What is it in opera that New York-based Ilonggo, Bernie Milan, doesn’t mind spending his free time memorizing long lines and hard-to-pronounce songs or enduring late night rehearsals, and yet doesn’t earn much from it?
The 34-year old Filipino opera singer had this simple answer; “Opera is the only performing art where the question is not “Does he look the part?” but rather, “Can he sing the part?”
I knew Bernie way back in high school. The last time I saw him was more than fifteen years ago. We finally met again when he came to visit Barcelona for a well-deserved vacation last month. Catching up over a glass of cava and people-watching by the Las Ramblas, I later learned that aside from having a stable day job, he also performs as an opera singer in The Big Apple. I sipped my cava and listened admiringly to his story. During the course of our conversation, he was more animated and bubblier. Albeit still sober, it was deemed necessary for a second bottle of yet another sparkling cava. As they say in ‘Pinas, “Mahaba-habang inuman ‘to.”
A native of Bacolod, the ever affable and effervescent Bernard or Bernie to his friends was already singing when he was just a kid. He was an active musical performer in school which earned him numerous accolades and awards from several singing competitions. So it did not come as a surprise that even if he is now working as an Online Manager for People en Español Magazine in New York, he still finds time donning medieval costumes and belting arias, be it in German or Italian or in whatever language it may be.
“Opera, to me, is the highest form of any of the performing arts. It requires singers with truly exceptional talent and years of formal training. It takes the human voice to the absolute limits of what it is capable of doing. Imagine a venue that the only thing that mattered was talent.”
Bernie joined the community opera company Amore Opera in the 1999-2000 season and since then, he has been a main fixture in every show the company has mounted. With the kind of work that he does during the day, stressful and all, one may wonder how can he still find time to perform onstage.
“During the day I head up online sales for People En Español Magazine and I try to find time to study after work. I am in the middle of “Hell Week” – the week before a production opens (We are opening Mozart’s The Magic Flute this weekend) and things in the office are getting really busy as well. I guess the secret is developing a way to silo your different “lives””.
“I must say that when I am in the office, my focus is solely on my work. The moment I leave the office, I put on a different hat and entertain my artistic side. Music is a very powerful force. As soon as I turn on my iPod on the subway to rehearsals, I become the character and my mindset is on that opera.”
“It also helps to find friends that are in a similar situation as you are. I have a tight knit of friends who work during the day and sing opera at night. The challenges are immense but when you get a standing ovation, or when someone approaches you after a show and tells you that they were moved by your performance – all that sacrifice, blood sweat and (many, many) tears are worth it.”
This time, Bernie plays Lieutenant Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly while the Caucasian singers play the Asian roles
“Being a Pinoy is an advantage”
He considers himself lucky that he is an operatic lyrico-spinto tenor, a rather rare high male voice-type. Gifted with such voice, he gets cast a lot. He sings the repertoire of singers like Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti.
“Actually, problems regarding my being Asian has never come up. Again, it’s about the talent. The ability to perform certain roles and sing them well. You can be short, fat, green, crooked, tall etc. – as long as you can sing the role. Of course all things being equal, the director will cast believable singers in the role. I once played Pinkerton, the main American character in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Looking at the cast, I was the only non-white (Asian at that) playing a Caucasian American. All the Japanese characters, including Butterfly, were Americans (Caucasians, African-Americans, etc.) It was quite weird at first but the music won the audience over and the show was well received!”
Right now, he is the only Pinoy in the group. Though, according to him, people no longer get surprised to see a Pinoy in any production. Thanks to Lea Salonga, Black Eyed Peas, Charice, to name a few.
“And this is a wonderful thing!” He gamely exclaimed. “Being a Pinoy is an advantage. I actually believe in the Pinoy touch. Pinoys have music and performing arts in their blood. We have the flair for drama. All throughout my days in La Salle, it was encouraged for everyone to take part in school plays, musicals and variety shows. I mean even at karaoke here in NYC, people expect you be good if you are Pinoy!
On discipline and Maria Callas
Before a performance, Bernie strictly follows a self-imposed regimen, sleep and eat well. He gets to the theatre really early, get into costume and find a quiet corner to focus and visualize my performance. He tries not to get caught up in the backstage frenzy with all the other performers. Having played a numerous array of Operatic characters, his most favourite character to date is “Mario Cavaradossi” from Puccini’s Tosca.
