‘Noli me Tangere, the Opera’ opens Oct. 4; big budget, world-class, say producers

Sal Malaki and Antoni Mendezona as Crisostomo Ibarra and Maria Clara. Photo by Oliver Oliveros

Sal Malaki and Antoni Mendezona as Crisostomo Ibarra and Maria Clara. Photo by Oliver Oliveros

By Cristina DC Pastor

There they were, the youngsters of “Noli Me Tangere, the Opera” giggling, mugging for the cameras, just being precocious kids. All the time, Kirby Asunto, Elijah Sirilan and his sister Zion huddled close as if they were siblings.

At least in the New York production of Jose Rizal’s historical novel, they are.

Fifteen-year-old pop singer Asunto will play the altar boy Basilio, her long hair an object of good-humored teasing during the press preview at the Riverside Church.

“They asked me if they can cut my hair,” she said, sharing with The FilAm her anxieties about performing before a live orchestra as well as playing a 10-year-old boy. Her voice can well pass for that of a pre-teen.

Elijah Sirilan, a student at Metuchen Christian Academy, and his sister Zion will alternate as the playful, younger brother Crispin. “I die in the play,” he said, understandably proud of his own theatrical high point.

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.

No detail is ever too trivial, including Basilio’s hair, but everything else about the Noli production aspires to look as authentic and as close to 19th century Philippines as possible.

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.

“Every piece of costume should represent something,” said Sibal, an event designer who owns his eponymous design studio on E 28th Street. He disclosed how the women each have four costume changes and three for each of the men.

In Sibal’s stage design, a framed window serves as a focus. Using video projection, the lighting behind the window establishes mood and movement and creates the illusion of time as in sundown to midnight.

“It takes a lot of imagination,” said Sibal who has a background in architecture, interior design and theater. “You have to recreate the period and make the audience feel that he is in that period.”

Producers estimated the budget at about $500K. Noli being the first Filipino opera to be staged in New York, the production did not scrimp and cut corners, said the producers. The cast and crew were paid, so are the orchestra’s musicians, although many volunteered their time and talent.

“It’s an expensive production,” declared Sibal. “And Filipinos gave of their time, money, concentration and hard work.”

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 Tangere, the Opera” will be presented October 4 to 6 at The Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College.
It stars Filipino opera singers Sal Malaki (as Juan Crisostomo Ibarra), Antoni Mendezona (Maria Clara), Andrew Fernando (Padre Damaso), Robert Perla Gomez (Elias) and Maria Christina Navarro (Sisa) and Kirby Asunto (Basilio). It also features a diverse ensemble cast: Brad Arreglado, Jonathan Estabrooks, Rosemarie Flores, May Hackett, William Lim, Brittany Palmer, Allan Samonte, Rina Saporantos, Elijah Sirilan, Zion Sirilan, Ulises Solano, Sherwin Su, Lisa Villamaria and Resty Yongco.

The creative and production team is composed of Michael Dadap (artistic musical direction), May Pamana (direction), Rene Dalandan (assistant stage direction), Kristin Jackson (choreography), Jeff Davis (lighting design), Jerry Sibal (set and costume design), Natalie Qing Zhang (stage management) and Clare Chujie Xu (assistant stage management).

Major sponsors are the Reginald F. Lewis Foundation Goldman Sachs & Co., J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Alvarez Educational & Charitable Fdn, CiAT Funds, Philippine Development Foundation, US Philippine Society, Leslie Lewis Sword, GMA Pinoy TV/ GMA Life TV, and Maharlika Restaurant.

For tickets ($60-$150), call 646-415-1853, email filartists@gmail.com or visit nolimetangereoperanyc.org.

Kirby Asunto (center) with real-life siblings Elijah and Zion Sirilan. The FilAm Photos

Kirby Asunto (center) with real-life siblings Elijah and Zion Sirilan. The FilAm Photos

Musical director Michael Dadap with Noli's cast of sopranos

Musical director Michael Dadap with Noli’s cast of sopranos

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