|Nightingale: Joanna Ampil, a leading musical theatre singer of the Philippines performs at the Viet Nam-Philippines Friendship Concert, wearing a traditional Vietnamese ao dai. — VNS Photo Nguyen Phan Que Mai
Backstage at the "Viet Nam-Philippines Friendship Concert" in Manila, a slender young lady walks up and down a dim corridor. Looking graceful in a Vietnamese ao dai, she focuses all her attention on reciting lyrics, as if getting ready for the biggest show of her life. The music blaring from the stage doesn't distract her, nor do the other Vietnamese and Filipino singers and musicians gathering to commemorate the 67th National Day of Viet Nam (September 2) in the capital city of the Philippines.
Ten minutes later, Joanna Ampil steps onto the stage and flashes her biggest smile. No longer the slender, quiet young lady I had just met backstage, she has a powerful voice that commands attention. She enchants listeners with songs from musicals such as Wicked, Sunset Boulevard and Moulin Rouge. Along with Duc Tuan, a famous pop star from Viet Nam, and Rachelle Gerodias, another leading Filipina soprano, Joanna renders the audience spellbound with All I Ask of You (from Phantom of the Opera), and The Impossible Dream (from Man of La Mancha).
However, it's not until she sings in Vietnamese, performing the much-loved Vietnamese folk-song Trong Com, that Joanna's face radiates a certain glow. A glow that invites all around her to clap their hands and sway to her music.
"It is funny that some of the most important roles in my musical career have been Vietnamese characters in musicals about Viet Nam," Ampil laughs in an interview with me earlier that afternoon. Born and raised in Manila by Filipino parents, she started singing when she was six years old, joining her cousins' band and later performing at concerts at her school and at lounges around Manila.
In 1992, when she turned 17, the creative team behind the Miss Sai Gon musical came to Manila to hold auditions. Encouraged by one of her classmates, Ampil went to the weeklong audition, where she acted, danced and sang her way past hundreds of hopeful singers. A few months later, she was asked to fly to London, where she was offered the lead role of Kim in Miss Sai Gon.
Ampil confides that she knew little about Viet Nam when she agreed to play Kim. "To get into my character, I had to do lots of research about Viet Nam and the Viet Nam War," she says. She watched movies, read books about Viet Nam, ate Vietnamese food, and reached out to her Vietnamese friends.
Miss Sai Gon turned out to be one of the most successful musicals of all time. Ampil's performance earned her a nomination in the 1996 Australian MO Awards for Best Female Musical Theater Performer when the show opened in Sydney. Her vocal power, coupled with her acting talent and commitment to excellence, has made her one of the most sought-after theatre singers. Ampil was handpicked by Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber to play the female lead role of Mary Magdalene in his new production of Jesus Christ Superstar. She was the only Filipino in the original London cast.
The role of Kim in Miss Sai Gon has led Ampil to a long, and celebrated career. She spent 19 years in London's West End, the USA and Australia performing in a number of musicals, including Miss Sai Gon, West Side Story, Rent, Hair, Les Miserables, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Avenue Q. When she played the role of Fantine in Les Miserables, Ampil got to perform in a special private concert in front of the Royal Family, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and French President Jacques Chirac at Windsor Castle.
|In harmony: Ampil (L) gives a rousing rendition of Vietnamese folk song Trong Com along with Duc Tuan (C) and Rachelle Gerodias (R).
Despite all her achievements, Ampil is most excited when she tells me about her 2011 role as Thanh in the showcase performance of the new musical The Real Love. She says that her musical connections to Viet Nam make her feel strong ties to the country. Over the years, she often dreamt about going to Viet Nam.
But her dream did not come true until March this year, when the dynamic Vietnamese Ambassador to the Philippines, Nguyen Vu Tu initiated a series of Viet Nam-Philippines Friendship concerts in Ha Noi and HCM City to bring Viet Nam and the Philippines closer via music. As a leading Filipina singer, Ampil was invited to play a major role in these concerts.
"The visit to Viet Nam was life-changing for me. It was such an honour to sing in front of the Vietnamese audience and receive such a warm reception from them. I felt I was returning home and I was meeting my loved ones again. Having read about Viet Nam for so long, I had many expectations, but all of my them were exceeded. I was amazed at the beauty of Viet Nam and the warmth of its people, as well as the amazingly positive energy I could feel wherever I went," Ampil says enthusiastically.
Her enthusiasm doesn't diminish when she recounts an accident in HCM City where her finger was squashed against a door. "I was personally rushed to the hospital by the Vietnamese pop star Duc Tuan," she giggles.
Besides her practice and performance sessions in Viet Nam, Ampil also enjoyed exploring Ha Noi and HCM City on foot, eating street food and shopping. "Vietnamese food was amazing! I couldn't eat enough. I also brought home a lot of gifts, including Vietnamese dolls, tea and coffee… The biggest gifts came from Vietnamese Ambassador Nguyen Vu Tu. All the Filipino performers were taken to meet the well-known designer Si Hoang and have two ao dai tailored made. I often wear an ao dai to perform, but the feeling of wearing these ao dai is much more special. They remind me of the special times I had in Viet Nam."
Ampil was also determined to experience Vietnamese culture to the max. She spent hours practicing the Vietnamese folk song Trong Com with the help of her new friend, Duc Tuan.
"Vietnamese is very difficult to pronounce. I had to listen to Duc Tuan sing, then transcribe the sounds on a piece of paper. It is a challenge to sing, yet the music is so beautiful. I think Vietnamese folk songs are quite close to Filipino folk songs. The beat and the tunes are very similar."
It seems that the Viet Nam-Philippines friendship concerts have brought about extra benefits: Filipina singers including Ampil and Rachelle Gerodias have formed close friendships with Vietnamese performers such as Duc Tuan and Bui Cong Duy. Since their performances, Duc Tuan has been seen visiting Ampil and Gerodias in Manila, working on joint musical projects.
"I can't wait to come back and perform in Viet Nam again. I feel I am a part of Viet Nam and I belong to a big Vietnamese family." says Ampil, her eyes lighting up.
And I know that there are many people in Viet Nam who can't wait to again listen to the golden voice of a Filipina who was born to sing about Viet Nam. — VNS