The stage lights go up. We glimpse a silhouette advancing from the background towards front centre, where once the prompter had his box. The Muse for zarzuela and lovers of Spanish lyric theatre transfixes us. Nothing else seems to be important, all dance to her tune, a great vortex sucks in the whole stage to one point, everything focuses on her. In one moment she becomes the scene's centre of attraction. The writer's and composer's sentiments, whatever the director has contributed to the work - everything is blown away.
Milagros is the Muse of our time. Others came before, but now she is the heiress of all those great actresses and singers who have packed out Madrid's theatres. Like them she has written her chapter in the history of zarzuela. In June she was awarded the prize for La mejor cantante de zarzuela from Oviedo's Campoamor Theatre. She has won many others, notably the Premio Federico Romero.
We are in a corner of Madrid's Café Comercial, following a rehearsal of Los sobrinos del capitán Grant in the Sala Bristol...
Milagros, where were you born?
In Madrid, in Calle Viriato, number 22 - next to the house where it's supposed that Ascensión, the heroine of La del manojo de rosas, was born.
Why did you become involved in the fascinating world of zarzuela?
My first show doing a small part in The Sound of Music. The Abbess was the great Pilar Abarca who introduced me to Maestra [Dolores] Marco, who played a key role in my career. She was very firm sometimes and made me cry, but I have great memories of her. I was very young and really it was she who introduced the poison of zarzuela into my body. In fact I spent five years in her classes. Later Ángeles Chamorro taught me the importance of good phrasing. I made my debut in El barberillo de Lavapiés as the Marquesita. Shortly afterwards I played Mari-Pepa in La revoltosa, directed by Castejón and Maestra Marco. This went along with three seasons at La Corrala in Madrid, participating in those Veranos de la Villa [summer town festivals]. I made my Teatro de la Zarzuela debut under José Luis Alonso in his great staging of El dúo de La africana, in the role of Amina. With that I graduated from Singing School, and that's what led me into the theatrical world of zarzuela.
What gift do you think explains the number of admirers surrounding you?
To approach my work with affection, order, trying at each performance to improve what I'm doing. I never become bored in a role no matter how often I repeat it. Really every time I do something new, always change something, always find extra nuances. When I play a role, my performance is influenced by my mood; if I suffer, the spectator suffers with me, and the reverse. What I look for continuously is to please myself. Music really helps that process, those nuances that the creators wanted to convey are in the music, there in the score, usually they aren't read, but they are there. Later one must find the right technique to express them and share them with the audience. After that it is only using one's talent.
To this end the musical and stage directors must be totally coordinated and must set out to convey the same nuances at the most suitable moment. If it is otherwise, the show suffers. Caught in the middle, the singer is the one who undergoes the possible confusion. Certainly all of us are sometimes called on to sing in difficult circumstances and I am no exception. It is at those moments at which you must unload all the accumulated energies of the situation which surrounds and blocks you. Those moods affect our performances. Our adrenalin flies free sometimes, floating in some magic theatre, like those old horseshoe auditoriums. We really let go of a tiny piece of ourselves in each performance, in some drop curtain of some theatre they'll be a little bit of your feeling patched in somewhere.
What do you feel in these three scenes:
The last scene of La chulapona: A shiver in the back that ascends to the neck. An accumulation of feelings.
The scene in Los gavilanes where you discover that Juan loves your daughter Rosaura: Bitterness, jealousy, rage, I feel deceived. I feel that they have made fun of me. I feel my hopes die. I feel in that cry everything extinguished that had been aflame.
The moment where you decide to leave with Javier and abandon Vidal (Luisa Fernanda): Shame. I lose all the dignity that I had previously possessed. I feel pain when seeing Javier totally defeated.
How did you feel playing Chapí's La bruja?
I believe that she is one of the most difficult characters I've been called upon to play, as much vocally as dramatically. I was directed by Luis Olmos. I remember I had a muscular spasm during a rehearsal because of the hump I had to wear. Honestly she is a character who terrifies me.
Which zarzuela which you haven't done comes to mind?
La leyenda del beso (a quick, forceful answer, with the same certainly that comes across in all her performances).
Many composers wrote for their singers. None have written for you, for evident reasons, but with which composer do you feel most comfortable, most identified?
With Don Pablo Sorozábal. I coincidentally studied music with his grandson. I'm also specially impressed by the Italianate music of Barbieri and Arrieta.
It's evident that you pay attention to the text alongside the music; in some singers that seems beside the point, something to do with other people. So why it is so important for you?
The text is key in zarzuela, I have always put great stress upon it. Ángeles Chamorro repeatedly told me that it is vital to sing from the words. Now the text is taken more care of than before, and with good justification. In the first place the younger ones get better preparation than before in this area, but it's also justified by the fact that nowadays many theatre directors direct zarzuela, and this carries enormous weight. They have brought all those subtleties to zarzuela stagings.
Professional life is always complicated. What do you find in the theatre - many friends, many companions, many who are envious...?
I've had much of everything, the theater is a fantasy, an illusion and that brings friends, colleagues... it's usual for us to make our colleagues our family. In any case it is important to know how to separate private life from the professional. In my case I feel a lucky person to be able to do it. Many actors live in and for theatre alone, and that usually causes problems at the end of their professional career.
How you can you motivate yourself, say, in the dúo from La revoltosa when your colleague (playing Felipe) does not give you anything?
Then the difficulty is multiplied. You must do your own work and your colleague's as well. You must feel your character to communicate it, and in addition you must believe in one for the other. It is always important to help your colleague. It is necessary to respect him, to take care not to dominate him by your intervention, put oneself in a suitable place so as not to take away his power of action and to allow him his own light. One must help him. Even if one sees that he cannot finish a phrase, that it's too much for him, one must "cover the join".
Sorozábal - La del manojo de rosas. Tell me something about this work.
Through The Girl... I have gained many things and she's a character I've played many times. It is a clear example of what I was talking about before. There [ed. in the famous Emilio Sagi Madrid production] an evident meshing of musical and scenic direction took place. Everything went together like clockwork. The movements of all the characters meshed together. Everything went with a real rhythm that increased as the work continued.
How is Los sobrinos del capitán Grant going?
It is a work with another style of direction, Paco Mir looks for comedy gags. Everything is thought through, nothing left to improvisation, staging, gestures all premeditaded. Everything works to the millimetre.
Why have you made so few incursions into the world of opera?
I have had the good fortune always to work within zarzuela. Within it I have been able to maintain myself by my singing and I have not needed other work. Opera would have demanded that I spent less time with my family, Paco and my son. I am happy with zarzuela, I don't look beyond it, I am not ambitious.
How you feel about recent tendencies in presenting Spanish lyric theatre?
I consider myself a singer open to new ideas, new methods, new forms, changes, evolutions. I welcome new companions, new directors, new forms of direction. To adapt to current reality and the evolution of theatre is very important to me.
She speaks to me about her family, Paco, her sister-in-law, son, parents... she is not only a good singer and actress, but a good woman. She will continue delighting us for many years with her great performances, and will continue increasing the number of her admirers. As Milagros said at one moment during the interview, in each performance she leaves a little piece of herself - and she has done the same in our conversation.
© Pedro Gómez Manzanares