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A Pinoy in Phantom cast

MANILA, Philippines - There is only one Filipino in the cast of The Phantom Of The Opera. Those who have bought and who are still intending to buy tickets may be curious: Who is The Lucky One? How was he chosen?

Dondi Ong would have been a concert pianist had he received proper training. At the early age of six, after listening to his mother play Beethoven’s Für Elise, the precocious child astounded his mother by playing the piece on his own. His mother immediately recognized his gift and promptly got him a piano teacher. He was uninspired though, because his teacher did not want him to learn advanced pieces and, the child that he still was, he miserably envied his noisy neighborhood playmates during piano practice. Dondi left piano for good.

A very late bloomer, Dondi then went on to master the guitar still not realizing that he could sing well. At one rehearsal of the University of the Philippines Singing Ambassadors (UPSA), which he joined to be a mere choir member (trying to blend well with his co-members), the shy Dondi jolted UPSA conductor (and my good friend from the U.P. Concert Chorus) Ed Manguiat with Dondi’s powerful tenor voice when asked to sing the part of an absentee soloist. Ed immediately suggested that Dondi take further lessons with then U.P. College of Music Voice Department head Elmo Makil. The greatly respected Prof. Elmo started training Dondi, giving him additional lessons without additional tuition, even if he was not a Music major. Egged on by Prof. Elmo, who was totally impressed with Dondi’s high notes, he decided to take up Music as a second course, in spite of opportunities and pressure to join his family in Australia. His mother gave her blessing, telling him to follow his heart. Mothers really knows best for Dondi became a full scholar, and eventually graduated valedictorian and magna cum laude under the tutelage of Prof. Bechie Valeña.

He received the 2009 and 2011 Aliw Awards for Best Male Classical Performer, and so many other awards, and he is a most sought-after performer; yet Dondi does not show any bit of star complex. At an exclusive interview at Dulcinea, along Morato Ave., he came in dressed in the most rugged casual attire, navigating his way to the venue by MRT with a canvass bag containing his most important stuff. Unlike other singers, he does not regularly vocalize, drinks cold water, does not go to the gym, and can sing even on a full stomach. As much as possible, he shuns stage makeup (preferring his natural looks) and production assistants (knowing that he can very well take care of himself). But he also disciplines himself by not smoking, avoiding alcohol, retiring early at night, and doing simple calisthenics to strengthen and tone his body and get his circulation going. His other passions include teaching, which gives him a different sense of fulfillment, and, as a Rotarian, rendering musical services for the benefit of the underprivileged.

His sense of humor is endearing, with our interview peppered with his funny stories. “I would have wanted to be a comedian, too, but all my former handlers say classical singing does not go with comedy,” Dondi laughs. He had also wanted to play the piano or the guitar while singing but then again he was told that “no classical artist accompanies himself.” His mantra in performing: Perform not to impress but to enjoy.

He has played several lead roles in musicales before but getting the role of Pianji and becoming part of the Phantom musicale in Manila is for him a wildest dream come true. “Sometimes I would pinch myself to make sure that I am not dreaming, ” shares Dondi. It was Karla Gutierrez, head of the Philippine Opera Company, who told Dondi about the audition by invitation. All the auditionees were given about 15 minutes. After Dondi did his three pieces, musical supervisor Guy Simpson asked him to repeat the whole thing this time while he was being videotaped (the sign!). A few weeks later, he got the call that has since changed his life. He was the one!

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Dondi plays Pianji in the musical at the CCP starting Aug. 25

Dondi Ong has started rehearsing with the international cast and time and again, he has been reminded of his awesome responsibility as the only Filipino in the cast. He promises to do his best and at the same time accept whatever God wills him to do. “I do not want to regret any decision in my life, hence, I surrender to Him, as He would know what is best for me,” says Dondi.

For one who has watched this tenor several times and experienced goose pimples at his effortless and fluid high notes, I have no doubt in my mind that Dondi Ong will pass the challenge with flying colors and make our country truly proud.

Catch Dondi Ong and the rest of the cast of The Phantom Of The Opera at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Tanghalang Nicanor Abelardo (Main Theater) starting on Aug. 25. For tickets, call TicketWorld at 891-9999.

(E-mail author at dotgancayco@ymail.com or text 0927-5000833.)

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