Julián Barsky

Gardel and the opera

uch has been written about Carlos Gardel. His artistry and his life have produced elements for careful consideration by all kinds of specialists through time. However, this work wants to explore an aspect scarcely known of the artist: his liking for opera.

His beginnings: from stage hand to comparsa

It was the early twentieth century. By that time, Luis Ghiglione —a man with a long experience in theater who was responsable for the administration of the Buckingham Palace and the San Martín Theater— had begun to build a “group for encouraging artists”: the famous “claque”.

Carlos, like many boys, was dreaming of succeeding on stage. So he came to know Gighlione “Patasanta” (Holy Kick)(a nickname he had acquired, in fact, by kicking because that was the method he used to be obeyed by the people he led).

Gighlione was also in charge of choosing the “comparsas” (those who had no speech in the plays and performed a part as members of a crowd). The pay consisted of money for his three or four reliable men and admission tickets for the remaining ones. In such a way and thanks to “Patasanta”, Carlos made his debut at the zarzuela play “Gigantes y Cabezudos” (Giants and Huge Head Figures) (Fernández Caballero and de Echegaray). The title referred to an old Spanish tradition by which the parishioners disguised themselves with huge heads and chased children along the streets while the latter, in return, mocked at them.

Some time later the boy began to work as stage hand at the Victoria theater. One of the artists he would hear at that venue was the baritone singer Emilio Sagi Barba who had arrived in Argentina in 1895 with the purpose of being a successful opera singer but due to certain circumstances he devoted to zarzuela.

Carlos would learn much from Sagi, either as spectator or later, more directly, when the Spaniard knew about his devotion for singing he explained to the boy some technical resources concerning breathing and vocalization.

On the great stages

Opera has a long history in Argentina that began in 1824 with Gioacchino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. Around the mid nineteen century the genre began to be in vogue driven by the visit of brilliant European artists and the opening of several theaters (the Nacional, the Politeama and the Coliseo Argentino, among others). The basic programs were made of Italian repertory with some inclusions of French and German opera.

Gardel succeeded in being admitted at the Teatro de la Ópera which, like the Teatro Colón, during all that period was regarded as the most important operatic venue in Buenos Aires.

At the Ópera he would have a new chance to be onstage, still as comparsa. His vocal capacity began, instead, to stand out backstage. “For the boys in the theater he mimicked everybody from the tenor to the bass, from the soprano to the alto”, he recalled in an interview. His Titta Ruffo’s and Enrico Caruso’s mimicries were among his best. They were two of the top figures of operatic art at that time.

Several legends have been built based on those statements. They include from singing lessons to ad lib duos. What is really undeniable is that Carlos talked with the two of them. He met Caruso in 1915 on a ship travel; and Ruffo attended to several of the performances of the Gardel-Razzano duo in the 20s.

In the subsequent years the Gardel’s acquaintances connected to opera will be numerous: the Italian Tito Schipa would be one of them, likewise the Uruguayan tenor Di Giuli, the Catalonian Miguel Fleta and many others.

Furthermore, he used to go very often to opera houses, as Antonio Sumaje recalled. The latter was the singer’s car driver and said: «When he was in Buenos Aires I used to go with him and he always took a seat in the upper circle. His admirers may find strange that the composer of “El día que me quieras” was a fan of opera or ballet? Possibly. But anyhow it’s true. But he would have been annoyed if that was known and commented because