Wednesday, February 13, 2013

BREAKING NEWS | Philippine Opera to Take Manhattan

NEW YORK CITY |  A landmark opera based on the great novel by the Philippine national hero Dr. Jose Rizal will be staged in full orchestral splendor for the first time in the East Coast.

At a January 31 town hall hosted by the Philippine Center, a committee of Fil-Am New Yorkers, led by the industrialist and philanthropist Loida Nicolas Lewis and Consul General Mario L. de Leon Jr., announced that Noli Me Tangere: The Opera – the operatic retelling by National Artist Felipe Padilla de Leon of Rizal's 1887 novel with a libretto by fellow National Artist Guillermo Tolentino – will alight at the Sylvia and Danny Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College in New York in the first week of October 2013.

"All roads lead to New York," said Nicolas Lewis.  "Here is a Filipino, Felipe de Leon, who has created a world-class opera based on Rizal's 'Noli Me Tangere.' It will be be sung by a diverse cast in the Filipino language, and it will be performed here in New York. Nothing happens in the world if it does not happen in New York."

Baritone Karrel Bernardo, New York producer Gerardo Gaddi, emcee Randy Gener, arts leader and lawyer Loida Nicolas Lewis
The aim of the town hall was to foment a grassroots community support in the tri-state area. Nicolas-Lewis enlisted the efforts of, among others, Aida Bartoleme of the Foundation for Filipino Artists which promotes Philippine arts and culture in New York, as well as Jose L. Ramos, chapter commander of the Order of the Knights of Rizal. Karrel Bernardo, a baritone, and Rogelia Peñaverde Dr., a tenor, sang two popular De Leon songs ("Sapagkat Mahal Kita" and "Ako'y Pilipino), accompanied by Michael Dadap (guitar) and Dr. Rene Dalandan (piano).

"The Philippines has now shed its title as 'Sick Man of Asia' and is now considered a rising star," said Nicolas-Lewis. "Our mother country is now number 3 around the world in Growth Domestic Product for 2012.  We extended a $1-billion loan to the International Monetary Fund to to stabilize the ailing economy of our former colonial master Spain. What does all this have to do with the Noli? It is time for us Filipino Americans to show the world that we are a cultured people. When we got together, the host committee, our decision was, 'Let's start early.' Let us bring the community together because this opera production is not for us. It is for the Philippines and our Philippine culture."

This ambitious and expensive staging of the Noli opera promises to be a milestone in almost every respect. It comes at the heels of the 75th year of the proclamation of a national language based on the Tagalog dialogue on December 30, 2012. That date also marks the 100th year since the remains of Rizal were reinterred in the Luneta monument dedicated to him.

Consul General de Leon added that this "Noli" opera is "ground-breaking" because it celebrates the birth centennial of the prolific Felipe Padilla de Leon (no relation): a fervent nationalist who was famous for translating the lyrics of the Philippine national anthem from the original Spanish to Tagalog in the early 1900s.

"These men and women are working to bring to both Filipino-American and mainstream audiences the artistry of Felipe Padilla de Leon, whose birth centenary is being celebrated from May 2012 to May 2013," said ConGen Mario de Leon. "While most of us are probably familiar with his more popular songs such as 'Noche Buena,'  'Payapang Daigdig,' and 'Pasko na Naman' – all classic Filipino Christmas songs – this is an opportunity to know more about the artistic legacy of Maestro de Leon. I hope we will all support this endeavor which aims to introduce new audiences to the musical genius of one of national artists."

Dr. Jose Rizal
The organizers asked for the support and blessing of De Leon's two sons. They are Felipe Padilla de Leon Jr., a composer, scholar, professor and the new chairman of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts in the Philippines, as well as Bayani Mendoza de Leon, a composer, musician and ethnomusicologist, who appeared before the town hall gathering via Skype.

Because Rizal's novel was instrumental in forging a unified Filipino national identity and consciousness at a time when Filipino natives strongly identified with their respective regions, Bayani Mendoza de Leon noted that the Noli has been translated into different languages, made for film and for television, and has been variously adapted to a musical.

