The opera girl Mumbai misses

Updated: 08 December, 2019 08:56 IST | Aastha Atray Banan | Mumbai

Suneeta Rao says she still starts her warm up with Celia Lobo's exercises. One of India's most prolific opera singers returns to the city at 82 for a tribute concert helmed by her students

Celia Lobo with her daughter Deirdre, a famed voice coach at her son's Juhu residence. Pics/Ashish Raje
Celia Lobo with her daughter Deirdre, a famed voice coach at her son's Juhu residence. Pics/Ashish Raje

It's Wednesday evening at the Royal Opera House. The guests are here to enjoy a tribute concert for Celia Lobo, graceful and charming even at 82. One of India's most prolific operatic singers, Lobo who starred in La Traviata, Rigoletto and Norma, is visiting Mumbai from San Francisco where she lives with daughter Deirdre. It could be her last trip to India, she says.

It's only fitting that the concert is scheduled in a neighbourhood where Celia grew up. It was here in Girgaum, surrounded by the Maharastrian community, that she inherited a love for the opera from her father Edwin. "It was a cosmopolitan neighbourhood, and I had a lovely childhood. My father was a singer and pianist, and would regale me with stories of the operas he had seen," she says, when we meet her a day before the event at her son, dancer Ashley Lobo's Juhu home. She is dressed in a turquoise sweater, with pearls around her neck. She is warm, and funny. Celia forgets what she is talking about now and then, but is mostly coherent and articulate. Often, she rolls her eyes at Deirdre's chatter, and offers a witty line.

A 14-year-old Celia as Mimosa San in Geisha Girl
A 14-year-old Celia as Mimosa San in Geisha Girl

At 14, Celia passed out of St. Teresa's High School at Girguam, and went to Sophia College. She recalls singing in the common room on the ground floor, and getting her first break. "There was a girl there, whose aunt was a singing teacher. She told me, 'my aunt is casting for the Geisha Girl. Why don't you audition?' I said I didn't mind trying. I was very bold."

In 1967, as Gilda in Rigoletto, with director Derek Bond
In 1967, as Gilda in Rigoletto, with director Derek Bond

They liked what they heard. Their leading lady fell sick, and Celia took over as Mimosa Girl San in Geisha Girl. She "walked into the role and created a furore". Celia looks at Deirdre and asks, "Why don't you give her a copy of my brochure." Deirdre smiles, "Mummy, you don't have one!", and Celia says in the way mothers talk down to their daughters: "I have my memoir. I sent it to you. Have you chucked it?"

Celia's life demands that memoir. After the success of Geisha Girl, in 1956, at the age of 17, she went to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London. "My teacher, Sumner Austin, was a specialist in opera, but he was, unfortunately, not a fan of Italian opera. So he brought me up on Mozart and the likes." At 19, she returned to Mumbai. "People found out I was here, and the Bombay Madrigal Singers Organisation approached me for a part in Verdi's La Traviata. It was tough, with all the high singing. It needed a big range but was a huge success."

Shweta Shetty performs at last week's concert
Shweta Shetty performs at last week's concert

It was during the same time, in 1962, that she married Trevor, her army officer husband. She was also working with Gabriel India, and then the Chemical Bank of New York as general manager for South East Asia. "There wasn't anyone who was doing what I was doing, or had my range. I had a yen for opera. Opera is very difficult, because you have to be an actress-singer. You can ask Deirdre how tough it is," she says.

Deirdre, who now runs the Celia Lobo Academy of Voice (CLAV) and is a famous voice coach herself, says that she started singing thanks to her mother. "I had stopped singing at 12, because I was shy. But then she made me sing at a talent show in Chembur—Mary's Boy Child— which pushed me back into singing. Even Ashley has a lovely singing voice, and my other sister, Carolyn, does too, although we discovered that recently." Mary's Boy Child is the only song she starts the concert with, her clear, sweet voice ringing throughout the auditorium.

Chevon De Souza Lobo
Chevon De Souza Lobo

Later in her career, Celia directed shows such as Cascades and They Are Playing Our Song, and turned mentor to younger singers. Her students, Suneeta Rao and Shweta Shetty, are there at the concert to support her. Rao, who performs Somewhere Over The Rainbow, says that Deirdre reminds her of a mini Celia. "Celia has directed and coached me, and is extremely strict but with a wicked sense of humour. They [mother and daughter] have a very hard working, positive and wholesome approach to music. I still start all my warm ups with Celia's exercises. They will stay with me forever."

Chevon De Souza Lobo, who teaches at the St Xaviers Technical Institute, says of her teacher, "Miss Celia used to say, 'you are not just singing, but making a dramatic piece'. I started off with Carnatic music and then moved to train with her. I was in tears when I met her last week. She remembered me and insisted that Deirdre incorporate me into the concert line-up. Her poise, and jokes, most of which people don't get, is what I miss," laughs Lobo, 29.

Celia, who is surprised when Deirdre tells her they are leaving India in a few days , says that she loves San Francisco, and doesn't miss Mumbai. It's because she gets to watch opera in America. "Mom drags me to all of them," Dierdre says. Celia doesn't sing anymore. My voice sounds raspy now," she says, to which Deirdre adds, "Mom is very hard on herself." But mothers should always have the last word: "Of course, I am. At most times, I want to open my mouth and join in. But I am only and always striving for perfection," Celia says.

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First Published: 08 December, 2019 08:46 IST

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