Art/Style/Travel Diaries

‘We just have to sing with our hearts’: The prime of Arthur Espiritu

The renowned Filipino tenor, who has been making waves in Europe's most prestigious opera houses, will be in the Philippines for two engagements this December

Good solo picture of Arthur Espiritu

Arthur Espiritu as Ferrando in the La Scala production of ‘Cosi fan tutte’ in 2007 (Contributed photo)

It’s been 13 years since I first heard tenor Arthur Espiritu at the Philamlife Theater in 2010.

After that first encounter, I faithfully followed all his engagements here and abroad.

Even my Frankfurt-based daughter Karenina and granddaughter Keya became instant fans, and they followed him in Europe from the Frankfurt Opera (Cassio in Otello) to Munich (as Elvino in La Sonnambula).

Arthur Espiritu with his Frankkurt Opera fans Karenina and Keya Tariman

My daughter invited him over in Frankfurt to try his hand at cooking, and he gamely took on the challenge.

As I write this, tenor Arthur Espiritu is in the middle of rehearsals for his house debut at Theater Lubeck in Germany on November 17, 2023. The opera is Gounod’s Faust, which he earlier sang in Theater St. Gallen in Switzerland and in Latvia, among other opera houses.

Musical director is Takahiro Nagasaki, with direction by Kasper Wilton. His Marguerite is Evmorfia Metaxaki, with the Mephistofeles of Rúni Brattaberg. He will be singing with the Lubeck Choir and the Philharmonic Orchestra of the Hanseatic City of Lübeck.

Espiritu sizes up the new production of Faust in Theater Lubeck: “This production of Gounod’s Faust is quite fresh and pretty much more conceptualized in a more cerebral way.  There are certain aspects of the story where some analogical symbolisms are used, but it does not veer away from the focus of the story.  There are plot twists and certain uses of items from modern times, and a feeling of switching from the past to the future, which recurs throughout the piece.”

The new production will see him working with conductor Takahiro Nagasaki for the first time. “Maestro Takahiro is such a talented and quite energetic conductor.  He is very musical and singer-friendly.  I keep hearing of his successful performances, with the audience reciprocating with bravos.”

He finds his Marguerite (Evmorfia Metaxaki) such a wonderful colleague. “She is a great singer and actress on stage.  She is very easy to work with and is very kindhearted.  Such a pleasure working with her.”

He looks back on his role debut in Theater St. Gallen as the most memorable. But his second production of the opera with the Lithuanian National Opera in Latvia was equally interesting. “The Walpurgis Night scene was included with the ballet section.  Although slightly cut, I was able to experience more of the whole of the otherwise cut versions often done today.  It was more traditional, and my dream of portraying operatic roles in traditional staging was realized.”

Succeeding in the role for quite a while, he has found a new way of approaching the part vocally. “I try to add and install new muscle memory according to the way I’m singing presently.  If I have had success with certain colors and interpretive sounds that were successful, I try to keep those.  To keep it fresh, I try to be a more effective actor than singer without stressing too much on my singing.  I find it more effective with my singing when I don’t have to worry about technique, just being in the moment.”

For him, Faust remains a supreme vocal challenge. “It is one role where one has to remain in the drama. Vocally, it’s not very demanding tessitura (range)-wise, but it is demanding in the size of the orchestration and how it’s composed. You really have to sing it. There are some dolcissimi (very sweet and soft) sections where you have to express your vocal skills in the way it’s phrased. It’s a very long opera. You have to know the interjections, or you will lose your entrance. You always have to count and anticipate.” His favorite would be the duet with Marguerite: “That duet in the third act has some of the most beautiful music ever written.”

Another equally significant debut will happen in April 2024, when he debuts at the Polish National Opera in Warsaw again as Rodolfo in Puccini’s La Boheme.

As it is, his European debuts have been quite colorful. Sixteen years ago, in 2007, he debuted at the highly revered La Scala di Milan as Ferrando in Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte, where he enjoyed five performances. Espiritu made it to La Scala after winning the Teatro alla Scala award at Vienna’s Belvedere International Singing Competition in 2007.

