The singing non-singer

Eva Moreda Rodriguez


Eva Moreda Rodriguez is a Lecturer in Music at the University of Glasgow and the author of Music and Exile in Francoist Spain (Ashgate, 2015) and Music criticism and music critics in early Francoist Spain (OUP, 2016)


We do not know much about Amparo Cardenal, a teenage living in Valencia, Spain, around 1900, but we can still hear her singing. Five recordings she made at the Puerto y Novella studio in her native city have survived to our days. As is usually the case with relics from the phonograph era, enjoying Cardenal’s voice can be an acquired taste: we must first get past the buzzing and the spiritless rattling into which the limitations of technology have transformed the piano accompaniment – and this can take some time. Then we discover that Cardenal’s soprano was young and agile, and in the middle of her range we stumble across some instants of true beauty. When she climbs higher, she beings to go shrill – although we shouldn’t necessarily blame her for it: early recording technologies were notoriously poor at recording sopranos, and indeed one or two instants suggest that Cardenal’s top notes must have been powerful and healthy when heard live. She sounds, above all, happy when she sings. This befits the repertoire she recorded – all arias and duets of zarzuela, a sort of Spanish-language operetta hugely popular at the time and intended for mass entertainment. And yet, the only press source we know about her – a short feature published in 1900 in the magazine Boletín Fonográfico – opens with the claim that Amparo Cardenal was not a singer.

What the author meant is that Cardenal never set foot on a stage, never appeared in front of a raving audience to sing a full zarzuela role. She allegedly didn’t like the atmosphere, the intrigues, the dangers awaiting in the backstage. The arrival of Edison’s New Phonograph in Spain in 1898 – an appliance suitable for domestic consumption to an extent that earlier versions were not – allowed her to profit from what she already loved doing in her own home and the salons attended by the Valencia middle classes. Apart from her Puerto y Novella recordings, she is also said to have worked for Madrid- based studios, although these recordings have not survived.

Like all singers at the time, Cardenal recorded on wax cylinders – one at a time, each aria or duet repeated again and again over the course of several hours, because the state of technology did not allow for cylinders to be reproduced reliably. All of her recordings are thus one-off pieces: when one of them is lost – and they would be, inevitably, after several playbacks, the phonograph’s needle slowly eroding the soft wax -, it means it is lost forever. It also means that, with studios not keeping a detailed record of their activities, we do not know how many individual recordings Cardenal authored, but they are likely to be in the hundreds or even in the thousands. And yet five recordings, particularly for someone who hadn’t built a reputation on stage which made preservation seem a no-brainer, is a good survival rate. It is also a minute footnote in the history of recorded music in Spain – one which speaks of forgotten pioneers, of men and, especially, women finding a niche in between the demands of the entertainment industry of the time and the opportunities presented by the new technologies.

Disembodiment could well be one of those opportunities, even though contemporary and later sources do not tend to present it as such – it rather appears as an abnormality, an alienation, a danger. Legends speak of singers – normally women – becoming horrified (Nellie Melba) or scared (Emma Bellincioni) upon hearing their disembodied voice for the first time; or, on the contrary, so delighted that they couldn’t be physically detached from the phonograph (Adelina Patti). In turn-of-the-century Spain, a disembodied singing voice, especially if singing the zarzuela repertory, rather than causing horror, fear or utter delight, might have elicited the question: What for? Most zarzuela arias or ensembles indeed sound rather pale when stripped of everything happenign on the stage – dancing, acting, dialog -, and zarzuela performers built careers on the basis of their acting abilities and stage presence rather than their voices (indeed, if they possessed a particularly good one, they would be promptly encouraged to switch to opera). In the case of women, looks didn’t hurt either. Zarzuela critics routinely commented on the women actors’ physical appearance, and Boletín Fonográfico encouraged Cardenal to try a stage career, because both her face and figure were, allegedly, well suited to one.

When Cardenal recorded for Puerto y Novella around 1900, zarzuela was on the verge of becoming even more embodied, more corporeal. Two sub-genres sprouted from its trunk: sicalipsis first and then cuplé, both of which gave preference to sexual innuendo and visual titillation over dramatic congruity. Their female performers, tiples sicalípticas and cupletistas, were dangerous. If we are to believe journalist Juan Vargas, the male chorister was among their first victims. With an audience made up almost exclusively of men in search of visually-induced arousal, there was limited place on stage for anyone who was not a reasonably young, overly sexual woman. Writers alerted of other victims too: critic Enrique Rivas lamented that the utterly Spanish, healthy female characters formerly inhabiting zarzuela stages had degenerated into the sicalíptica vamp, who thought nothing of stripping off her clothes in front of the audience. He even suggested that, for all their alleged rashness, tiples sicalípticas could hardly be of any help to the nascent women’s liberation movement.

In the meanwhile, Amparo Cardenal had all but disappeared from musical life. With the Spanish recording industry increasingly becoming integrated in multinational networks and relying on established prima donnas rather than unknown beginners, it is likely that she found it increasingly harder to make money out of her singing while staying detached from the dangers of the stage. Others who had started their careers as zarzuela performers and recorded for local studios, such as Amalia Campos, decided instead to cross over to sicalipsis; in doing so, a minority of them achieved considerable monetary and entrepreneurial success; others had short-lived careers and sunk into obscurity. Some women are dangerous because of their flesh; others, like Amparo Cardenal, the singing non-singer, are so because of their voice, quietly forcing us from the past to find a place for them in our understanding of the world we have thus far known without them.