Interview with...


Pedro Gómez Manzanares

(Madrid, 31st July 2009)

Luis Varela
Luis Varela

Dreams in black and white, moments present with us through the confusions of adolescence, families united around an old radio set listening to the Radio Madrid Players performing their dramas. One of those actors was Luis Varela.

Later there we were again, this time around a black and white television set, to dream through
Escala en HI-FI in which we were amazed by actors who also possessed superb singing voices. When we learned about the novel trick of over-dubbing, down fell one of the many illusions of youth. Luis Varela was in there too.

Luis VarelaThen came cinema, first in black and white and then colour, with the dubbed voices of big foreign stars of the moment … and live theatre, with that same actor working with the most celebrated authors … and revues ... and zarzuelas. Luis Varela was always there, spreading joy with each one of his characterisations.

The years have passed and everything seems the same. Now there he is in one of the most watched TV soaps, where day after day he brings us a slice of pleasure. Meanwhile voicing the main character in the new film
Up … taking part in the staging of Alonso’s La calesera …Making his 100th film …

That is our man: Luis Varela. A key actor in Spanish lyric theatre. Theatre, radio, film, television, revue, zarzuela, discussion programmes, who has dubbed the big stars of his times (Woody Allen, Matt Dillon, Liam Neeson, Sidney Poitier, Michael York, Richard O'Sullivan

Luis, tell me about your early years in theatre.

Well if I remember correctly, I made my debut aged six with the Doroteo Martí company in Genevieve of Brabant, in 1949. At thirteen I was in my first film La espera – I recently finished number 100 with Pájaros de papel – then came television, dubbing and the rest.

But my entry into lyric theatre came in a production at the Teatro de la Zarzuela, with Lola Rodríguez Aragón in Master Peter’s Puppet Show in which I played the boy, I think it was in 1953 and I believe the director was Rafael Richard. Later I went to Teatro Arriaga in Pan y toros, then on to Los sobrinos del capitán Grant as Mochila, the work with which we later inaugurated the new Teatro Madrid.

Luis Varela (Espasa, teatro de la Zarzuela 2003)18 years ago I started working with Teatro de la Zarzuela, which called me up to participate in a tribute to José Luis Alonso – La Revoltosa, playing the role of Tiberius – since when I have been very close to this theatre. I will always remember very fondly my performances as Espasa in La del manojo de rosas  which I’ve played many times in so many venues. Well, as you know, there are many other works in which I’ve played but it would make for a very long list.

By the bye, though, I must tell you that once I was asked to play the role of Pepe Hillo in Pan y toros at the Teatro Calderón in Madrid. I told the director that it was for a tenor and I could not do it, I asked him to transpose the score ... but for lack of money it was not done and in the end I had to simply speak it. More recently I played Toribío Clarinetti in La canción del olvido with Beatriz Lanza and Ainhoa Arteta, directed by Pierre Luigi Pizzi.

I would add that my grandfather, Pablo López Martínez, was a comic tenor who ran a zarzuela company. I also had two aunts who were sopranos, and both my father and brother were musicians. And I – well, I studied piano.

Luis Varela (Leandro - Las Leandros)As for theatre: do you find differences between theatre when you were starting out and nowadays?

Yes, especially at the technical level. Technics, in all aspects, have been introduced and improved production, but I’d also point out that the directors in the old days used in addition to be leading players – they were “more clued up” about zarzuela. It is curious to watch how some young directors today faced with their first staging of a zarzuela have doubts about the genre, but once they start they want to do it again.

What do you think about the possibility of modifying or cutting the texts?

I believe that everything should be eliminated which adds nothing, text on any subject which doesn’t add information. In La Calesera which we’re doing just now, during my first speech I speak for a few minutes to simply convey that I am the servant. This is normal in zarzuela texts.

I think about my latest voice work, as Carl Fredricksen in the animated feature Up, where you are shown an introduction portraying he life of the main character in a few minutes, almost exclusively with images, facial expressions and with fantastic background music. My character does not speak, has no text.