When La Scala invited Espiritu to audition for the lead role in Cosi fan tutte, he had already portrayed the same role for the Pittsburgh Opera. He had to buy the score in Vienna all over again because the iconic judges—Mirella Freni, Teresa Berganza, and Luigi Avila—keenly wanted to hear him sing some of the arias and recitatives.

The world-famous Milan opera house is known for getting rid of singers, even the really good ones, whenever they feel like it. Among them was Maria Callas, dubbed the goddess of opera, who was booed in La Scala in the ’60s. Even Luciano Pavarotti was said to have been replaced by another tenor, leaving Romanian soprano Nelly Miricioiu with a new and instant Edgardo in her triumphant 1984 La Scala debut in Lucia di Lammermoor.

La Scala is known for getting rid of singers, even the really good ones, whenever they feel like it. ‘I kept asking myself, “What am I doing here?”‘ says Espiritu

Arthur Espiritu with Romanian-British diva Nelly Miricioiu after Ayala Museum concert in 2017

Espiritu recalls his La Scala moment thus: “It was scary. All those huge chandeliers! I kept asking myself, ‘What am I doing here?”

Milan’s demanding opera crowd are known to throw things onstage, but everything went smoothly. The cast was very supportive, and Espiritu gained friends and admirers. “I was very scared of getting kicked out. I had to really prove myself at all time. So many eyes and ears are on you. That’s at least what I had imagined. The Milanese crowd is very tough and people are just passionate about things there.”

Apart from the pressure, Espiritu recalled that he had an amazing time meeting new friends and amazing artists in La Scala. “Despite the impression of La Scala audiences as being tough and booing artists or even throwing things on stage, they were quite good during my debut,” the Filipino tenor recalled.

From the conventional staging of Cosi fan tutte in La Scala, the Filipino tenor savored a “bold” version of the Mozart opera by controversial Spanish director Calixto Bieito in Basel. While Espiritu was fully covered, Mozartian wigs and all, in La Scala and other productions, he sings the opera’s most tender arias in boxer shorts in St. Gallen with the cast in various states of undress.

A few years back, he debuted in Varna as Romeo in Gounod’s Romeo et Juliet, again to great acclaim, like his debut in National Opera of Israel as Tamino in Mozart’s Magic Flute. (Among other historic Tel-Aviv debuts where those of Cecile Licad and tenor Otoniel Gonzaga.)

The role of Romeo simply suited him. “The part settled nicely in my voice. With my age and the 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.”

Still nothing beats the tenor’s stint with Vienna’s Oper Klosterneuburg where, among other roles, he shone in La Traviata (as Alfredo) in 2018 with the Violetta of Russian soprano Eugenia Dushina. With the Vienna mayor in the audience, La Traviata was so well-received that the production had to add one more performance on Aug. 5, even as it was supposed to close Aug. 3.

Before opening night, the Filipino tenor was surprised by the visit of the reigning king of opera, Jonas Kaufmann, during rehearsal. “He could not come on opening night because of his busy schedule. His girlfriend Christiane Lutz (our stage director) took him along.”

Kaufmann, who had heard the Filipino tenor sing Elvino in La Sonnambula in Munich, told Espiritu he was “pretty good.”

 “I was a bit speechless,” Espiritu said. “So, Günter (our Giorgio Germont) just said to him, ‘He knows it!’ Followed by laughter. Jonas is so down to earth. It was very inspiring for me to see him. He does set the bar high for us tenors.”

Last August, it was raining rave reviews for the tenor in the title role of Verdi’s Don Carlo, highlighted by nightly standing ovations. It opened to unanimous critical acclaim from more than five Vienna media outlets including The Kronen Zeitung, Austria’s largest newspaper.

Wrote opera critic Manfred A. Schmid: “The young tenor Arthur Espiritu—who is still little known in this country—is actually a discovery as Don Carlo. The singer from the Philippines, who is also adept in acting, sang with a rich voice and radiant height. It reminds one—as my seat neighbor said—of Francisco Araiza’s beginnings in Vienna. His lyrical tenor voice, tinged with dark undertones, allows for a rather dramatic and captivating portrayal of the role of the Spanish Infante, who is struggling to contain his emotions. Don Carlo in Klosterneuburg is not only a successful opera event, but also—like all great works—one of lasting topicality. Standing ovations and enthusiastic applause ensued.”

