>”A huge kiss for our Frank Sinatra!”
So said award-winning Spanish director Fernando Trueba last evening, during what can only be described as an avalanche of love and affectionate tributes for Maria Dolores Pradera, often called “La Gran Dama de la Canción” (“The Great Lady of Song”) because she is without question Spain’s greatest vocal interpreter of traditional Spanish and Latin American music. The comparison with Sinatra, in terms of her significance and influence in the Spanish-speaking world, is very apt, (though she is of course infinitely more attractive than he ever was.) Still performing today and as elegant as ever at the tender age of 86, “La Pradera”, as she is popularly known, began her career as a film and stage actress, but eventually moved into music, and was honored yesterday by the prestigious Instituto Cervantes in Madrid, the largest organization in the world dedicated to the study and promotion of Spanish language and culture.
The event, entitled “Maria Dolores Pradera: The Voice of the Two Shores”, recognized her contributions to the popularization and preservation of traditional songs from both sides of the Atlantic, from Mexican rancheras and Argentine tangos, to Peruvian waltzes and Catalan habaneras. Maria Dolores was honored with tributes from some of Spain’s most prominent actors, singers, journalists, government ministers, directors, and writers. Many attending the event would stand and burst into applause any time something particularly lovely was said about La Pradera, or when she herself would make a gesture or comment that garnered their approval.
Maria Dolores has always had a bit of sly humor, and as she arrived on stage she was directed to a white sofa where she was to sit and receive the bowings and scrapings of her suitors. “It makes me very happy to be here,” she said. “As I have always said, I prefer being loved to being successful, and I believe this desire has been fulfilled. I can only give thanks to life for having such marvelous people at my side. And now, if you do not mind, I am going to sit in order to listen to your flirtations.”
And the flirtations, praise, and thank-yous continued at length, with La Pradera receiving the words with graciousness and aplomb, though at one point she noted that she was trying very hard to keep from crying because “I put my make-up and mascara on for tonight.” The evening ended with an impromptu acapella mini-concert performed by Maria Dolores. She was initially joined on stage by some of the hugely popular Spanish singers who had earlier paid tribute to her, including Ana Belén, Miguel Bosé and Victor Manuel, and this choir was joined by other singers from the audience who spontaneously came up and joined them on stage.
I grew up listening to Maria Dolores’ albums, and have had the great privilege of hearing her in concert and meeting her privately – most recently over Christmas 2009, which I have written about previously. She is as lovely and gracious off-stage as on, and it is impossible not to fall in love with her. If an artist can be said to flirt with an entire audience, La Pradera is a great flirt, but she is, more than this, a great artist. She has an impeccable quality of diction and sense of timing in her singing that shows how Spanish, when properly sung or spoken, can sound far more beautiful than any other language, including French.
The first time I saw her perform, toward the end of the program the power went out. There were construction workers outside doing repairs on the sidewalk, and they had hit something which plunged the entire Palace of Music and a couple of surrounding blocks in Barcelona into darkness. We sat in the magnificent stained-glass hall for several minutes before the back-up generators kicked on.
But Maria Dolores herself was completely nonplussed by the loss of electric power. After the initial murmuring of the audience died down, she just kept on singing, in the dark, with no microphones or amplification, her voice filling the 2,000-plus seat auditorium as completely as if nothing had happened. Eventually the lights came on again, and she received a standing ovation with thunderous applause. It was a magical experience I will never forget.
Because of the world we live in today, with its cheap and ugly Lady Gagas and trick-turning auto-tune Miley Cyruses, it is a sad reality that when La Pradera leaves us, there will be no one to replace her. She is a last survivor of an age when style and substance were not strangers. Therefore, gentle reader, if you ever have the chance to attend one of her increasingly rare concerts, I urge you: do not miss the opportunity.