When soprano Fides Cuyugan-Asensio—opera star, actress, librettist and voice teacher par excellence—was named National Artist for Music in July, there was great rejoicing among her loyal friends and associates through the decades, and her army of former students and current students. (At 93 she is still teaching, this time, after a long association with the University of the Philippines College of Music, at the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila.)
Two persons close to her—tenor Nazer Salcedo, a noted theater performer, and Joy Raga, her Girl Friday and factotum—prepared a grand tertulia for the diva, unbeknownst to her. Cuyugan-Asensio thought it would just be a small gathering of friends and there would be some singing, of course.
The event was sponsored by SM in partnership with the Sunshine Place in Makati City, the venue, which is a recreational center for seniors. And it took place a day before the soprano’s 93rd birthday on Aug. 1.
Salcedo had prepared an hourlong program which encapsulated the opera star’s life, actually a filmed biopic in four segments, with live performers, video clips and vintage photos, and occasionally, you could hear the thrilling voice of the soprano in the background.
The program was based on a thesis on the life of the opera star by her granddaughter, Nicole Laurel Asensio (a star along with Jerome Ponce of the recent award-winning movie “Katips”).
Two of Salcedo’s students at La Salle, actresses Lyssa Ruerano and Sam Teoxon, did dramatic readings. Fr. Rony Alconga of the Order of St. Joseph said the opening prayer. The priest’s presence at the tertulia was considered significant because he was a consultant on the opera “Song of Joseph,” with libretto by Cuyugan-Asensio and music by Raymond and Jeannelle Roldan.
The first part of the show documented the life of the National Artist, from her childhood up to the time she graduated from the Philippine Women’s University, where one of her teachers was Lucrecia Kasilag, herself a future National Artist. “Even then, she already was formidable,” the diva recalled in an earlier interview with this writer.
The biopic began in the early 1930s, during the Great Depression in the United States, which fortunately did not affect the Philippines that much. The rage then was Shirley Temple, and Fides’ mother was crazy about the child celebrity. She dressed little Fides to look like her, with matching curly hair and costume and all, singing her signature song “On the Good Ship Lollipop.”
Appropriately, the actress Laarni Lozada, mimicking the voice and gestures of Fides as a little girl, sang this song before the audience. Trivia: occasionally you can hear little Shirley Temple herself sing this song on dzFE 98.7, “The Master’s Touch.“
Kasilag had recommended that her student, the then-Ms Cuyugan, go to the US to further her voice studies at the prestigious Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Here she became a diligent student, improved her vocal technique and interacted with composer Carlo Menotti. At this point in the show, soprano Andion Fernandez Ching interpreted songs by Schumann expressing gratitude.
The next chapter in the life of the soon-to-be-celebrated soprano saw her going back to Manila to become a rising star, becoming more involved in opera and finding the time to get married to her sweetheart, Manuel Asensio Sr., a lawyer. And she soon gained fame as Sisa in Felipe de Leon’s blockbuster opera “Noli Me Tangere” (with libretto by another national artist, Guillermo Tolentino).
“Ang Awit ni Sisa” (“ang gabing mapanglaw …”) became her signature song, along with the arias of Verdi and Puccini, performing Mimi in “La Boheme” and Violetta in “La Traviata.” Sisa’s heartbreaking lament was performed by Bernadette Manaoag in the program, “so we focused on her work in the ‘Noli’ and in the other Philippine operas,” said Salcedo.
Fides, a writer?
That was the teaser in the biopic. “Fides, a writer?” Yes, a librettist is a writer; in fact, he or she is a kind of poet. The operas for which Cuyugan-Asensio wrote the librettos are: the aforementioned “Song of Joseph”; “Juan Luna’s Spoliarium,” which toured the US, music by National Artist Ryan Cayabyab; “Mayo Bisperas ng Liwanag,” based on Nick Joaquin’s short story masterpiece “May Day Eve”; “The Legend of Maria Makiling,” music by Raymond Roldan; “La Loba Negra,” music by National Artist Francisco Feliciano; “Larawan ng Kababaihan,” music by Kasilag; and “Why Flowers Bloom in May,” music also by Kasilag.
For this segment, Ana Feleo and Ivan Neri sang the Death Duet in “Spoliarium,” with Neri as Luna and Feleo as the wife whom he killed in a fit of anger.
The diva sings!
After the program proper, it was open season for anyone who wished to perform. Mariz Bautista of PLM interpreted Velez’s classic “Ang Maya,” a favorite of sopranos. Antonio Pastor, a lawyer-performer from Batangas and all of 94 years, performed the difficult “Turkish March” of Beethoven with a verve a younger pianist would have envied. Official pianist for the evening was Harald Galang.
They reserved the best for the last. At the end of all the performances, La Fides rose, assisted by Raga and Salcedo, and began to sing “Ay Ay Kalisud,” the melancholy Hiligaynon song from Western Visayas. She was accompanied on the piano by longtime collaborator Sonia Valencia. The diva began slowly, then her voice rose and she was able to tackle the high notes thrillingly.
Yes, after all these decades, she can still sing with distinction.
“At first she wanted to sing an aria from Puccini,” noted Raga. “But then she decided to sing ‘Ay Ay Kalisud.’ It was popularized by her teacher Jovita Fuentes. Nalulungkot siya, naiwanan ka ng mga mahal mo sa buhay (she was sad, felt she had been left behind by her loved ones in life). She was feeling that way at the time, that anytime she could be gone.”
Hopefully the tribute will not end with the tertulia at Sunshine Place. One of the songs sung was “Pag-ibig na Walang Hanggan,” from “May Day Eve,” interpreted by Jonathan Badon.
“I placed this there, from ‘May Day Eve,’ because of her legacy, her love for her craft which is of course opera,“ said Salcedo.
Now, there are plans to replicate the show, called “Portrait of an Artist,” live, and bring it to audiences all over the Philippines if only to underscore the importance of music in one’s life.It is an ambitious project. Well, bring it on. Any takers out there? —CONTRIBUTED