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Adelaide’s Cabaret Festival is an annual showcase of performances by various artists and musicians from all over the world.
The festival’s current Artistic Director Kate Ceberano revealed earlier that this year’s line-up of talents, performers and actors is testament to how huge and important the Adelaide Cabaret has become.
Topmost among the international artists that the Festival organisers feature is Lea Salonga, the Philippines’ most quintessential artist to have yet graced the global art circuit of Broadway.
Lea’s celebrity has been made synonymous with the ‘Miss Saigon’ Broadway play that catapulted her to stardom.
On her first Broadway performance in Miss Saigon, she won the prestigious Tony, The Olivier, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and Theatre World Awards.
From her first Broadway Musical on, her life took on the path of that for a living myth.
More awards piled up atop countless others.
Last year, her legend was honoured by Walt Disney and bestowed her the honour of Disney Legend, an annual award to “remember the gifts of … people who know the secret of making dreams come true.” Lea provided the singing voice for two Disney Princesses: Jasmine in Aladdin, and Fa Mulan in Mulan and Mulan II.
When it was made known that she will be having concerts for two nights in Adelaide during this year’s Cabaret Festival, the news spread like wildfire within the Filipino-Australian community.
She arrived in the 6th and an interview with her was scheduled in the afternoon of her arrival.
She is a star, a shining star. And she is the image of success and sterling accomplishments.
Her movements are smooth yet calculated. Fruit of years of training perhaps so that every bit of raspy edge has been smoothened out. Every projection and every bit about her, refined and teed to perfection. An artist on a role, she is at home with the most precise motions that are in synchronicity with purpose. There seemed not a fibre of spontaneity near her.
The lobby of the hotel was abuzz with movement and activity and it did not seem to matter to her. Lea and I took a corner where we could avail of the best light and she was good about it.
Being a living institution in the field of performing arts, the successes that you garnered span the equivalent of centuries or several lifetimes for others to achieve just as much. How do you achieve such level of excellence?
“The attitude to always do the best that I can, that was something that mentors, teachers, people I was working with always strove to instill in every artist… only because, growing up, I was raised by my family to never think that good enough is not good enough… so I think that you always have to strive as best as you can.”
Being Filipino at heart, in having done so much to raise the bar of respectability of the Filipino artist image in the global arena, has this been in the equation in your setting standards of excellence for yourself.
“It does not necessarily factor in. I mean the fact that I am a Filipino is obviously isn’t anything … it is not unimportant but it does not necessarily have to do with it “because the pride of the Filipino is riding on it”. It’s not so much that. It’s just the feeling that I’ve never tried anything less than that. Why am I now start anything different for me? For me it’s always, always, always do your best…
“Work hard, train and… get ready for rejection, get ready for downfall, be prepared for the worst… and always do your best because that will be the best support system that you’ll ever have… but of course you’ve got your family for your support system, but that’s a different support system… There are times when this work is lonely. There are times when work feels like you’re the only person in the wrong deal. It just sometimes feel that you’re all alone in whatever you’re doing but you have to trust that you never are ..”
How do you juggle being a mother and a career person and what effect does having a family have on the quality of your performance and your career?
“It’s not easy. When you have a six year old that tells you that she does not want you to travel, it’s hard. Thankfully I have a very supportive family. I’m very lucky. It’s never easy but I have a good system.
“It (work) becomes less important and more important at the same time. You realize that every dollar that you earn is no longer for your own personal stuff, it’s called logistics. You see college tuition fees, you see clothing, you see art classes, ballet classes, you see sports, you see all these expenses just racking up… you want to keep on making money for this little person… to have a life then becomes less important because you want to watch and spend time with this person.”
You’ve just come from a concert in the Town Hall in New York. How is it possible to come up with such performance that audiences went on standing ovation for consistently through out.
“When you know what you are doing, I’d like to know that I know what I’m doing… I have a really nice support group… that when we work together, we sit down together… then work becomes very easy. All I have to do is make sure that I have my lyrics in my head and then everything just comes together. These people that I work with, these are people that I’ve trusted for years and years. And so when we say we do that… we do it.”
Lea has collections of musical songs and pieces that she has sung and performed through the years from which she picks items for her repertoire in concerts. Once in a while she would find herself simultaneously doing a concert and preparing for or doing a play where she has lines to do on top of music parts. She acknowledges her family’s strong and cohesive support in enabling her to achieve her best in her performances and puts faith on constant practice.
“I have a whole stockpile of music, hundreds of them. It depends on what they ask me to put together.
