Islander in the City by Pablo A. Tariman:

FILIPINO TENOR REMAINS IN DEMAND IN EUROPE

Arthur Espiritu – the country’s premier tenor —   is back on the opera stage after lying low at some points during the pandemic.

He reprised his Alfredo (La Traviata) in Basel (Switzerland) last Nov. 14 with seven more performances until January 8, 2022.

Then he starts rehearsals for Lucia di Lammermoor in Leipzig end of January next year. It will run until May 2022.

In between, he will appear in an opera gala concert at the IsarPhilharmonie in Munich from December 27-30, 2021.

Take note, IsarPhilharmonie in Munich is no ordinary venue. It opened only last October 8 and a report from  Joshua Barone of New York Times went thus: “It was an unusual sight last Friday: the denizens of this wealthy city lifting the hems of their gowns and adjusting their bow ties as they stepped into a rough-around-the-edges industrial space for one of the premier cultural events of the fall. They were entering the lobby of the IsarPhilharmonie, a new concert hall far from the old-fashioned grandeur of the Bavarian State Opera or the Herkulessaal, inside the former royal palace.”

The new hall where the Filipino tenor will make another grand debut in a New Year concert with Munich orchestra is described as a rarity: an ephemeral, prefabricated venue designed with top-level acoustics and built for 40 million euros (about $46 million) in only a year and a half.

Last year on the eight month of the pandemic, Espiritu got back to the opera stage with a role debut in Gounod’s Romeo et Juliet at the Magdeburg Opera House in Germany.

His first German review during the pandemic had critics with good words for the opening night. He was specially singled as the tenor who the German radio critic wrote provided “a fascinatingly balanced warm timber” in the title role.

Another report from Elisabeth Richter went thus: “The Filipino-American tenor knows how to lead his powerful voice tastefully and without kitsch remaining technically sovereign with equal dose of musicality. It was a real treat.”

But due to health protocols, it was a strange Romeo and Juliet with no touching for the lead singers. For the tenor, it made connecting with the other characters difficult.

More recollection: “It felt disconnected, but the more we rehearse and have gotten used to the situation, we made it work with abstract ideas and pulling more energy from the text. It is frustrating to have a love interest and you cannot be near each other. It’s human nature to seek intimacy and closeness to the person you love. In the end, we figured out a way to feel all the emotions while away from each other. So, when we were singing duets and arias, we had our masks off. When we have fight scenes, we must have our masks on. In the scenes with the chorus and the other cast members, the choral ensemble members were used as commentators at the back of the stage. It was tricky during the fight scene because I had to sing before I go and start fighting, I have to dedicate a few seconds in covering my face right after a phrase. That took some practice including our sword fights. Singing with face masks on was hard. It was hard to intake air I had to breathe in with my nose a lot and smaller opening of mouth as if I’m sipping air in from a straw. It was the only way I could do it to get ample air while having mask on.”

More performances with masks on: “In this recent Faust (by Gounod) in Lithuania, I had to wear a mask inside the building and also in the rehearsal spaces.  Everyone has to be fully vaccinated and has to be tested every day before rehearsals.  In our recent Traviata opening night, we had to take an RT-PCR test before we performed.  We had to wear a mask inside the theater and outside it’s not mandated.”

Fortunately, he was back in Europe after a year with Traviata in Basel. “This particular production is an updated version.  Only Violetta is on stage and everyone else is singing in the audience area balcony section.  But the acting and singing have to be heard in the hall.  So, we have to act as if we were on stage.  Quite interesting and hard to stage because of challenges in acoustics in the Hall. This production is truly different. We are not on stage on this production in Basel.  The earlier productions, I was on stage acting.  On this one, we are but a figment of Violetta’s imagination in a loop of her schizophrenia.”

His singing life has indeed changed after almost 20 months of the pandemic. “Life is not the same anymore.  Travel is so much more challenging.  It has given me a greater understanding that it really does take everyone working together even with differences of opinion whether religious or political.  This pandemic does not care about how you feel or how your worldview is.  I have learned how to look at life from a different perspective.”

The long lockdown gave him more time to be with his family and to enjoy a long getaway in Eastern Samar where his wife Christine comes from. “We dealt with it as best we could.  But before all the lockdowns got tightened in Manila, we made sure that we would spend some time in the province where the rates were extremely low.  After we got vaccinated of course.  Samar gave us some amount of normalcy.  We love to travel as a family and it helped us form a much closer bond.  In a way, this pandemic was a blessing in disguise.  I was able to see my family for more than three months a year.  Which was the case before the pandemic.”

Now that he is back to active singing in Europe, how does he cope with being away from family?

He admits it has become harder and harder because he is missing the important milestones of his kids. “They are growing up so fast.  I am afraid that being away for too long will result in me missing out on being there for them when they need me. It is so hard. It is so surreal.  I am in disbelief that all of a sudden, they are growing so fast.  Where has time gone?  I feel that if I blink, I will miss what will happen.”

He is not lacking in advice for his kids. “I always tell them: always be respectful of people’s space.  Always be nice to people and do not judge them according to their looks.”

Meanwhile, he found a natural way to take care of his voice during these stressful times.

“I’ve had so much rest vocally due to the long lockdown.  The pandemic and the lockdowns helped it stay fresh and well rested. Of course, we had to worry about alternative ways to make money but other than that, the voice did well and I was able to try new things with my technique that I have grown technically secure with my voice. How to keep my voice going? Build and maintain an effective vocal exercise, body stretches, vitamins, exercise if time permits, keep the mind positive and stay away from negative energies.  It’s so easy to get pulled into something toxic nowadays with the state of social media as it is.  I try to consistently maintain a system everyday, so my voice and my body will be in the best possible stress-free state.  I try to not think about negative thoughts that will affect my sense of self confidence.  Negativity will affect my singing and my body.  Staying away from stressful situations helps almost 100% of the time.  Daily warm ups, vocal massages, prepping the vocal mechanism techniques also helps it stay in good shape.”

He admits the pandemic ushered into the worst times for singers and for performing artists in general. “It is the worst times for us.  Being lucky is not enough.  It’s really tough, especially for freelance artists.”

His advice to fellow performing artists: “Keep working hard and stay strong, healthy, and relentless.  This is our only way out and giving into it will take away our joy, our soul, and our livelihood.  Fight for fare wage for both men and women.  Perform your craft at the highest possible level.”

He wishes everyone a happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year. “I pray for everyone’s health and safety.  It is such an important realization that being able to breathe, smell, taste, and being able to be with your loved ones is a blessing.”

 

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