Arthur Espiritu: What it’s like to sing opera—through a mask

Noted Filipino tenor returns to European stage and finds interesting challenges

Arthur Espiritu at the Lithuania opera house as lead tenor in Gounod's Faust. (From the FB post of Arthur Espiritu)

Arthur Espiritu, the country’s premier tenor, is back on the opera stage  after lying low during the pandemic.

He reprised his Alfredo (La Traviata) in Basel, Switzerland, last November 14 with seven more performances to go until January 8, 2022. Then he starts rehearsals for Lucia di Lammermoor in Leipzig end of January next year. It will run until May 2022.

Arthur Espiritu as Alfredo in the Basel production of La Traviata. (Basel Opera House photo)

In between, he will appear in an opera gala concert at the IsarPhilharmonie in Munich on Dec. 27-30, 2021. IsarPhilharmonie in Munich is no ordinary venue. It opened only last October 8. Joshua Barone of the New York Times wrote: “It was an unusual sight last Friday: the denizens of this wealthy city lifting the hems of their gowns and adjusting their bow ties as they stepped into a rough-around-the-edges industrial space for one of the premier cultural events of the fall. They were entering the lobby of the IsarPhilharmonie, a new concert hall far from the old-fashioned grandeur of the Bavarian State Opera or the Herkulessaal, inside the former royal palace.”

The new hall where the Filipino tenor will make another grand debut in a New Year concert with  Munich orchestra is described as a rarity: an ephemeral, prefabricated venue designed with top-level acoustics and built for 40 million euros (about $46 million) in only a year and a half.

Arthur Espiritu as Faust in Theater St. Gallen in Switzerland. (Publicity photo Theater St. Gallen)

Last year, on the eight month of the pandemic, Espiritu got back on the opera stage with a role debut in Gounod’s Romeo et Juliet at the Magdeburg Opera House in Germany.

The role simply suited him. “The part settled nicely in my voice,” he said. “With my age and growth of my sound, it’s getting to where it needs to be. It’s way different than singing Rossini or any bel canto roles, indeed.”

The theater was no stranger to him. Earlier, he has done La Boheme and Cosi fan tutte in the same theater. Before the Gounod opera, the tenor had a much-acclaimed Edgardo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, the last opera mounted at the Cultural Center of the Philippines before the lockdown.

When the quarantine protocols started in March, Espiritu lost four engagements, but it allowed him a long overdue reunion with his family in Manila.

He was singled out as the tenor who, a German critic wrote, provided ‘a fascinatingly balanced warm timbre

He recalled: “I coped quite well. Thanks to the pandemic, I was able to spend more time with my family. I was so happy that I was able to connect with my wife and kids, although with four contracts cancelled, it wasn’t a good situation for us economically.”

With all the travel requirements, it took him a week before he could fly to Germany. It was an agonizing week of looking for hospitals where he could get health clearances required before departure.

When he got to Magdeburg, the situation, he found, was quite relaxed. “But the people are observing the rules. Most are well informed about when the masks should be on and when the masks can be off. The government does a good job of implementing the rules.”

Arthur Espiritu with pianist Mariel Ilusorio in a live streaming of kundiman songs.(From the FB post of Arthur Espiritu)

His first German review during the pandemic had critics sharing good words about the opening night. He was singled out as the tenor who, a German radio critic wrote, provided “a fascinatingly balanced warm timbre” in the title role.

Another report from Elisabeth Richter went thus: “The Filipino-American tenor knows how to lead his powerful voice tastefully and without kitsch, remaining technically sovereign with equal dose of musicality. It was a real treat.”

It was a strange  Romeo and Juliet, with no touching for the lead singers

But due to health protocols, it was a strange  Romeo and Juliet, with no touching for the lead singers. For the tenor, it made connecting with the other characters difficult.

More recollection: “It felt disconnected, but the more we rehearsed and had gotten used to the situation, we made it work with abstract ideas and pulling more energy from the text. It is frustrating to have a love interest, and you cannot be near each other. It’s human nature to seek intimacy and closeness to the person you love. In the end, we figured out a way to feel all the emotions while away from each other. So, when we were singing duets and arias, we had our masks off. When we had fight scenes, we had to have our masks on. In the scenes with the chorus and the other cast members, the choral ensemble members were used as commentators at the back of the stage. It was tricky during the fight scene because I had to sing before I started fighting, I had to dedicate a few seconds to covering my face right after a phrase. That took some practice, including our sword fights. Singing with face masks on was hard. It was hard to take in air, I had to breathe in through my nose a lot and with a smaller opening of mouth, as if I was sipping air from a straw. It was the only way I could do to get ample air while having a mask on.”