“After the concert here, I’ll probably start looking into it (script of the upcoming play she will be doing). It just goes in (lines from scripts ). I like to think that I memorize pretty fast. It’s not so much photographic memory. I can look at a script now. It used to be better. I blame it on the epidural (anaesthesia she had at the birth of her daughter). If you do this (memorizing lines) over and over again, it just goes in.
“It takes a lot of brain power. You don’t do too much at once. How can you excel if you do too much at once? Don’t drive yourself insane by doing too much at one. You do what is manageable… It’s a juggling act but I have a very good support system that helps me make it possible.”
Lea has been a singing sensation from an early age. And the quality of her voice simply matured and became more refined through the years. She regards her voice with primary importance.
“It’s not always easy because I start to have a sore throat, I become very paranoid. I tend to become ‘hypochondriac’ about my voice. But anything else of my body I don’t care. My life is here (vocal chords). And they are tiny, these vocal chords. I try to say warm, try to always use a scarf around my neck. I try to always have a hat on. It helps that I have a husband who is a health freak; he gives me vitamins that I used to take and nice regimen to stay healthy. I try to stay away from acids. so I have to be careful. It’s a little nuts but it’s worth it.”
Her name has always been associated with Broadway and musical concerts. Considering her experiences, it can be assumed that she has become an authority on music in her own way. But she is also a Filipino with her own thoughts and feelings about current issues. When asked what were her feelings about the present issue of parts of the Philippines being claimed by another country, she paused pensively.
“It’s hard… If that place has been established historically and geographically as belonging to a certain country then it should be there. I understand if it is a strategic location. If it is in Philippine territory then it should be that of the Philippines.”
She now divides her time between the United States and the Philippines. Yet until now, she still currently holds a Philippine passport. The Philippines is clearly very much the home to her. Was it nationalistic spirit?
“No, it’s not so much nationalistic as it is patriotic. I don’t think it necessarily makes them less patriotic than makes them practical. It makes them pragmatic in the sense that a lot of people work in here.
“I think those who decide to change citizenship for practical reasons and some do it in order to go back to the Philippines, especially if they are able to get dual citizenship and opt for repatriation. I don’t think it makes anybody less of a lover of one’s own country to pledge allegiance to another country. For some people it becomes denouncement of a past.”
She has set standards that make her a hard act to follow. The success that she has garnered through her career would span the equivalent of several lifetimes for others to achieve just as much. Her legend is recognized by respectable art circuits across the world. In 2011, she was bestowed the honour of Disney Legend on top of the countless awards she has garnered. What advise does she have to upcoming artists who want to follow her footsteps?
“I love actually to be surpassed. I love for somebody to just overtake it. And I think that there are artists who have very good work ethics who are doing good themselves. It’s not easy as a lot of them will find out. Competitions- very stiff. And then there’s intrigue. Gossip. Yes, it’s not a very easy business to be in but it’s very fulfilling.
“There’s plenty of them (Filipino-American upcoming actors) in Broadway. One flattering remark for Filipino-American acting community in the US came from a Chinese actor, “You Filipino-American actors are the most cohesive that I’ve ever seen and I only wish that everyone else got their acts together.”
At the first night of her performance, the Adelaide Festival Theatre was packed.
Among the audience were Adelaide’s Who’s Who in the state government and in the Australian art circuit. Her ‘Miss Saigon’ fame still burned brightly.
This was Lea’s first trip to Adelaide. While she has been to Australia before to perform in a play in Melbourne and Sydney, her participation at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival is her concert debut in Australia.
She explained that her musical director and brother Gerald was supposed to have accompanied her here but had to forego this trip. He had commitment to do a gig on the 10th of June with ABS CBN’s newly organized orchestra where he is co-director and conductor. Her musical director and conductor in this event is Vanessa Scammell, one of Australia’s most exciting young conductors.
Her repertoire consisted of various selections with a number of challenging pieces pitting her crystal clear vocal quality against the 54 piece orchestra’s best.
In a couple of difficult pieces where the accompaniment was a guitar solo rendition and the other – a trumpet, her voice hit notes in superb precision and perfect modulation.
She sang a number of Disney musical pieces, Streisand love songs and some of her own personal favourites.
Her Miss Saigon trademark song was received with emotional applause. Once again, Lea shone like no other.
The hard-to-impress South Australian mainstream music audience has been won over.
After the show, many joined the queue of Filipino audience lining up to meet Lea up close and get her signature on CDs and photo tokens they have purchased.