Interview with...

Ángel Fernández Montesinos

Pedro Gómez Manzanares

(Madrid, August 14 2012)

Ángel Fernández Montesinos
Ángel Fernández Montesinos

Here in Plaza de Santa Ana at the heart of the Las Letras district, inside the “Miau” coffee shop named after the novel by Benito Pérez Galdós, I introduced myself to the great stage director who is one of our great “young artists”, although a veteran by his date of birth. No coincidence, as he has already studied and staged adaptations of Galdós such as La duda (2006) and El abuelo (2007) – just two examples from his wide experience, which has embraced some 170 productions of plays, zarzuelas, revues, opera…  about half of them with musical content. Amongst many prizes he has twice received the National Theatre Award, in 1961 and 1972. Anyone who has not done so might well consider reading his book El teatro que he vivido. Memorias dialogadas de un director de escena.

It was a pleasure to listen, learn, reminisce together... this was a relaxed interview with a man so very young at heart that his insistence he was born in 1930 is surely hard to believe. Ideas and views of contemporary music theatre are “in his blood”. He talks creatively, imaginatively, names rolling off his tongue as if the stagings we recall from forty or fifty years ago were happening now. The names of dozens of admired artists and singers flow from his lips.

Through the glass door of the coffee shop a few metres away is Teatro Español, where last summer he staged and directed Las de Caín.

Montesinos (left) with Vicente ParraWe are in the district for writers and dramatists. Which theatre has been the scene of your greatest success?
There are really three. Teatro Español, where I’ve directed various shows, and in particular last year’s staging of Sorozábal’s Las de Caín. Then there’s Teatro de la Comedia where I started my career in 1960 with The Rebel starring Vicente Parra. And finally Teatro Alcázar where I directed Por la calle de Alcalá, which racked up 2300 performances, and the musical Estamos en el aire [‘We’re on air’].

Revue, zarzuela, opera, comedy, classical theatre .... Which feels closest to your heart?
I started in 1960 with El libro del buen amor, also spent many years running the Compañía Lírica Nacional and the Isaac Albeniz Company among others, as well as many television programs… but most of all I like musical theatre. It allows me to do what I think, to “create”, hard though it is to know what you want and do it, although there are many insensitive souls who think they can do it easily – and you see the results.

I enjoy musical theatre, watching it, creating it, directing. I’ve seen more than one hundred and forty musicals, mainly in London and New York, which shows I’m really curious about this type of show and particularly what’s around here and now.

Las de Cain (Sorozabal) Javier Naval © Teatro Espanol - 2011

Let’s talk about zarzuela.
There are zarzuelas where it’s hard to introduce creativity without damaging the work, but others however permit it, and it is these that I enjoy staging and directing. In general there are many works whose libretti are a drag, or too simple or hard to understand, so what matters is how the story is told.

An important aspect is how to achieve continuity. I do not like black-outs, but like to move from one scene to the next imaginatively, even perhaps adding some number by the same composer, bringing in new ideas. That’s part of the director’s creative job.

Some works can be updated to more recent times but there is always a limit which should not be passed, because for sure “actors in modern dress without ideas, is like a dress rehearsal without clothes.” I really like to invent and re-create whenever it’s possible.

Right now you’re directing La verbena de la Paloma in the Sabatini Gardens with an additional number. Tell us about your idea.
Incidentally today we’ve hung the sign “sold out”, after some very good houses on preceding days, which is important for everyone involved.

I’ve chosen to add some other género chico numbers to La verbena de la Paloma, well-known but not as popular as the major numbers of Bretón’s score. To avoid breaking the structure and pace of the work, these have been incorporated into a scene where the characters are actually going to the verbena. This way you do not lose the thread of the work, which maintains its usual structure. I always wondered why the characters don’t really go to the verbena. The answer may be to do with the need not to extend the work beyond an hour, as the genre required. Someone who did not know the work well told me that he thought the numbers added were part of it.

Remember those two works entitled Tiovivo madrileño [‘Madrid carousel’] and Casi un siglo de zarzuela [‘Almost a century of zarzuela’]?
Tiovivo madrileño is the history of género chico and revue from their origins, at least that was the idea. It opened with a carousel upstage and a character who said ... “May I take you for a walk in the past?” Then on came the chorus and we launched into the musical numbers. It was staged at Teatro de la Zarzuela. The year was 1969. The idea was mine, and the conductor was Manuel Parada.

