A coming of age for Elaine Lim Lee and the revival of the opera

- Ayo Gunting -
It was as if Binondo transplanted to the Philamlife Auditorium last July 14 as the well-heeled and the literati of the Filipino-Chinese community came in full force to witness the Philippine debut of musical prodigy soprano Elaine Lim Lee in a concert titled An Evening of Operatic Arias, Broadway and Kundiman.

The concert was a "coming out" performance for Elaine in an august hall where great operatic singers like Renata Tibaldi and Marian Anderson, and scores of Filipino musical masters had performed decades ago.

For the singer and the audience, it was déjà vu as it is the most important production in recent years aimed at reliving opera, long relegated to oblivion. But more than anything else, it sent the important message that the opera is not yet dead.

The concert, with a capacity crowd, commenced with Elaine rendering three sacred pieces – Mozart’s Exultate Jubilate, Schubert’s Ave Maria and Der Hirt auf dem Felsen where she was accompanied by clarinetist Ariel Sta. Ana and pianist Miguel Antonio Castro. In this set, she captured the songs’ exultative, worshipful tone.

Trekking on more familiar ground, Elaine dished out portrayals of the flirtatious Mary Doolittle in My Fair Lady’s I Could have Danced All Night and Westside Story’s I Feel Pretty in the concert‘s Broadway portion.

Elaine opened the second segment with renditions of I Love You O Great China and The Song of the Yangtze River composed by Wu Tong Shu, reflecting one‘s deep love for the motherland. The interpretation was so intense one can feel the songs’ patriotic fervor even if one doesn’t understand Chinese lyrics.

Elaine’s Tagalog diction was impeccable as she interpreted Filipino favorites Mutya ng Pasig and Sa Kabukiran which were tailor-made for Filipina sopranos. The sonority of her voice was most evident when she rendered immortal Verdi arias Caro Nome and Sempre Libera from Rigoletto and La Traviata, respectively.

The Sempre Libera, acknowledged by classicists as one of the most difficult to perform, served as Elaine’s finale which elicited a rousing standing ovation from the mesmerized audience.

"I love opera because when I get into my character, I become someone else – and it’s like I got away from reality and enjoy the change from one point of time to another," says Elaine on her passion for opera and art songs.

The soprano, currently studying at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada taking up a course in opera performance, has sung in various opera productions around the world. She also dabble into painting and graphic art.

The musical event also marked the maiden performance of the Manila Festival Orchestra (MFO) under the direction of Prof. Agripino "Nonoy" Diestro. The multi-awarded Angono-born conductor did the yeoman’s task of harnessing the individual talents of musicians plucked out from various ensembles given limited time. Diestro’s orchestral savvy is displayed in MFO’s flawless accompaniment, Elaine‘s solo numbers that blended with the singer’s voice, as well as in the rendition of orchestral pieces, namely Mozart’s Overture to The Magic Flute, the Lucio San Pedro-arranged folk song medley Mga Katutubong Awitin, and George Bizet’s Carmen Fantasy.

The 44-member MFO is the newest addition to the growing list of orchestras thriving despite the economic crunch and the Filipinos’ ever-growing apathy for classical music. Its birth is another good reason to believe that all is not lost in the country’s classical music scene. With its musical flair and Diestro‘s orchestral savoir-faire, it won’t be long before the MFO literally goes places.

So enchanting was her performances that veteran journalist and baritone Nestor Mata concluded, "Elaine Lim Lee’s rapturous reception could presage the coming arrival, in a couple of years, of a new star in the opera world." Mata, along with other culture vultures, concedes that Elaine will fill the dearth in prolific operatic singers which the country hasn’t heard in a long, long while.

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