‘Noli Me Tangere’ Filipino opera will tell moving tale at Kennedy Center


Maria Cristina "Kit" Navarro as Sisa in "Noli Me Tangere." (Troi Santos/Courtesy of the Foundation for Filipino Artists Inc.)
August 2

The title may translate as “Touch Me Not,” but a team of intrepid producers haven’t hesitated to tackle “Noli Me Tangere,” which has been called the first full-length Filipino opera composed in the Western operatic tradition.

On Aug. 8 and 9, the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater will host two performances of “Noli Me Tangere,” a tale of love, intrigue and nationalism set in the Philippines during Spanish colonial rule. Accompanied by a full orchestra rounding out Felipe Padilla de Leon’s score, the cast will sing Guillermo Tolentino’s libretto in Tagalog. (There will be English supertitles.) The D.C. engagement, which is presented by the Mid Atlantic Foundation for Asian Artists (MAFFAA), follows a 2013 New York City staging of the opera featuring most of the same artists.

“Noli Me Tangere” is “something that is really equivalent to some of the great operas that we see coming out of the West,” says Edward A. Seidel, the self-described “lifelong opera fan” who is MAFFAA’s president.

“The music penetrates you,” says executive producer Edwin R. Josue, comparing de Leon’s score to Puccini.

First performed in 1957, the opera draws its story from the 1887 novel “Noli Me Tangere” by Jose Rizal, a nationalist hero in the Philippines. Rizal was “a little bit like the equivalent of George Washington” in the history of the United States, Seidel says.


Syrian singer Omar Souleyman. (Chris Person/Chris Person)

In 2012, the opera had a Chicago incarnation that was billed as the work’s U.S. premiere. According to Josue, Filipino American businesswoman and philanthropist Loida Nicolas Lewis saw that Windy City production and was inspired to give the piece a New York City debut. She recruited Josue, a New York-based real estate agent who was born in the Philippines, to help with the effort. Artist and event designer Jerry Sibal also joined the team and took on set and costume design duties.

The three-day New York run at the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College sold out, and audience response was enthusiastic, Josue says. Since then, he adds, he, Lewis and Sibal have shared a passion for giving “Noli Me Tangere” more stage time.

“We call ourselves the Three Crazy Musketeers,” he says wryly.

The musketeers are not striving to cut corners: Josue says the orchestra for the D.C. performances will number about 30 and the cast will be about as large. (The Migrant Heritage Commission, a nonprofit based in the Washington area, and the Filipino Channel have also been involved in giving the opera a D.C. launch. Sibal is an executive producer of the production.) Two of the singers will go on to a version of the opera slated to be mounted in Manila next month, Josue notes.

For Josue, the opera is particularly important for its connection to Rizal, who was executed for seditious activity in 1896, two years before Spain ceded the Philippines to U.S. control.

The novel “Noli Me Tangere,” which depicts abuses perpetrated by the Catholic Church during Spain’s colonial rule, appears regularly on school curricula in the Philippines. By contrast, in the United States, where audiences may be less familiar with Rizal’s writings, Josue says, the opera can serve as a melodious introduction to “a very important novel written by a national hero who sacrificed his life for Filipinos to be independent and free.”

Omar Souleyman performs

The opera “Noli Me Tangere” opens a door on history. History — the ongoing kind — will hover poignantly in the background when Omar Souleyman performs at the Howard Theatre on Aug. 5. A singer and musical interpreter known for his pulsing electronic versions of dabke, a Middle Eastern folk dance genre, Souleyman hails from Syria, a country that has been racked by a devastating civil war.

But put news headlines at the back of your mind for the moment: The Aug. 5 performance is likely to be upbeat and juiced. “His show is basically a dance party,” Souleyman’s manager, Mina Tosti, said by phone from Turkey.

Born in 1966, Souleyman made his name performing at weddings, becoming so popular that about 500 bootleg recordings of his act are said to have been made. Teamed with keyboardist-composer Rizan Sa’id, whose keyboard simulates Arabic instruments, the singer has become an international phenomenon, making appearances at festivals, collaborating with Bjork, appearing at D.C.’s 9:30 Club in 2012, and performing at the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize Concert.

Last year also saw the release of his first studio album, “Wenu Wenu” (Ribbon Music), praised for its “hypnotic energy” by the online music publication Pitchfork. As the album’s Arabic-language title — which can be translated as “Where Is She?” — might suggest, the songs on the release muse about love, star-crossed and otherwise. A song titled “Khattaba (Promise of Marriage)” — which was a hit in the Arab world — hints at social satire, with lyrics about a family demanding a kilo of gold, a trip to Paris and a new Mercedes in return for an eligible woman’s hand in marriage.

Tosti says that Souleyman is apolitical and nonsectarian and has not been swept up in the issues fueling the Syrian crisis. The singer has been operating out of Turkey, an arrangement that lets him make his globe-hopping appearances.

“He is a very charismatic person on stage whose music is very exciting,” Tosti says. “People all over the world go crazy and dance.”

Wren is a freelance writer.

Noli Me Tangere: The Opera

8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. $50-$150. Visit www.kennedy-center.org or www.maffaainc.org.

Omar Souleyman

8 p.m. Tuesday at the Howard Theatre, 620 T St. NW. $15 in advance; $20 day of show. Visit www.thehowardtheatre.
com
or call 202-803-2899.

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