Tenor Otoniel Gonzaga, 75

Tenor Otoniel Gonzaga during his last concert at the CCP with Lea Salonga and Julian Quirit conducting the PPO. First time a tenor and a Broadway diva shared ecstatic audience at the CCP.

Tenor Otoniel Gonzaga, the first and the last Filipino tenor to sing Verdi’s Otello, has died in a Vienna Hospital January 14.

He was 75.

Gonzaga is survived by his wife Christina, son, Rolando and daughters, Isabelle and Louise.

Last heard as soloist of the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra under Julian Quirit with guest artists Lea Salonga and with the Manila Philharmonic Orchestra in 2006 with guest artists Dulce and soprano Camille Lopez Molina, Gonzaga has appeared in more than 45 opera houses in Germany including Berlin, Cologne, Dusseldorf, Hamburg, Hannover, Munich and Stuttgart.

Like pianist Cecile Licad, the tenor received his training at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania under the tutelage of English tenor Richard Lewis and American soprano Margaret Harshaw and later from Prof. John Lester.While in Curtis, he won first prize in the Marian Anderson International Singing Competition in Philadelphia.

Cecile Licad’s mentor, Rudolf Serkin, heard Gonzaga in a rehearsal of Cosi fan tutti and commented, “Most singers sing loudly but I like the way Gonzaga sing because he sings musically.”

Serkin’s admiration for Gonzaga later translated into an endorsement for him to be the one of the soloists in Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy with Eugene Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Otoniel Gonzaga as Otello. The first and the last Filipino

to sing the role.

One of the last Filipino singers Gonzaga had the chance to meet was Arthur Espiritu whom he met in Vienna four years ago.

Recalled Espiritu: “He was in good spirits and in good health. We met at a cafe near his house because he had a rehearsal that night. Before that was a lesson he was supposed to teach. We had a good three hours to talk. He had this unassuming manner about him. Quite sharp still in his age. I asked him what’s his secret. He said, ‘You have to have tremendous trust in yourself. And an unbreakable confidence.’ I then walked with him to the Volksoper Wien facility to see him off to see his student. He gave me a quick tour of the place and then we said goodbye. I have so much respect for him. Not just with his accomplishments but by the way he carried himself.He is a steady hand and someone who I can look up to. I’m very saddened by his passing.”

Tenor Gary del Rosario commented on Facebook: “Otoniel Gonzaga was my inspiration when I started singing opera. Your glorious voice will be missed.”

Writer Gemma Cruz Araneta who saw the tenor’s last concert at the CCP and Pasig Museum reacted: “Oh my God, What a devastating news. I am going to cry!”

Lea Salonga posted in Facebook “Oh no! Rest in peace Otoniel Gonzaga. Sing with the angels now.”

Singer Dulce: “My condolences to the Gonzaga family. It was a big honor to share the stage with this great Filipino tenor.”

Pianist Mary Anne Espina: “He was one of the great artists I have worked with. A special honor to share the stage with him.”

A soloist of the Frankfurt Opera where Espiritu debuted last year, Gonzaga sang Boheme in Frankfurt with the Mimi of the famous Romanian diva Nelly Miricioiu.

Like pianist Cecile Licad and tenor Arthur Espiritu, Gonzaga has concertized in Israel and sang the role of Manrico in Verdi’s II Trovatore in concert version with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haiva, Israel.

It was Placido Domingo’s agent who arranged for Gonzaga’s audition with the late legendary conductor Herbert von Karajan who found the Filipino tenor good enough as substitute for tenor Luis Lima who backed out due to vocal indisposition.

Gonzaga has special place in the country’s opera history as the first and the last Filipino tenor to sing Verdi’s Otello in which he logged more than 40 performances in Prague and additional performances in Yokohama, Japan.

Gonzaga admitted Otello is the penultimate of tenor roles.

He said,“For one to do justice to the part of Otello, one must be ready not just vocally but also psychologically because one has to move from one role to another.”

“Otello was a Moor and he was a mercenary who was paid to go to war by the Venetians who didn’t want to dirty their hands. On top of that, he was also in love with the 16-year old Desdemona, but he was black being a Moor. So, he is placed in a psychological dichotomy of being black in a big white world. He ends up murdering his loved one. Musically, Otello is very rewarding and it is also one of the heaviest. One has to dig deep into the psychological equivalent of the role of someone in love and very jealous and consumed by murderous rage. So, you have a whole spectrum of emotions. They say that if the music doesn’t get in you in this opera, the emotions will,” he pointed out.

Way back in 1994 one week before the Philippine debut of Luciano Pavarotti, Gonzaga gave his countrymen a sampling of what it took to be able to sing Act I of Otello even in concert form. After the initial chorus opener, Gonzaga let out a piercing opening aria, Esultate which all but silenced a stunned audience. Many opera lovers admitted their hair stood on end at the end of the opening Otello aria.

Otoniel Gonzaga with Gemma Cruz Araneta, Odette Alcantara and Fides Cuyugan Asencio at the Pasig Museum. The greatest Filipino tenor in living memory.

Gonzaga left a few words of wisdom for those who want to invade the opera world the way he did. “First of all, you don’t become a star overnight. One has to prepare oneself for hard work and once you have attained the part that you aimed for, you should be able to humble yourself to avoid the star complex. Even if you become an opera star so to speak, it doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy after that (stardom didn’t prevent Pavarotti from catching cold in Manila in 1994 and cancelling his opening night). It can be lonely at the top and the pressure to maintain your position can be agonizing.”

During his Manila visits, Gonzaga’s dream was to sing Otello and Turandot (as Calaf) for Filipino audiences. “Otello and Calaf (Turandot) have been my signature roles in last few seasons. I also must include Lehar’s The Land of Smiles which I have sung more than 600 times and surprisingly enough has never been done in the Philippines. It is really my dream to mount local productions which will give our countrymen the opportunity to hear three great works done by their countrymen in world-class style.”

Of his first team up with Lea Salonga in 2006, the tenor said: “Singing with Lea was a privilege. It is always a privilege to work with an artist of her stature.”

Of his last Manila concert in 2006 with the Manila Philharmonic Orchestra, writer Jullie Yap Daza wrote: “I am tongue-tied, dumbstruck. I can only say that the Christmas concert that starred Otoniel Gonzaga with Camille Molina and Dulce should have been watched by 10,000 or 20,000 people.”


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