“You don’t find the time; you make the time”: Celia Lobo (1937 -2024)

I’ve written many times about my “summer of ’89.” 1989 was a golden year for me. I became a doctor, which meant that as an intern I was a member of the salaried workforce.

I had money to buy every classical music cassette faster than Sinari’s, Magnasound or HMV could throw them at me, greatly expanding my horizons. But much more importantly, George and Barbara Trautwien, two excellent musicians, pedagogues and wonderful human beings spent most of that year in Goa. I learned so much from them, not just violin technique from Prof. George Trautwein, but about music as art and profession. With them I got the opportunity to learn and perform the sublime Mozart clarinet quintet among other chamber works.

I also played my first BCO (Bombay Chamber Orchestra) concerts that year with Prof. Trautwein wielding the baton. The second concert featured Ernest Bloch’s Concerto Grosso no. 1, two operatic arias ‘Pace mio Dio’ (‘Peace, my God’) from Verdi’s La Forza del Destino; and ‘Un bel di’ (‘One fine day’) from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly) sung by Bombay-Goan soprano Celia Lobo; and closed with Bizet’s l’Arlesiene suite.

In retrospect, it was my first taste of opera sung live and to such a high level, with orchestral accompaniment, and here I was actually within the orchestra, able to watch and hear it take shape at rehearsal.

RIGOLETTO (1967) – at the end of the performance, L to R: Naval Havaldar, Cesar Coelho (Conductor), Imelda Lobo (Maddalena), Paolo Silveri (Rigoletto), Celia Lobo (Gilda), David Parker (the Duke) and Derek Bond (Director)

Giuseppe Verdi (1813 – 1901) and Giacomo Puccini (1858 – 1924) are representative of what is known as the ‘golden era’ or Italian opera.

The role of Leonora in La Forza del Destino (The Force of Destiny) is written for the vocal fach (opera role) of dramatic soprano requiring an experienced and mature singer with a strong voluminous voice.  The singing of the very first ‘Pace’, piano (softly) but with a swell and then a diminuendo with an ever-so-slight portamento (slide) to the lower octave on the second syllable of the word, is an indicator of the singer’s vocal command.

The aria is Leonora’s prayer to God for peace, which she knows she will not achieve in this life and she prays for death. Few arias are as filled with despair, anguish and pathos.

I’ve written several times in the past about the issues I have with the Orientalism, racism and sexism in Puccini’s ‘Madama Butterfly’. But it doesn’t and shouldn’t detract from our appreciation of the music in its own right.

Interestingly, ‘Pace mio Dio’ and ‘Un bel di vedremo’, although they make different demands on the singer, do have some commonalities. Both have the protagonist pine for their beloved; Leonora believes her Alvaro is has betrayed her and fled to South America in the Verdi opera, while Madama Butterfly (Cio-Cio-San) awaits the return of perfidious Colonel Pinkerton from the US. In both cases, the star-crossed pairs are mixed-race; Alvaro is presumably Peruvian and Madama Butterfly Japanese. Their respective opposite partners are, of course, white.

Celia Lobo (Geisha)

The Puccini aria is noted for its lyrical beauty, and is the beating heart of the whole opera, foretelling as it does Cio-Cio-San’s inevitable demise, making her naïve optimism-filled lines all the more poignant. That ‘fine day’ she is telling her maid Suzuki about will be her last, as she will take her own life when Col. Pinkerton does arrive, but with an American wife in tow.

It is now thirty-five years since Celia Lobo sang both those arias with admirable breath control, emotional range and in stylistically superb voice with a glorious timbre but it is a performance I recall fondly.

I have another fond memory I have of those rehearsals. I used to stay with my cousins in Chembur and catch the bus from there to ‘town’, the Max Mueller Bhavan for rehearsals that began at 7 AM. But for the rehearsals that required Celia Lobo to be present, she would have her chauffeur-driven air-conditioned car (they were luxuries in those days; we didn’t even own a car then) pick me up along the way as she also lived in Chembur.

Many decades later, I had occasion to speak with Mr. Khushroo Suntook, the current chairman of Mumbai’s NCPA (National Centre of the Performing Arts) about Lobo’s reign as opera diva in the many staged productions of the Bombay Madrigal Singers Organisation (BMSO) in the 1960s. He spoke glowingly of the spell she cast over him and on those fortunate audiences. It was high praise indeed coming from Mr. Suntook, who is a true opera connoisseur who has visited perhaps all the world’s major opera houses and listened to the gamut of internationally renowned singers in his long life.

I learned that in those BMSO productions, Lobo was the leading lady, while the other principal singers had to be flown in from abroad. The leading lady roles sung by her are quite formidable: Violetta and Gilda in Verdi’s ‘La traviata’ and ‘Rigoletto’ respectively; the eponymous role in Donizetti’s ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’; and the title roles in Bellini’s ‘Norma’ and Puccini’s ‘Tosca’.

LA TRAVIATA (1962), ACT II – Celia Lobo (Violetta) with Conal Almeida (the elder Germont)

I recently came across an old ticket stub from 1985, a performance of the ‘Cascades’ from Chembur (with ‘a cast of 50!’) at the open-air auditorium at the Kala Academy Panjim.

It was a musical produced by Celia Lobo along with Leon D’Souza (who incidentally is our beloved violin pedagogue Myra Shroff’s brother).

I remember the fun, the energy and the sheer joy of singing at that performance. They followed up that musical with two more, ‘They’re Playing our Song’ and ‘Best of Broadway’ which sadly (unless I’m mistaken) didn’t make it to Goa.

Why can’t we in Goa tap into this ‘happy-to-be-alive’ peppy (but equally challenging to sing, sometimes even more so) choral repertoire? I love sacred music as much as the next guy, but aren’t we getting an overdose of it? Can’t there be room for this brand of music too? We did in the past, but we seem to have lost our sense of fun somewhere along the way. Pity.

Lucia di Lammermoor 1964), Act I – Celia Lobo Lucia) and Conal Almeida Enrico)

I reconnected with Celia Lobo decades later by the strangest of coincidences. In January 2017, I was invited to be a panellist at an international conference on Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) in Goa. A delegate from Australia, Carolyn Vincent, happened to mention in a discussion that her mother was the opera diva Celia Lobo!

(It may interest some readers that her father’s family came from Mapusa, and her mother from Santo Estevam. The great Goan painter Ángelo da Fonseca was her grand-uncle).

I heard from Vincent that her mum had recently had a stroke, but had recovered well. As I was going the next month to Mumbai for the NCPA production of Puccini’s ‘La Bohème’, I offered to take her to the performance. It was the last time I met Celia Lobo, but it was a pleasant evening spent in her company, full of insights about the nuances involved in singing at a live staged opera performance.

RIGOLETTO (1967), Curtain Call – (L to R) Paolo Silveri (Rigoletto), Cesar Coelho (Conductor), Celia Lobo (Gilda) and David Parker (the Duke)

I watched her funeral online, and was touched by the anecdote of her son Ashley discovering her practicing the oboe in the early hours one morning! She was teaching herself to play the instrument. When Ashley asked her how she found the time in her busy schedule, she replied, “You don’t find the time, son. You MAKE the time!” Good advice for us all.

Addio Celia Lobo, prima donna of the operatic stage in India! For the countless ephemeral moments of utter bliss you gave to so many all your life, mille grazie!

This article first appeared in The Navhind Times, Goa, India.