Lea Salonga on the importance of putting her whole heart right to where it really matters.
Photographed by Sara Black. Interviewed by Niña Luigi Chua- Cabardo
Watching world-renowned singer and thespian Lea Salonga perform is an emotional experience. Her pitch-perfect, crystal clear singing voice awakens something true and pure inside the heart of the listener, yet the result is calming and soothing to the soul. From the time she started until now, and having played the lead roles in musicals such as the eponymous Annie, Kim in MissSaigon, Eponine in LésMiserables, to her recent role as Grizzabella in CATSTheMusical– Lea's performing sensibilities never fail to reach out to her audience. And the mere mention of her name makes every Filipino's heart swell with pride.
After marking different milestones in her life, Lea's proudest moment was when she became a mom to Nicole Beverly, her daughter with husband Rob Chien. And she takes on motherhood with more love than any role she has played onstage. Lea opens up to Urban Living about her Ilonggo background, her own experiences of raising her daughter and keeping up with the demands of her work.
Tell us about your Ilonggo background.
I've only been to Bacolod twice, Iloilo once. But of course my mom is Ilongga. I guess her culture is pretty much prevalent in how she speaks, and in how she treats people. Also in how she cooks adobo—fried the next day. And that's the way I like it. Ilonggos are known to be malambing. My mom has her moments (laughs). But yeah, for the most part, she's very affectionate, especially with my daughter. You know she's very, very generous. Pusong mamon. Outside she's very, very tough but inside, any little thing can make her cry.
Is that also how you are?
Hmm…I'm a little more tough. It takes a lot [to make me cry] I think. But that said, if let's say, there's a commercial that's shot in a certain way…that's it, the water would turn on. I have my own buttons. And sometimes I'm surprised at what pushes them.
How often do you go to Bacolod?
The whole family goes with me for shows. My brother Gerard [comes with me] since he's the musical director. My mom comes because we have so many relatives in the area who want her to come and visit. I bring my daughter, and sometimes Gerard brings his children. So it becomes a family affair. And Gerard's wife comes too because she's in the orchestra. My husband also comes since Bacolod is part of the country he hasn't seen before. So we'll all go. Everyone works together, and everyone gets to play together too. For me, I'm far more stringent with how much recreation time I get, or allow myself to have, because of my voice, because of it being sensitive. So when I go for a show, it's work, visiting family, and always with a lot of eating. Which is why I'm not that skinny (laughs)!
I think you just
have to open yourself up to life and living... Open your mind and heart.
What are the things that you enjoy in Bacolod?
First of all, I enjoy the airport because it's so nice. It's very obvious that they put some love and care into it. They don't do that everywhere here [in the Philippines]. I enjoy Ilonggo food such as Kadyos (a dish made of Kadyos or cowpeas, broiled pork, langka and greened with kamote leaves), fried adobo, and Chicken Inasal. There was one night in Bacolod where our host took us to Manukan County where we tried the Chicken Inasal. And there was garlic rice, and some guys were having beer. We all smelled like smoke. It was my first time there. It was super, it was sooo sarap! We didn't want to stop eating. We were full but I wanted to eat some more. I was with Rob and he loved it.
Being raised by a malambing, but tough mom like yours, how did you translate that to your own brand of motherhood?
My mom was there 24/7. We were her “job.” My work requires a lot of travel. Which means I'm away from her [Nicole] for two, three weeks at a time. She [my mom] would say, “Don't be away naman from your daughter too long! One day, she won't know na who you are.” I'm like, “I don't think so.” When I'm away from her [Nicole] for a certain amount of time, I make sure it's no longer than a month. I think my brand of lambing is different from my mom's. According to my brother, I'm more able to step back. My personality is more like my father's. He's the type of guy that even if the whole world is falling apart, he can still get a good night's sleep. That kind of “nothingcould-stress-me” mindset.
How are you as a mom?
Nicole's personality is actually very strong. And she likes being independent and doing things herself, even if she's not going to succeed. And sometimes you feel, “Oh my God, I have to help her because you know, kawawa naman'yungbata. But then, what I've learned to do is sit on my hands and watch, and not to intervene. Like she would say, “Mommy, I want to do it myself.” I'll say, “Okay. If you need help, let me know.”
There are a lot of artists from Bacolod: Kuh Ledesma, Peque Gallaga, etc. Would you think the Bacolod culture would be conducive to an artist's development?
I actually don't know. Because my mom's oldest sister, who's probably “more Ilonggo” since she's older and more “steeped” in the culture and more of a witness to my grandfather's political career (Lea's grandfather Leo Imutan, was once Vice Mayor of Pulupandan, Negros Occidental). A lot of her kids entered into the arts. One is a prima ballerina, another is a sculptor, and another one is an artist. And she has a daughter who did theater and is currently working on writing musicals. And she has grandchildren who entered the business also, and who have beautiful voices. It's interesting to know that in our family, there's a bunch of us who are doing this. I don't know if it's a genetic thing or a cultural thing. But I'm inclined to think that its genetic much more than it is cultural.
How do you continue being creative?
I think you just have to open yourself up to life and living. And not just live in a bubble. I mean, I love staying at home and playing with Nicole. But sometimes I watch what she's doing and it inspires me to write what I see. I end up writing about it, and letting the idea marinate in my head. It's opening yourself up to conversations with friends and really being open. Open your mind and heart, because you just never know that there might be one word, or one sentence in that conversation that might become a jumping board for something else. You just have to open yourself up to life, experiences, travel, and things you see around you. You have to allow yourself to stop and look.
What work ethic do you balance that with?
There has to be discipline, structure and order, because you cannot create a show out of too much chaos. It's finding order out of chaos that I try to do. And as far as work ethic goes, if it's too difficult, I have to keep on practicing, practicing and practicing until I get it right. It gets to the point of obsession. Then when I'm hyper-focused on one thing, everything else kind of falls away. I'm singing in the background, I'm practicing while I'm eating. It's borne out of love. It has to be. There has to be passion, there has to be love for this. Don't even attempt to do this [craft] if you do not have a love or a basic respect for this. And it will show in your work! The audience can feel it kasi when you put your heart into something. en you've taken the time to make it right, out of the love for the craft and a love for the audience watching you.