During one of their early outreach programs to this sleepy town in Iloilo, Karla Gutierrez, artistic managing director of the Philippine Opera Company (POC), recalled how surprised she was at the crowd turnout for that night’s performance.
“At first, I was worried. It was almost showtime and the hall was still empty. But the barangay chief assured me. The people will come—tinatapos lang ang paborito nilang teleserye (after they’ve watched their favorite TV drama),” she recounted.
True enough, people began streaming in shortly, an exuberant crowd in slippers, dusters, comfortable shirts and shorts. But just as the opera singers warmed up to their arias, the audience started slipping out.
“As it turned out, the people had expected a medical mission,” Gutierrez recounted, laughing. “When we announced that we were offering free opera some weeks back, they apparently thought we had meant free surgery, what the word opera means in Filipino. They were not expecting an opera performance!”
Such was the mystique-some might say, benign neglect-surrounding this music genre in the Philippines that Gutierrez felt compelled to abandon a promising career as an international performer in Rome to help local opera singers find a toehold in the slippery slopes of the country’s music industry.
Gutierrez, 42, studied voice at the UP College of Music under coloratura soprano Fides Cuyugan Asencio, and began a career as a professional singer. Later, she studied ballet and joined Repertory Philippines.
When she went to Rome for further music studies, her mentor, Maestra Andrews wanted to manage her, recalled Gutierrez’s mother, Zenaida.
“I was with her during the Rome Opera festival and the maestra wanted to take her under her wing because she looks Caucasian and has the height. Plus, she can dance, sing and act.”
But instead of taking the offer, Gutierrez surprised her mother with a determined “Uuwi na ako (I’m going home!).”
“But why? I asked, and she said she wanted to put up a company. I was shocked, because she wasn’t the type; she was happy-go-lucky,” Mrs. G. recalled of her only child.
“My mother did not talk to me for a month!” Gutierrez said of her decision to turn her back on personal glory and establish the POC instead.
She explained: “There was no venue for music graduates who ended up working in call centers or teaching, or as back-up singers for pop artists. It’s really sad because we have so many talented classical singers.”
It was tough, she recalled of the early years.
Gutierrez laid the groundwork for POC in 1996, and enlisted the support of Rep stalwarts Zeneida Amador and Baby Barredo to co-produce “a very successful” “Hansel & Gretel.
“But we had a hard time getting started because classical singers are not in the culture of auditioning; they’re scared of rejection. Very few came for the audition.”
Despite initial setbacks, Gutierrez was set on pursuing the goals of POC. “We wanted to give classical singers a regular venue where they can perform and at the same time, develop the audience for this kind of music. We also want to lift the standards of mounting local productions.”
Recounted Mrs. Gutierrez, “When I saw her passion, I said go ahead.”
Of course, she added, “Every time she complained, I tell her, eh pinasok mo yan. (tough, but it was your decision).”
Almost 20 years later, the POC is known for several things, not least of which is the trio of very pretty and talented classical singers known as the Opera Belles, whom Gutierrez manages.
The group is composed of Lara Maigue, Lena McKenzie and Ellrica Laguardia.
If there is one thing that critics fault the Opera Belles for, it is looking so good and singing so well despite their slim silhouettes.
“No more of that ’fat lady sings’ cliché,” Gutierrez said, referring to the traditional view that only corpulent singers have the lung power to reach and sustain the high notes in an opera.
The Opera Belles caters to a young generation, Gutierrez added, and opens doors for classical singers to go mainstream. “They get a lot of bookings for corporate launches. They’re patterned after Taylor Swift, a classical singer who has become a pop sensation.”
She explained: “In this business, you have to dress up and look like celebrities. Look at Maria Callas! You have to look mahal (expensive), para di ka binabarat (so you will be valued).”
It’s a changing culture, she added. “Pop culture has infected even classical singers so most of them now want to be celebrities. That’s why I want to re-package (POC talents) to be very visual. I want them to be valued for both talent and looks. We are still at the stage of developing the audience, and looking good helps.”
Her mother agreed. “Karla’s detractors are mostly purists who insist on only the classics, with emphasis on the music. But deep down, we all want to look good.
And we want to see people who look good.
“When we show clients the artist’s portfolio and they say, ‘Ayoko niyan, pangit. Mataba (She’s fat and ugly),’ what can you do? It’s cruel and discriminating, true, but you have to please your client. So singers have to sound good and look good.”