‘I had to breathe in through my nose a lot and with a smaller opening of mouth, as if I was sipping air from a straw’

More performances with masks on: “In this recent Faust (by Gounod) in Lithuania, I had to wear a mask inside the building and also in the rehearsal spaces.  Everyone had to be fully vaccinated and tested every day before rehearsals.  In our recent Traviata opening night, we had to take an RT-PCR test before we performed.  We had to wear a mask inside the theater, although outside it’s not mandated.”

Tenor Arthur Espiritu at the Manila Metropolitan Theater for a live streaming of kundiman. (From the FB post of Arthur Espiritu)

Fortunately, he was back in Europe after a year with Traviata in Basel. “This particular production is an updated version. Only Violetta is on stage and everyone else is singing in the audience area balcony section.  But the acting and singing have to be seen and heard in the hall. So, we have to act as if we were on stage. Quite interesting and hard to stage because of challenges in acoustics. This production is truly different. We are not on stage in this production. The earlier productions, I was on stage acting. For this one, we are but a figment of Violetta’s imagination in a loop of her schizophrenia.”

His singing life has indeed changed after almost 20 months of the pandemic. “Life is not the same anymore. Travel is so much more challenging. It has given me a greater understanding that it really does take everyone working together, even with differences in opinion, whether religious or political. This pandemic does not care about how you feel or what your world view is. I have learned how to look at life from a different perspective.”

Arthur Espiritu with the ensemble of ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’ at the CCP, his last live opera in Manila January 2020. (Photo by Kiko Cabuena)

The long lockdown gave him more time to be with his family and to enjoy a long getaway in Eastern Samar, where his wife Christine comes from. “We dealt with it as best we could.  But before all the lockdowns got tightened in Manila, we made sure that we would spend some time in the province where the rates were extremely low—after we got vaccinated, of course. Samar gave us some semblance of normalcy.  We love to travel as a family and it helped us form a much closer bond.  In a way, this pandemic was a blessing in disguise.  I was able to see my family for more than three months a year, which was not the case before the pandemic.”

Now that he is back to active singing in Europe, how does he cope with being away from family? He admits it has become harder and harder because he is missing the important milestones of his kids. “They are growing up so fast.  I am afraid that being away for too long will result in me missing out on being there for them when they need me. It is so hard. It is so surreal.  I am in disbelief that all of a sudden, they are growing so fast.  Where has time gone?  I feel that if I blink, I will miss what will happen.”

‘I am afraid that being away for too long will result in me missing out on being there for my kids’

He is not lacking in advice for his kids. “I always tell them: always be respectful of people’s space. Always be nice to people and do not judge them according to their looks.”

Meanwhile, he found a natural way to take care of his voice during these stressful times. “I’ve had so much rest vocally due to the long lockdown,” Espiritu says. “The pandemic and the lockdowns helped it stay fresh and well rested. Of course, we had to worry about alternative ways to make money, but other than that, the voice did well and I was able to try new things with my technique, such that I have grown technically secure with my voice. How to keep my voice going? Build and maintain effective vocal exercise, body stretches, vitamins, exercise if time permits, keep the mind positive and stay away from negative energies.

“It’s so easy to get pulled into something toxic nowadays with the state of social media as it is,” he note.  “I try to consistently maintain a system every day, so my voice and my body will be in the best possible stress-free state. I try not to think negative thoughts that will affect my self-confidence. Staying away from stressful situations helps almost 100 percent of the time.  Daily warm-ups, vocal massages, prepping the vocal mechanism techniques also help the voice stay in good shape.”

He admits the pandemic ushered in the worst times for singers and for performing artists in general. “Being lucky is not enough.  It’s really tough, especially for freelance artists.”

His advice to fellow artists: “Keep working hard and stay strong, healthy, and relentless. This is our only way out, and giving in will take away our joy, our soul, and our livelihood.  Fight for fare wage for both men and women.  Perform your craft at the highest possible level.”

He wishes everyone a happy Christmas and a peaceful New Year. “I pray for everyone’s health and safety.  It is such an important realization that being able to breathe, smell, taste, and be with your loved ones is a blessing.”

Arthur Espiritu with wife Christine and children in Tagaytay.

Read more:

Being with Pavarotti in Manila—and the toughest performance of his life

Why I can never forget Tita Conching and the Met

Cecile Licad up close and personal—my past 45 years

John Arcilla: ‘For now, I want to remember the smiles’

Dennis Trillo’s evolution: Various roles, one balanced life

About author


He’s a freelance journalist who loves the opera, classical music and concerts, and who has had the privilege of meeting many of these artists of the performing arts and forging enviable friendships with them. Recently he’s been drawing readers to his poems in Facebook, getting known as the ‘Bard of Facebook.’

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