Since you can make use of each artist to the full and try to improve what is not vital, what’s only there for a good singer who is not such a good actor, you could simplify the text. On the other hand, for a good actor like me who is not a great singer, you could “ease” the score.

Luis VarelaLet's talk about television and theatre. Has television influenced performance in the theatre?

If you are referring to technique, behaviour as an actor, I think not, at least in my case. I always think only of the character, no matter whether it’s a production in front of an audience or in front of the camera. What is important is the character. So the personal technique is no different in one medium or another. If you are referring to popularity, fortunately I have maintained that for a long time in both media.

Do TV’s large budgets have an influence, or the fact that the author of the series may be the director?

Well, the series I’ve worked in for some time (Cámara café is its title) might be called “low budget”, no shots outside and one studio set, which is simple. So this is not always the case. In zarzuela it is impossible, except for the occasional staging, for the director to be the author for obvious reasons. In the television series I'm in now, the screenwriter and director are independent figures and in general don’t influence one another.

Luis VarelaWhat differences do you see between the actors of your generation and the young actors of today?

As we discussed earlier, some directors in my early years were also performers, and that had advantages for the actor. Besides, the theatre scene was much richer in styles and possibilities. There were about forty theatres in Madrid and there was also TV drama. This facilitated work with many different authors and in many different genres. We could opt for classic drama, comedy, revue, zarzuela; and this allowed us to learn and practice in  a wide diversity of stage mediums. Today all these possibilities are very limited and the stage does not provide practical training. We have lost the multiple options we used to have.

Where can our children learn these things? Where can they “drink at the fount”? Nowadays they compensate by being self-taught. Sometimes someone is chosen as an actor for some piece or other, just sitting on a stool at the bar. And they can succeed in the work they’ve been chosen for. But then comes the problem, when they realize that are not the great actor they thought they were, and that brings depression. Then of course it’s the psychiatrists who make a killing.

We saw your staging of Don Manolito in Oviedo. When are you going to surprise us again with directing a show?

When I have time. I have something in mind, I have some ideas that it’s too soon to reveal, but a show needs time to do it well and now I do not have the leisure to spend on it.

Luis Varela (Karl Fredricksen - Up)Yesterday the new animation Up premiered in Madrid where you voice the main character Carl Fredricksen. How did it go?

It is a wonderful film that I recommend you go to see, but do not forget to see it in a 3D cinema. Myself and my colleagues were fearful making the film. It was both hard and fun. It appeals to all kinds of audiences, and is actually very well done. I do not want to reveal the story, but I assure you that you’ll enjoy seeing it.

[I saw it that same afternoon and can confirm Luis’s words!]

What should we ask the appropriate authorities to do, to help zarzuela?

Well I would say the same thing as about what has happened with the discovery of the remains of the ancient wall from the time of Philip IV, that has halted the infrastructure works being carried out down Calle Serrano in Madrid; that’s considered something very valuable, and we should give the same treatment to our zarzuela, as this is a very important treasure from many points of view – cultural, musical, dramatic …

Today is July 31st and … so what next?

Now to rest – this is the last but one interview I have, so this afternoon I will do the last on the telephone, and tomorrow I'll go on holiday. I have not yet decided where, but I'm going. I am very tired after this hard 2009 with film, dubbing, television, zarzuela … I just want to relax and feed myself up. In September we'll see …

Luis VarelaAn award for best actor in zarzuela at Teatro Campoamor (Oviedo) in 2006. Another for best actor in a series from the Academia de Televisión. Subject of a substantial article in the Diccionario de la Zarzuela. With a huge repertoire of zarzuelas and revues to his credit. Beloved, applauded and admired in all his appearances. Friendly to all, careful not to harm anyone with his comments, insisting on his tiredness and his desire to rest over this summer, we appreciate Luis Varela’s kindness in sharing these moments with us before flying off for his well-merited summer break.

© Pedro Gómez Manzanares 2009
tr. © Christopher Webber 2009

en español
zarzuela homepage