Gia Macuja-Atchison flies home for ‘Ibong Adarna’ and for her family
By Susan A. De Guzman
She has performed in concerts, plays and musicals in a gamut of venues in the Philippines and in the venerable theaters of London’s West End. But no matter how many times she’s done it, stepping on stage still brings jitters to Gia Macuja-Atchison.
“Having an audience for the first time is always nerve-wracking,” reveals Gia, who takes on the role of the Singing Adarna in Ballet Manila’s 22nd season-opener, Gerardo Francisco’s Ibong Adarna. As she usually does before any performance, Gia calmed herself down before her entrance at Aliw Theater by doing some breathing exercises.
“It's been a while since I've performed in the Philippines so you can imagine the happiness I felt when I took my bow and heard the cheers in the audience. When the show received a spontaneous standing ovation on opening night, that was indeed an added boost!” enthuses the musical theater actress.
Ballet Manila artistic director Lisa Macuja-Elizalde, admittedly a big fan of her younger sister, thought Gia would be perfect as the Singing Adarna when she was casting the production – and she wasn’t disappointed. “Her Adarna was haunting and beautiful,” describes Lisa. “Gia's lyrical soprano from when she first started her voice lessons has now become more of a dramatic mezzo but her pure classical tones and training are still very much evident. She is able to switch techniques and has become versatile and mature in her performances.”
Gia had begun preparing for her role in June while she was still in England, her base for the past twenty years. Ibong Adarna composer and musical arranger Diwa de Leon had sent her the materials in May so she could begin rehearsals on her own. Though trained as a soprano, Gia knew she had to get her classical voice back into shape.
“The bulk of my work in London has been mainly focused on the lower register and belt range of my musical theater voice for Miss Saigon, Lion King and Here Lies Love. So I really enjoyed going back to my roots in this role,” Gia relates.
Conditioning her voice meant doing daily vocal exercises. So as not to strain herself, she only allowed herself a maximum of two hours a day of full-out singing. When she was tired, she didn’t push it, and she also gave her voice “rest days.” On the practical side, she only drank room-temperature water before and after practice. Honey ginger tea and honey have helped soothed her vocal cords. Upon Lisa’s advice, Gia also took ballet classes not just to improve her stance onstage but also so she could learn graceful arm movements.
Gia says she had to brush up on her Ibong Adarna lore, as it had been quite a while since she learned about it in high school. Thankfully, Google was able to provide her with the necessary information. As soon as she arrived in Manila in August, she watched the rehearsals of Geri Francisco’s choreography – and was promptly amazed at how Geri had condensed the story in one and a half hours of dance.
“When I first saw the run in the studio, I was like, ‘Oh my God! It's a cast of thousands!’ I think this is the first BM production I've seen that has both BM 1 and 2 in the cast. I believe in the final scene, all 60 of us are onstage all at the same time! When we transferred to the theater, I saw why it was necessary. It is truly a grand and beautiful production. The costumes I must admit are not the most comfortable, but are just so effective and beautiful in bringing this epic to life!”
What was important to Gia, particularly, was to get feedback from Diwa about interpreting his music appropriately. “It's one thing to learn the music via cyberspace, and another to actually have a one-on-one session with him directly. He really helped me understand why he wrote certain bits of music at certain points in the story and how to interpret it.”
With the first weekend of two shows done, it’s apparent that the sessions with Diwa have prepared Gia well. Her soaring voice filled the theater and gave life to the composer’s work – the resulting collaboration so infectious that, by the intermission, people were already humming and even attempting to sing the Song of Adarna!
Asked if she would do anything different on the second weekend, Gia says no two shows anyway are really alike for her. She notes, “Every show is an opportunity to discover new things about your character and new possibilities for your performance to grow. That's what makes live theater interesting. Anything can happen!”
Aside from her professional engagement in Ibong Adarna, Gia is equally delighted to be in the Philippines to spend time with her parents Cesar and Susan, brother Joly and of course sister Lisa. Her husband, violinist Bob Atchison, and their kids Abigail and Jamie are also with her. Gia is especially glad that the kids have had a chance to bond with their cousins who don’t get to see one another that often.
