View From The Wing

By Pablo A. Tariman

Founded in the early 30s, razed by the war in the mid40s, rehabilitated and restored in the late 70s and neglected once more in the late 90s up to the present time, the historic Manila Metropolitan Theater may yet rise again with a fund release of P270 million to the National Commission for culture and the Arts by the Department of Budget and Management (DBM).

Former executive director of the Manila Metropolitan Theater Conchita Sunico. Torn between art and survival in the 90s.

Former executive director of the Manila Metropolitan Theater Conchita Sunico. Torn between art and survival in the 90s.

The sight is gory and indescribable when you pass by the Met these days.

Both the front and back entrances are littered with garbage and beggars surround its walls at night.

Said the DBM head Butch Abad following the fund release: “We cannot claim to pursue national development if we fail at preserving our culture and heritage. Aside from supporting the arts, the restoration of the MET also serves the dual purpose of boosting our country’s tourism.”

With just over 200 days before the new administration takes over, it follows that we will see a new Met in the next dispensation.

This month marks the 85th year of the Met which was the venue of my concert productions in the late 80s.

It was at the Met where I witnessed an interesting sideshow before the actual concert by Spanish diva Montserrat Caballe in 1979.

Before the concert, the late director Lino Brocka (now National Artist for Film) threatened to douse Rolando Tinio (now National Artist for Theater) with ice cream during the intermission. This was an offshoot of a film festival controversy, when Tinio and everybody else on the filmfest jury raved about Celso Ad. Castillo’s “Burlesk Queen” and dissed Brocka’s entry, “Inay.”

I begged Brocka not to make a scene, because Caballe was a world-famous personality, and an ice cream-dousing scene in the middle of art songs and arias would surely make headlines not just in Manila but in The New York Times, Paris Match and Le Figaro.

Last concert of the MSO under Herbert Zipper at the Manila Metropolitan Theater in the late 90s.

Last concert of the MSO under Herbert Zipper at the Manila Metropolitan Theater in the late 90s.

Just to keep the Met alive, its former executive director Tita Conching Sunico, agreed to rent out space to “Vilma!”, actress Vilma Santos’ live TV show. The Met also had to rent out office space even to recruitment agencies sending japayukis or Filipino entertainers to Japan. It was a bizarre sight-seeing classical musicians mixing with japayuki applicants, whose audition music could be heard on the second floor while an audition for Mozart’s Requiem was going on.

I recall Maestro Zipper telling Tita Conching to do away with the TV show of Vilma.

Tita Conching simply retorted: “Maestro Zipper, I have a theater to maintain and employees to feed. If you promise to maintain this theater and feed my staff regularly, then I’d do away with that TV show. But right now, the rentals are all we have for revenues. You have all the right to protect Mozart but I also have to protect my employees.”

It was a classic repartee between art and commerce. And it reminded me of a scene from Nick Joaquin’s “Portrait,” where the spinster sisters (Paula and Candida) were forced to take in boarders and advertise piano lessons to keep body and soul together.

Zipper’s last Met concert with Mozart’s Requiem in the ‘90s was itself ominous. The concert was an artistic success but it did not resuscitate the MSO. The donations didn’t come and the patrons’ pledges never materialized into cash. Years later, the MSO found another life in the young talents of the late violinist-conductor Basilio “Billy” Manalo, who was one of the MSO’s original soloists.

When the Met opened on December 10, 1931, almost 85 years ago, 1,670 music lovers were in attendance and heard the country’s first and most celebrated violin prodigy, Ernesto Vallejo, play Albeniz’s Tango. Soprano Montserrat Iglesias sang two arias from “Samson et Delilah” and the Manila Music Academy under Alexander Lippay played the Coronation March from Meyerbeer’s “The Prophet.”

There was a talking picture (remember this was the era of the silent film) with opera singer Tito Schipa of the New York Met singing selections from “Martha” and the Spanish ballad “Princesita.”

