The offices of the Teatro de la Zarzuela, like most of the official buildings in Spain, look old-fashioned, despite the modernisation attempts. But when entering Daniel Bianco's office the atmosphere changes: the decoration becomes bold and attractive, with something of a pop art flair. The space reflects the personality of the person who occupies it: a prominent set designer turned Artistic Director of the main theatre in the world if not the only one that produces zarzuelas. Someone who, furthermore, is determined to update a genre burdened by its own tradition.

Teatro de la Zarzuela Artistic Director Daniel Bianco © Wikimedia Commons | Vmuguercia
Teatro de la Zarzuela Artistic Director Daniel Bianco
© Wikimedia Commons | Vmuguercia

Juanjo Freijo: Let's start with the essentials: what is zarzuela?

Daniel Bianco: Zarzuela is a genre part of the Spanish lyric heritage and its main characteristic is that there are both singing parts and spoken dialogue. This is the main difference with opera. It is a theatrical performance with music. These are works that have always connected with people’s souls. And contrary to what everyone thinks, they are not limited in scope. The plots might be revolving around the working classes, but the themes are universal. It is also a very immediate genre: if after its premiere a work wasn't successful, a different one would be written straight away to replace it. I find this fascinating and very similar to how the press, the newspapers and the world of media work. People connected with stories that they found relatable. The stories might not be as significant as those from operas like Salomé or Medea, but they deal with the same problems that we all have: jealousy, revenge, love.

It is also something that Spain and Latin America share as part of their history. How did this relationship develop?

When works were premiered in Spain, they would also be performed in South America as soon as the music scores arrived there by boat. The Spaniards living there wanted to enjoy the music from their homeland. At the same time, zarzuela in Latin America was transformed: Argentina, for example, converted it into sainete criollo. Cuba is the country in which the most zarzuelas have been composed, almost 250 and all of a very good quality. I was born in Argentina and I have experienced this as a child, in my house. Again, coming back to the concept of immediacy, the day after the premiere of a work, the melodies could be heard in the streets, and I think this has never happened with opera.

The 20th century has been difficult for the development of this genre. And I don't think it was deliberate. During Franco's dictatorship, zarzuela became associated with the regime. I don't think it was a matter of taste but just an historical coincidence. And with the arrival of democracy, zarzuela was left behind. If the zarzuela had been present during the Movida Madrileña, as it happened with the copla, it might have been another matter. Although there was something, because in Pedro Almodóvar's films of that era there is music from zarzuelas.

Scene from Barbieri's <i>El barberillo de Lavapiés</i> at Teatro de la Zarzuela © Teatro de la Zarzuela | Javier del Real
Scene from Barbieri's El barberillo de Lavapiés at Teatro de la Zarzuela
© Teatro de la Zarzuela | Javier del Real

In Spain zarzuela is considered a very traditional genre, I would say, even too much if compared to other disciplines and artistic genres.

My plan to renew zarzuela is to look at it with today’s eyes and with today’s means. I am not talking about changing a single musical note, but we should observe what opera did during the 1970s and 1980s and bring in the theatre directors. There are zarzuelas with brilliant music, but as for texts, that is different: maybe due to the immediacy aspect we mentioned before, it is true that some texts are not very good. But as a set designer, I have also seen some opera librettos that are quite weak.

The thing is, if the Royal Shakespeare Company adapts Shakespeare's works, why can’t we? The Comédie-Française does it with Molière, the Compañía Nacional de Teatro Clásico does it with Lope de Vega. With zarzuela I think that, in those cases where the libretto is weak, it is a good idea to get a playwright to work on it.

I have traveled all over the world and I have seen the most controversial stage directors of the moment, but the biggest boos I've heard have been in this theatre. People shouting and leaving the hall in Cómo está Madriz or Doña Francisquita. What is going on with the Teatro de la Zarzuela audience? Are they the fiercest protectors of this tradition?

No, what happens is something else. In recent years, thanks to social media such as YouTube and the decrease in travelling costs, everyone has seen operas. Any opera fan knows Netrebko's Traviata with its haute couture dresses, or Bob Wilson, or Patrice Chéreau. But zarzuela is unique, it is done practically only here and it is difficult to think about it being done in a different way. If it was also done in other places, it would develop into different paths. Some aspects of zarzuela need a revision and in other cases it can be presented in its classic version.

In this sense I have tell you that your Bernarda Alba, which I would define as a renewed classic, has been the most exciting thing I have seen in a long time.

