Gerard Salonga survives 4-hour opera marathon

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GERARD Salonga conducting the ABS CBN Philharmonic

With close to a dozen individual solo and ensemble numbers, the Resorts World’s “Best of Opera” last week was star-studded and the cast list  read like the “Who’s Who in Philippine Opera.”

Opening with Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” (from “Die Walküre”), along with Camille Lopez Molina’s “Ritorna Vincitor,” and ending with “Turandot” warhorses, notably  Adam Diegel’s (with the Viva Voce) “Nessun Dorma,” the concert was described by critic Rosalinda L. Orosa as “the grandest” and “the longest” opera treat.

The critic bewailed: “Perhaps prior announcements should have warned the public that it would last four hours. Scores sneaked out way before the concert ended; those left at home wondered or worried about family members who had not returned after a reasonable lapse of time.”

Contrary to what people thought, Salonga didn’t find the four-hour opera spectacular too much.

“The term ‘too much’ is relative,” he points out. “If you like opera, then certainly it’s not too much. On my end, I actually learned a lot from that four-hour concert. Primarily, I learned the difference in accompanying classical singers versus instruments.

“There are different ways of using rhythm, and phrasing to accommodate the words, and need for breathing space. I also learned a lot about the singers’ body language versus that of, say, a violinist or pianist.”

It was the first opera outing for the ABS-CBN Philharmonic but not  for  Salonga. A couple of years ago, he conducted an evening of opera highlights with Andrew Fernando and Rachelle Gerodias, and led a musical gala with the Hong Kong Philharmonic and Opera Hong Kong.

“That one was mostly musical theater with some opera by Auber, Bernstein and Offenbach in it,” he says.

The truth is, with the long program, Gerard was only familiar with a few arias.

And he worked hard and—fast.

His battle cry

CURTAIN call for the big cast of “Best of Opera” at Resorts World: The audience survived four-hour opera marathon.

His battle cry came from the old saying: “Know the tune and know the words!”

“That was the first thing I set out to do once I knew what the program was going to be,” he says. “I don’t speak Italian or French, so I had to do a lot of phonetic learning, and I wore out Google Translate. Thankfully Andrew (Fernando) recommended a website that has line-by-line translations of most of these great arias, so that was a tremendous help. I also don’t know how I would have fared without the knowledge shared with me by the singers, particularly Camille Lopez Molina and pianist Najib Ismail.”

Indeed, the concert was  like an enjoyable and overextended practicum for him. For one, he has no bias against the art form that generally attracts the elite and turns off the noontime-show audiences.

“I’ve always held opera in very high regard. Everyone knows that opera is one of the hardest things for a conductor,” he says.

There are wonderful symphonic conductors who simply crash and burn in the opera pit, and some of the greatest ones (Abbado, Muti, Levine and Solti come to mind) spent a good deal of their careers in opera.

Listening to good opera performance is a wonderful source of inspiration when learning concert works. How would I describe opera? Well to steal the words of James Levine, “dramatic intensity and lyricism—it’s all there in opera.”

He is all praises for his soloists who he thinks have many things in common. “They have huge amounts of talent, drive and diligence. The really good ones all share the love for rehearsal. Every one of them knows how it goes, and wants it to turn out great, and with this group of performers, I saw the dedication to the composer’s intent, a vast knowledge of their craft, and absence of ego. I’m inspired by them all.”

His individual impressions

SOPRANO Rachelle Gerodias singing “Sisa” from “Noli Me Tangere”

On tenor Arthur Espiritu: “Very intense. He can take everyone with him and blow the roof off the place, but outside of it he’s a very cool guy.”

On Molina: “Aside from the obvious and well-known singing talent, she has such a deep knowledge of the literature. Seeing her perform these opera scenes so easily on the piano has also inspired me to practice! Judging by the quality of her chorus Viva Voce, she’s one heck of a choral director as well.”

On Fernando: “The first classical singer I ever accompanied. Still impressed by him now. So easy to work with.”

On baritone Noel Azcona: “He is such a humble musician, and can machine-gun all those syllables with ease!”

On Gerodias:  “I’ve worked with her a few times as well, and she’s always supportive during rehearsals, sharing her knowledge with me and my fellow musicians. A talented and kind lady and a wonderful musician.”

Salonga’s next  assignment is a third team-up with Cecile Licad on June 29 at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

He admits it’s always special working with the country’s piano icon. “She’s always a lot of fun. She’s so open and loves the music so much. I love the fact that she’s not afraid to change the plan if it needs changing. Right now, we have quite a comfortable relationship… I feel like I can tell her what I think, and the same goes for her. During rehearsals, she’s very involved and loves the process, and speaks to the orchestra like we’re all her friends.”

For tickets to the Cecile Licad-Gerard Salonga concert on June 29, call 0906-5104270.

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