A Night at the Opera:
El Cafe de La Opera of Madrid
On a Sunday afternoon last January when Placido
Domingo was celebrating his sixtieth birthday with a gala concert at the
New York Metropolitan Opera House in Lincoln Center, we were in Madrid,
the city of his birth. All of Madrid claim Placido as their own, but
especially in the historic neighborhood between the Royal Palace and the
Plaza Mayor does one hear story after story about his legendary
performances and personal interactions. This is the operatic heart of
Madrid where singers live and study, where fans and musicians congregate,
where the grand opera house Teatro Real stands.
Just across from the Teatro Real is a non-descript
restaurant of the sort one sees all over the city, a typical café/tapas-bar
that would seem to have no connection to the world of opera other than its
location. But the words “El Café de la Opera” emblazoned on its
awnings aroused our curiosity and led to our discovery of
a second restaurant beneath the street level where operatic arias
and Zarzuela (songs from the Spanish lyric theater) accompany a
traditional Spanish dinner.
The subterranean El Café de la Opera is a gleaming
bi-level space with marble floors and mirrored pillars. Walls are
decorated with framed caricatures of opera stars and musical instruments
set in a recess. When we arrived about nine thirty, the evening was just
beginning, and waiters were putting finishing touches on the tables, many
of which were long rectangles set for eight, lighting candles, adjusting
wine glasses and settings.
|The pianist at an ebony concert grand was playing the Grand March
from “Aida” as we were led to a table for two on the lower
level. From there we watched the place fill up with what seemed to
be regulars, many in groups of six to eight, who apparently knew the
El Café de la Opera routine. It was an intergenerational crowd,
something we don’t typically see at home, young couples, middle
aged and elderly people, even a few children, all apparently united
in their love of music. The animated and anticipatory atmosphere
reminded us of a theater audience in New York before the curtain
Manuel Valencia at the Piano - Photo by Harvey
Frommer - Click to Enlarge
Most began the evening with a glass of champagne, a
good idea we thought and followed suit. But then we ordered a bottle of
Gran Feuda Navarra 1997, a hearty robust red because it felt so apropos
for an evening like this.
We were just beginning our main course when bright
lights suddenly flashed on, and a piano fortissimo sounded. One of the
waitresses, fetchingly dressed in red with a white apron and little white
cap, stepped out on the upper level and began singing an aria from
"El Barberillo de Lavapies."
Down went all the knives and forks as Akemi Alfonso strolled among
the tables and beguiled every diner with her clear and lovely lyric
The diners responded with enthusiastic applause.
Fifteen minutes elapsed, and another flashing of lights and
flourish from the piano heralded the appearance of our waiter,
basso-baritone Juan Manuel Muruaga and waitress Maria Matias, also a lyric
soprano. Dressed in black and
white, they sang "La Ci Doren la Mono" from Mozart's Don
Giovanni with breathtaking ease and fluidity. Again fifteen minutes
passed, and this time it was the turn of tenor Eduaro Aladren who
performed an aria from Boito's Mefistofeles with such brilliant tones we
wondered whether we were listening to the next Placido Domingo.
All in all, these four gifted young singing
waiters/waitresses accompanied by pianist Manuel Valencia performed a
dozen numbers with convincing characterization and in fine voice. Some of
the arias like "Musetta's Waltz" from Puccini’s La Boheme were
eminently familiar; others were totally new to us. But each voice was
stirring, and every rendition came from the heart.
Basso-Baritone Juan Manuel Muruaga - Photo by
Harvey Frommer - Click to Enlarge
|A little after midnight, the guests at El Cafe de la Opera were
presented with a glass of champagne, and the quartet led the
assembled in a rousing chorus of
“Brindis" from Verdi’s La Traviata.
Ah, this was one we knew. So we joined in with the others in
praise of wine and song. It
was a fitting conclusion to not only an excellent dinner but a very
special sort of "Night at the Opera."
El Café de la Opera
28013 Madrid, Spain
Photos by Harvey Frommer
About the Authors: Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband
team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional
scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories
It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in
America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in
Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.
They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining
as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United
States, Europe, and the Caribbean.
about these authors.
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This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer. All rights