Earlier this year, The FilAm reported that Philippine history would be made in the fall with the premiere of “Noli Me Tángere” (Touch Me Not), the first Filipino opera to run in New York. In a follow-up story, The FilAm‘s Cristina DC Pastor takes readers behind the scenes before the October 4 premiere of “Noli” at Hunter College.
The theatrical production is based on a novel by physician and activist Dr. José Rizal that recounts the political and social abuses in the Philippines during Spanish colonial rule in the 19th century.
Pastor gives the background of the story, starting with altar boy Basilio, played by pop singer Kirby Asunto, 15, a girl who will perform the male character. Elijah Sirilan, a student at Metuchen Christian Academy in New Jersey, and his sister Zion will take turns in playing Basilio’s younger brother Crispin.
In the story, Basilio and Crispin are the sons of Sisa, who becomes deranged on learning her boys suffer beatings from the cruel hands of Spanish friars. Noli uses the romance of lovers Crisostomo Ibarra and Maria Clara to dramatize the harsh socio-political conditions in the Philippines under Spanish rule.
With a price tag estimated at around $500,000, “the production did not scrimp and cut corners, said the producers” when it came to efforts to stage the first Filipino opera in New York, as Pastor’s description of the costumes only suggests.
The actresses wore richly elaborate ‘baro’t saya’ gowns fashioned from silk and taffeta to recreate the look of the high society women of Rizal’s era. Set and costume designer Jerry Sibal made sure to distinguish the characters using colors and texture. The shy Maria Clara wears a gown the color of a blush of lime green, while Dona Victorina’s dress captures her meanness in thick folds of black fabric. Sisa’s dress is of more modest style and does not have the ornate lace and embroidered finery of the other women’s.
However high the costs or elaborate the costumes, at the foundation of the New York staging of “Noli” lies its importance for the Filipino community.
Businesswoman and philanthropist Loida Nicolas Lewis said the opera should be a point of pride among Filipino Americans.
“We want Filipinos to be proud of our culture. This is our own. It is world-class,” said Nicolas Lewis, head of the executive committee that is producing the Noli. She said the music alone – referring to the exceptional ‘kundiman’ of composer and National Artist Felipe Padilla de Leon — ranks among the best alongside the operas of Puccini and Verdi.
“Noli Me Tángere, the Opera” will run October 4, 5 and 6 at The Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College.