Arts & Culture

Arthur Espiritu: ‘It was a ‘surreal year’

The tenor, Arthur Espiritu, in face mask at the NIA upon arrival from Germany.

The year 2020 is many things to cultural watchers.

It was the end of live concerts at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, it was the end of live shows in the theater circuit, it was the year ABS-CBN Philharmonic performed its last concert and it was the year a few of the remaining orchestral ensembles managed to survive by the skin of their teeth.

It was the year of the last Mozart and Bach concertos for Cecile Licad in Ohio and Seattle and cancellation of her Brahms concerto in Maryland.

For tenor Arthur Espiritu, it was the year of defining triumph as Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor where he received a rare rock star treatment at the CCP on the first month of the year.

It was the year he triumphed in Gounod’s Romeo et Juliet and singing under strict health protocol in Magdeburg Opera House in Germany.

Before the year ended, he was back in Manila and figuring out if his Theater Basel Traviata in January would push through with the discovery of a new variant of the corona virus.

The past year for tenor Espiritu: “Initially It felt so surreal.It’s like being in a dream that you have to accept as reality.It hits you and you are no longer able to deny it. The entire world is threatened by something the naked eye cannot see.”

The tenor said his 2020 experience has been quite hard. Like singing a Gounod opera in Germany for the first time in the middle of the pandemic. “Like many others, all of my shows have been cancelled or have been rescheduled.I’m quite sure others are having to deal with far worse things.I had to make difficult decisions last year.One in particular is having to risk putting my own health and my family’s health at risk.I didn’t want to make a hard choice but it had to be done.”

As it turned out, his Romeo et Juliet had bizarre health protocols.

Performers had to be at least two meters apart with no more than three people in a rehearsal room and they had to wear face masks while singing.

But just flying to Germany and securing travel and health clearances were already pure ordeal.

Arthur Espiritu with her Juliet — Raffaela Lintl –in the Gounod opera in Madeburg, Germany. Photo by Andreas Lander

They had to adjust to an opening night that was socially distanced. “It was weirdly different and yet quite interesting. It wasn’t a problem once we started performing.It was like back to normal on singing a role.”

The conditions changed as singers had to deal with periodic lockdowns when the second wave of the pandemic hit Germany. He had to be in standby for nearly a month. “That was quite difficult.It affected my voice because after long hours of rehearsals and singing, you had to stop performing.I had to go to the practice room a lot just to keep going.I sang through some pieces so I would feel that I’m still working.But then the lockdown got extended and I cannot leave the apartment.That was an abrupt interruption of the vocal conditioning and of the body as well.Having to stay in the apartment with no activity whatsoever was so hard.But to my surprise, it did not affect my voice.”

For 2021, there is Traviata in Basel, more performances of Romeo et Juliet, a Rigoletto and re-scheduled performances of Un Ballo in Maschera.

But with the new strain of the virus making more news, he is no longer sure if future performances will happen. “I’m getting set to do Traviata but it’s getting very scary.What if I forgot to wash my hands or put on my mask? I feel like the longer this goes on, I cannot gamble too much with my health and my family’s health as well.Moreover, I do need to see how this Traviata experience would be like.”

By and large, the tenor says artists have to learn how to survive with no help from private sectors or the government. “It was hard.I had to sign a contract in Germany despite the dangers in travelling during the pandemic.It had to be done. More than ever, the arts need more support and legitimacy now!We are looked upon as mere entertainment and therefore not important.So many of us depend on our craft to make a living.Some of us had to take other odd jobs just to make ends meet.It’s a travesty and a shame to have to experience so much hardship.”

Arthur Espiritu with family in Baguio City during the holidays. From the FB page of Arthur Espiritu.

There were positive sides though while artists coped with the horrors of 2020.

“I think artists have gained strength and courage to face the hardest challenges in life.I think it made them strong and resilient.It’s easy to feel down and depressed but I think most of us have grown stronger than ever.I respect them so much because, there are no other profession in the world that requires so much patience and resiliency.”

In another way, he likes to think of the pandemic as a blessing in disguise. “It brought us so much closer to our family.Having to face this lockdown with no guarantee however put a definite question mark on our situation.We had to make the best of it and find ways to deal with the current situation.”

The anti-virus vaccine comes to mind when asked about his new year wishes. “I wish for a vaccine to come sooner than later.It looks like the pandemic has gained so much more speed and efficacy.I also wish for more change in our society.I wish for our current society to have a renewed perspective.A more progressive and proactive society.”