EFA Festival in Focus | Castell de Peralada International Music Festival

Simon Mundy, in interview with Oriol Aguilà, Director of the Castell de Peralada International Music Festival, looks at the festival’s history and current success:

If you wanted a quiz question with the answer Peralada Festival, it could be 'what links Montserrat Caballé, storks, pre-First World War cars and bottles of pink Cava?' All will become clear.

Peralada is a small Catalan town of only two thousand people between the city of Figueras and the Costa Brava. However, it makes up for its lack of population by having a large castle, which was reconstructed from its mediaeval remains in the 19th century, along with an adjacent former monastery and an area of park land. In 1923 it was bought by Miguel Mateu, the son of one of the founders of the Hispano Suiza car and engine company (its engines powered most of the early planes in the French and British air forces during World War I).

The family turned its attention to collecting art and wine making, Perelada (confusingly the town is spelled with a middle 'a', the wine company with an 'e') becoming initially known for its pink bubbly, much enjoyed by Salvador Dali. Miguel's daughter, Carmen, married Arturo Suqué, who expanded the wine business into one of the Emporda area's largest. Now the company has a leisure business of hotels and casinos too.

All of which supports the Castell de Peralada International Music Festival, held for two months, July and August, every summer in the extensive grounds and the chapel of the old monastery. Its foundation was inspired by a meeting between Carmen Mateu and Montserrat Caballé, at that time the Queen of Spanish singers, and its philosophy was set as a showcase for open-air opera; the 2017 season was its thirtieth anniversary.

Peralada Castel Library

Over that time the festival has developed its own distinctive approach. The opera takes place in an auditorium constructed in the grounds and varies between full productions, semi-staged and concert performances.

Some are home-grown, others are brought in as part of co-production. Although the repertoire is resolutely mainstream there is a policy to innovate by inviting directors who have honed their skills in the theatre but not tackled opera before. Similarly, while two or three big names lead the casts (this year it will be Emonela Jaho, singing Massenet's Thäis, Placido Domingo and Jonas Kaufmann), the festival looks to give young singers a leg up at the start of their careers. Productions are then leased to other opera centres around the world.

The training aspect has come to be important, with young musicians, dancers and technical crew forming a 'young campus', to contribute to the productions but also to study rehearsals and have workshops. They have the chance, as well, to perform in some of the small spaces and stages that the castle complex houses. Oriol Aguilà, who programmes the event with a small team from an office in Barcelona, says, “we have always seen ourselves as a voices festival.”

Dance is an important part of the programme too but for these the festival does not usually start from scratch – preferring to work with major guest companies like Béjart's or Carlos Acosta's. “Our audiences do not otherwise have a chance to see some of these great companies from northern Europe,” says Oriol, “so we like to give them the opportunity.”

That audience comes mainly from a radius of an hour or two in any direction: the coastal towns of the Costa Brava, by high speed train from Barcelona, from the surrounding area of Figueras and Girona, and across the nearby border with the largely Catalan areas of south-west France.

The links with France are sometimes reflected in the programme – last year the actress Juliette Binoche starred in her own homage to the chanson singer, Barbara. Like most performances in Spain, the shows begin late, at 10pm, and the gardens empty again somewhere between one and two in the morning. Sponsors hold their garden parties beforehand and there is pride in gastronomy – the castle has its own hotel and Michelin starred restaurant.

Some of this is for those with deep pockets, of course. The main opera tickets can reach the 190€ for the best seats but some tickets can be had for as little as 15€. However the extensive grounds hold more than the main auditorium, including spaces for exhibitions.

There are small-scale recitals, concerts and operas in the beautiful fourteenth century Carmen Church, which tend to start a little earlier than the events on the main stage. The library of the castle has been built up to be one of the world's finest private collections, and includes over a thousand editions of Cervantes' Don Quixote alone.

Carmen Church

Miguel Mateu's passion for collecting has also become the basis for Peralada's museum. The old monastery cloister is used for 'pocket opera' and contemporary works, and for those who are feeling overloaded with high culture, there is a garden bar with a stage for cabaret and jazz and audiences are encouraged to hang around after the performances and enjoy the summer nights.

After nearly a hundred years on the site, the castle and its festival is still fundamentally a family business. The festival's founder, Carmen, very sadly died this winter but her daughter Isabel has taken over the mantle of Festival President, while her son Javier runs the vineyards so, Oriol tells me, “continuity is guaranteed.”

The guarantee of continuity is also symbolised by the storks. Thirty or more pairs are residents of the estate. A stork, for unrelated reasons, was the mascot of the magnificent Hispano Suiza cars of the 1930s. Since 1995 they have given their name, Cigonyes, to the house wine and, says Oriol, “they are critics but mostly they applaud the music.”

Further Information on the Castell de Peralada International Music Festival

The medieval Peralada Castle is the setting of the Castell de Peralada International Music Festival during July and August in the province of Girona. Founded in 1987, the festival has a clear commitment to presenting opera and dance performances of the highest calibre, as well as jazz and pop music. Set in the castle gardens, the auditorium is the ideal venue for concerts and contributes to the popularity and far-reaching reputation of this festival. Other venues are the castle’s church and cloister.


Director: Oriol Aguilà
Pere II de Montcada, 1, 08034 Barcelona
+34 (0)93 503 86 46

www.festivalperalada.com | EFFE profile

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