Into the spotlight: The reprise of Philippine opera

Boisterous belting followed by a broken champagne glass—this is just one of the many perceptions people have about opera. Also familiar are the declarations of love, joy, or remorse accompanied by harmonious sounds of the orchestra that amaze audiences, especially when performers take the opportunity onstage to showcase their impressive vocal range. And though the high-pitched singing might not always break glass, it is bound to keep listeners fastened to their seats, waiting for the next aria to commence.   

But modern interest in operas is at a decline. Unlike its lively introduction to the country as the Spanish zarzuela—where comedy, drama, and music capture audiences—the public tends to perceive that “opera is boring,” as Philippine Opera Company (POC) Artistic Director Karla Gutierrez bluntly puts it. Finding a rendition of opera that is raved by the masses proves to be difficult, suggesting that “if the [theater] industry is having a hard time mounting shows, [then mounting] opera is 100 times harder.” 

Bridging past and present

“Original Filipino operas can help the Filipino understand and value our culture by exposing [people to] cultural heritages,” Gutierrez stresses. Philippine opera often presents historical events or the quaintness of rural life, with Noli Me Tangere, The Opera and La Loba Negra being prime examples. Rein Pineda, a young soprano from POC, similarly notes that “[sa opera], kailangan i-highlight ‘yung culture and values ng Filipinos.” It is through these productions that people can better examine local society and culture from present and past generations, as well as value Filipino virtues that still ring true today. 

(Opera should highlight the culture and values of Filipinos.) 

Companies like POC strive to “[give a] chance for all generations to listen to the beauty of our own classical music,” according to Gutierrez. Their famed musical review Harana fulfills this purpose, proving to be a reminder of how charming Philippine folk and classical music is. Through producing operatic versions of songs such as Atin Cu Pung Singsing, Leron Leron Sinta, and Bato Sa Buhangin, Gutierrez explains, “My main mission and vision for Harana is for the younger generation to have that [sense of Filipino] identity and for them to educate [themselves about out heritage].” The success of Harana led to numerous revivals, becoming POC’s staple show and achieving their vision of bringing Filipinos to be more in touch with our culture.  

Misunderstood melodies

Although the field of opera is one that is driven by passion, it is a niche genre that many Filipinos find difficult to relate to. Jasmin Salvo, a songstress under the tutelage of POC, reckons that this may be due to preconceived notions about the genre. “Maybe because people think that opera is old school [and] expensive,” she reflects. Pineda also adds that her fellow classmates “think [that opera] is all about belting” and have adopted a firm mindset that opera is a challenging concept to understand. 

Salvo acknowledges these frustrations, relenting that “sometimes, the technique is confusing and frustrating because you cannot get the [correct] idea or sound [of the song].” Even Gutierrez admits that, four years ago, she herself questioned the future of Philippine opera in the Philippines, burned out with the difficulty of “educating Filipinos” about opera.

The interest in the local opera scene is at a slump due to these notions—its foundation being shaky at best in the modern day. “The masses are too focused on pop culture because that is what is only available to them,” Gutierrez laments, pointing out the vital role of television and other media in promoting different kinds of art forms. Given these circumstances, she chose to modify her approach to educating Filipinos about the opera experience: by making it more accessible to the public.  

Engaging the audience

For Gutierrez, Pineda, and Salvo, a viable solution to the ongoing problem in the opera community is to somehow make the genre more inviting and attractive to the broader public.

Local exposure is important—without it, classical singers are underappreciated in favor of more mainstream performers, such as pop artists. Moving forward, Gutierrez intends to adjust to their market “by making the direction and concept more modern.” In their Young Artist Series program, which formally trains classical singers to prepare them for the professional path, “everything is experimental—what we do is we make opera fun,” as Gutierrez describes. With rehearsal spaces converted into black boxes, students are encouraged to perform reinterpretations of classic narratives to appeal to modern audiences. 

Another method that Gutierrez advocates is through the improvement of music programs in school curricula. “These subjects should be given the same importance as other subjects,” she says. She also shares that POC regularly holds free workshops in public schools, explaining that to keep the art form alive, “you just have to focus on promoting and doing shows for the students.” 

As young performers, Pineda and Salvo agree that marketing plays a big role in appealing to modern audiences. Whether through the cultivation of an active presence on social media or through the intensification of visual appeal through stage and costume designs, it is important to consider how best to publicize art and opera in today’s media landscape. In particular, Pineda refers to the success of Ang Huling El Bimbo The Musical’s online release, believing that local opera performances can achieve a similar effect if the public would be granted the opportunity to easily access these productions online. 

Pulling back the curtain

Philippine opera is still in the process of rediscovering itself—but the increasing fascination it is receiving because of successful cultural and modern adaptation is proof of its rightful place under the spotlight. Through melodic interludes and emotional declarations, even the most unfamiliar opera goer can feel a little tug at the heartstrings witnessing the excellent technique and heartfelt performances. Salvo reminisces, “When I saw people wiping their tears after I sang a painful aria, I thought that maybe I [had] touched their hearts.” 

In this new era of Philippine opera, there is a place for every Filipino and their passion for music. Through mentoring Pineda, Salvo, and other young aspirants interested in studying classical music, Gutierrez discovered that the passion for the performing arts and Philippine opera—while often obscured—is actually alive and ready to grace the Philippine stage. 

Finding one’s voice in the field may be difficult at first, but with a little grit and perseverance, Gutierrez reassures those with a burning passion that “anyone can sing”.

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