Figaro, Ché and Don José: On Spanish Names

Coby Lubliner

Spanish names are confusing to outsiders.

I would like to begin the discussion with three examples of the (mis)understanding of Hispanic naming (including honorifics and nicknames) by non-Hispanic writers, all taken from the names of Hispanic characters of the musical theatre, who made their first stage appearances almost exactly a century apart: Figaro in 1782; Don José in 1875; Che in 1978.

First, Don José. Many a person halfway familiar with Spanish culture must have wondered (as I did): why is the lowly corporal who falls for the bewitching Carmen in the opera of that name called Don José? It’s reasonably well known that the title “don” prefixed to a Spanish given name implies that its holder is a person of some importance – a nobleman, a scholar, or at least a man of wealth. In English, “don” became a noun, at one time meaning (to quote Merriam-Webster) “a person of consequence,” and later coming to mean “a head, tutor or fellow in a college of Oxford or Cambridge University.” English-speaking music critics sometimes use “the don” in referring to Mozart’s Don Giovanni (originally, of course, Don Juan); I try to imagine the great lady-killer lecturing at, say, Caius College, but my imagination fails me.

Whatever his morals, Don Giovanni is a nobleman. Don Carlos is a prince. Don Pasquale is a rich Roman (the Italian use of “don,” while not quite identical, is similar to the Spanish, whence “don” for a mafia boss). But José?

Many opera lovers know that Carmen is based on a story of that title by Prosper Mérimée; it usually says so right on the program. But few have read the story. In it, the plot of the opera is told in flashback. By whom? Well, the narrator travels in the south of Spain in the 1840s, at a time when the region was rife with bandits, the most famous of them being a certain José María. The narrator does not get to meet José María (who in fact existed), but he does make the acquaintance of a (fictitious) Robin-Hood type who robs only the rich and gives to the poor. Because of the respect and affection that the common people hold for this personage, he is popularly known as Don José. He tells the narrator that he is Basque in origin, and took to the bandit life after escaping from prison, where he was serving the sentence he was expecting when, after being transmogrified into a French-singing tenor, he sang "Vous pouvez m’arrêter...” The flashback is, of course, told in the first person; but nowhere is there a hint that in the course of the Carmen story the teller would be styled Don José; Mérimée knew Spain too well (as he did other European cultures, including eastern ones). It was the librettists, Meilhac and Halévy, who confused the hero’s name in the storytelling phase with his name in the story itself. Mérimée was a stickler for authenticity, as he showed in his work as chief inspector of historical monuments, and had he been around when the opera was produced (he died five years before, in 1870), he would surely have called attention to the bavure.

Now let’s move forward by a century to the twentieth, and look at a recent work of musical theatre: “Evita” by Andrew Lloyd Webber. This is the melodramatized story of Eva Perón, taking place in Argentina, and with a fictional character known only as “Che.” The wink-wink intention is, of course, to identify this character with the famous revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara, of whom it is generally known that he was born and raised in Argentina. But ¡Che! is simply Argentine Spanish for “hey!”; it is so characteristically Argentine that Che is a common nickname for Argentines in Spanish-speaking countries outside Argentina, somewhat in the way that “Tex” is a nickname for Texans outside Texas. “El Che” became Ernesto Guevara’s nickname in Cuba; the idea of anyone being known as “Che” in Argentina is absurd.

Finally, let’s go back again, this time two centuries, to the last part of the eighteenth. Another immortal Spanish figure, perhaps the most famous after Don Juan and Don Quixote: none other than Figaro, created by Pierre Caron de Beaumarchais first as the barber of Seville and then as the protagonist of his own (Figaro’s) marriage.

But what kind of name is Figaro? Its bearer is never called anything but Figaro; this can mean, of course, that the name can be a given name, a surname or nickname. But when, in the trial scene of le Mariage de Figaro, his IOU to Marceline is read into the record and his signature is read as Figaro tout court, his Christian name is declared unknown (“Nom de baptême en blanc”). And when in le Barbier de Séville Rosine invents a daughter for him, she calls her la petite Figaro.

Conclusion: Figaro is the character’s surname. Well then, what kind of surname? Certainly not a Spanish one if pronounced, as it usually is, with the stress on the first syllable. But if it is pronounced Figaró (which is the way it would sound in Beaumarchais’ French original), then it is a not-uncommon Catalan family name. The more conventional spelling is Figueró, but the other spelling reflects more faithfully the Catalan pronunciation as heard by Castilian ears, and indeed a great many Catalan names exist in parallel spellings: Ferrer/Farré, Sales/Salas...; and the name of the city where Dalí was born is spelled Figueres in Catalan and Figueras in Spanish. In all likelihood, a Catalan of the 18th century (when the Catalan language was banned from official use) who would settle in Madrid would in fact use the Castilianized spelling. Nevertheless, in Beaumarchais’ early sketches the alternative spelling Figuaro has been found.

