View From The Wings – Valentine Feature
by Pablo A. Tariman


Maestra Mercedes Matias Santiago in a 1948 recital with pianist Regalado Jose.

Maestra Mercedes Matias Santiago in a 1948 recital with pianist Regalado Jose.

FOR many years, No. 1081 Maceda Street in Sampaloc was where voice students went for their voice lessons. In a small studio in this two-room apartment, the Maestra would receive her students, give them vocalizations and dispense the rudiments of good singing. Here you’d find an upright piano, a portable cassette recorder and blown up photos of her students in various voice recitals. The studio was also fairly bursting with opera scores: “The Barber of Seville,” “Rigoletto,” “La Traviata,” “Madama Butterfly,” and so on. On the ground floor of the apartment is a huge painting of the Maestra as Lucia in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.” She was the first Filipino soprano to sing the part and one of the first to sing Verdi’s “Traviata.”

There are two beds in another room that she used to share with a young tenor she had met during the peak of her “Traviata” and “Lucia” days. Every time I visited them, I’d be treated to long listening sessions of their “Traviata,” “Lucia” and “Madama Butterfly’ recordings between bottles of beer.

As far as my ear was concerned, the soprano had nothing to fear from Lily Pons, while the young tenor could be favorably compared with Giuseppi di Stefano, a favorite Italian partner of opera legend Maria Callas. By coincidence, I’d frequently request the tenor for my favorite Italian song, Gastaldon’s “Musica Proibita” (Forbidden Music).

Maestra Mercedes Matias Santiago with world-renowned violinist Yehudi Menuhin at UST Conservatory in 1948.

Maestra Mercedes Matias Santiago with world-renowned violinist Yehudi Menuhin at UST Conservatory in 1948.

One day I asked another singer-friend: when were the Maestra and the tenor married?

It turned out they were not husband and wife. The soprano was long separated from her husband and the tenor was just her student when they met. When their paths crossed, the tenor left his wife to live with the soprano.

In the ‘50s, that was quite a scandal and the repercussions were forthcoming. The soprano lost her teaching position in a famous music school and ended up teaching in her modest studio. Her list of distinguished pupils included Conchita Gaston, Dalisay Aldaba, Remedios Bosch Jimenez (Baby Arenas? mother), Catalina Zandueta and of course, the young tenor who became her lover.

Indeed, the lovers were unfazed in the face of mounting social ostracism. In the name of love, they lived together to the very end.

When the tenor died in the late ‘90s, I was surprised to see the soprano talking with the tenor’s ex-wife. They are not enemies? I asked the Maestra’s maid. When I turned to the soprano, she told me calmly, “Paul, we have forgiven each other a long time ago. We have shared the same man and we both got our share of love. There is no reason to harbor ill feelings.” The tenor’s nephew and niece at the wake were no other than actress Sharmaine Arnaiz and actor Patrick Garcia.

When the soprano died in 2003, she was deluged with flowers from former pupils and friends who were silent witnesses to her love affair with the younger tenor.

Soprano Mercedes Matias Santiago was born March 4, 1910 and was one of two daughters of Juan Matias of Ligao, Albay and Rosario Regalado of Cavite City.

An autographed picture of Maestra Santiago dedicated to the writer.

An autographed picture of Maestra Santiago dedicated to the writer.

This member of an opera-going family frequented the Manila Grand Opera House and the Manila Metropolitan Theater. She was the third Filipino diva (after Isang Tapales and Jovita Fuentes) to leave the country to pursue further studies abroad. Tapales debuted as “Madama Butterfly” at Teatro Donizetti in Bergamo, while Fuentes debuted in Piacenza’s Teatro Municipale. Santiago followed suit much later as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto in Turin’s Teatro Comunale, followed by a matinee performance as Rossina in “Barber of Seville” in Milan’s Teatro Lirico. She is on record as the first and last Filipino to sing for the Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini at the Palazzo where Italy’s top artists honored Il Duce.

In the ‘30s to the ‘40s, the soprano was the number one interpreter of “Lucia di Lammermoor” and “La Traviata,” among others. In one performance as Anina in Bellini’s “La Sonnambula,” then President Manuel Quezon sent Santiago a seven-foot bouquet with an inscription that read: “Ruisenor de Filipinas (Nightingale of the Philippines).”

Tenor Aristeo Velasco was born in 1922 in Calauag, Quezon and hailed as well from an opera-loving family. His father, Pedro Velasco, was a doctor who loved music, while his mother, Dolores Pronstroller, of German-Spanish descent, also took voice lessons and was always glued to a perennially rewinded Victrola gramophone playing records of Italian singers like Amelita Gulli-Curci, Tita Ruffo and Enrico Caruso, among others.

When the tenor was about six, the family moved to Manila and lived at the back of the Manila Grand Opera House where he heard his first live opera singer. It is possible that the Velasco family had watched Mercedes Matias Santiago’s rendition of “La Sonnambula,” which was marred by a long brown-out so that it ended at 3 a.m. (the audience stayed put).

Pablo Tariman with Maestra Santiago in her Sampaloc apartment. Note painting of her as Lucia di Lammermoor in the background.

Pablo Tariman with Maestra Santiago in her Sampaloc apartment. Note painting of her as Lucia di Lammermoor in the background.

A doting grandmother, the late Carmen Tronqued Pronstroller, took the young Velasco to regular nights at the opera. He would later realize that he could sing. He won amateur singing contests on radio and became a regular fixture in such shows as “The Listerine Hour” and Colgate Palmolive shows. He soon had a sizeable following when he started singing regularly in radio programs. In one program, Velasco was known as Johnny Veloz singing with one Diana Tuy.

The war years saw Velasco joining the Merchant Marine, where he was soon singing in a special program mounted by the Special Forces. Shortly before the war, he had been lured by bands performing in the hotel entertainment circuit. It was in the Manila Hotel, while singing for the band of Serafin Payawal, that he received a personal compliment from no less than President Quezon for the special way that he interpreted Spanish songs.

Finally, his path crossed that of Santiago. In one Manila production of Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor,” Velasco played Lord Arthur Bucklaw while Santiago had the title role. The intensity of her mad scene must have struck an unforgettable chord in the young man’s heart.

Indeed they fell in love, threw social caution to the winds and lived together in the house on Maceda Street for many years until their death.

Maestra Santiago as Free Press cover girl in 1948.

Maestra Santiago as Free Press cover girl in 1948.

Why the Maestra’s marriage broke up, she could only reflect gingerly when she was still alive. While listening to an old recording of “Traviata” arias, she said her husband had lost interest in her during those years when she was the opera toast of Manila. He could hardly be found during her opening nights. The husband was also listless that they had no children to speak of. “When I saw a doctor, I was told I couldn’t have a baby because my uterus was defective. That tore us apart even more.”

At that time, she was tall and beautiful, while he was young and dashing. The romance of tenor Aristeo Velasco and soprano Mercedes Matias was a case of love ignited and intensified by music.

And they didn’t mind that polite society in the ‘50s and the ‘60s looked down on them.

Indeed, their forbidden love reflected the beautiful lyrics of an aria from Tosca that says, “Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore (I have lived for art and love).”

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