Arts & Culture

Why the Gaston house in Silay is special for me

The piano we used in one Silay outreach concert in the mid-90s.

This Gaston house in Silay (now Balay Negrense) is extra special for me.

In the mid-90s, I presented baritone Andrew Fernando, then child prodigy Makie Misawa and pianist Cecile Roxas in an intimate concert after performing in Bacolod’s L’Fisher Hall.

We used an old piano sourced in Tarlac.

It turned out my late daughter Kerima Tariman visited this ancestral house days before she was gunned down by state forces in Silay on August 21, 2021 at Hacienda Raymunda.

The grand stairway of the Gaston house with my daughter Kerima and companion.

I only know this house as the abode of mezzo soprano Conchita Gaston.

That house saw the birth of the country’s first mezzo soprano of consequence.

Silay City-born mezzo soprano Conchita Gaston sang Bizet’s Carmen at the New York City Opera in December of 1950, the first Filipino to sing the role.

Of Gaston’s portrayal of Carmen in the 1950s, American critic and musicologist Deems Taylor had written: “There may be a better Carmen than Conchita Gaston, but I haven’t heard one. yet.”

A year after her 1955 recital at the Town Hall in New York, Gaston met the then very young conductor Leonard Bernstein who found her good enough to be pitted with Beverly Sills in the Rosenkavalier duet, “The Presentation of the Rose” at the Carnegie Hall.

The critics had reservations about Bernstein’s conducting and the somewhat hollow tones of Sills and reserved the best word for the Filipina mezzo who they noted was a “commendable Octavian, singing with warm, resonant tones.”

The 1948 picture of Conchita Gaston with conductor Leonard Bernstein.

A Columbia Artist like Cecile Licad when she was just starting, Gaston basked in her contemporaries during the 1955-56 season namely sopranos Leontyne Price and Renata Tebaldi and tenors Jussi Bjoerling and Richard Tucker.

The only other mezzo in the Columbia Artists line-up was Jennie Tourel, an admirer of Filipina soprano Evelyn Mandac and a good friend of Bernstein.

Gaston’s second encounter with Bernstein was when she was chosen to sing the role of Jocasta in the Stravinsky opera oratorio, Oedipus Rex. This piece had Alistair Cooke as narrator.

The rave reviews of Gaston singing Jocasta were unanimous.

From New York Times: “Conchita Gaston, flamboyantly gowned in orange, looked and acted like a queen and sang with telling effect.”

From the New York Herald Tribune: “Conchita Gaston sang Jocasta’a aria with spine-tingling dramatic force and expression.”

Some seven years after she was diagnosed with cancer in 1980, Gaston had a fund-raising concert at the CCP to launch the Conchita Gaston Cancer Foundation in 1981.

In the audience was Romanian diva Nelly Miricioiu who couldn’t believe that the woman singing a fiery “Habanera” was cancer-stricken.

La Gaston first sang the role at the CCP in the early 70s. At the time, pianist and formerly CCP president Raul Sunico was her rehearsal pianist.

 “The late Conchita Gaston looked every inch a gypsy in that role and I remember her fine mezzo voice. On top of that, she was a real good actress,” Sunico recalls that Carmen production.

The mezzo’s niece, Atlanta-based ballerina Maiqui Gaston Manosa, had fond recollections of her aunt. She was still very young when she heard her aunt’s first Carmen at the CCP. The ballerina admits the Gastons of Negros are also famous for their tempers but she did not see her Aunt Conchita show it even once. “She was always smiling and I have yet to see her getting upset by one thing or the other.”

The truth is Gaston excelled not just as Carmen but in other roles as well. She was Cherubino in the Belgium production of Marriage of Figaro, Azucena in a German production of Il Trovatore,Amneris in Aida,Eboli in Don Carlo and Konchakovsna in Stravinsky’s Prince Igor, among others.

Gaston gave her last performance on December 5, 1983 at the Golden Jubilee of the Diocese of Bacolod. She was not well by then.

An account of that last performance: “When she got to Ave Maria, she missed the words. The audience wept. She once intimated to a sister “the moment I cannot sing, I’ll die.”

Conchita died on June 11, 1984.

Describing the singer, an admirer said, “Conchita Gaston had a beautiful voice, most importantly, she had a beautiful heart.”

My daughter Kerima probably visited Balay Negrense because she knew I keep going back there for outreach concerts.

The last concert I did in Bacolod at the old capitol building lobby featured tenor Gary del Rosario with pianist Cecile Roxas.

Special guest was National Artist for Architecture  Leandro V. Locsin who is from Silay City.