American-Filipino tenor's rise from rock to opera
Rising opera star chooses Switzerland's Theater Saint Gallen over London's Royal Opera HouseManila – Fifteen years ago the future opera singer Arthur Espiritu was fronting a US high-school rock band, belting out covers of Bon Jovi's odes to modern-day hard men and motorcycle-riding outlaws.
"'Wanted, Dead or Alive' was my favourite," the Philippine-American tenor laughs, referring to the Bon Jovi song as he recalls a dizzying decade or so that brought him to the cusp of global stardom in the field of musical drama.
By 2007 Espiritu was thoroughly transformed as the triumphant tenor Ferrando, singing the soldier's delicate "Un'aura Amorosa" aria in the Mozart opera Cosi fan tutte at the world-famous La Scala of Italy.
"It gave me a barometer of where I am in my career," says Espiritu, the first tenor of Philippine descent to perform at the Milan opera theatre.
"The Italians are very passionate about what they do and they're very serious about their opera there. To be able to survive that, to me, is an accomplishment."
On a brief visit back to the country of his birth for a one-off concert in Manila, Espiritu told AFP of his unlikely rise from rock balladeer to a promising international operatic talent.
Espiritu left his Philippine hometown of Morong, near Manila, to join his parents abroad when he was 15.
"It was not a very easy transition, actually," Espiritu said ahead of the concert last weekend -- in which the full house gave him rapturous applause.
"I knew how to sing but not this way, so it was a bit of a struggle in the early years."
It did not help that his father, then a US-based male nurse who has since returned to the Philippines after retirement, pushed him to become a doctor.
"When I started to go to music, my dad asked me: 'Are you gay?'," he said, doubling up in laughter.
Espiritu eventually earned a Masters of Music degree in 2002 from the University of New Orleans, then took up an artist diploma course at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music.
Over the past nine years he has been in 23 US and European productions, including the title role in Francesco Cavalli's L'Ormindo at the Pittsburgh Opera and as Don Ottavio in Mozart's Don Giovanni at the Opera Fuoco in Paris.
Last year he was one of six winners of the George London Award for young North American singers.
Philippine soprano Rachelle Gerodias described Espiritu's singing as effortless.
"He's an ordinary guy with an extraordinary voice," said Gerodias, Espiritu's main collaborator at the Manila concert, his first appearance on stage in his country of birth.
Last year Espiritu moved to Europe on a two-year contract to assume the lead roles at Theater Saint Gallen in Switzerland, rejecting a rival offer from London's Royal Opera House, where he was to have been assigned cover roles.
"I had to choose between the two and think about being in London, a big market. I still think about it now," said Espiritu, who is aged in his early 30s but did not want to give his exact date of birth.
Reflecting on the Philippines, which is a desert in opera terms with just one production every two years, Espiritu has only sympathy for fellow Filipinos who have to go abroad or see their talent go to waste.
He said he eventually hoped to offer more to his home country than just a one-off concert.
"I would love to do an opera here. I would even do it for free," he said.
Cecil Morella / AFP / Expatica