By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Filipinos, in general, love singing,” said Manila native Rodell Aure Rosel, here in town to perform in Seattle Opera’s “Madame Butterfly.” “We love and support a majority of the styles of music.
Unfortunately, classical and opera, though performed by people, aren’t as appreciated in the mainstream.
“Pop and rock,” he continued, “are the most popular genres sung in karaoke bars. Good karaoke bars engage comedians, drag queens, and female impersonators, to entice and encourage the audience to perform.”
Rodel grew up in Manila, moving to Los Angeles at age 16. He sang from a very early age, adoring 1980s divas such as Whitney Houston and Celine Dion, along with famous singers from the Philippines, such as Basil Valdez and Martin Nievera.
Some of Rodel’s most cherished childhood memories involve winning two singing contests at the age of 12, and singing for a third contest on national television. Years later, he pondered auditioning for the famous “American Idol” TV show in Las Vegas, and would have tried his luck there, had not Chicago’s Lyric Opera company let him in.
Another strong memory from home was “when our high school graduating class won the school choral competition, where I was the conductor. We have been wanting to win every year since the beginning of high school, we always came up short. It boosted the morale of everyone in our graduating class, and was a great way to finish school.”
He watched, on television in 1994, as the “Three Tenors” — Plácido Domingo, José Carreras, and Luciano Pavarotti — performed a huge concert at Dodger Stadium, and that got him hooked on opera singing, especially Domingo’s performance of the song “Granada.” He entered Santa Monica College near Los Angeles, intending to study accounting, but he stumbled across one voice teacher, who heard his potential and put him on the path to opera.
While in school at Santa Monica and later UCLA, “I had a total of four teachers, each of them contributing to the improvement and development of my technique and artistry in singing,” Rodel remembered. “Timothy Mussard was the most influential and important teacher I have ever had, as he not only taught me singing, but the business of opera. He was the one who told me to specialize in ‘character tenor’ repertoire, to fully utilize not only my singing, but also my acting and dancing. I am one of the very few singers I know who specifically concentrated on ‘character tenor’ repertoire while still in school.”
“Madame Butterfly,” composed by the Italian Giacomo Puccini with a libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, premiered in Italy in 1904, derived from a short story by an American lawyer, John Luther Long. But it tells a story set in Japan — a former geisha hastily married to a U.S. naval officer, who then deserts her. Her long, increasingly anguished wait for him to return and do right by her, leaves her bereft and sliding into madness as she realizes the depth of his betrayal.
The story includes a Japanese character called Goro, a matchmaker who smiles and greets folks warmly, while secretly scheming to maximize his own profits. Hodel first performed Goro in 2007 with the Pittsburgh Opera, but he’s happy to reprise it for Seattle.
“My interpretation of the role has grown dramatically” he reflects. “I initially portrayed Goro as someone who does the job of a marriage broker as a routine, where he thinks it’s just all business. Now it has grown into a more conniving and calculating person. I see him now as someone who will do anything to make sure he benefits, regardless of how everyone around him is affected.”
“Butterfly” has a long history of non-Asians singing its Asian parts, inspiring Seattle Opera to stage a series of discussions around the opera, on cultural appropriation. Rodel says he’ll be “more than happy to participate.”
Regarding Goro’s character specifically, he also mentioned how “being Asian (Filipino) and growing up in the culture, and knowing people growing up in the similar culture, the most challenging aspect is when a director presents ideas that I know would contradict to how the character would act, react, and express himself in situations. Compromise is always a good choice when presented with these challenges. Communication is very important.”
He sadly admits that he’s not very familiar with Seattle’s Filipino scene, although “I am aware of a couple of restaurants.” Future plans include running a young artist program and a classical vocal competition. On a more personal level, he wants to travel around the world, with his husband.
“Madame Butterfly” performance dates are Aug. 5, 6, 9, 12, 13, 16, 18, and 19. For more information or to buy tickets, visit seattleopera.org/on-stage/madame-butterfly.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.