Maria Dolores Pradera is known throughout Spain, and indeed much of Latin America, as “La Gran Dama de la Canción”, the “Great Lady of Song”. She was born in 1924 in Madrid, but spent part of her childhood in Latin America, where her father had business interests. As a result, she grew up exposed to both her own Castilian culture and that of the mix which resulted from Spanish colonization of the Americas. She began her career on stage and screen as an actress in the 1940’s, where she met her (later ex-) husband and father of her son, the great Spanish actor/director Fernando Fernán Gómez.
By the late 1950’s Ma. Dolores had abandoned her acting career to devote her time exclusively to the exploration of folkloric music of Spain and the Americas. Her training as an actress would serve her well on stage, bringing drama, flirtation, or pathos when needed to the performance of a particular piece. On top of which, her theatrically-trained, perfect diction makes her one of the Spanish singers most non-native speakers of Spanish find easiest to understand.
Today at the age of 85, Ma. Dolores is still a wonder to behold in concert. On December 29th as part of the 11th Annual Festival de Mil.lenni at the historic Palau de la Música Catalana, Barcelona’s equivalent of Carnegie Hall, she gave an amazing performance to a packed house. The Palau is a UNESCO World Heritage site, a masterpiece of Catalan art nouveau architecture:
This is only the second time I have had the privilege to see her in performance, though of course I have many of her albums. We had excellent seats for the show with a great view of the stage, thanks to my parents:
The first two songs made me worry a bit, as Ma. Dolores sounded a little bit out of voice. On a previous occasion I had gone to see her perform at the Palau and the show had to be cancelled at the last minute due to an illness causing her voice problems – something certainly understandably for any singer, but particularly for a lady in her 80’s. At this performance, following the second tune she apologized to the audience and admitted, “I always get a bit emotional when I perform here at the Palau, I’ll try to do better.” And my goodness she did.
At an age when most of her contemporaries are hobbling about on zimmer frames, Maria Dolores from then on dominated the stage and kept the audience transfixed for the next hour and a half. She sang new old songs, songs of other artists she admired, and the songs which made her famous, accompanied by a superb conjunto of two guitarists, a percussionist, and a bassist. Following her signature tune, the Peruvian waltz “La Flor de la Canela”, at the end of the concert programme, she received a lengthy standing ovation – something which does not often happen in musically finicky Barcelona.
After this she sang an encore, again to rapturous applause, and then another. Normally that would be it; the audience however, would not let her go, and kept calling her back to perform yet another and another piece. By the end of the evening she had performed seven encores. During the last of these, the great Mexican folk song “El Rey”, she led the audience in singing. I assure you that you have never seen anything like the entire audience of the Palau in Barcelona, from the orchestra seats to the boxes, stalls, balconies, and the gods, swaying from side to side in their seats and singing loudly together, all directed from the stage by one of the greatest performers and recorders of Spanish and Latin American music.
The Palau is very strict about no photography or filming during a performance, so I cannot share this moment with you visually. Here we see a videoclip of Ma. Dolores in performance elsewhere, some years ago, to give you some sense of her in concert:
After the show my mother, being an extremely resourceful lady, got us backstage to visit with Ma. Dolores for a few minutes; we were her last visitors of the evening and by this time it was approaching midnight. I can imagine that she was completely exhausted but, gracious as she is, she once again managed to give us a few minutes of her time:
Despite her towering stage presence, in person Ma. Dolores reminds me of no one so much as actress Katherine Helmond, tiny and delicate with a beautiful, porcelain face, and eyes that seem to, paradoxically, both flirt with you and yet say, “watch it” simultaneously. In any event, it was a great privilege not only to watch her perform once again, but also to spend a little time with her. Not to mention getting kissed on both cheeks – twice! – by one of the greatest interpreters of Spanish popular song and wished a Happy New Year. I hope I will get the chance to see her perform again, but those of my readers who happen to have the opportunity should avail themselves of it immediately. There are few – indeed, very few – performers in this day and age of gutter, lowest common denominator entertainment who can even attempt to match the grace, elegance, and phenomenal talent of this remarkable, grand lady.