Ilongos cheer two Song Liling

RS Francisco (right) and Aira Igarta as Song Liling in "M. Butterfly." Both cheered by Ilongos.

Friday last week, Iloilo City’s seasoned theater buffs and hundreds of millennial converts saw two Song Liling in David Henry Hwang’s “M. Butterfly” at Cinema 6 of SM Iloilo.

The two memorable portrayals of RS Francisco and Aira Igarta were both well-received and were amply rewarded with a rousing standing ovation.

What was equally revealing was that the millennials who dominated the audiences were thoroughly attentive and were blown away by the story of the French diplomat and his Chinese opera singer who turned out to be a spy.

Even the most sensitive scene towards the end was greeted matter-of-factly with just a few gasps and squeals from the back.“When I did that nude scene in the 90s also in a big auditorium in a school in Iloilo,” Francisco told Vera files, “I have learned to do it without fuss. Even Director Tony Mabesa gave the go signal for a frontal nudity since it was a big theater. I love the Iloilo audience.”

Thirty years later, Iloilo saw an excellent production that like it or not, eclipsed the Manila productions with an alternate Song Liling in the person of Aira Igarta.

“Playing Song Liling was an obsession and I am happy I finally did it,” said Igarta who was mobbed by theater fans at the lobby after his first performance.

As for the big turn out of audiences, co-producer Jhett Tolentino said he wasn’t surprised at all. “I know the Iloilo audience and I know they are one of the most appreciative audiences we can have for theater,” he said.

Soprano Jasmin Salvo as Cio Cio San mobbed by autograph seekers after the performance.

Equally well-received by the audience is the Rene Gallimard of Olivier Borten, the totally stunning Helga of Janine Desiderio, the Comrade Chin of Mayen Estanero, the Renee of Maya Encila and soprano Jasmin Salvo as the real Cio Cio San singing live Puccini ariaswithin the play.

To be sure, Francisco was identified with the role when he first did the part in the early 90s at Dulaang UP.

This was just two years after the play opened in Broadway at the Eugene O’Neill Theater on March 20, 1998 and closing after 777 performances.

After the latest revivals, Francisco sees Song Liling as an interesting character -- tricky, mysterious mischievous and at the same time extremely captivating. To him, his one-of-a-kind personality made portraying the role an absolute delight.

He was just approaching 20 when he played the part in 1990. “What I found difficult in the past M. Butterfly was having to play a mature role at such a young age. I had to conceal my lack of experience as a person and envision that I was much older and wiser.The role pushed me to step up my game as an actor. That required a lot of effort from me. However, the applause and good reviews were unexpected.I wasn’t sure if the ‘young me’ would really fit the role given that this play was based on a true story. But each compliment I received for the role affirmed that I made the right choice by taking the plunge and getting out of my comfort zone.”

As his character is middle-aged, Francisco gained more confidence as he matured. “As a more mature person and actor now, I just realized the image and persona of Song Liling already fit me like a glove.”

As conceptualized by Tolentino, the new production was indeed fresh and attuned to the times of the millennials.

“We really aim to share the beautiful and unconventional story of Song Liling and Rene Gallimard to the younger generation. Hence, we need to present something of interest to the young people,”Francisco said.

On the other hand, playing Song helped him reflect on himself as actor and as a person. “Song’s character is both feminine and masculine. By portraying Song, I became in touch with both sides of me as a person – male and female. Also, Song is very sensitive. From this role, I learned to become sensitive not just to myself but also to my co-actors.”

The M. Butterfly national tour schedule

Like it or not, M. Butterfly recalled the Puccini opera which has been staged at the CCP several times.

In the early ’80s, “Madama Butterfly” was seen at the CCP, with Israeli soprano Atarah Hazzan (a last-minute replacement for the indisposed Japanese soprano Yasuko Hayashi) playing Cio Cio San.

In 1994, another Cio Cio San in the person of Japanese soprano Yoko Watanabe was heard at CCP and gave the best interpretation.

For the record, the first Filipino to sing “Madama Butterfly” was no other than Maestra Isang Tapales, who sang the part not in Manila but in Teatro Donizetti in Bergamo, Italy, in April 1924.

In 1925, it was the turn of Maestra Jovita Fuentes (a National Artist for Music), who sang Cio Cio San in a municipal theater in Piacenza, Italy.

In the late ’40s, Maestra Dalisay Aldaba debuted in the same role at the New York City Opera. By coincidence, the first entrance of Igarta as Song Liling called to mind the very face of Aldaba in her younger age.

Soprano Jasmin Salvo who sang a few arias in the David Hwang play was equally cheered by the millennials after every performance. “First time to sing arias within the play. I liked sharing it with the two celebrated Song Lilings,” the prizewinner of an international voice competition added.

M. Butterfly will also be seen in Dumaguete City Feb. 28-March 3), Cebu (March 14-17), Davao City (March 28-31) and Baguio City (May 30-June 2).


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Founded in March 2008, VERA Files is published by veteran Filipino journalists taking a deeper look into current Philippine issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”

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