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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 rises.

Manuel Valencia at the Piano - Photo by Harvey Frommer
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 soprano voice. 

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
C/Arrieta 6
28013 Madrid, Spain

Phone: 915-426-382

Photos by Harvey Frommer

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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. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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