Elvis, Oscar, and Dmitri

Published May 19, 2022, 12:05 AM

by Gemma Cruz Araneta

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Gemma Cruz Araneta

Elvis Presley, then the indisputable “King of Rock” was the icon of all my female contemporaries, to the chagrin of the Maryknoll nuns (our teachers) who denounced him as an “occasion of sin.” Until Elvis came into the picture, no one sang with such a sexually provocative style.

Although we danced to rock and roll during weekend jam sessions, Elvis was not welcome in our San Juan home. How I envied a precocious cousin who, on our way home from school, would order the driver to make a detour to a record shop in Cubao where she spent her allowance on Elvis. Once she was looking for “Heartbreak Hotel” (it had already sold 10 million she bragged), “Teddy Bear” and “Horseshoe Cap.” She almost lost her cool when the salesperson could not find “Horseshoe Cap” which turned out to be “All Shook Up.”

When Elvis was conscripted and sent to Friedburg, Germany with the 3rd Armored Division of the USA, I told my mother about it, but that did not even dent her cruel heart. “Frank Sinatra calls Elvis Presley brutal, degenerate, and destructive,” she glared. “Better Sinatra, or anyone else, not Elvis!”

All his concerts turned into a frenzy; the national guards were often called to protect lives, including his own. Sadly, Elvis Presley died so young, at 42. Thanks to Spotify, I have become a posthumous fan.
Oscar Chavez was not the first Mexican singer I heard; we had records of the “Trio los Panchos” and Mommy’s favorite song was “Sin Ti.” I could listen to them even while doing my homework, she didn’t mind.

Shortly after my children and I settled in Mexico, Oscar Chavez came to the park in front of our apartment and gave a Sunday recital of protest songs. I was thoroughly fascinated, not only with that baritone of molten gold, but with the message of his songs. He accompanied himself with a classical guitar. I recognized “Macondo,” a tribute to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, author of “Cien Años de Soledad.” Next was “La Niña de Guatemala,” in honor of José Marti, the Cuban hero. Then came the audacious “Se vende mi país!” (My country is for sale, its petroleum is for sale; its silver, even its saintly bishops and their holy oils are for sale…) Neo-Liberalism was hurting the Third World, globalization was imminent.

Early on, Oscar Chavez appeared in telenovelas and movies, but he became famous in Latin America and the Spanish-speaking world because of protest songs. I mourned his death, a victim of Covid. He was 85. Thanks to Spotify, I can listen to his deep resounding baritone and with “Macondo,” dance a lively cumbia.

When I discovered Dmitri Hvorostovsky, he had already been dead for two years, of brain cancer; he was only 55 years old. I blamed myself for not paying enough attention to classical opera. What I call modern. His opera like “Les Miserables,” “Cats,” “Phantom of the Opera” were extremely enjoyable, especially the last one, but I have shied away from the classical type because I do not find tenors appealing, especially when paired with sopranos twice their girth. But, Dmitri was different. He was a very special type of baritone. Although baritones are always the villains of the story, when it is Dmitri on stage, the baritone becomes the hero, the main protagonist, at least to me.

He was born in Siberia, the only child of an engineer and a gynecologist who were consumed with their work, so Dmitri grew up with his grandma. One evening during this pandemic, I decided to look up “Eugene Onegin” simply because many years ago when the Cultural Center of the Philippines presented it, a friend who portrayed Onegin invited me, but I politely refused.

So there was Dmitri on YouTube as the heartless Eugene Onegin who later repented the disdainful way he had treated a girl who was crazy about him. Dmitri was more than six feet tall, good-looking, and charismatic. He could emote; he sang with passion, was capable of deep emotions; an alluring villain he was.

Apparently, in 2003 he had a recital titled, “Where are you my brothers?” Those were Russian war songs from World War II. A stage was constructed in the Red Square and 6,000 people came. As Dmitri sang, cameras were panning the audience and one could see veterans, both men and women, weeping silently.

They gave him a standing ovation. The year after, Dmitri did the same in Leningrad. That made me wonder, where are our songs of the Philippine Revolution? Do we have any World War II songs?
Dmitri’s enviable career at the Met (New York) lasted 20 years; he always brought the house down, applause would last for half an hour. He died at 55 in November 2017, but thanks to modern technology, I can always imagine that I am at the Met watching Dmitri as Count de Luna in “Il Trovatore” and Anckarström in “Un Ballo in Maschera,” now my two favorite operas.

Once, at a concert in Australia, the master-of-ceremonies presented Dmitiri Hvorostovsky as “the Siberian Tiger” and “the Elvis Presley of classical opera.”

([email protected]) gemmacruzaraneta.com

 
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