High Notes

La Castafiore – Maria Callas Overlooks Fine Dining & Opera in Madrid

We live in an era where the opera world is looking for new and unique ways to explore the art form and reach new audiences. 

Recent years have seen opera migrate to the bar, to the classroom, and other unexpected locales. 

Perhaps a restaurant doesn’t seem like a particularly unique or even new concept. And that’s because it isn’t. 

After all, the experience I am going to relate started off in 1996. Madrid’s “La Castafiore” isn’t really in a spot of Madrid that you might easily find unless you were looking for it. Not far from Los Cibeles, it is still somewhat hidden on the Calle del Marqués del Monastero. 

And when you enter the place, it doesn’t necessarily scream opera or anything of the matter. 

It’s when you enter the main dining area, a rather small venue, that you immediately know where you are. Hanging on the far wall opposite the main entrance door is a painting of none other than Maria Callas in what looks like costuming from “Norma.” In the center of the room is a grand piano and lining the many walls are paintings of other artforms. Opera House it isn’t. Opera temple – certainly. 

The space is small; I counted a dozen or so tables circling the central performance space, but it is precisely this compactness that lends its intimacy. You are close to the other “audience members” and everything around you, meaning that when we do get to the next part of the spectacle, you are right up close and personal. 

Before we get there, let’s just emphasize the fact “La Castafiore” tries everything to remind you of its operatic connection. Every item on the menu has a corresponding opera or zarzuela titles (all the deserts are zarzuelas). Some don’t make much sense (“Lohengrin” as a salad?), but there is certainly satisfaction for the opera lover to be able to say, “I’ll have ‘La Traviata.’”

This isn’t a dining website, but in passing, I will comment that the food is extraordinary. It isn’t cheap by any stretch of the imagination (the lowest-priced item in the “Second Act” main course was 20 euros), but it certainly holds up its end of the deal. 

Also extraordinary are the performers featuring a quartet of singers, both experienced and youthful talents, and we got to revel in a wide range of classic arias and ensembles (and rare ones as well, with Verdi’s “Atilla” getting a lot of love throughout), all performed with utmost vocal quality and immersion. Artists sang to those dining without ever being intrusive or unnerving. We all had a great time, especially when immersion was taken to the next level in the group’s grand finale – the Brindisi from “La Traviata,” which included free champagne for everyone. 

We often talk in the opera industry about how we are going to excite new audiences about opera. Many in the restaurant were clearly newbies to opera; looking at them, it was clear from their smiles that they were having an experience. There was a moment during the entire evening where their eyes were attentive to each soloist; mind you this wound up being an almost three-hour dining experience. It flew by. 

But this could also prove to be a major experience for seasoned opera lovers. One of the people I dined with on this evening is an experienced opera vet of over 50 years, but he has rarely had the opportunity to hear a singer this close and personal, as he is more accustomed to the theatrical experience of seeing opera singers on a stage, separated by a fourth wall. But the removal of that wall was a unique experience for him. One elderly customer was misty-eyed as he heard renditions of Maria Grever’s “Jurame.”

It’s definitely worth it for those in Madrid. 

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