The education of Cris Villonco

- Ricky Lo -
So what does Anna Cristina "Cris" Siguion-Reyna Villonco have in common with Yoko Ono, Brian de Palma, Paul Newman and wife Joanne Woodward (and their daughter), Tea Leoni (dropout), Robin Givens, Michael Moore and many others? You could never have guessed it: Their alma mater, Sarah Lawrence College in New York.

Cris is taking up a course in Music and she’s graduating next year. She stays at a dorm on campus and has gotten adjusted to the American lifestyle, doing everything herself. She is "on leave" from showbiz. She has recorded three albums, topbilled her own major solo concert and starred with FPJ in the movie Ang Dalubhasa (her first).

The former Pop Cola Girl has grown up to be, well, headstrong just like her grandmother, Armida Siguion-Reyna. No wonder Cris chose Sarah Lawrence College where students are encouraged to speak their mind and not just take and swallow everything...hook, line and sinker.

Cris is on a semestral break (school reopens in September). She arrived last May. She’s spearheading a Voice Master Class series slated tomorrow, 9 a.m. to noon at the Mini-Hall of the UP College of Music in Diliman, Quezon City; on July 26, 2 to 5 p.m. at the Santiago Hall of the Equitable-PCI Bank in Makati City; and on July 27, 2 to 5 p.m. at the Recital Hall 2 of the UST Conservatory of Music. (Entrace fee is P200.)

The Master Classes will be conducted by Eddye Pierce Young, Cris’ voice teacher at Sarah Lawrence, whom the Villoncos invited here purposely for the project (sponsored by Tertius Vermeulen, president of Siemens, Inc; Raul Alvarez, AVP marketing of PLDT; Francisco Vista, VP corporate communications of Equitable-PCI Bank; Enrique B. Lagdameo, president of Manila Memorial Park, Inc; Maite P. Gallegoi of ING Bank; Ben Chan, president of Bench, Inc; and Production Village, Inc.

"This master class series wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for my teacher and friend Eddye," Cris (whom Eddye calls Anna) told Conversations. "She pushed me and tackled my work and has held my hand through all of my struggles and she holds me still. I wish every student of voice had the benefit of her training, and I thank her by sharing her life lessons with other students and musicians back home. I also have the good fortune of being supported by dear friends and wise advisers, including Irene Marcos-Araneta, my chief consultant and true inspiration."

Eddye Pierce Young, a lyric soprano and native of Ft. Worth, Texas, has been teaching at Sarah Lawrence for 30 years; she’s head of the Conservatory of Music’s Voice Area. After earning her Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Voice Performance from the University of Colorado, she sang with the San Francisco Spring Opera and in the Merola Opera Program. A three-time grant recipient from the Metropolitan Opera National Council, she received national acclaim for the role of Countess in the Dayton Opera production of The Marriage of Figaro.

A panelist for the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts (NFAA), a non-profit arts organization (the mission of which is to identify emerging artists and assist them at critical junctures in their educational and professional developments), she has also performed outside of the US. It’s her first visit to the Philippines.

Miss Young and Cris’ mom, Monique Siguion-Reyna Villonco, were around during this Conversation.

What’s the equivalent of Sarah Lawrence in the Philippines?

(Thinks awhile) "There’s none. It’s a very liberal school."

How was the shift from a Catholic school to a "very liberal" school?

"I was in a Catholic girls’ school (Which has to remain unidentified as you’ll find out by and by. - RFL) for 11 years, from grade school to third-year high school, and then I transferred to IS (International School) on my fourth year because of, well, some unpleasant incident."

A case of bias against people from showbiz?

"No, not people from showbiz but against people from my family. It had something to do with politics. Let me put it this way: Some of the teachers in that school and my family were not on the same side. At that time, my grandma (Armida Siguion-Reyna) was the head of the MTRCB (Movies and Television Review and Classification Board) and some of the people in that school were saying something against my grandma and my family and I were offended; I was hurt. I was in no position to answer back because nire-respeto ko sila."

Oh, so they had nothing against people from showbiz.

"Nothing against people from showbiz but against what I was doing as a showbiz person. There were certain things they wouldn’t agree with me doing and certain things that they would agree with me doing."

Mom Monique: Coming out in Time magazine (as one of The Young Heroes of Asia) was okay...Singing with Jose Mari Chan at People Jubilee Mass for migrant workers in Vatican was okay...But doing a movie with FPJ (Ang Dalubhasa) was not okay.

