One heart-warming feature of the world of Zarzuela is the warmth and respect given to her famous divas and divos. The artistry given so generously during many a solid professional career will often be paid back with interest by the aficionados, who never forget how much pleasure this or that performer has given them down the years.
Amongst the most beloved of 20th century singers was the Segovian soprano Felisa Herrero. Although she died in 1962, the memory of the singer who created leading roles in a host of works including El caserío, La villana, La marchenera, La rosa del azafrán – and perhaps most famously Rosario in La chulapona (the girl with the “pañuelito blanco”) – is still fresh in many memories, not least her youngest sister and brother-in-law. These two (mercifully still with us) have given our own stalwart interviewer Pedro Gómez Manzanares full access to the family archives, and even more crucially to their own memory banks. This, added to two years’ tireless research, has enabled him to produce a tribute which is more than just an affectionate reminiscence of “our Felisa”.
The book took wing from a short article which the author published in 2002. It features chapters on the singer’s origins and family, training and early appearances as a preface to the main body of the text, which is a methodical record of Herrero’s performances from 1918 through to her retirement in 1953. It incorporates chapters on her American journeys and exile there from 1937-46, and concludes with a brief section detailing her death and obituaries. There follow a short but touching personal Epilogue, lists of her zarzuela premieres and recordings, and – last and best of all – copious graphics, including sharp newspaper caricatures and some fine (and previously unknown) photographs from the family archive.
Gómez has not set out to produce a book to be read from cover to cover, but rather an enhanced reference work, relying on painstaking study of original newspaper sources and other documents. He has done his work well. The most important discovery he makes is to show that Herrero was born on 21st September 1903, and not 1905 as all previous reference works (including this website!) had reported. Not that any of today’s more liberated sopranos would take two years off their age, now would they?!
Felisa Herrero is one of a select band of sopranos whose voice and interpretative style is immediately recognisable. Listening to her in the duet from Katiuska (recorded soon after the premiere with Marcos Redondo, and one of the most moving of all zarzuela recordings) we hear a sinewy, intense spinto soprano who was never afraid to take risks. She is perhaps the nearest thing to a Spanish Callas – not so surprisingly, given that one of her earliest mentors and supporters was the latter’s teacher Elvira de Hidalgo. Pedro Gómez has honoured Felisa’s memory in a book which deserves a place on the shelves of all true friends of zarzuela inside and outside Spain.
© Christopher Webber 2011