This is possibly the longest that Gia has stayed in the Philippines – almost a month – since moving to England twenty years ago, and she is cramming everything she can on this trip. Among other things, Gia has soaked in the sun at a resort with her family, met up with her friends and colleagues in local theater, performed at the birthday party of brother-in-law Fred J. Elizalde and joined the more intimate birthday celebration of Lisa and Fred’s son Manuel.
At the latter gathering, Gia smilingly recalls, “My husband said it all... he looked at me and said to the family: ‘Gia is complete now... she has food, family, and wine!’ referring to Lisa and I as we shared fine Chablis.”
The sisters have also indulged in a girls’ day out with their mom. Lisa shares, “We recently spent our day off after the daily rehearsals and two Ibong Adarna performances going out shopping, eating and ending up in a spa for massages and facials. Right now, we are also busy giving Abi, Gia's daughter, support for a ballet competition coming up soon so I am training Abi every chance we get on this visit. We really enjoy family time – when all three siblings and their families are complete by just long conversations over delicious meals.”
Gia is grateful that her daughter is getting valuable pointers from the prima ballerina herself. Abigail, 12, seems to be a chip off the old block as she is so enamored with the performing arts. “She loves dancing, singing and acting, though not sure yet in what order,” Gia laughs. “She's loving her ballet lessons with her Tita Lisa... but then in the same breath reminds me to give her singing lessons the minute we get back to the UK when I am not as busy with performances.”
Jamie, 8, is artistically inclined too. “He is taking lessons in piano and the violin. He seems to have inherited his fathers' instinct for reading music. He's also quite academic which runs in the Macuja side of the family,” the proud mom beams.
Definitely, Gia considers it an advantage that her husband is an artist as well and an accomplished musician at that. “Bob’s passion and dedication as a violinist is such an inspiration to me. I think it helps he's a bit older than me as well and has travelled all over the world performing, so I tend to listen to his advice as he's been through a lot more in life and has experienced the 'ups and downs' of the profession.”
Things will continue to be busy for Gia when she gets back to England as she will have a solo concert in London with some guests at Christmas. She will also be performing and project-managing the charity concert for the Mayor of the City of Chelmsford in Essex for the third time next year. Aside from her ever-bustling family life, Gia is kept busy teaching singing privately from her studio at home.
But for now, she’s simply relishing every moment in Manila, specially sharing time with her sister on stage and off it. In Ibong Adarna, Gia sings while Lisa takes on the role of the queen, Donya Valeriana, whose husband king falls ill, causing their three sons to embark on a quest for the mythical bird with the healing voice.
“Lisa and I really enjoy working together. We always have. And to be able to do it again in front of our Mom and Dad makes us very happy because we know it makes them feel very proud,” says Gia.
Both sisters agree that their relationship has only strengthened through time and despite the distance that separates them. They can talk up a storm whether on the phone or in person, discussing work and family life and exchanging notes about recent shows they’ve seen.
“I think Lisa and I are a lot closer now than when we were younger. Aside from the nature of our professions that we have in common, having our own children and families get along so well has brought a whole new meaning to our relationship. And because I live so far away, it's made me realize even more how important she is to me.”
Lisa concurs, “I think we have become closer through the years even with the geographical separation because of our roles as wives and mothers and working professional artists. We constantly seek each other for support, answer each other's questions and understand each other's needs and moods.”
Gia says that the best thing about having Lisa as a sister is that she is someone she looks up to and can completely trust. “No matter how busy she is, she will always have time for me.”
For Lisa, the best thing about Gia is being “a very talented, strong-willed, loving and loyal sister! I really cannot ask for anything more.”
In Ibong Adarna, the three princes eventually overcome their differences in a nod to forgiveness, healing and family unity. In real life, it has reunited two sisters whose ties to each other have only deepened and become even more meaningful.