The star sopranos of the many operas performed in Mumbai in recent years have been foreigners. There have been Russian singers – Elmira Veda in Madama Butterfly and Elena Bocharova in Cavalleria Rusticana – and Georgian soprano Iano Tamar in Tosca. But in 1962, when La Traviata was staged in Mumbai’s Tejpal Hall, a local girl called Celia Lobo played the lead part of Violetta. Lobo went on to perform in nearly every annual opera staged by the Bombay Madrigal Singers Organisation, including a production of Tosca in 1968 and Norma in 1965. She not only made a huge impact as a singer becoming one of Mumbai’s most loved sopranos but later also as a theatre director and teacher. Lobo turned 75 in March. This fortnight, her children – modern dance choreographer Ashley Lobo and soprano Deirdre Lobo- D’Cunha – will pay tribute with a concert at the National Centre for the Performing Arts.
The programme features a solo recital by Deirdre Lobo-D’Cunha who will be joined on stage by two dancers. The show has been choreographed by students of Ashley Lobo’s Danceworx Academy. “The idea is that my mother gave all this to me, so my kids, as it were, would give back to her,” said Ashley.
The highlight of the evening will be a piece choreographed to recordings of Celia Lobo’s own performances of Tosca and Macbeth from the late 1960s. The quality of the recordings is not great, said Ashley, but the memories make them special.
The recordings are bound to evoke waves of nostalgia among audience members who are familiar with Celia Lobo’s concerts. They were musical concerts, minus the sets and costumes. Yet Celia Lobo’s charismatic stage presence and her beautiful voice stood out, remembers Homai Bilpodiwalla. “Other sopranos may have great voices, but they sometimes don’t have the stage presence,” said Bilpodiwalla, a honorary member of the NCPA Western Music Advisory Committee. “See, it’s very difficult to become a prima donna.” Celia Lobo’s training began with her first stage appearance when she was 16. “I was catapulted into the lead role, when the leading lady dropped out of a production of a light opera called The Geisha,” said Celia Lobo. The production was directed by her teacher Gool Dotivala. In 1956, after she had graduated from Sophia College she moved to London. “I was 19, and at that time most parents wouldn’t allow their daughters to get out of the house,” she said. But her parents were both music lovers. Her father even had a degree from Trinity College London. So despite his early death at the age of 46, and the family’s limited financial resources, her mum got her a ticket to London where Celia got into a part-time course at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
After five years there, she returned to Bombay and married her boyfriend who had by then become an army officer and was stationed in Dehra Dun. Derek Bond, the director of the BMSO’s shows, had heard of her return so he got in touch with her. “We had great respect for each other’s talents and abilities,” said Celia Lobo. Bond would direct stage plays as well but he was particularly knowledgeable about music and opera in particular, she said. Bond would send recordings of the opera and the score to her home in Delhi and later on to Shahjahanpur where she moved with her husband. “I used to practise over there and come to Bombay a month before the opening night, and then go back afterwards,” she said.
These annual trips and housefull performances at Tejpal Hall continued until the BMSO disbanded around 1970. Lobo then began performing solo. By the early 1980s, accompanied by musician Leon D’souza, she also put together a musical play called Cascades. More plays followed, and she began teaching budding singers. Some of them, like Ella Castellino and Shefali Alvares, have also become popular.
Celia Lobo confessed that even up to her last few performances in the ’90s, she would “quake in her sari” from stage fright. Perhaps it was that fear that drove her to do more than just sing. Ashley Lobo recalls that once, when he was a teenager, studying for his exams in the wee hours of the morning, he heard trumpet noises coming from his mother’s room. “She was playing the oboe,” said Ashley. “When I asked her why, she said, ‘Well, in case I lose my voice, this way I’ll have something else to fool around with’.”
By Aditya Kundalkar on June 22 2012 6.24am