WHEN Romanian diva Nelly Miricioiu returned to Manila last March 6, she didn’t just resume her love affair with Filipino audiences.
She also completed a cycle of friendship, visiting an opera fan who was always behind her in 1980 when:
- She debuted at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) to great acclaim;
- She announced her defection to Manila but was turned down;
- She sang in a dramatic farewell concert that ended in separate receptions for her and the conductor; and
- She was doing house concerts to raise funds for an air ticket to Europe, where several engagements awaited her.
That opera fan was yours truly.
Nelly was 28 in 1980 and I was 32. When she came back in March this year, I was 66 and she was 63.
When I met her at Shangri-La Hotel after an absence of 32 years, I didn’t know what to expect. She has conquered all the opera houses of consequence, from La Scala to the Met, the Paris Opera to the San Francisco Opera and many other temples of music.
She has sung with nearly all opera legends, from Placido Domingo to Jose Carreras, from Jon Vickers to Alfredo Kraus, and was the reason for backstage visits by Dame Joan Sutherland and Magda Olivero.
I expected a prim and proper British citizen. Then suddenly, I heard a scream in the hotel lobby, loud enough to make heads turn. “My God, is that you Pablo? So happy to see you again!”
In her first press conference after 32 years, she talked of mellowing and gave everyone a glimpse of her childhood.
“As a child, I was a loner who was talking to trees, to the rain, writing poetry. I was in my own world and shy around people. I believed myself a Cinderella. I still believe in fairy tales, but I had a brutal coming out of childhood.”
She remembered singing a song with the word “God” in it, and for that, her father was imprisoned for five days.
Unable to get asylum here, she sang in Scotland to great acclaim and made her Covent Garden debut in London in 1982 and became a British citizen. She is now married to Barry Kirk, who was with her on this visit.
As recollections ensued in between beer (for me) and wine (for her), I swiftly recalled the first time I saw her in 1980.
I first heard her voice at the CCP on Sept. 29, 1980, when she debuted with the CCP Philharmonic Orchestra (now PPO).
She started with a Rossini aria, “Una voce poco fa” (from “Barber of Seville”), and I thought that was special.
But after she sang “Vissi d’ arte” (from “Tosca”), I was so moved by her interpretation that I left the theater right after without bothering with the last part of the concert.
Before her, the only opera singers of consequence I had heard were tenor Placido Domingo (in a 1979 “Tosca” at the CCP) and Spanish diva Montserrat Caballe (at the CCP and later at the Manila Metropolitan Theater, also in 1979.)
After that performance, I monitored her whereabouts in Manila and came to know about her country, which at that time was under a communist dictator.
In the house of her fellow Romanian, a businessman, I followed her daily vocal regimen and came to know about a very difficult personal decision: She wanted to defect to Manila.
In a presscon at the Manila Hotel, Nelly announced her defection, and the following day, she was a front-page item in all Manila papers.
Later, I learned she wasn’t accepted in Manila, as the country had diplomatic relations with Romania.
She decided she would have one more concert in Manila and then leave for another country, where she could seek asylum.
She begged me not to do follow-up stories on her defection as it might harm her relatives back home. “It will be difficult for me and for my family who are still there. Please write about my music. I know that if I didn’t sing well here, you wouldn’t be here every day watching me rehearse.”
The events before Nelly’s farewell concert in 1980 are also clear in my mind. Her conductor wasn’t giving her an easy time, and at one point, she walked out of a “Boheme” aria when he wouldn’t give in to her tempo. I would always be around to console her and join her in the car for the ride back home.
A day before the event, Nelly told me, “Pablo, we are not going to the reception arranged by that musician after the concert. My friend is hosting another reception for me and that is where we are going.”
After the concert, where every aria ended with shouts of “Brava!” Nelly signed autographs while I quietly gathered her things—bags, flowers, a suitcase—and prepared for a clandestine exit.
At the other reception hosted by her compatriot, Nelly was in high spirits. She egged me to dance and I did, after four bottles of beer. “Pablo, life isn’t just about music,” she said. “You must also learn to socialize and enjoy another life.”
At 1 in the morning, I bade goodbye to Nelly, who lent me her host’s family car and passed on to me a bouquet of 50 red roses. “Pablo,” she said as she handed me the flowers, “you are a dear friend.”
Early in 1981, Nelly left Manila for Scotland and was an instant sensation with the Scottish Opera. She opened the Edinburgh Festival with the title role of Manon Lescaut, and a year later in 1982, she debuted at London’s Covent Garden as Nedda in “Il Pagliacci” with the Canio of legendary tenor Jon Vickers. After her success in Paris Opera and then La Scala, she sent me a message saying she was coming back to Manila to say thank you.
I arranged her 1984 homecoming concert at the Manila Metropolitan Theater with the Manila Symphony Orchestra under Prof. Sergio Esmilla Jr.
It was also in 1984 that I “debuted” as a reluctant impresario, with Nelly as my soloist.
Nelly knew the problems of the theater then. The orchestra was facing a severe financial crisis and morale was low.
I remembered the little speech Nelly asked me to deliver. Some musicians must have thought I was about to burst into a bizarre aria. Professor Esmilla introduced me as a writer-turned-impresario. I managed to deliver the diva’s message quite clearly: “This concert isn’t Miss Miricioiu’s debut in Manila, but her first in this historic theater. She considers Manila her second home and this is her homecoming. For this concert, she is performing for free (the musicians applauded) and the proceeds will go to the scholarship fund for orchestra members (more applause).
“This concert is her way of saying ‘thank you’ to the Filipino audience who received her well in 1980. She wants me to tell you that you will receive token gifts from her right after the concert.”
I vividly recall the big night at the Manila Metropolitan Theater. Her first aria (“A non credea” from “La Sonnambula”) was interrupted by loud applause just before the cabaletta. When Nelly sang the last two Filipino songs, “Sa Kabukiran” and “Ay Ay Kalisud,” it was pandemonium broke loose. There was deafening applause not just from the audience, but from the orchestra members, as well.
I rushed backstage to deliver the cash gifts from the soprano to the orchestra members. It never occurred to me that as impresario and publicist of the concert, I was at least entitled to transportation money. But I couldn’t care less. The concert was an extension of a bond of friendship, and I continued to treat concerts as such.
In the recent landmark concert at Meralco Theater, she was given a standing ovation and euphoric curtain calls.
“What a voice, and to think she’s 63,” an opera fan exclaimed.
For her encore, Nelly sang Puccini’s “Vissi d’arte”—the same aria that entranced me when I first heard her at the CCP.
I walked on stage to hand her the bouquet, and after receiving it, she gave me another tight hug. “Thank you, Pablo, for everything. I notice you are no longer shy.”
After the concert, we had endless get-togethers and storytelling with a new fan, Babeth Lolarga, and suddenly it was time to go back to London.
Then I remembered what she said in the presscon: “The Philippines is my second family. I’m very privileged to have had that earlier journey. It has been an inspiration wherever I went at all times. I was embraced by your people.”
Nelly added she didn’t feel complete until she could return. When her plane landed in Manila, she felt that she was “the luckiest girl that can be. I witnessed the Nelly of the past meeting the Nelly of today.”
Then I recalled the last lines of my favorite “Tosca” aria:
Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore,
non feci mai male ad anima viva!
(I lived for my art, I lived for love,
I never did harm to a living soul!)