Before I Forget

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

Why I will never forget the drama behind the arrival and concert of ‘the world’s greatest tenor’

Luciano Pavarotti with Rose Marie Arenas during the 1994 presscon in Manila (Photo from Pablo Tariman)

My front page story in the Sunday Chronicle announcing cancellation of Manila engagement of Pavarotti.(Pablo Tariman file photo)

It’s been 14 years since the great tenor Luciano Pavarotti died.

He passed away September 6, 2007, a year after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

He probably knew he was going because he embarked on an international farewell tour when the bad news came to him.

I was in the departure area in the airport bound for Bacolod when I got the news. I was with two singers, Noel Azcona and Nenen Espina, and pianist Mary Anne Espina, who were scheduled to perform at Bacolod’s L’Fisher Hotel on September 7.

On the night of the Bacolod concert, I opened the program with a request for a moment of silence to mourn the demise of Pavarotti.

He wasn’t just a big name in opera. He was an icon.

In 1979, the late conductor Redentor Romero gifted me with a cassette of a Pavarotti recital.

I listened to it every night until I could hum all the arias from memory.

That same year, Filipino tenor Noel Velasco was declared one of the winners of the Luciano Pavarotti International Voice Competition. The Philadelphia-based competition was Velasco’s first encounter with Pavarotti, whom the Filipino tenor found very amiable.

Said Velasco after winning the competition: “I admired him as an artist. He opens his whole heart to the people when he sings.”

It will be remembered that in the late ’70s, opera fans in Philadelphia paid $8 to $15 for the opportunity to hear the finalists, and probably see Pavarotti in person. Pavarotti actually got the audience into the show by saying, “I trust my ears, but I also trust a multitude of ears.”

As it turned out, the Filipino tenor received the longest applause—and a grin from Pavarotti. A music reporter wrote that Velasco was the only contestant who was able to crack Pavarotti’s mandarin reserve. “He was singing all my arias,” Pavarotti explained later. “I couldn’t help smiling. I knew what he was going through.”

“Don’t you think it was cruel of him to ask me to sing Ah mes ami (an aria with nine demanding high Cs) right after Che gelida manina (the high C in this La Boheme aria is also a monster )?” Velasco said upon learning he was one of the winners. By “cruel,” Velasco meant Pavarotti demanded an inordinate number of high Cs from him during the brief audition.

Flashback to 1994. I learned that Pavarotti would make his Manila debut, and that the executive producer was philanthropist (who became congresswoman from Pangasinan) Rosemarie “Baby” Arenas, the daughter of my close friend, the late soprano Remedios Bosch Jimenez.

Rose Marie ‘Baby’ Arenas with the author, a fellow impresario, and Rosario Licad, mother of world renowned pianist Cecile Licad, in one of their concert tie-ups with Cecile Licad after the Pavarotti concert.. (Pablo Tariman file)

In 1979, he was just a voice in a cassette given to me by conductor Redentor Romero. In 1994, I had a chance to meet him

In 1979, he was just a voice in a cassette given to me by conductor Romero.

In 1994, I was thrilled to have finally a chance to meet him.

It was the opera fan in me that made me exert all efforts to contact the organizers.

Pavarotti with then Vice-President Joseph Estrada and Rose Marie ‘Baby’ Arenas during the 1994 presscon at  Philippine Plaza (now Sofitel). (Photo from Pablo Tariman)

Reaching out to Arenas was easy. We spoke the same (opera) language as her mother’s.

I also had to deal with the other producers—Carol and her late husband Bert Nievera—who made contact with the tenor’s impresario in Singapore.

The Singapore concert was sold out. The Nievera couple decided there and then: why not an additional Manila concert in the Asian leg of the tour?

When the Manila leg was finalized and the good news announced by no less than Manila impresario Arenas, still no one believed it would happen.

The first announcement ran in a broadsheet’s movie page, the first ticket outlet traced to a popular balladeer’s Parañaque residence.

The lowest ticket price was equivalent to a government janitor’s salary, and the highest the equivalent to a Philippine president’s monthly pay

The ticket prices: P3,000, P5000, P10,000, P15,000, and P25,000! In 1994, this was big money.

 The lowest ticket price was equivalent to a government janitor’s salary, and the highest the equivalent to a Philippine president’s monthly pay minus allowances.

It didn’t help that the Manila co-producer, Carol Nievera, was a stranger to the opera scene. Her experience was limited to producing her husband’s concerts.

