No place like home
Tenor Lemuel Cuento.
Büm Tenorio Jr.
No place like home
NEW BEGINNINGS - Büm D. Tenorio Jr. (The Philippine Star) - March 1, 2020 - 12:00am

From the very first note of Lagi Kitang Naaalala by Leopoldo Silos, international tenor Lemuel Cuento brought the audience to a breathless trance when he performed his “Coming Home” concert at the D.L. Umali Auditorium of UP Los Baños last Wednesday. His sparkling voice — rich in technique and emotion — scintillated with precise pitch and textured high notes. And his every song, no matter the happy tale or sob story behind it, was finished with a sweet, solemn smile.

That night was a good reason for Lemuel to smile. He was back to his roots — UP Los Baños. It was apt that his high school alma mater, UP Rural High School, through Batch ‘87 (led by Cristina Sison) and Batch ‘88 (led by Joann Roxas-Glorioso), was in charge of the concert. The audience, mainly composed of the crème de la crème of UPLB academe, was generous with its appreciation of its very own tenor. Why not when within Lemuel’s core is a success story of a boy from Barrio Batong Malake in Los Baños who has made it big in the opera houses in Europe? He is now based in Munich, Germany.

Lemuel was one of the first friends I made in UP Los Baños when we became classmates in SocSci 1 (T-Th, 7 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., Room SS-2) in June 1988. By 6:45 a.m., an operatic voice would be heard singing Dulcinea at the Humanities Steps. It was Lemuel, vocalizing, unnerved by the quizzical stares of some; delighted that he was beginning to perfect his craft.

There was a time, recalled Bimbo Juliano, Lemuel’s childhood BFF and classmate, that Lemuel would get some hooting from bystanders who were either bothered or displeased with his sudden singing on the streets outside the UPLB campus. Bimbo recalled Lemuel would sing “Hopiang di mabile,” a parody of La donna e mobile by Giuseppe Verdi from Rigoletto. Unknown to those who shouted inanities at Lemuel, he was courting his future with his singing on the street. He didn’t stop singing. He conquered his muse. Like a diligent beau, he kept his muse in his heart. To this day, he continues to love the muse that makes him sing from the heart.

Lemuel Cuento performs at his ‘Coming Home’ concert in UP Los Baños. Accompanying him on the piano is Jesper Mercado.
Photo by Jan Chavez Arceo

Lemuel sang La donna e mobile that night with gusto, like an ode to his childhood, a post-memento to those who hooted at him, an offering of gratitude to the people who, on his first ever solo concert in the Philippines, provided him a community of support. The last time he performed in UPLB was in a concert produced by Dr. Paul Zafaralla in 1999. In 2018, he performed at the Upsilon Centennial event.

Even in our class, he would render a song to the pleasure of Emmy Tumala Mendoza, our SocSci 1 instructor, who, if my memory serves me right, even said in class: “Your  future is in the opera house.”

Of course, Lemuel knew that. His mother Esperanza, who played classical music on a reel-to-reel tape deck at home, also knew that. Together they dreamed — for dreaming was Step 1 of success. His mother brought him to the CCP in 1987 to watch the concert of famous Filipino tenor Otoniel Gonzaga. That experience tickled an inspiration from Lemuel’s soul. “I was so impressed by that magnificent voice, I wanted to be like him,” he said.

From UPLB where Lemuel was an Agriculture student, he transferred to UP Diliman and majored in Voice at the College of Music. “While a student in Diliman, I performed plays like Hotel Paradiso directed by Cris Vertido; and musicals like South Pacific and Fiddler on the Roof,” he said.

It helped that after high school, Lemuel was under the tutelage of respected voice teacher Adoracion Reyes. At the UP College of Music, he got guidance from well-known soprano Fides Cuyugan-Asensio. He also obtained a diploma in Opera Performance from the Vienna Conservatory in Austria under the coaching of Israeli soprano Sylvia Greenberg.

While studying at the Vienna Conservatory, Lemuel performed operas and operettas, as well as sacred church music. “I was singing in the chorus at the Vienna State Opera and Salzburg Festival. I got to see the greats like Placido Domingo… I learned so much by watching the artists.”

After graduating from the Vienna Conservatory, the city theater of Pforzheim in Southern Germany engaged Lemuel as house tenor soloist. There, he recalled, he sang for about 50 roles, averaging about 60 performances a year.

“My most unforgettable was singing the last performance of that tragic clown in Pagliacci (an Italian opera) in Pforzheim, back in 2007. It was very intense, it left me in tears after the performance,” he said.

“You’ve gone so far from singing ‘Dulcinea’ at our SocSci 1 class,” I teased him backstage after his concert. “Tell me, how far have you gone?”

“Since our SocSci 1 class, I think singing at the 2008 Savonlinna Festival in Finland would be the farthest. I sang three productions that summer — Aida, Rigoletto and Mefistofele. To have the Philippine flag proudly displayed among the other flags is a towering feeling. The singers’ nationalities were on display by hanging their flag. And there was the boy from Barrio Batong Malake among them. It was an honor to sing on the opening of the Opera Day at the festival,” he said.

And what an honor he felt last Wednesday as he sang before a crowd composed of his friends, former classmates and professors. He must have inspired, too, the members of UPRHS Glee Club who provided beautiful intermission songs at the concert.

When he sang Saan Ka Man Naroroon by Restie Umali and Bituing Marikit by Nicanor Abelardo, I was imagining the presence of Lemuel’s late mother, Tita Esper, in the auditorium. She must be very proud of her only begotten son. “Esperanza, my mother, died in 2013. I was in the middle of the Gypsy Baron Tour in Germany. I was unable to attend her funeral.”

But Lemuel has kept his mother in his heart. And, perhaps, every time he sings, the voice of his mother is also heard. They were together when Lemuel first dreamed a dream — of owning a performance on stage, of beguiling the audience with his impeccable classically trained opera voice, of making a name for himself.

Indeed, Lemuel made a name for himself. When he sang My Way, one of his encore songs, Lemuel made many in the audience cry — for indeed, Lemuel, the kid from the barrio, did it his way. Big time.

His renditions of Richard Strauss’ songs (Allerseelen, Die Georgine and Standchen) were a window to the scale of his talent and to the softness of his heart.

There was longing in his voice when he sang Giovanni Bononcini’s Per la gloria d’adorarvi and Giovanni Pergolesi’s Se tu m’ami.

Lemuel hit the high notes in Mozart’s Davidde Penitente and Per pieta, non ricercate with the ease of a Sunday morning.

That night, he sang about 20 songs and the audience couldn’t get enough of Lemuel’s genius. He had the ability to excite the crowd with his easy-reached high notes and to mine their hearts with his lilting pianissimo. 

The concert ended with Lemuel singing Henry Bishop’s Home Sweet Home. When he sang the part “There’s no place like home,” the crowd went gaga as they gave him an ovation. In a jampacked and SRO auditorium, Lemuel, the boy from Batong Malake who made it big in Europe, was indeed home. *

(E-mail me at bumbaki@yahoo.com. I’m also on Twitter @bum_tenorio and Instagram @bumtenorio. Have a blessed Sunday!)

LEMUEL CUENTO
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