Arthur Espiritu on Life and the Opera

The perception of opera’s grandeur has persisted throughout generations, with the public associating it with class, extravagance, and sometimes pompous air. It is grand and expensive to produce, no doubt; on this, Northern Ireland Opera’s artistic director Oliver Mears tells The Guardian, “In scale and cost it is the most excessive of all art forms, and in the totality of its artistic claims, is the most ambitious. The demands on its practitioners, too, are excessive.” Throughout the years, opera’s vivacity may have intimidated some potential audience, prompting them to readily dismiss it as an elitist art. But nothing can be further from the truth: at the core of opera is an atemporal and dazzling portrayal of what it means to be human.

The Enduring Voice of Opera

“As society changes directions, where visual and first impressions reign supreme, it is the perfect time to keep the art going.”

Opera may vary in context and historical period but the human condition it portrays is timeless. “Every person’s life in our current society can be related to the stories or legends in opera,” explains tenor Arthur Espiritu. Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème, he says, is a perfect example: “A bunch of struggling artists band together to tackle life’s hardships and put their resources together to make the dues and daily needs…coupled with two love stories.” It is an opera that first premiered in 1896 yet it is a story that resounds to this day. Themes on love, friendship, love, jealousy, and loss are presented in full. Opera can portray a story’s dimensions in elaborate forms that capture layers of emotional complexity. As Arthur explains, “[Opera is] the combination of the art of singing, dance, spoken word, acting, and orchestra — what else can you ask for? Most of these works are deemed timeless and totally relatable to today’s age. As society changes directions, where visual and first impressions reign supreme, it is the perfect time to keep the art going.”

As with all art forms, opera has been evolving. The emergence of new direction styles is one notable aspect. “It is very important to take into consideration the changing styles in directions,” says Arthur. These are creative attempts to reinvent opera for the modern age. This, however, does not mean that it is outdated; music history shows us that styles and tastes naturally evolve with culture and art. “Some are concepts from directors with the intent to relate to today’s time. Some are fragmented and abstract to provoke deeper thoughts in the audience. Some audiences will embrace the concept, some won’t,” Arthur explains. There have been mixed responses since modernized direction and staging styles emerged in the recent years. Some have conveyed their dismay, even exasperation: that modernizing is a travesty, that opera should remain loyal to the intentions of the composer and stick to period stagings — no reinventions. Yet many also laud opera’s modernization: they find it refreshing and indicative of a dynamic, thriving, art form. They acknowledge that even with the reinvention, opera remains the same entity, only donning new, in fashion, clothing. As Arthur says, “Even though staying true and respecting the traditions in opera are paramount, one must accept the landscape in which we are in.”

Into Music: The Artist and His Process

“I felt like it [music] chose me,” says Arthur Espiritu. “I never had any aspirations to become a classical singer, but I have known in my heart that I am happy and content when I sing.” Arthur may not have chosen music at the onset but he has since devoted his life to it. Little did he know that a modest choice for an after-school activity would set his trajectory to becoming a world-acclaimed tenor. He recalls how it began in high school: “Music came to me when I joined the choir with a good friend. We didn’t have any other extracurricular activity so we decided to audition.” He has come a long way since, now at the pinnacle of his career. What he says has driven him all the way is simple yet encompassing: “It is my love and passion for it.” It goes without saying that with these is a fount of dedication that can only be glimpsed as the artist is at work. Arthur lays down the beginning of his process:

My general rule: if it’s based on a book, I will read it and familiarize myself with the character I’m assigned. If it’s based on a true story, I will read about the biography of the character. If it’s based on a legend, or any fictional story, I will read that work, too.

Then I will have to analyze where my emotional tendencies are and perhaps marry it with the character I’m doing. Just like any actor would do.

Some scores have particular blocking notes written in them. I make a note of these and figure out what the librettist and composer were trying to convey.

Then I analyze my music, figure out my breathing points. I try to be coached by someone who knows the language and style well. This means flying or driving to where the coach is, and dedicate at least one week’s time to develop and grasp the style.

I mark my beats in the music and write down my translations along with the original lyrics. It would really help if you know the language a bit, so you’d know where to put your phrasings according to the language’s inflections. There is also the factor of dialect for some languages. If the director demands a particular one, you have to do it. Some operas are also done in the language of the country it’s playing in, so you also have to learn that.

There was once a challenging role that Arthur had to prepare for. It was in a language he had to learn within rigid time constraints. “I try to learn them [languages] ahead of time. But because my agencies try to book me almost back-to-back gigs, I have to learn very quickly. . . . in one month, it’s Italian, then French, then German. I had to sing a role in Polish once. It took me so long to learn it. You simply have to give it your time and tackle it slowly until you get it.” It was an obstacle that Arthur undoubtedly surmounted. In his performance of Szymanowski’s King Roger, music critic Barney Zwartz of The Sydney Morning Herald acclaims, “Arthur Espiritu is a seductive shepherd, wielding his high tenor with a sinuous beauty. I found no fault with their Polish.”

Between Artist and Audience

The artist must bare himself to the audience to successfully share his craft with utmost sincerity and authenticity. “It is like meeting someone new. You have to let go of your barriers,” Arthur says. He also adds, “You have to give the audience a chance to open up to you as well.” It is the performer who actuates the artistic experience and the audience joins in. There is thus a silent dialogue between audience and performer, progressing through an undercurrent of a shared experience. It is striking for Arthur to further say that the audience “need to be transported somewhere else, besides their realities.” In opera, isn’t it more than escapism? It does not to negate the audience’s realities but rather expands them: physical barriers break down and the audience are empowered to transcend the mundane. This, Arthur claims, marks a successful performance: “when the audience has embraced your efforts. . . . it is a feeling that you have shared with them a part of you.”

Author’s Notes

Through the partnership of the MCO Foundation, Inc. and the NCAA, tenor Arthur Espiritu will be performing with notable young artists on 27 July 2019, 7:30 PM at the Power Mac Center Spotlight, Circuit Lane, Circuit Makati, Makati City. See the poster for ticket details.

A writer and musician who has spent most of her career in the arts industry. Joyce now explores the creative process she's been steeped in, in all its forms.