The Met’s golden age peaked in the 1930s, with the visit of Italy’s top diva, Amelita Gulli-Curci, and violin legends Jascha Heifetz and Frtiz Kreisler, among others.

Romanian diva Nelly Miricioiu at the Met in 1984 with MET publicist Boy Abunda before orchestra rehearsal.

Romanian diva Nelly Miricioiu at the Met in 1984 with MET publicist Boy Abunda before orchestra rehearsal.

Among the outstanding operas mounted during the late 30s and the early 40s was Gounod’s “Faust,” staged by the Compania de Opera National under Bonifacio Abdon as director. Verdi’s “Rigoletto” was presented by the Musical Philippines Inc., under Jose Mossessgeld Santiago-Font as director; Puccini’s “La Boheme” was staged by Jovita Fuentes, while “Tosca” was directed by Ramon Tapales, also of Musical Philippines, Inc.

“Faust” was a landmark opera at the time because it starred the country’s foremost bass baritone, Jose Mossessgeld Santiago Font, who was the first and last Filipino bass baritone to sing at La Scala di Milan. Santiago-Font also sang Ramfis in “Aida,” opposite Angela de Gonzaga in the title role, also at the Manila Metropolitan Theater.

In the ‘90s, I saw Chinese pianist Fou Ts’ong (a close friend of pianist Martha Argerich) also at the Met, as well as several opera productions like “The Pearl Fishers” (with Eleanor Calbes, Frankie Aseniero and Gamaliel Viray) and “Mefistofele” with bass Carlos Chausson in the title role, Francisco Aseniero as Faust and Jeanne Cook as Marguerite and Elena.

Entranced by Romanian diva Nelly Miricioiu (grand prize winner of the Maria Callas International Voice Competition) during her 1980 CCP debut, I set out to work on her Manila Met appearance in 1984, after the divas triumphant debut at La Scala and Paris Opera.

As it turned out, Miricioiu’s Met debut eclipsed Caballe’s earlier Met recital, with critic Rosalinda L. Orosa describing the Romanian diva as “gift from the Gods” in a front page review at the then only existing newspaper, the Philippine Daily Express.

The Manila Metropolitan Theater on the year I was born in 1948.

The Manila Metropolitan Theater on the year I was born in 1948.

Happily, all my Met concerts — from Miricioiu to Rowena Arrieta, Cecile Licad and Antonio Meneses, William Wolfram and my last at the Met, Jovianney Emmanuel Cruz — ended in standing ovations.

But as always, with the lack of sponsorship hounding our good intentions, we hardly broke even and Tita Conching knew this. At the time, the Met and I were on the same financial footing: we got rave reviews but never got the revenues we expected.

I will always remember how Tita Conching helped keep the cultural landmark alive at all cost, even in her death bed.

Tita Conching’s ties with the Met actually dated back to the 1940s, especially during the Japanese Occupation when she was still a member of a group called the VSAC (Volunteer Social Aid Committee), the other members of which included former senator Helena Benitez, Nenita Barrios (Manzano), Trophy Ocampo and Pilar Campos.

During the war years, according to an earlier Met account by Nick Tiongson, the VSAC of Tita Conching ran a hospital for the wounded, organized a community kitchen for the hungry and managed a secret mail service for Manilans and their relatives imprisoned in Capas or Cabanatuan. To support their volunteer services, the VSACs mounted several opera productions like “La Traviata” and “Cavalleria Rusticana,” and pageants like the Four Seasons, with participants that included Totoy de Oteyza, Cecile Yulo, Chloe Cruz and Josefina Sabater.

For me, the Met will always be the moment and the place where I was entranced by Caballe and Miricioiu, where I pacified an angry Lino Brocka and where I got to work with Maestro Herbert Zipper, Tita Conching, Boy Abunda and Floy Quintos, among others.

I keep hoping that the Met of enduring memories will re-open and thrive for good with this fund allotment for the NCCA.

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