Isamay Benavente


Isamay Benavente (c)Alberto Nevado

Interview with Isamay Benavente
(Teatro de la Zarzuela, 17 November 2023)

Enrique Mejías García


On November 1st Isamay Benavente took up her new post as Artistic Director of Teatro de la Zarzuela. Although some reports have insisted on calling her 'the first woman to direct the coliseum on Calle Jovellanos', the truth is that her name is the latest in a long and brilliant list of women who have been at the helm of La Zarzuela's direction or top of the bill, from Lola Rodríguez Aragón to Lucrecia Arana, from Dolores Franco de Salas to María Teresa León. I met with her in her Calle Los Madrazo office, to take the pulse of the new chapter that is about to unfold.


After fifteen years at the helm of Teatro Villamarta in Jerez de la Frontera, what are your first feelings on landing in La Zarzuela’s offices?

Very positive! I’ve just arrived from a meeting with the chorus’s union committee. I’m getting to know where the problems are, familiarising myself with the spaces of such a big theatre and its offices. I have to be very clear about the questions I must solve or improve by setting priorities. The whole team has welcomed me with great affection and is taking great care of me.

I have read in several interviews that you define yourself as a ‘continuist’?

Yes, but in the sense of continuing the good things from Daniel Bianco’s management. One doesn’t have to start directing a theatre by throwing everything that came before out of the window. Every director brings their own stamp, for example, in the way we understand what zarzuela is; but it cannot be denied that it has been down to Bianco, that all today’s Spanish singers and conductors are eager to work here. He has succeeded in establishing another way of looking at the genre through the eyes of professionals. Great productions have been staged; very good conductors have been brought in and a new communion between artists and audience has been established – right now we have an enormous number of subscribers and almost every performance is full. In that sense I would like to continue along Daniel’s path: I want to continue doing good productions, I want all the singers to want to continue coming to work here, and I want to count on the support of such a faithful public.

But...

You’re going to ask me what I want to bring that’s new... Well, something that perhaps Daniel didn’t have time to do, which is to help spread the genre even more internationally. I would like La Zarzuela’s productions to be seen in many more places in Spain (I hope, it’s not easy!) and to reestablish closer ties with Latin America and Europe. It seems to me that we have a genre that is not known, although suddenly we have a director like Christof Loy absolutely in love with zarzuela. Bianco bequeathed him a production of El gato montés which will arrive during the next few seasons, and I know that Loy himself is trying to mount zarzuela productions in Vienna and Basel.

It falls to me to be at the helm of La Zarzuela during a period in which all this will be much more encouraged, and I am especially interested to open relations with Latin America. Note that, moreover, this coincides with the recent initiation of proceedings by the Ministry of Culture for zarzuela to be declared a Representative Manifestation of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

Isamay Benavente (c)Alberto Nevado [detail]If UNESCO processes the application positively, do you expect things to change? More resources for the Teatro de la Zarzuela?

I hope that UNESCO approves it, although I don’t think that implies anything new on the budgetary level; I wish it did... I experienced at the Villamarta the recognition of flamenco as Intangible Cultural Heritage, and that didn’t mean more income for flamenco or more resources from the existing funding administrations. The declaration would mean international recognition that could help the genre to spread. Evidently it’s a good visiting card for zarzuela in places where it’s not done now, and I think that’s an important stimulus for our eagerness to spread it.

There is a hunger for género chico in La Zarzuela’s regular lyric season.

Género chico is on my agenda and I intend it to be in every season. I want to bring back creators who have not been performed for years. Not all of them will be in the first season designed exclusively by me, but there will be enough to satisfy everyone. Patience, please!

Can’t you give us any titles...?

You can’t pre-empt names or titles, but I’ve more or less got the 24/25 season lined up. In fact, I’m also considering possibilities for productions I can revive. Not every production can be new for budgetary reasons, nor can we offer as many performances as we would like.

Bianco’s recent seasons could be defined as distinctly operatic, to the detriment of zarzuela. Is ‘national opera’ on your agenda, or contemporary operatic creation?

They will have a presence... perhaps not so much. I certainly don’t envisage the next rediscovery will be Spanish opera, and neither do I envisage the idea of presenting concert versions, only for the works to return to oblivion. I like the idea of reviving forgotten heritage very much, but first and foremost from the scenic point of view.

Will you continue with Proyecto Zarza?

Of course, but I’d like it to become a genuine academy of singers for the theatre.

And zarzuela from the 18th and 17th centuries?

Why not? Of course I would. I’m not closed to anything.

And what about streaming?

Look, I’ve just been talking to the chorus about that subject, because it’s one of the first issues I’m tackling. It is an issue that has been put on hold by the ministry and we are waiting for the change of government to put it back on the table. A common position is being reached by the theatre management and the chorus, and now it’s time to unblock the issue upstairs. It is fundamental for me because with streaming ‘spectators’ for zarzuela increase exponentially. I trust that soon this matter will be resolved, next season at the latest. At the beginning of all this, a lot of money was demanded for image rights, but now everyone is becoming aware of how important it is to be on YouTube or the like.

What headline would you like to see published about you when you leave La Zarzuela, many years from now?

‘She has contributed to the genre being known in many more places than it was when she arrived’, that would make me the happiest person in the world.

© Enrique Mejías García y zarzuela.net, 2023


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29/XI/2023