His father worked closely with Guillermo Tolentino, who was obsessed with the novel, to re-cast into a distinctively Filipino opera using the European opera format. Born in Peñaranda, Nueva Ecija, Felipe Padilla de Leon was known for assimilating and indigenizing western music forms. DeLeon and Tolentino then followed it in 1970 with an opera version of El Filibusterismo, the sequel to Noli Me Tangere. Both novels are credited for detailing, satirizing and exposing the ills of Philippine colonial society with its neck under the boot of corrupt Spanish rule. Rizal's execution was entirely attributed to his work as a writer.

Because of its Rizal provenance, De Leon's Noli opera has enjoyed a longer life than most Filipino operas. Completed in 1950, it has been performed in 1957, 1987 and in 2011 to celebrate the 150th birth anniversary of Rizal.

De Leon's Noli opera was, however, not the first Filipino opera ever written. That honor belongs to Sandugong Panaginip, a 1902 work with a libretto by Pedro Paterno and music by Ladislo Bonus. The difference is that Sandugong Panaginip was a one-act Tagalog opera made up of five scenes, while De Leon's Noli opera was written with two acts, making it the country's first full-length grand opera.

The complete Noli opera has rarely been fully staged with a full orchestra. Until last year, it has never received a major production in the United States. Most Noli productions are either concert versions or musical vignettes that rework the sociopolitical relevance of several indelible characters (usually women, such as Maria Clara; Salome, the lover of Elias; and Sisa).

Past efforts to fully stage the Noli opera in the U.S. had came to naught.  De Leon's opera eventually had its U.S. debut in May 2012 under the auspices of Chicago's da Corneto Opera.

"Rizal's Noli is not just about the struggles of the Filipinos to fight against oppression by the Spanish rule that lasted close to 400 years," says Michael Dadap, artistic and music director of Children's Orchestra Society of Manhasset, NY, who will serve as the music director of the Noli staging in New York. "Today, we are facing different faces of oppression caused by greed, poverty and intolerance.  The opera's relevance is still very real at present."

Dadap said that the Noli will prove to be a revelation to "many young Filipinos who are either transported or born here in the United States. "Many of them are not familiar with the 'Noli,' nor can they relate to the experiences of oppression (from the Spanish  to the Marcos regime)," said Dadap. "De Leon's opera is not just about getting entertained by listening to orchestra music, beautiful singing, elegant staging and acting. I believe it's about bringing the message and vision of the greatest Malay, Jose Rizal, who opened our eyes giving us empowerment to be strong, independent and free."

Dadap; Bernardo, a Chicago-based opera singer, and Gerardo Gaddi, a New York producer, hired an emerging playwright/director, May Nazareno, to ensure that the New York staging of the "Noli" opera incorporates the issues and struggles that young Fil-Ams face in their personal lives today.

"When the offer to produce this show in New York City was laid out by Loida Nicolas Lewis, we jumped on the chance," said Bernardo. "The vision we have for New York is to make it more realistic and grounded in its approach."

The Noli opera will be performed by a multi-ethnic cast of opera singers for whom Tagalog will likely be a foreign language.  Bernardo said, "We want to appeal to a diverse audience and make the opera more attractive and affordable to the younger demographics while still creating an interest to mainstream opera enthusiasts in the process. My vision is to bring people together, and what better way to accomplish that than through the arts."

"The idiom or lingo may be different but the truth and substance has not changed," Dadap added. "Rizal was God's messenger to awaken us all. De Leon's opera version from the novel is a vehicle serving as a powerful reminder that we Filipinos must not forget the struggles of our race. Over a century later, Rizal's words and wisdom still ring true."


Full disclosure: I was engaged by the Noli committee to serve as the emcee of this Philippine Center town-hall meeting.

New York Committee of the Staging of the Noli Me Tangere The Opera
(L-R Seated): Aida Bartolome, Loida Nicolas Lewis, Consul General Mario L. de Leon, Michael Dadap.
9Standing L-R): Jose L. Ramos, Dr. Angie Cruz, Randy Gener, May Nazareno, Gerardo Gaddi, Karrel Bernardo, Dr. Rene Dalandan, Deputy Consul General Tess Dizon De Vega at Kalayaan Hall of the Philippine Center

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