Meanwhile, Pavarotti, who had been enjoying immense popularity in American since the early ’80s, became a reality to Carol only in 1993. She was asked to market the singer’s concert in Singapore to Manila audiences. She succeeded in selling the Singapore package to more than 50 Pavarotti fans.

Carol admitted she was no opera fan. But when she saw that wildly received Pavarotti concert in Singapore, she figured that the tenor was the Michael Jackson of opera.

When she clinched the Pavarotti engagement from her Singapore contact, Lushington Entertainment, Inc., she was at a loss as to how to promote the concert. She didn’t even know an opera guild existed in Manila.

When she thought of asking help from Arenas, she didn’t know the prospective chairperson of the concert was the daughter of the Filipino diva who had sung with Pavarotti’s teacher, Arrigo Pola.

Plans for a Pavarotti concert had been in the works since 1990, according to impresario Tibor Rudas. It was just a matter of getting the right Manila connection, which Carol would become.

But the job of producing the P25 million needed to finance the production fell on Arenas’ shoulders.

Herbert Breslin, Pavarotti’s manager of 25 years, explained the Pavarotti phenomenon. “The thing with Luciano (Pavarotti) is that he has penetrated the world of classical music like no one else in the history of music. Who would have thought you could sell out arenas for an Italian tenor in all these exotic places? He may not be the greatest musician in the world, but his singing speaks to the soul. The Pavarotti sound gets you right in the center of your being.”

Pavarotti’s connection to Manila actually dates back to the middle ’50s when his teacher in his native Modena in Italy, Arrigo Pola, taught in Manila and starred in several opera productions staged at the Far Eastern University Auditorium.

Arenas’ mother sang with Pola in the mid-’50s in Il Trovatore and Cavalleria Rusticana. Pola was also Radames in the production of Aida sung by Celerina Pujante Cayabyab, the mother of National Artist for Music Ryan Cayabyab.

I can never forget the drama of Pavarotti’s Manila arrival.

The tenor was set to arrive on a Wednesday afternoon, and the Philippine Plaza (now Sofitel Philippine Plaza), where he was billeted, suddenly took on a fiesta atmosphere.

No one knew exactly what time the tenor was arriving except Carol and Pavarotti’s tour manager, Matthias Schremmer (who would figure in an airport scuffle with Inquirer photographer Ernie Sarmiento after everybody scrambled to photograph opera’s most celebrated figure).

And since even concert chairperson Arenas didn’t know the tenor’s time of arrival, it seemed as if there was a conspiracy to exclude her.

On the night before Pavarotti’s arrival, I got a call from Baby A. She thanked me for all the pre-arrival publicity on Pavarotti.

“But there is one thing you should know, Baby,” I told her. “The tenor’s exact time of arrival is known only to Carol and the singer’s manager.” I added, “If you have a contact in the airport, be sure to know his exact time of arrival. I think you are being excluded.”

She made it on time to welcome Pavarotti.

That I tipped the executive producer about the arrival plans circulated among media friends, to the chagrin of the co-producer.

Bullit Marquez of the Associated Press told me, “Pablo, you better get your Pavarotti ticket from your direct contact. Your ticket issued by the producer had  already been cancelled.”

On top of that, the co-producer also cancelled my invitation to the press conference.

The co-producer had cancelled my invitation to the press conference, but Baby Arenas told me, ‘No problem, Pablo. You will get your seat’

Baby told me, “No problem, Pablo. You will get your seat. And you will be in that presscon. Just stay with me.”

When Pavarotti’s car pulled up the hotel driveway, the tenor emerged, his body shaking as he sneezed intermittently.

It was the first serious hint that something would go wrong Friday night of the concert.

Meanwhile, Carol arranged for a presscon good only for 30 persons, without me on the official list.

But close to a hundred came, most of them certified Pavarotti fans, like the singer-actor Subas Herrero, who came for the singer’s autograph.

The first signs of a bad cold notwithstanding, Pavarotti remained charming and witty.

When leading columnist Jullie Yap Daza asked if Pavarotti agreed with the common observation that he was the world’s greatest living tenor, Pavarotti replied with a firm “no.” Then he delivered his punch line: “But if you insist, what can I do?”

And he dropped the names of Alfredo Kraus, Placido Domingo, Jon Vickers, Jose Carreras, among others.

After the presscon, Pavarotti rehearsed  until late in the  afternoon of Friday. But there was no way he could sing.

Rudas called a hasty news conference before 8 p.m., the time of the concert.