Beaumarchais, unlike Mérimée, did not travel widely in Spain. He went to Madrid in 1764 to settle a questionable affair of honor involving his sister (an affair that became so famous that none other than the young Goethe wrote his tragedy Clavigo about it, Clavijo being the name of the Spaniard involved), and stayed for a couple of years, but did not move much beyond the Madrid-Aranjuez axis of courtly life, except for an ill-fated business trip to Andalusia. He seems to have viewed Catalonia as a kind of Iberian Siberia (it’s where the Count sends Chérubin in order to get rid of him), and may very well have met someone named Figaró without having any idea of his Catalan origin. In le Barbier de Séville (written in 1772, published and produced in 1775), Figaro announces that he began his career as a jack-of-all-trades in Madrid and ended up in Seville after having “philosophically” crisscrossed most of Spain. Indeed, the first question that Count Almaviva asks upon recognizing him is “What are you doing in Seville?” It is only in Les Noces de Figaro, written a decade later, that this beginning is conveniently forgotten when the dénouement requires Figaro to be the son of Bartholo and Marcelline, and hence presumably a native of Seville.

In French there is, of course, nothing to violate the oxytone pronunciation of Figaro, since all words, except those ending in “silent e,” are so pronounced. The couplet Qu’au seul nom de Figaro / J’entende crier Bravo! is typical in this respect. But where does the proparoxytone pronunciation in languages other than French come from? It is not typical of Italian adaptations of French words ending in [o]; usually these retain the original French oxytone stress. Rondeau, for example, became rondò; it was the Germans who ignored the grave accent and moved the stress to the first syllable. Even an originally Italian word, casino (meaning ‘cottage’), after it acquired in French the meaning of ‘gambling house’ and was taken back into Italian with this meaning, became casinò. So why not Figarò?

The first operatic appearance of Figaro is in Il barbiere di Siviglia, with music by Giovanni Paisiello set to a libretto by Giuseppe Petrosellini. Paisiello was, from 1776, court conductor to Catherine the Great and director of the Italian opera in St. Petersburg, and that is where the opera was completed and first performed in 1782, seven years after the first performance of the Beaumarchais play; the following year it was produced in Vienna and presumably seen by Mozart, who may very well have been stimulated thereby to eventually write Le nozze di Figaro, though at the time Le Mariage de Figaro had not yet been produced. It seems highly unlikely – I have no documentary evidence either way – that Petrosellini traveled to faraway Russia to collaborate with Paisiello on the libretto; the librettist was quite busy in Italy, and in 1782 alone two of his operas, with music by Cimarosa, were produced in Milan. Chances are, then, that the libretto was written independently of composer, and that Paisiello received it by post and simply sat down to write the music. Such a procedure was common in the 18th century; for example La finta giardiniera, usually attributed to Petrosellini, was set to music in 1774 by Pasquale Anfossi and the following year by Mozart, while the librettos of Pietro Metastasio were set to music many times over, even posthumously (e.g. Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito). Interestingly enough, among the first to advocate a close collaboration between librettist and composer was Beaumarchais himself, a man who was interested in pretty much everything.

Now, the way Petrosellini’s libretto is written, there is no doubt that Figaro’s name is to be stressed on the first syllable, right from the recognition scene (“Io lo ravviso / E’ quello il Conte.” – “Certo è costui /Quel birbo Figaro,” ‘I recognize him, that is the count’ – ‘Surely it’s him, that rascal Figaro’). It is impossible to know what Beaumarchais thought of this choice, for when the opera was first performed in Paris, in 1784, it was in a French version (as it continued to be for the next one hundred years, until it fell out of favor, overwhelmed by the popularity of Rossini’s version), which of course masked the change in accent.

There is, of course, no reason why Petrosellini, or anyone else outside Catalonia for that matter, should have known that Figaró is a Catalan surname, and the proparoxytone reading was in all likelihood an uneducated guess on his part. Be that as it may, once he made that decision, the die was cast. Even in Spain the name is Fígaro, and the nineteenth-century costumbrista writer Mariano José de Larra took that as his pen name. Who knows, perhaps we shall soon also have corporals insisting on being addressed as don, and Argentines nicknaming one another Che.

So much for characters on the musical stage. On another stage – that of European history – we find, about a century apart, two personages named John of Austria (1545–78 and 1629–79). At least, those are the names by which they are known in English. But if we look them up, we find out that they were Spaniards, not Austrians.

What gives?

What the two Johns had in common was that both were illegitimate (but acknowledged) sons of Spanish kings of the Habsburg dynasty; and this they had in common with a number of other Spaniards who used “de Austria” as a surname. For (de) Austria was what the Spanish branch of the Habsburgs used as a surname, while the Austrian branch was called (in Spanish) Habsburgo. I don’t know why this was so; the Bourbons, of French origin, are (de) Borbón in Spanish, not de Francia, while the members of the deposed royal family of Greece do call themselves “de Grecia” in Spanish. Thus the civil name of the current Crown Prince of Spain is Felipe de Borbón y Grecia. But, being a prince (infante) of Spain, he can also be called Felipe de España. Royal bastards, on the other hand, if they are acknowledged by the father, can take on his civil surname but cannot become princes. Thus the two Johns were not really “of Austria”; they were simply Spaniards named Juan de Austria.

Of course, Spaniards can make a similar mistakes. Luxembourg (the Grand Duchy) is known as Luxemburgo, and its ducal family as (de) Luxemburgo. The famous communist Rosa Luxemburg, however, was a Jewish woman from Poland who had nothing to do with said ducal family. Nevertheless, in Spanish she is known as Rosa Luxemburgo.

February 16, 2000

© 2000 by Jacob Lubliner

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