Arthur Espiritu as Don Carlo in Vienna (Photo: Mark Glassner)

Wrote opera critic Manfred A. Schmid: ‘The young tenor Arthur Espiritu is actually a discovery as Don Carlo. The singer from the Philippines, who is also adept in acting, sang with a rich voice and radiant height’

Another memorable debut was with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra (BPO) in 2014 ,when he sang the role of the Lamp Lighter in Manon Lescaut at the Baden-Baden Festspielhaus under the eminent conductor Sir Simon Rattle.

Arthur Espiritu with eminent conductor Simon Rattle (center) after a performance of ‘Manon Lescaut’ with the Berlin Philharmonic

It will be noted that the first 50 years of the BPO is associated with three illustrious conductors, namely, Herbert von Karajan, Claudio Abbado, and Rattle. Espiritu was lucky to sing in four performances of the Puccini opera (three in Baden-Baden and one in the Digital Concert Hall in Berlin) with the BPO under the baton of Rattle.

The Berlin Manon Lescaut at the Digital Concert Hall had soprano Eva Maria Westbroek in the title role, tenor Massimo Giordano as Renato Des Grieux, bass Liang Li as Geronte de Ravoir, and tenor Espiritu as the Lamp Lighter.

Espiritu recounted his Berlin Philharmonic experience with Rattle in the podium: “Sir Simon is definitely one of the most amazing conductors of our time. I have not heard an orchestra so well-tempered and filled with emotions. There are no letdowns. With some orchestras, you would hear certain flaws and certain oversights like a lack of color phrasing…I can honestly tell you that I have never been as musically excited. Sir Simon bends tempis, his crescendos are real crescendos, and he has a knack for making this already amazing orchestra sound like no other.”

The tenor also has high praise for the acoustics of the Digital Concert Hall in Berlin. “It is just simply amazing. You can get heard everywhere. Indeed, it is a state-of-the-art concert hall.”

To be sure, Espiritu isn’t the first Filipino to make a big splash in Europe. Soprano Evelyn Mandac sang with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa in one Salzburg festival production of The Marriage of Figaro. Violinist Carmencita Lozada was a violin sensation in the ’60s to the ’70s, at one time winning the top five places in the two editions of the Paganini competitions in Italy. Otoniel Gonzaga sang for many seasons at the Frankfurt Opera in the ’80s. At one time, pianist Cecile Licad found herself playing the Rachmaninoff Second Concerto one weekend with a Russian woman performing it in another German venue. The verdict: German music critics raved over the interpretation of Licad.

After singing in Europe for many years after his La Scala debut, the Filipino tenor finds German audiences and critics mostly very kind and generous. “There is a certain respect for performing artists.  They are more honest and can differ in opinion.  Generally speaking, they are a bit more gracious. It is the same all over except in how they view performing artists, notably opera singers. It is a legitimate profession compared to in some American and Asian cities.  If you apply for a certain account, whether federal or city or private, the job category of Kunstler or Artist is a template.”

At the moment, the tenor’s schedule is a whirlwind.  After his Theater Lubeck debut Nov. 17, he has more performances of the same opera on December 14, 2023 to January 21, February 16, 24, March 10, April 20 up to May 9, 2024. He will be busy up to 2025 with lead roles in Faust, La Boheme, and Lucia di Lammermoor.

In between his European engagements, he will perform at Canto Cafe in Baguio City on Saturday, Dec. 2, 6 p.m. and at the Manila Pianos on Saturday, 7 p.m. Dec. 9, 2023.

On February 24, 2024, he returns to Oper Leipzig as Edgardo in Donizetti’s Lucia de Lammermoor with more performances on March 3, 13, 24 to April 26, 2024.