Why not?

"I don’t know."

Did that school frown on movies?

"Maybe. I don’t know. But not on theater."

Anyway, why did you choose Sarah Lawrence from among so many other schools in America?

"One, the location. My family wanted it in the East Coast because it’s closer and my mom can visit anytime she wants to. Two, when I first visited the campus I really like the quiet suburbs. The school is 30 minutes away from the city. Three, you really have a personal relationship with the teachers. There are only about 15 students in a class. That’s how I meet Eddye. The school was recommended to me by one of my mom’s friends. Several Filipinos have graduated from Sarah Lawrence. Right now, I’m the only Filipino student there."

What are the criteria/qualifications for admission?

Eddye: There’s a grade requirement. Our grading system is A-B-C-D-F; the highest is A and the lowest is F which is Failure. Those applying for admission are asked to write two major essays and two "small" ones on a topic of their choice. The ability to write well is an important factor in the admission because throughout the four-year course they are required to write essays in the various courses that they’re taking. It’s important that they are able to organize their thoughts in writing. In the Voice Area, applicants are also asked to audition before classes start.

What did you write about in your essay?

"Well, in the application form, you are asked for a writing sample. You are also asked to answer a few questions, such as why you want to study at Sarah Lawrence; you have to answer in three to four sentences. The writing sample that I submitted was a review of Hiroshima (the novel), 10 pages and single-spaced. I also submitted a project about my family tree."

And what song did you sing during the audition?

"Hopelessly Devoted to You (by Olivia Newton-John), from Grease."

Eddye: The first time I heard Anna sing, I told myself, "I’d like to work with that student."

What impressed you about Anna/Cris?

Eddye: Her sincerity, her humanity. Once I got to know her, I realized how strong her acting intelligence is. I enjoy working with her; we’ve been working together for three years now.

How are the students graded?

"We are not graded the way students here are graded, not every after the prelims or the mid-term or the final exams. In my case, for example, at the end of the semester Eddye will write an evaluation of my performance and I also write about my experience, what I like about Eddye’s teaching style and what I don’t like. The students and the teachers evaluate each other. We don’t have exams but we do a lot of paper work. Classes are conducted at a round-table style, so the students and the teachers can have a free exchange of ideas."

Can you choose your teachers the way students here cannot?

"Oh yes, you can. Two weeks before the start of the semester, you can interview the teachers and see if they jibe with your interest in a particular subject. You have to like your teacher, and vice-versa, because you’ll be working closely together during the whole course."

Are you taking any other courses aside from music?

"Yes. Psychology, Economics, etc."

Is this your first time to be away from your family this long?

"Yes, it is. During the first year, I was crying a lot. I stay at the dorm with two other students, one from Long Island and the other from Brazil whom I have known and lived with for three years; she has become my best friend. Life on campus is different; sometimes it’s lonely. But most of the time I just like to be alone. There, your day seems to be much faster than here because here, everything is pretty much done for you. There, we do our own laundry, prepare our own food. The works. I’ve learned to use the microwave a lot. You can live with friends or with your boyfriend if you want to."

Oh, do you have a boyfriend?


Not allowed by your mom?

"Are you kidding? I’m 21."

Have you had any?

"Oh yes. He was non-showbiz, a little older than I. But we broke up already. So far, none."

No regrets about turning your back on showbiz?

"None at all. When I was here and active in showbiz...well, you know how it is here...promises, promises, promises. Pero natutupad ba? They’d say, ‘We’ll do this for you...’ But nothing would really happen. Disappointing."

In your case, it seemed to be one foot in (showbiz), one foot out. You know, you were not doing it to earn a living, unlike most everybody in showbiz.

"But I really wanted it to be my life, my career. But you know what, the offers and the opportunities were not coming in. So my mom and I sat down and we had a serious talk. Should I just sit down and wait for things to happen? I love to sing, all right, but I couldn’t just wait for, you know, ‘the next big thing’."

Mom Monique: "At first, she didn’t want to study abroad. She was already planning to enroll at Ateneo. She said she didn’t want to turn her back on her career and I said, ‘What career?’"

What will you do after graduation?

"Find work (in the US). Maybe I should audition for, why not, Broadway! I also want to get a degree in Social Development (in another school also in the US) so that I can come back here and apply what I’ve learned."
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