He announced, “Mr. Pavarotti said he could not afford to give only 50 percent of his best for the Manila audience. He will sing only if he can give 100 percent of his best.”

The concert was reset to two days later, on a Monday, March 21.

Syn Colin of Lushington Entertainment told me that the tenor probably got the virus on a jet ride from Zurich to Bali, Indonesia.

For the first time in the history of Philippine journalism, a cancellation of an operatic concert made headlines.

I was with Arenas in the Philippine Plaza suite with her Hong Kong guests on the night of the cancelled concert. In the dead of night, someone asked to see the executive producer, and she came with Mrs. Imelda Marcos.

The co-producer needed a million pesos or so to cover reimbursements, and was asking if Arenas could help.

Of that 1994 Pavarotti presscon graced by impresario Arenas, the Pavarotti I would remember was a gracious person and a surprisingly self-effacing one.

It became apparent—as the tenor gave his opening remarks—that in visiting Manila for the first time, he was just retracing the footsteps of his teacher, tenor Pola, who he said interrupted the young Pavarotti’s voice lessons in Modena just to go to Philippines. Pola’s good words about Manila audiences—in the ‘50s—reached him.

When it was my turn for a question, I told Pavarotti that legendary Italian tenors like Ferrucio Tagliavini and Franco Corelli sang in Manila before him— what could he say about those great singers?

Looking me straight in the eye, Pavarotti said in strong terms that he was in awe of those singers who had visited Manila. “Tagliavini and Corelli are the greatest tenors of all time, and if I am able to do at least half of what they achieved in their time, I would be very happy.”

On the big night two days later, the best-dressed (more like overdressed) filled the Philippine International Convention Center plenary hall.

Those who couldn’t afford it scrambled for space on the grassy lawn outside, where they could still see and hear Pavarotti on a giant video wall.

Right after Verdi’s Luisa Miller overture by the Philippine Symphony Orchestra, Pavarotti appeared onstage to resounding applause.

The singer started with the most popular Act II aria from Luisa Miller.

For the first time in Manila’s music history, both the affluent and the less privileged had eyes glued on the same artist, enjoying an evening of operatic arias and Neapolitan songs and applauding with the same gusto.

Pavarotti was obviously still nursing a cold, and the flutist Andrea Griminelli’s rendition of a Mozart piece gave the tenor enough time to consolidate his voice.

For the second aria, O Paradiso (from L’Africaine by Meyerbeer), the singer was straining to deliver relatively undemanding high notes.

But in the Lombardi aria, Pavarotti was in control of the lively allegro passage, but decided to go an octave lower in the finale. Not a few were disappointed.

Pavarotti confessed to his Filipino doctor he could no longer go on. The doctor gently told him to finish the concert, or else he would lose his job

At this point. Pavarotti was contemplating another cancellation, according to his attending physician, Dr. Roberto Tan, who tried acupuncture, some herbs and antibiotics before the concert.

When Pavarotti consulted with Tan while the orchestra was playing the Vespri Siciliano overture, Pavarotti confessed to his Filipino doctor he could no longer go on. The doctor gently told him to go on and finish the concert, or else he would lose his job.

By the time he was singing the last aria in the first part of the program, Pourquoi me reveiller, Pavarotti had regained his self-confidence, and it showed in his impeccable sense of line. The audience broke into thunderous applause.

From the intense Tosca and Pagliacci arias, Pavarotti recovered from a luckluster showing in the first part of the program.

After the more popular Neapolitan songs, the audience of more than 4,000 was on its feet, cheering the fighter who regained his operatic title in what could have been the toughest performance of his life.

“I never thought it possible to arrive to this last song,” he told a cheering crowd.

In gratitude, he dedicated his last encore piece, Granada, to his Filipino doctor. Then he added, “You are an incredible audience,” as he basked in the warm affection of his first Filipino audience in Manila.

Backstage after the triple standing ovation, I joined Ms. Arenas in greeting the tenor.

As a parting shot, he said, “Madame Arenas, if you invite me again, I’ll do better than this concert.”

I got what I bargained for.

The voice in the cassette tape I listened to almost every day in late ’70s, I finally saw in person in 1994.

Read more:

Why I can never forget Tita Conching and the Met

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

John Lloyd Cruz’s lessons from isolation

Susan Roces at 80: ‘I don’t really like crying in real life’

Baby Barredo: ‘All the tears, the laughter, I’m telling you, it was all worth it’

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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