Federico García Lorca, actress Margarita Xirgu and theater director Cipriano Rivas at the premiere of “Doña Rosita the Spinster or the Language of Flowers”, at the premiere in 1935 in Teatro Principal in Barcelona. Composer Roberto Sierra excerpted texts from this play for his chamber music piece “Doña Rosita” for mezzo and wind quintet (1985).
I first programmed the chamber music piece for mezzo and wind quintet Doña Rosita (1985) with Sylvan Winds for a concert at the Hispanic Society of America in New York City in 2012. The piece was commissioned and dedicated to the late Puerto Rican mezzo Puli Toro. A recording has been left to us featuring the Bronx Arts Ensemble and Puli in a disc edited by New World Records. Its on Spotify for anyone to hear.
I never met Puli Toro. I was in New York City as a student in the 90’s at the Mannes College of Music, and during my early forays into the music of Spain and Latin America we coincided at a Nico Castel master class at Weil Recital Hall in Manhattan. She made questions to Castel in a booming authoritative voice. I was too shy to present myself, but knew she was a voice teacher with a long trajectory that included New York City Opera as well as numerous other companies and festivals. Little did I know that many years later I would be singing much of the Puerto Rican art song repertoire that she so lovingly championed, mostly mid XX century composers, most of them professors at the music conservatory in Puerto Rico such as Héctor Campos Parsi, and Luis Antonio Ramirez as well as Ernesto Cordero. Not many records by Puli are now available digitally; I have two, one of them of is of songs for voice and guitar by Ernesto Cordero with guitarist Lawrence DeCasales (which is how I first discovered her), and the other of the Doña Rosita by Sierra. I liked her soulful singing, her crystal clear diction and her delivery, forthright, sincere, but never maudlin. Like many lyric mezzos, including myself, her curiosity and intellectual bent took her down the path of chamber music and contemporary composers. The flexibility of a lyric mezzo, who has to show a strong middle register as well as a top lends it itself strongly to doing a variety of styles, as we can easily mimic a second soprano and sing in that range…and because the lyric mezzo must sing music from all the music periods: classical, virtuoso Rossini coloratura as well as the heavier longer lines of a Carmen, this voice type is pretty much ready to handle whatever comes along.
Doña Rosita is a fun piece. Somewhat daunting and difficult, the solo line is treated as another instrument in the ensemble. While the quintet paints a surrealist landscape in which the voice, set up very much like a star actress that interprets the marvelous Lorca text of the piece, the vocal line interacts in a dynamic way with the melodic lines of the instruments in the score (flute, oboe, clarinet, french horn, bassoon); the instrumental gestures are filled with witty quips that come out to announce a quick pick up or a new melody. The piece alternates between two modes, a slow motion tempo that gives the opportunity for drama, and stretches of dance- like quick tempo sections. The text describes an odd and unlikely Lorcian parade in the middle of the night in Granada (Spain): three Spanish girls in full Spanish costume walking in a single file, with geese and doves trailing behind. The poet speaks of possible lover trysts, sobbing fountains, bronze church bells that rustle softly in the wind. Humor mixed with wit, sarcasm and fantasy. Kind of like an Almodovar movie, packed in six minutes! The only way I have felt comfortable with this difficult piece is to memorize large sections, especially the playful and unexpected rhythms. With nothing in the ensemble to rely on, listening and learning cues from the instruments has been the only way to navigate the piece for me as a singer. The tessitura is perfect for the lyric mezzo, it exploits and shows off everything that is good for my voice! Entertaining and theatrical, the piece calls for a lot of personality and imagination.
Poster for the Lorca play Doña Rosita La Soltera
The Quintet of the Americas premiered this piece with Puli in the 80’s, and have played it numerous times. I’m privy to the notes from years ago when they worked on this piece with her, tempos discussed at the time and ideas.
In the internet there are not many signs of Puli Toro. Some reviews and a very short obituary. No biography to speak of and only a scant discography is available. For someone who gave so much to music, arts organizations, opera companies, festivals and music students (she was a professor at Montclair State University in NJ), its hard to believe that there is not more evidence of all her wonderful accomplishments and music premieres she was part of. I for one will be thinking about her when I do this piece this coming week.
Composer Roberto Sierra
The concert is dedicated to the music of Roberto Sierra, with which the Quintet of the Americas has had a long association with, and will feature other pieces, some of which have been written for the Quintet throughout the years, such as Salsa para vientos, Soledad for solo horn as well as two world premieres. There will be an opportunity to meet Mstro. Sierra, who will be in attendance at the event. The concert takes place on May 7 at 7 PM at the Americas Society, located at 680 Park Avenue in Manhattan. Tickets at $20.
For more information about the performance: