Noli Me Tangere opera at The Kennedy Center


Washington, DC: As morning readers of today’s print edition of The Manila Times, Noli Me Tangere, the opera, based on Jose Rizal’s novel is being staged (December 8 p.m. Washington, DC, is December 9 a.m. in Manila) at the prestigious Eisenhower Theater of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. There will be another performance tomorrow (August 9 Saturday in Washington).

As the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theatre announcement says the opera is performed in Tagalog, with English supertitles. Performance Timing is: Part One – 71 min.; Intermission – 15 min.; Part Two – 67 min.

The opera adaptation of the Philippine national hero’s first novel is said to be the most performed of Philippine operas. It has been staged since 1957 when two illustrious Filipino artists collaborated to create the opera version of the Noli.

Some believe the Noli to be the best Filipino novel ever written. What is not arguable is that together the Noli and El Filibusterismo—awakened the Filipino intelligentsia and through them the ordinary people to desire independence from colonial master Spain.

Philippine National Artist for Music, Felipe Padilla De Leon, composed the opera’s music while Philippine National Artist for Visual Arts, Guillermo Estrella Tolentino, wrote the libretto. Both creators, like Rizal, were ardent patriots. Their respective works in music and sculpture while being superior works of art also project pride of country, love of peace and freedom, survival from turmoil and strife.

The opera has a diverse, dedicated, talented, devoted and well-trained cast.

At the press conference on July 16 at the Philippine Embassy, the cast’s inspired and vigorous renditions of both the US and Philippine national anthems reverberated beyond the embassy’s Romulo Hall. It gave an introduction to the prowess of the producers and cast, foretelling the exalting singing that audiences will enjoy in the two performances.

The Noli’s protagonist, Crisostomo Ibarra, is played by Cuban American tenor Sal Malaki, said he felt privileged to be a part of an opera that depicts similar historical experiences with Cuba. Soprano Katrina Saporsantos, plays Dona Victorina, the social climbing and pretentious colonial matron, who reinvented herself from a poor and uneducated ignoramus to a farcical sophisticate wannabe. Puerto Rican/Filipino American John-Andrew Fernandez’s strong and forceful baritone makes him the perfect player to appear as the cruel and corrupt Friar Damaso. Beauteous soprano from Cebu, Antoni Mendezona, brought the house down as the tragic mad woman Sisa. Music director Benjamin Dia adroitly accompanied them all on the keyboard.

The plot: Juan Crisostomo Ibarra, scion of a wealthy and highly educated Filipino family, or, in Filipino socio-economic studies, an Ilustrado, goes balikbayan (returns to homeland) after several years of study and travel in Europe where his broader education has widened his perspective and liberalized his outlook. He he finds that his father has been imprisoned on false charges and his beloved, Maria Clara, doesn’t want to marry him anymore, giving him no explanation. His idealism and broader view of civil rights that he acquired from his European studies conflict with the oppression and injustices his compatriots suffer under the Spanish colonial government and friars of the Roman Catholic Church. In that situation, the drama develops into an exciting narrative that gives Rizal the opportunity to show his talent in fleshing out unforgettable characters who peopled the Philippine milieu during the last decade of Spanish colonial rule in the archipelago.

The title of Rizal’s first novel Noli Me Tangere means “Touch me not.” It comes from the Gospel of St. John (20:17).

To his friend Ferdinand Blumentritt and to his former professor, Francisco de Paula Sanchez, Rizal wrote that he “wanted to awaken his countrymen from their profound lethargy, and whoever wants to awaken does not do so with soft and light sounds but with explosions, blows, etc.”

The book has high drama, in the manner of Dickens and Victor Hugo. Rizal also proves himself to be mastery of satire in the Noli. Some literary critics says its scathing humor and sarcasm are rarely matched by later Filipino writers.

With the complex task of simplifying but staying faithful to Rizal’s plot and at the same time keeping his satire and humor in the opera, the directors, Freddie Santos and Ana Tsuri Etsuko, decided to focus on making “the story as clear as possible, so the opera becomes historically accurate and emotionally powerful at the same time.” They have updated the opera from the original three acts of 1957, a time when the audience was accustomed to longer performances, into two acts for a “crispier” presentation.

Noted New York events and floral designer, Jerry Sibal, is co-executive producer/director in charge of sets and costume designs. For the sets he is keeping architectural details from antique Philippine houses “so the audience will understand our rich history and culture.” His elaborate and exquisite costumes crafted in Philippine fabrics like abaca and pineapple fiber with Italian damask are in the styles of the period heavily influenced by the fashion in Europe at the time,

Co-executive producer/director Edwin Josue is very much aware of the complexities in the production but vows that their team is resolved in pushing the project to educate and inspire Filipinos everywhere of Philippine cultural heritage that needs “to be preserved and be proud of.”

The Philippine Embassy through Ambassador Jose L. Cuisia, Jr. has partnered Businesswoman Loida Nicolas Lewis, the non-profit organizations Mid Atlantic Foundation for Asian Arts (MAFFAA), the Migrant Heritage Commission (MH), and various community leaders to sponsoring the Eisenhower Theater staging of the opera.

Herminia Ubaldo Smith is based in Washington, DC.


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  1. H. Ubaldo Smith on

    To reply to: “Where the hell did the Cuban references come from? Obviously, the author never spoke to or did any reasonable research on any of the artists for this article.”
    I was at the press conference on July 16 at the Philippine Embassy to promote the opera and Mr. Malaki was introduced as Cuban from the podium. I don’t know why he was introduced that way and I just reported the emcee’s information. I am not into providing misinformation so I was confused to find out that Sal Malaki is Filipino from his bio in the playbill that I was handed at the Kennedy Center last Friday, August 8. As to research: you are questioning someone who has over 40 years in librarianship professional positions–not an aide or an assistant but professional positions–from my employment in academic and research libraries in Oregon, Missouri and Washington, DC. Truth be told, I don’t care much how my article as published by Manila Times appears. The first two paragraphs were revised and the revision has erroneous dates of “December 8 …”? My original article purposely focused first on the opera authors with some personal information to give a human touch and personal dimension. So, I don’t feel gratified with my name on the article that has lost so much of its heart and soul and replaced with flat and stock text that was probably copied and pasted from somewhere else? When I was hired from my last position, my title included “Trainee” until I mastered using The Chicago Manual of Style and the US Government Printing Office (GPO) Manual but I was promoted and even became a trainer. Perhaps, Rene, I made a mistake in sending you a copy of my article–I did want to share an exciting news. But I’ll stick to reviewing books in Amazon where they keep my text verbatim. In this day and age of blogging and self-publishing there is really not much incentive to seek print media which is dying. But you are still my big brother and friend, Rene, and my best wishes to you and Mrs…

  2. Correction needed: Sal Malaki is not Cuban American. He is 100% pinoy, born and raised and educated in the Philippines. He is based in LA where he sings for the LA Opera.

    Where the hell did the Cuban references come from? Obviously, the author never spoke to or did any reasonable research on any of the artists for this article.