By Pablo A. Tariman
The Filipino tenor has not gone beyond native shores in the ‘40s, ‘50s and the ‘60s with such native talents like Don David, Octavio Cruz and Aristeo Velasco, among others.
But it didn’t mean they were less talented. In one production of Pagliacci at the FEU Auditorium in the mid-50s with the Canio of Arrigo Pola (Pavarotti’s teacher in his native Modena), Velasco as Arlecchino (Colombina’s lover) reportedly got more applause than Pavarotti’s teacher.
In the ‘70s, Noel Velasco and Frankie Aseniero were the tenors to cheer. Aseniero reportedly had modest success in some opera houses in Germany. Moreover, Velasco got more media mileage when he won the Pavarotti International Voice Competition in Philadelphia in the early ‘80s. Manilans saw the first Tamino (Magic Flute) and Don Jose (Carmen) of Velasco and was never heard from except for some outreach engagements in his alma mater and in his native Isabela.
With only a few knowing it, there was an Iloilo-born Filipino tenor named Otoniel Gonzaga who was making ripples at the Curtis Institute when he won the Marian Anderson Voice Competition. Gonzaga was a hit in the European opera circuit singing at Frankfurt Opera and other opera houses for several seasons. He also invaded Boston Opera, the turf of Sarah Caldwell who founded the short-lived Opera Company of the Philippines cooked in Malacanang before People Power.
Singing the role of the Duke (Rigoletto) in Hamburg, Gonzaga didn’t realize that the great Placido Domingo was in the audience. When he knocked at his dressing room after the performance, Gonzaga heard the voice, “Could a countryman of yours come in?”
When he opened the door, he was shocked to see the King of Opera himself greeting him. Gonzaga recalled, “He liked my performance and he thought I was Mexican. I told him I was a Filipino.”
What Gonzaga didn’t know was that Domingo sang Cavaradossi in Tosca at the CCP in 1979 with no less than the complete contingent of the San Francisco Opera courtesy of the CCP and Mrs. Imelda Romualdez Marcos.
Gonzaga made his Manila debut in the late ‘80s with the PPO and his last one with Lea Salonga also with the PPO under Julian Quirit in 2006. On the same year, he sang his last in Manila with the Manila Philharmonic Orchestra under Rodel Colmenar. He shared the standing ovation with soloist Camille Molina and Dulce.
While no one was looking, tenor Arthur Espiritu made his La Scala debut in 2007, the first Filipino tenor to set foot in that highly revered temple of opera as Ferrando in Cosi fan tutte.
Espiritu made it to La Scala after winning the Teatro alla Scala award at Vienna’s Belvedere International Singing Competition in 2007.
In 2009, Rodell Rosel debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in New York opposite Renee Fleming under conductor Edo de Waart.
“The Met stage has the best acoustics any singer can ever hope for, and the most embracing audience one could ever wish for,” he told this writer.
After Der Rosenkavalier, in the same year, Rosel returned to the Met as Nathanael in Jacques Offenbach’s Les Contes Hoffmann (The Tales of Hoffmann), this time conducted by James Levine.
Rosel later invaded LA Opera where he was heard as Tamino (Magic Flute) and later as Spoletta (Tosca) with Placido Domingo conducting.
When Espiritu debuted in Manila in 2010 with pianist Najib Ismail, Filipinos finally discovered the tenor they could all identify with after a drought of good tenors for many years. Thus far, Espiritu got rave reviews for his Manila productions of La Traviata (Alfredo), Barber of Seville (Count Almaviva) and his latest the lead role (in concert version) in Rossini’s Cenerentola.
But is the country promoting its good classical singers the way Spain, Korea and Canada take extra pride in their singers?
Spain highlighted the last Barcelona Olympics with performances of their leading tenors Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras.
Canadian tenor Ben Heppner sang in the winter Olympics as countdown for the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games.
In his native turf, Espiritu has a loyal following of discerning voice aficionados who wonder why he is not in the season line up of the national orchestra or any other orchestra of consequence in the country.
With his credential and his latest opera conquest in Europe, Espiritu is the tenor for both millennials and non-millennials.
If there is a next PPO invasion of Carnegie Hall, Espiritu should be in there to tell Filipinos overseas that the Philippines is not wanting in world-class singers.
If Filipinos want to get in touch with their leading tenor, he should watch him at the Ayala Museum Aug. 26, 7:30 p.m. for the Philippine premiere of Schubert’s monumental song cycle Die Schone Mullerin (The Maiden on the Mill) with pianist Najib Ismail.
The levels of emotion in the Schubert song cycle will certainly reveal the vocal versatility of tenor Espiritu in close collaboration with pianist Ismail.
As Schubert once said, “I am composing like a god, as if it simply had to be done as it has been done.”
(The Aug. 26 evening of song cycle Die Schone Mullerin (The Maiden on the Mill) at the Ayala Museum is made possible through grants from Ayala Museum, 98.7 DZFE-FM The Master’s Touch and Lyric Piano. For tickets, contact the Cultural Arts Events Organizer at 0920-9540053 or 0906-5267241.)