Bernarda Alba is a great example. I found it one of the most exciting pieces as well. I love Federico García Lorca and the music was the work of a living composer. In addition, the music was closely linked to the text, it was at the service of the drama. And most importantly, there was the staging of Barbara Lluc – a young woman who has had the honesty to face the work in a way, let’s say, traditional. Therefore, it has been well received by different groups of people. Not to mention that it has been the show for which we have sold the most tickets: this means that this is the right way to reach young people.

We talked earlier about taking zarzuela to Latin America, but reaching out beyond the Spanish-speaking world is still a work in progress. All our great singers have tried this for decades. I remember when Plácido Domingo's website was mainly dedicated to zarzuela. What do you think?

This is something in which I put a lot of time and effort, but it is more complicated than it seems. I have been in talks with Mexico for I don’t know how long and I have been in talks with the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires for two years. In addition, there are a lot of singers with international careers, such as Jorge de León, Ainhoa ​​Arteta, Marina Monzó, who sing zarzuela. Taking our own productions on tour is almost impossible from a monetary point of view. When we set up a new production, it is then stored in containers: I would rather give it away. I did La generala at the Châtelet de Paris, but it was only that. I can also tell you that when we travel to Japan it is because the Spanish government puts in the money.

Do you think there could be something in the music itself, maybe its folk characteristics, that could be an obstacle for a German or an English person approaching zarzuela?

Every time we have performed outside of Spain, it has been a success. Zarzuela has something very appealing, lively and refreshing, that is not pesante (heavy), as the Italians would say. I will give you a very good example: when the Three Tenors' performances were broadcast, the moment of peak audience was when Plácido Domingo sang the “No puede ser” from La tabernera del puerto. I think there is an audience for it. It is a priority for me to have zarzuela become better considered within the cultural scene. For example, I really want zarzuela to be recognised as part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. It think it is fundamental.

I would like to talk about your career. It was a very big change to move from set designer to artistic director in a theatre like this one. What motivated you to do it?

I was very attracted by the idea, and the challenge was to think about how to keep zarzuela alive. I don't know if the project I presented was the best or the worst, but what I am sure of is that it was a realistic one. The main objective was to lower the average age of the audience, to attract young people through powerful communication and to give zarzuela a contemporary vision. I am not surprised by the management side of the work, I knew how difficult it is. At this age, you can manage the scandals better. What we have against it is that culture today is like a political trophy. Many times politicians do not even know what they are talking about. While I'm here, I'll try to work in an unbiased way: the day I can't do it, I will walk through that door.

In these three years, what are you most proud of and what do you still have to do?

I'm very proud to feel that the theatre is alive, that with the same budget we have increased the number of shows. The average age of the audience has dropped seven years. The goal for me is to take zarzuela out of Jovellanos Street, and I am absolutely convinced that cinema is the way to do it. In opera there have always been two opinions on this topic. One is that of Mortier, who said that opera could not be broadcast because it would lose its essence. And the other, that of the Metropolitan – which shows everything on cinema screens – that it does not matter if the theatre is full or not because so much money comes through the cinemas. We can do something in between. There are 500 million Spanish speakers in the world and in all the cities where they live, there is a cultural centre. There is where zarzuela could be watched.

Let's talk about the new season. There is an inevitable question in view of what is happening in many theatres around the world. Will Plácido Domingo be present this season, as planned?

Of course he is coming.

The #metoo movement began to spread broadly in the film industry and then reached the classical music scene. Are we expecting something similar in zarzuela?

I haven't seen anything of the sort in 35 years of career. I can’t talk about what happens inside the dressing rooms, but had I seen any misconduct, of course I would have reported it.

Beyond Domingo’s appearance, if we wanted to attract young audiences to zarzuela this year, what would you recommend?

I think that Cecilia Valdés is a work that can appeal to young people. Both the music and the production are very good. And of course Agua, azucarillos y aguardiente, which is being made especially for young audiences.

And for those living in England or Germany who won’t catch a plane to come and see zarzuela, how can we make them fall in love with it?

First of all, they can take a look on Facebook and YouTube: we screen all of our performances through these channels. Even last Saturday’s tribute concert to Montserrat Caballé was broadcast. This theatre is the only one of its kind in the world, there is no other place that puts on its own zarzuela productions. Besides, our transmissions have excellent sound and image quality, so the audiences can enjoy our uniqueness.