Remembering Chavela Vargas's Carnegie Hall Debut
Next Tuesday—as part of the Mexican focus of Voices from Latin America—Ely Guerra, Eugenia León, and Tania Libertad pay tribute to the late Chavela Vargas. In September 2003, the legendary singer played her first and only concert at the Hall. Claudia Norman—who produced that emotion-filled night and also produces this tribute concert—remembers the 2003 event and how it came to happen.
In 2003—during one of my annual visits to Mexico—producer Alejandro Springall contacted me to say that he had worked with Chavela Vargas on Julie Taymor's Frida and, based on that experience, had decided that Chavela should give a concert in New York. He wanted me to produce it.
Without thinking twice, I said yes. I immediately realized that Carnegie Hall would be the perfect place. I made a few calls and was able to reserve Stern Auditorium for Monday, September 15 of that year. Once the Hall was booked, it occurred to us that OCESA México would make the ideal executive producer. We immediately began working with my colleague Jordi Puig, who worked in OCESA's offices here in New York.
One day before the event, film director Julie Taymor organized a dinner to honor Chavela to which I was invited. I remember that when I arrived, I was moved to see a number of celebrated artists among the guests, including Philip Glass and David Byrne. But after being in the room for a while, I realized that the largest presence there was Chavela. She was seated on a cushion in the center of the marvelous loft, receiving the praises of everyone who had been invited.
The next day, we got to Carnegie Hall for the sound check. It was Chavela's first time stepping onto the Stern Auditorium stage, without realizing that she was about to make history. Chavela told us that everything felt quite cold and gloomy, that the air she was breathing felt profoundly nostalgic. It was time to cheer up the souls that inhabited the place, she said.
Claudia Norman and Chavela Vargas in Stern Auditorium during rehearsals for the concert on September 15, 2003. Photograph courtesy of Claudia Norman.
8 PM: In front of a completely sold-out house, filled with people going crazy with emotion and excitement to see "their" Chavela, Salma Hayek and Elliot Goldenthal—whose soundtrack for Frida had won the Oscar for Best Original Score that year—gave their introduction.
8:05 PM: Chavela walked on to the stage. The audience welcomed her with a standing ovation that lasted more than five minutes. They repeated the standing ovation after each song she sang.
8:10 PM: For 75 minutes, Chavela's magic completely hypnotized the audience. During the 17 songs she sang, we followed every breath she took, each word. Sometimes I think I dreamed it—it was truly something that was unique and very special. Fortunately, we recorded the concert. Thanks to that, we are able to relive that emotional day in a small way.
At the end of the concert, I found Chavela in the Green Room. She was truly happy, moved, and surprised that the New York audience was so open and passionate.
Without a doubt, that concert is one of my favorites and one of the most important experiences in my career as a producer.
Claudia Norman, Chavela Vargas, and Alejandro Springall backstage at Carnegie Hall following the concert on September 15, 2003. Photograph courtesy of Claudia Norman.
Chavela at Carnegie Hall, the recording of the September 15, 2003 concert.