’s in Black el payaso and other productions, was key to these stagings. Ignacio gave his all to me, pushed and pushed me, and I always tried to respond to his suggestions – and the result was so successful that many nights we were almost having to encore the romanzas. It was a fine opportunity for me to get to know this great composer through his scores.

Are there any other Sorozábal revivals would you suggest?
I wish it were up to me! If only we were able to find another Mario Gas… that would be the answer…  and if he asked me for a suggestion… I’d make one without hesitation!

Galan and Maria Rey-Joly in Adios a la bohemia
Galán and María Rey-Joly in Adiós a la bohemia

You’re from the Valencia region, so tied to the history of la zarzuela and music in general: how is this genre that concerns us so much perceived there?
There’s a massive love for music in my region. In the past, one of the most important theatres in the city was devoted exclusively to zarzuela. We also have our Valencian bands, that mean so much more than the idea of ‘bands’ in the rest of the country. Take a city like Liria, in which  two bands (La Primitiva and La Unión) have a secondary school and professional conservatory in one building, so that students can combine both studies with the convenience of not having to travel from one place to another, as we had to do for music studies after school finished.

Healthy rivalry between local societies has helped the level of  training to rise to the heights, and increasingly there’s the possibility to study string instruments, voice and piano. This in turn creates a base of knowledgeable people, and makes it easier to make singers and musicians at many levels, who may then make the leap to lyric theatre – in particular to zarzuela – as well as domestic and foreign symphony orchestras.

My three children study music, thanks to the Musical Society in our village. One plays the trumpet, another the flute, and the third the tuba, all instruments that allow them to play in a band or in any orchestra. They have received a first-rate musical education from the outset. My eleven year old daughter has already gone on to study at professional grade at the conservatory. The consequence of this ingrained ‘fan base’ is that there are hundreds of instrumentalists and singers who are continually joining the ranks.

Galan and Susana Cordon in El tutor burladoWhat should we do to restore our lyric theatre?
I think part of the answer lies in how the question is asked. How is zarzuela positioned? What is its part in the culture? As business? As a spectacle? When the budget is the key, you have to consider whether it is worth bringing ‘dear’ voices, which will certainly add lustre to the work. But sometimes the cost is not justified, while also having the effect that anyone under that level feels disappointed and rejected. Sometimes you have to look over the work and the music and spend less on mounting the show, because though that’s also important, we can compel audience attention  by searching for the essence of the work.

Most crucial is the business of creating stable, calm conditions for those who want to devote themselves to deepening and strengthening their interpretation, and the other skills that lyric theatre needs. I think Spanish singers are neither better nor worse off than in other countries. The fact is, that it takes time to make a good performer – time spent on the stage – and only through actual experience can great performers emerge. I have always tried to take advantage of the few opportunities I’ve been given, and I have also taken roles with modest companies that have allowed me to ‘try out’ important roles; so I think the solution lies in the creation of stagings, not of the first rank, designed to give a chance to many more people than we can now.

Are any young conductors you’ve seen interested in the genre?
Yes they are around, and very good they are too. I want them to discover zarzuela, just as such great Spanish conductors as Miguel Ángel Gómez Martínez and Miguel Roa did in their time.

Galan in Las de CainIf you were Minister of Culture (of any government within Spain), what action would you take immediately?
Encourage the establishment and maintenance of solid zarzuela theatres, not only in large cities, but also medium-sized ones. But there’d be no millions granted in subsidies without proper management. I’d bring productions to these theatres, which not only would promote culture and the emergence of future musicians, but would lead to the creation of local employment for choruses, orchestras, stagehands, administrators…

Encourage musical culture in children. I remember when I was little we had concerts at school, on a weekly basis. My enthusiasm was born there. We should take care over stagings, because sometimes instead of ‘creating an audience’, we ‘lose an audience’. Quality and professionalism are key in this regard. Enedina Lloris adapted several operas to make them more accessible to a younger audience, and we did them with piano, in the large institute halls. A major initiative like this could be very useful.

Encourage the use of audio-visual media, TV, internet and so forth to spread music.

The secondary-level theatres would serve singers, and musicians in general, as proving grounds helping provide the experience that’s essential, to allow them to make the definitive jump into the first-rank theatres. I remember the thought of a European politician in the 1950s who said, “what’s invested in culture, I save on jails and courts.”

Javier has to leave. Shortly his performance in Carmen at Teatro de la Zarzuela will be starting. Our young voices have grand visions. Hopefully the minister in charge will have the initiative to ask, listen and to put their ideas into practice.

Thank you, Javier!

© Pedro Gomez Manzanares
October 29, 2014

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