An Italian dream

ITALIAN Ambassador to the Philippines Marco Clemente. | PHOTOGRAPH BY LARRY CRUZ FOR THE DAILY TRIBUNE

The audacity of bringing up Taylor Swift at the dining table.

It’s like eating lunch in front of the TV!

That’s how it hit me, and I wager others with us there, too, who secretly rued the weekend concert we all dared miss: “In case you forget to sulk.”

“$1,000 for a concert ticket,” our host, Bettina, told Italian Ambassador to the Philippines Marco Clemente, who sat at the farthest end of the table. “On top of that, you have to fly to Singapore.”

And, by all means, people fly to Singapore to see Swift.

Clemente twirled pasta around his fork, and I deliberated on the mess of perfect tangles, keen on how spaghetti is eaten like a real Italian.

I raised a curious question. “What is so wrong about Filipino spaghetti?”

His shoulders shook with gentle mirth.

“Nothing at all. Spaghetti belongs to the world. There is no certified way to do it. It’s our gift to the world.”

Italy gave us gelato, too. Al Pacino. Most of them popes.

If pasta is the most famous Italian cultural diplomat, Clemente is arguably the most passionate, commandeering the conversation from Taylor Swift to classical music with confetti in his suit and a flag on his lapel.

He made a case for opera.

Nothing can be unmistakably more green, white and red.

Whether opera can replicate the success of pop was not the contention, or whether a following as big as Taylor Swift’s would fly from half a world away to see Édith in Carlo Felice at the Riviera.

The point is whether the kids would appreciate opera when the embassy brings a Puccini, no less, to Manila.

A small religious community in Tondo led by a Canossian priest has long benefited from Italy’s benevolent fund.

Most recently it was a crash course on language and Mediterranean cooking.

‘Story you can identify with’

Music is about reaching ever outward.

But it’s the perception that precedes opera that makes a lot of friction: It’s cerebral and aristocratic. It’s very hard to sustain.

It’s excavating a dusty artifact coded in Italian, meandering through a cascade of arpeggios or a single note held for an impossibly long time.

It’s like poring over the Dead Sea Scrolls. Sung.

Tondo, on the other hand, is stranger to canvas-covered entertainment, a public whose idea of music is rap and dance TikTok.

But music is a universal language.

Even plants learn.

To argue opera only befits rich, educated enclaves and would not remotely catch on as a pastime in such perceivably cesspit of a slum is so devoid of imagination.

Clemente said the appeal of opera is rather simple.

“It’s a story you can identify yourself with because it’s about being human; it’s about love, jealousy, death, laughter. It’s a concert of all art forms: music, scenery, poetry, men playing dress up.”

Opera is a vehicle for social change. The audience in Tondo is young and underprivileged.

Clemente snapped his fingers. “Perfect!”

“I hope the kids will enjoy very much. It’s a little different to what they’re used to and a challenge to a generation with ever-shrinking attention spans. It demands attention. You have to sit down and listen,” he snorted, “for one hour!”

“But it’s a good exercise: If you educate the young to be quiet, they learn to listen.”

Clemente portioned his spaghetti into a few manageable pieces. Others choked on a block of cheddar or sliced salami.

“We would make it easier to digest. An actor will explain the plot in Filipino: A family in a tussle over inheritance wrestle for a testament hidden somewhere in the house. They won’t find it! Guess what? We will give the document to one of the kids and — behold — they’re part of the show!”

By ancient reckoning, opera is everyman’s entertainment in Italy, the most popular form of art when movies had yet to happen.

In the 19th century, every hick town in Italy had an active opera house so people would not have to go to distant places to see one.

‘Important part of the economy’

“It’s not aristocratic at all. The problem [is want of government investment]. Opera is so expensive to produce; you’ll need millions of pesos. Who’s investing in that [in third-world countries]? It’s very difficult to get private funding,” he lamented.

Europeans have a less charitable view of opera.

In Germany or Austria, for example, culture is as important as education and healthcare. In the Philippines, it’s a privilege we cannot afford.

Someone raised his hand and hollered across the table: “Maybe during Imelda [Marcos]!”

Clemente compelled an explanation: “Why is the Philippines the only country without a minister of culture?”

“In Italy, cultural tourists are an important part of the economy. Foreigners come in droves to see opera. As if opera houses were not enough, they go to the beaches every summer to enjoy the sea in the day and open-air Italian classical music at night.”

It’s a mandate vested upon the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. But Clemente argues an artistic potential as big as the Philippines merits a dedicated cultural promotion at the Cabinet level.
More so, a rather excellent pitch to sad, rich men.
“We need to see the billionaires about classical music. Or do something for opera in the Philippines. It’s just a matter of helping people improve their lives,” Clemente said.
“Or the CCP would eventually become a parking lot, or [we could least hope] a stage where there’s no Mozart, no Beethoven, but where, if you want Taylor Swift, sure.”

Clemente didn’t have to look far. Willie, who sat across me, had produced a musical biopic in New York, and is entirely opposed to the idea of Italian opera translated into Filipino in the off-chance it makes it to the rest of the world.
The rationale: Art loses so much essence in translation. Opera, unlike spaghetti, should be unadulterated, no matter it sounds most often like a soprano’s way to process pain in Italian.

“Why don’t you do something for opera in the Philippines?,” Clemente inquired, and we all laughed, doubled over even, water trickling out of our noses.
“I was serious. It was not a joke. Why are you laughing?”
Willie contended he’s just too old to help the arts.
“With your experience, with your passion for culture, with your energy; I mean, come on. You’ll get to live to a hundred like Enrile, who still works very hard. I saw him and Imelda during his birthday party,” Clemente, pink in the face, waited a beat. “Together, that’s almost 200 years old!”
Or maybe the idea just comes across as crazy, from mild sways to full tilt.

Others who got the money can’t wait to speak their magpie minds.
To be complicated by the woes of a sorry sinner, the rambles of a love-seeker, the poetry of men consigned to the hangman’s noose, girls chopping down trees to make mischief — billionaires already have a long list of troubles.
“I know. It’s crazy,” Clemente laughed. “And I love it.”


Clemente has been around the world on a mission. When he retires in June, he wants to be remembered as one of the few Italians reckoned by history as a force that advanced the good.
He furthered Italian influences with soft power for all he got as a diplomat.
He took stock of where his retirement is heading.

Others save up for an island; some buy themselves a mean horse. Clemente is modest in his Italian dream: An infinite private life in operavore and promoting it with such means as within his reach.
He should have been a cultural producer, he said, if not a doctor like his father.
Or a vlogger out to see every opera house around the world.
Never once will he get bored in his paradise, taking in a virtuoso talent in East Sussex with a sunny-day grog of ale.
“I’ll watch you from Italy. After my departure, opera will be so popular in this country because everyone will be following my vlog.”
So help him God.