Commuting between Manila and Baguio City after his Theater Lubeck debut in Germany, he observes health protocols when travling from cold to tropical countries.  “Usually when you have cold weather in Europe, one can always use warm garments and protective clothing to tackle the cold and the dryness with a simple hot shower or steam treatment.  In a tropical weather, you have to adjust because of the air conditioning system used.  Over here, they don’t use air conditioning, but the cold weather of course dries your skin.  In tropical weather, it is humid and therefore good for the skin, but not so good with singing.  You have to protect yourself when sweating.  You have to change clothes often so you won’t get sick when you get exposed to the cold air conditioning systems of most establishments in tropical countries.  But, since climate change has been affecting European countries, I see more and more air conditioners being installed.  Summers have been warmer lately.”

The need for at least one week’s rest after European engagements, he learned when he sang in Science City of Munoz in Nueva Ecija in February this year. He noticed his throat drying up even as he found out the acoustics of the provincial venue not so good. “I should have rested for a week after singing in Germany,” he confided. Moreover, he loved his provincial audiences, after being confined in cosmopolitan cities for many years, like his audience reception at the University of the Philippines Iloilo where he received three standing ovations along with pianist GJ Frias, and the same reception in Nueva Ecija.

The tenor observes, “Filipino audiences are so supportive and energetic.  They are so empathetic and gracious.  They really know how to appreciate an artist.”

‘Filipino audiences are so supportive and energetic.  They are so empathetic and gracious.  They really know how to appreciate an artist,’ says Espiritu

In Baguio City (Dec. 2) and at the Manila Pianos concert (December 9), the tenor will sing with soprano Stefanie Quintin with pianist Mariel Ilusorio.

Soprano Stefanie Quintin teams up with Arthur Espiritu on Dec. 2 in Baguio and at Manila Pianos on Dec. 9, 2023.

Said he of Ilusorio as collaborating pianist: “Mariel is such a wonderful pianist.  She brings so much color to her playing.  She complements you with so much freedom in expressing yourself.  Whatever the instrument she is playing, she manages to observe your singing or playing and tries to figure out how she can be better during practice sessions.  She has inputs that add to the performance’s sense of honesty in terms of her playing and also her collaborative partners.  She’s very sensitive and very intelligent and very musical and honest with her intentions.”

Arthur Espiritu with Mariel Ilusorio during 2018 CCP recital debut

Is it true that singing also reveals the singer’s character? “If you sing from the heart, yes of course.  You have to open up your heart.  It takes a lot from you as a performer, but you know that you have done a good job when you have executed the role, the poetry, the novel, and the story accurately.  Sometimes it’s hard to see as an audience member, but if you reach those who have particular ears and senses, you know it’s a good performance.  Some audiences look for impressive and entertaining performances, some look for depth and meaning, some look for inspirations, and some look for overall performance appraisals.  But, what do we know?  We just have to sing with our hearts and share it with the audience.  After all, art is the reflection of the human condition.  It is there to tell our story as human beings.”

His singing schedule being what it is, he can only wish the basic things this coming Christmas. “I only need time with family and friends and celebrating it with your loved ones.  Gifts are overrated.  It is the spirit of family, friendship, and love for our maker that really count.”

Sixteen years after his La Scala debut in 2007, it is unthinkable how far he has gone.

In Morong, Rizal where he was born and before he discovered opera, Espiritu was hooked on ’90s alternative rock, some NSync, Ballads, and some Bon Jovi, Dream Theater, and U2, his favorite bands. “I really like all kinds of music. I am not one person who would limit my taste of music to only one genre. I like the idea of variety,”

For tickets to Dec. 2 Baguio City engagement and the Dec. 9 Manila Pianos concert of Arthur Espiritu at Ronac Lifestyle Center, Paseo de Magallanes, Magallanes Village, Makati City, call tel. no. (0906) 510-4270, (0920) 954-0053, and (0918) 347-3027 or email: [email protected] or  [email protected].

About author


He’s a freelance journalist who loves film, theater and classical music. Known as the Bard of Facebook for his poems that have gone viral on the internet, he is author of a first book of poetry, Love, Life and Loss – Poems During the Pandemic and was one of 160 Asian poets in the Singapore-published anthology, The Best Asian Poetry 2021-22. An impresario on the side, he is one of the Salute awardees of Philippines Graphic Magazine during this year’s Nick Joaquin Literary Awards. His poem, Ode to Frontliners, is now a marker at Plaza Familia in Pasig City unveiled by Mayor Vico Sotto December 30, 2020.

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