Allons enfants de la patrie


The year after the stars and stripes were lowered in 1946, the Philippines and France established diplomatic relations. Various cultural events are marking the event’s 75th anniversary. Sponsored by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, the

French Embassy and the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Les Petits Chanteurs a la Croix de Bois (literally “the boys’ choir of the wooden cross” but better known as The Little Singers of Paris) are joining voices with our own Loboc Children’s Choir in concerts in Bohol, Manila, and Ilocos Norte.

VIVE L’ART - The Little Singers of Paris and Loboc Children’s Choir on stage.

The CCP is also presenting a series of five France-related operas produced by the Metropolitan Opera of New York in HD and in cooperation with Ayala Malls, shown at Greenbelt 4 Cinema.

Already completed are performances of Verdi’s La Traviata (based on an Alexandre Dumas story and set in Paris), Bizet’s Carmen (set in Spain but composed by a Frenchman and sung in French), and the modern masterpiece by Poulenc’s, Dialogues des Carmélites (composed by a Frenchman and sung in French). Scheduled in the next two months are Donizetti’s opéra comique La Fille du Régiment (composed by an Italian but sung in French) and Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila (composed by a Frenchman and sung in French).

The HD videos are excellent and, in addition to the actual performances, feature interviews of the singers and conductors, show backstage business with stagehands sweeping the stage and changing props and scenery, rehearsals, and other fascinating details not only about singers but also conductors and production personnel. I had seen La Traviata and Carmen several times in different places and the Greenbelt shows were just as enjoyable and certainly more instructive. The series is also an opportunity to see operas that have not been presented in Manila. The contemporary Dialogue des Carmelites is rarely performed even in the major opera houses abroad and it was a truly memorable evening.

It is fitting that cultural events form part of the celebration of Philippine-French relations. Our famous 19th century painters Juan Luna and Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo lived and painted in Paris and, more recently, painters Macario Vitalis, Nena Saguil, and Ofelia Gelvezon lived and worked in France. French naval officer and explorer Jean-François Galaup, Comte de Lapérouse, was here in 1787. Jules Dumont d’Urville, naval officer, botanist, and cartographer, followed soon after. Paul de la Gironière settled in Jala Jala, where he raised hogs and planted indigo, sugar cane, and coffee in his large plantation. He wrote a book about his experience, Vingt Années aux Philippines. French engineer Gustave Eiffel (of Eiffel Tower fame) may have contributed to the design and construction of Manila’s San Sebastian and San Ignacio churches.

The choral concert at the Metropolitan Theater was exceptional. The two choirs sang classical and popular pieces, the visitors amazing the audience with “Bahay Kubo” flawlessly sung to the last sitaw, bataw, at patanì. The theater is itself a cultural treat, magnificent in Art Deco splendor.

VIVE L’ART - The Metropolitan Theater lobby

The structure mostly survived World War II, although for decades it was used as boxing arena and I don’t know what else. The lobby apparently suffered little damage and one of the two large Amorsolo paintings in the upper lobby remained in place. The building was restored by Mrs. Imelda Romualdez-Marcos in the early 1980s. I remember that Nikki Coseteng (then not yet Senator but known as a prominent art collector) was asked by Mrs. Marcos to take charge of the Amorsolo paintings—she had the surviving original restored and a reproduction made of the lost pendant.

There was a grand inauguration and performances were held for several years under the directorship of the late Conchita Sunico. With an ownership dispute and lack of funding, the building was again neglected and fell into disrepair. Phoenix-like, the Metropolitan is now on its second reincarnation under the wing of the NCCA and is back to what is apparently its original splendor, with marble floors, period lighting, Monti sculptures, and reliefs on walls and ceilings, and repros of the original and of the repro Amorsolos.

I had my stage debut at the Metropolitan Theater, incidentally. My father Juan C. Laya was director of Dramatic Philippines, a theater group that mounted performances there during the Japanese Occupation. One of those plays was the Tagalog adaptation of his book His Native Soil that won the Commonwealth Literary Award for the novel. I was four and my part was to be led across the stage by the contrabida (named Virginia Fe). My repeated instruction was not to look at the audience. I looked.

Notes: The Commonwealth Literary Awards were given for the first and only time in 1940 to Salvador P. Lopez for “Literature and Society” (essay), Manuel Arguilla for “How My Brother Leon Brought Home a Wife and Other Stories” (short story), R. Zulueta da Costa for “Like the Molave” (poetry), and Juan C. Laya for “His Native Soil” (novel).  The Awards Ceremony was held at the Metropolitan Theater.

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