But the Opera Belles have more going for them than just good looks, said Gutierrez. “The group’s recording was nominated for Awit Awards 2012. They were also named Aliw Best New Group in 2011.”
Aside from the Opera Belles, the POC has 70 other singers in its artistic development program which, Gutierrez explained, is basically training them to be total performers.
“We have acting and dance workshops, and classes on make-up and how to do spiels.”
The POC also offers its singers stage experience, its managing director added. “A lot of them graduate from music schools without having performed onstage. Through our Young Artists’ Series (YAS), we give them the opportunity to perform before a live audience. The free opera under the YAS serves as their recital.”
Thanks to the YAS, ordinary folks like Delfin Navea, 73, and Cita San Miguel get to watch excerpts from famous operas live. And for free!
“I was invited by young tenor Al Gatmaitan, who is doing a solo in this show,” Navea said. Being a classical music lover, he added, he found the free opera shows irresistible. Of course he’d still go and watch even if he had to pay, “as long as ticket prices are reasonable,” but then again, who can resist a freebie? “Malaking bagay din na libre,” Navea added.
Cita San Miguel, who is into events and production management, found out about the free shows through Facebook. “The free operas are a showcase of talents. They click because there are very few affordable shows, and this one is free.”
The series has been well-received, Gutierrez said, with opera-goers filling up the compact auditorium named after one of POC’s biggest corporate sponsors: Alfonso Yuchengco of the Friends of the Philippine Opera Foundation.
“People kept coming to the shows,” she added. “Most of them are retirees and students, na naghahanap ng mapapanood (looking for something to watch.).”
On the two free shows we watched on Jan. 23 and Feb. 27, it was strictly an SRO crowd.
One reason could be the show itself, Gutierrez explained. “We get respected directors like Floy Quintos to meg short excerpts from famous operas like “The Marriage of Figaro.”
Not to be ignored is the reception after the show-which is open to the viewing public as well. On the two instances we went, there was a buffet of assorted dishes from paella to lasagna, cassava bites and siomai.
“The performers’ mothers bring food for sharing,” said Gutierrez. The parents are just so grateful to see their children onstage that they create their own version of “drinks on the house!” she added.
The free opera, held monthly except during summer (March to June) when POC offers workshops and recitals, is one way of building an audience, Gutierrez explained.
Another is through its outreach programs with the shows packaged as musical theater for schools.
“Some teachers might say opera is too highbrow for students, but we say, why limit your students? They need these shows especially now that music classes have been scrapped.”
Given the chance, students can learn to appreciate opera, she said. “We had a mall tour once, and the children were very enthusiastic. ‘Mas maganda pa ito kaysa ‘Eat Bulaga!’ they said. And it is, because most of our budget goes to costumes and sets so we can be very visual.”
If only government were as appreciative, she sighed. “Cultural tourism should be promoted. We’re still practicing ’guerrilla theater.’ We beg, steal and borrow because of limited resources.”
Then there’s the influx of foreign productions, Gutierrez said, of the huge challenges that classical productions face.
“Two years of marketing and audience preparation for ‘La Boheme,’ only for us to wind up in the red because suddenly, Paul Potts comes in. Nahati ang audience. It’s so sad that Pinoys don’t mind spending P7,000 for foreign productions, but not P1,000 for local shows. Pahirapan talaga,” she said.
To survive, POC depends largely on corporate sponsorships, a yearly grant from the Alfonso Yuchengco Foundation, offering music classes, and renting out music studios and recording booths in its building now called the Opera Haus.
Parental support is crucial, said Gutierrez, an only daughter who claimed that she has “no life outside of opera.” POC has a café and gift shop where, among the music-themed knick-knacks, are bead necklaces and accessories that Mrs. Gutierrez crafts to give her daughter’s dream a business boost.
“We have to combine arts and business,” said Gutierrez, who is married to a businessman in the banking industry. “And prayers,” she added. “God will provide.”
Fortunately, someone Up There apparently likes opera. So far, POC has managed to meet its monthly amortizations on Opera Haus, a three-story structure on Bautista Street, Makati, that has become a mecca of late to people in search of good music-literally priceless around these parts. •
For more information on free operas or how to help out the POC, visit its Facebook page or contact the Opera Haus, 3657 Bautista St., Palanan, Makati, tel. 881-7168 and 0917-5272880.