J.A.Quintero, Montesinos, Torroba, Arozamena ("Maravilla")

On the death of Torroba, Cayetano Luca de Tena wrote a text that to bind together numbers from various works as a tribute to the great musician. Thus was born Casi un siglo de zarzuela. There were songs from Azabache, La Caramba, Baile en capitanía, María Manuela, La chulapona… that was in 1982. Ángeles Chamorro, Antonio Blancas, María Muriz, Josefina Meneses, Antonio Ordoñez, Carmen González, Guadalupe Sánchez, Jesús Castejón and others appeared in it with the Theatre’s chorus, conducted by Maestro Perera.

Given your experience and current independence, how would you advise the new team at Teatro de La Zarzuela?
Speaking and listening to people who know the genre. Now there are few who know the genre, but there are some. I have always in my mind my own teacher, José Luis Alonso.

What future for Spanish lyric theatre in the medium term?
Adult audiences in general want to see zarzuela, only renewed in some way. Youth have preconceptions about zarzuela and it’s not how they imagine it… obsolete, past it. If we do nothing, it will remain a relic, but if we are creative… there will be new stage effects that will appeal to younger audiences.

How do you approach staging a work? Do you base it on what you’ve seen before?
No. Forget everything you saw and try to imagine it afresh. The audience really expects that a work has always been staged the way they’ve seen it, and sometimes it isn’t. Remember by all means the versions you have seen, perhaps many times – but that does not mean that the work must be staged like that again. In short, I try to create as if I were experiencing the work for the first time.

With Conchita Montes (1977)

I remember the first time I saw La parranda,at Teatro Romea in my birthplace of Murcia – nothing at all like the latest version we’ve seen in the Teatro de la Zarzuela. I was eleven, Marcos Redondo was singing, the theatre was garlanded for the occasion and the audience wore folk costume. All such experiences influence you when you are mounting a production.

You’ve worked with hundreds of actors and singers. Could you give us the names of a few favourites?
With pleasure. Mary Carrillo, María Fernanda D’Ocón, Esperanza Roy and Paco Valladares. Four phenomenal actors, very creative and as great communicators with the audience as anyone.

Lola MembrivesWhat do you remember about Lola Membrives [1888-1969]?
When I had to direct her she was a veteran. It was in a play by Alfonso Paso called Cuando tú me necesitas. We exchanged a few words and she said to me: “You have something to think about… That bell”. In a very subtle way she was telling me that I should think about “special effects”, because she knew what she had to do on stage. Later at one juncture she said, “Why do not you say anything?” I replied that I might after knowing what she wanted: and Doña Lola said to me, “When a director knows what he wants and can say it ... then I welcome direction!” Her friends said I was like her grandson.

You premiered La Feria del come y calla in Paris. Tell me something about that.
It was a play [ed. for children] with text by Alfredo Manas and music by Carmelo Bernaola [ed. a leading composer of the “generation of 1951”], which we staged there in 1965, though it had been done the year before at Teatro María Guerrero. We brought the orchestra and the sets (which were by the great Vitín Cortezo) from Madrid, something almost unthinkable today. The performance was a success.
(ABC of June 11 1965 said: “Parisian audiences were pleasantly surprised by its originality and brilliance”)

Those fifteen years at the National Youth Theatre. What do you remember from that period?
It was extraordinary, all you imagined it could lead to the scene, there were no limits. It was a National Theatre and we had the budget for it. It was a step up creatively for everyone involved. Normally we had large number of spectators, which was a comfort. The stagings I  specially remember include El principito, and El cochecito Leré.

What about that Ibero-american Festival in Havana?
There was a meeting of the festival committee at which I was invited to give a lecture. After that Alicia Alonso asked me to organize a festival of zarzuela but… there was no money. Solutions can always be found. My fees and Cornejo’s costumes were paid for by Spain, while Cuba took responsibility for the chorus, orchestra, sets…

We had María La O and Rosa la china from a Cuban company, and El barberillo de Lavapiés and El dúo de La africana directed by me. All this took place in the Teatro García Lorca in Havana. Then we had an Anthology of Bolero, locally cast. One curious aspect I will tell you, was that the fabrics for the costumes had to be brought from Mexico and the zippers and buttons we had to bring with us from Spain.

El teatro que he vivido

A creative mind, no doubt. He tells us that a while ago he had to have an operation, and even whilst he was “in observation” he was thinking about two new shows. He touched on new ideas that must be jealously guarded secrets, which hopefully we will be able to enjoy soon. We left the cafe and he said goodbye, but as I started to walk away Montesinos turned to me and said: “Ah! And let me assure you that I really am 82 years old!”

© Pedro Gómez Manzanares 2012

en español
Las de Caín (Madrid 2011)
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