Among the opera singers, he looks up to the two greatest opera singers in the world.
“One is Maria Callas. This soprano defied the norms of opera and emerged as a superstar in her day. Her vocal discipline and the drama that she brought to all her roles (not just beautiful singing) made her stand out from the rest. She is a master of telling a story through her singing. The other one is the tenor Placido Domingo. His range and characterization always wins me over. True, there are prettier voices out there, but Domingo brings such a depth to his performances that you actually believe in every note and every nuance. I guess I am drawn to opera singers who understand that voice is just the beginning, the vehicle to tell the story.”
Does he think that Pinoys are ready to appreciate opera?
“I believe that Pinoys need more exposure to opera. We do not have a vibrant opera company in the Philippines so there are no local artists to idolize and look up to. Also, there are no conservatoires and very limited educational tools for our students to appreciate and learn how to sing opera. That said, I am confident that with the advent of YouTube, Facebook and the Internet in general, our Pinoy youth can have access to musical performances outside the Top 40 Pop hits.”
“Opera has the reputation of being appreciated by a limited number of followers. Such reputation I’m afraid. Because of the sheer scale and grandeur of the medium, productions get really expensive to mount and that cost translates into higher ticket prices. Another barrier for it to be accessible is the language. German, Italian and French are the three main languages of more than 70% of the works that are out there. Chances are foreign-language work (for Americans, at least) are deemed as for the elite and rich.”
“Because of this stigma, the Metropolitan Opera has started a “Live in HD” program where certain performances are broadcast live in HD at movie theatres across Northern America, Europe and Japan. The goal is to make opera accessible to everyone from all walks of life and I honestly think it is helping break the stigma. I hear they are increasing the number of broadcast performances and theatres in the upcoming season.”
“How wonderful would it be to wake up and just sing for a living”
Being with the opera group, Bernie had the chance not only to do what he loves most but also to meet amazing people on and off stage. Every performance is always a bottomless pit of fun and good memories. And that includes anecdotes and bloopers as well. One of the most unforgettable happened a couple of years ago.
“I was singing the title role of Gounod’s Faust. We were multicast and all of the other Faust’s were…let’s say rotund. So when it was my turn to play the role, the costume was pinned to fit me. Let’s just say I had to finish the love aria “Salut! Demeure chaste et pure” with my lederhosen halfway down my knees. I didn’t flinch – the show MUST go on!”
With all the exposures that he gets from every performance, Bernie has actually considered taking opera on a professional level, making it as his bread and butter, so to speak.
“Of course. How wonderful would it be to wake up and just sing for a living. I’m getting there I think. I have many people approaching me about auditions and artist representation and that feels good. My day job allows me to live a certain lifestyle and it would be a hard adjustment to go the “starving artist” route at my (young) age – I am still hopeful though. One must never give up on their dreams.”
Does he have some advice to his fellow kababayans who are interested in operas and want to be opera singers too?
“I would simply say give opera a chance. Listen to an aria or two. Read about it. Go on YouTube and watch clips from famous operas. All the best love stories and musicals today are based on opera: Rent was based from La Boheme; Moulin Rouge form La Traviata, Miss Saigon from Madama Butterfly. As for budding opera singers, listen to as much opera as you can. Study not only the technique and music but also embrace the story, the drama behind every note. And continue to sing – there are no boundaries or limitations!”
It was time to leave and to catch the Opera Flamenco concert Bernie was excited to watch as part of his Catalan experience. I sipped the last drop of cava from my glass before I decided to launch my last question that I was dying to ask him since the first time I heard that he was into opera. If we invited him to sing for the Filipino community in Barcelona or Madrid in the near future, would he sing for us?
“But of course, just say when!”
With this, I got my answer. As we walked down to the Teatro Poliorama squeezing ourselves through the crowded Las Ramblas, Bernie, as if giving Barcelona a glimpse of what to expect, released his own aria from his favourite “Che Gelida Manina” of La Boheme:
“Per sogni e per chimere
e per castelli in aria,
l’anima ho milionaria.”
“When it comes to dreams and visions
and castles in the air,
I’ve the soul of a millionaire.”
Echoing the message of the aria, Bernie said it best as we finally reached the theatre.
“I am just trying to live my life – full of dreams and not afraid of possibilities.” Photos contributed by Mr. Bernie Milan; Text: Nathaniel Sisma Villaluna