One evening in 1968, Celia Lobo — known as India’s only living opera diva — was performing Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca with Italian bass Otello Borgonova, when the back seam of the latter’s trousers gave way. Borgonova, who played Scarpia in the production, had worn an old set of pants for the performance that first night, and clearly the seams hadn’t stood up to the stress. Borgonova walked stiffly forward and then back when it was time for the bow.

On the second night, the front seam of his trousers followed suit. Celia whipped off her cloak dramatically and lent it to Borgonova, who then held it over his hand as he took his bow. Recounting the story to this writer, Celia’s daughter Deirdre Lobo says her mother and Borgonova had quite the laugh over the incident.

Celia Lobo’s life and career are filled with remarkable moments, and a celebration of her music and legacy has been organised by Deirdre — founder of the Celia Lobo Academy of Voice (CLAV), performer and teacher. ‘A Musical Extravaganza: A Tribute Concert to Celia Lobo’, held on Wednesday, 4 December 2019, at Mumbai’s Royal Opera House, brings together both Celia and Deirdre’s students for the evening.

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(Celia Lobo. Photo courtesy Deirdre Lobo.)

Celia Lobo was a renowned local talent in the 1960s and among the female leads of the Bombay Madrigal Singers Organisation (BMSO), which staged operas in the city. She was the leading lady in the BMSO’s productions of Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, Giuseppe Verdi's La Traviata and Rigoletto, and Vincenzo Bellini's Norma, among others.

“At the time, from what I’ve heard, if you took one person in India who could represent that form or that genre of music, it would be her. If you want a good show, call Celia Lobo. She was that one person, that’s why she is a diva,” says one of her former students, Chevon De Souza Lobo.

Celia, the second of five children, grew up in a musically inclined family. Her father Edwin was a singer and pianist, her mother was also a singer, one of her sisters and an aunt played the violin, and another of her aunts was an Indian classical dancer. All Celia’s siblings learnt music. “They were all singers or instrumentalists in the family. But her father was her biggest influence,” says Deirdre.

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(Celia Lobo as Gilda, in Rigoletto, staged in 1967. Photo courtesy (right) Deirdre Lobo and (left) Avid Learning.)

Celia tells Firstpost: “Since I was very small, I’ve been listening to opera. And it became part of my life because both my parents were singers. And I just took to opera. Because they loved opera, so I loved opera.” As a teenager, Celia also met Trevor, and the two instantly took to each-other. “They met when they were youngsters, they lived basically two houses away from each other,” says Deirdre. Around this time, Celia also bagged her first opera, performing the lead Mimosa San in Lionel Monckton’s Geisha Girl at Sophia College in 1956.

While she was still a student, Celia’s father suddenly passed away from a heart attack. He was only 42. Things got hard for the family then, especially financially. “But she still pursued her singing,” says Deirdre about her mother’s passion. Celia had decided to receive voice training in England, while Trevor wanted to join the army and headed off to the National Defence Academy in Poona. And so they parted ways. “She went to London on her own. She travelled by boat. In those days, a young lady travelling on her own [was uncommon], but she did it,” says Deirdre.

In London, Celia studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, among others, under the tutorship of Sumner Austin. She spent a total of five years in London, also working to pay the bills. “It was really difficult obviously. Imagine, you’re working a whole day, and then after that you go for your lessons,” says Deirdre, who herself has had a similar experience. While challenging, Celia’s time in London was also nurturing and enriching. Celia attended several concerts and operas, and learnt from the best. She also met Bridie, an Irishwoman and her flatmate, in whom she found a lifelong friend. “In fact Bridie is the godmother to my sister. They became like sisters, literally they were so close,” says Deirdre about their relationship.

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(Celia Lobo as Gilda, in Rigoletto, staged in 1967, backstage with director Derek Bond. Photo courtesy Deirdre Lobo.)

Returning to India, Celia easily fit in. It took one meeting for her and Trevor to reconnect, and they married in 1962. “My father and mother had a very good relationship, they were very close,” says Deirdre. Celia’s opera career also took off in earnest, and she worked with BMSO who staged operas in Bombay at the time. “They used to bring in all these male singers from abroad, as also the director Derek Bond,” says Deirdre about Celia’s colleagues. BMSO had a small office in Fort and would send Celia the music and recordings to rehearse, while she travelled all over the country, following her husband’s placements from the army.

“In those days they didn’t have any cassettes or CDs. So she was always sent the score and the recording ahead of time and she would practise with that and then one month before the show, she would come down to Bombay for the actual rehearsal,” explains Deirdre. This was possible only with support from her husband. “For an army officer, to just allow her to do whatever she wanted to do, he was very tolerant,” notes Deirdre.

During those years, Celia also gave birth to her three children, Deirdre, Carolyn, and Ashley. Due to lack of funds, the BMSO disbanded in 1970 and while Celia continued sporadic performances, she turned to directing and writing. “She made the decision that she would stop performing when I came on stage. And I came on stage in 1984,” says Deirdre. After this, Celia focused more on speech and vocal training and among her students are Ella Castellino-Attai, Farid Currim, Shiamak Davar, Sunidhi Chauhan, Neethi Mohan, Shweta Shetty, and Sunita Rao, among others.

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(Celia Lobo as Tosca, in Tosca, staged in 1968. Photo courtesy (right) Deirdre Lobo and (left) Avid Learning.)

Discipline and perfection were the pillars of her teaching style. “As a person, she’s very loving,” recounts Chevon. While strict if you didn’t practice, “she always gave you the time of the day” and made sure her students understood the underlying concepts related to the things she was teaching. “And she would never yell at you. She had that poise about her,” she says. Any room would light up as soon as she entered it. “In her presence, you feel like, ‘okay she’s a diva’,” says Chevon. Celia was also witty, always cracking jokes, and despite her talent, very humble. And when she sang, “I felt like the entire room was vibrating. I used to feel like [with] some of the notes, you’re in the presence of glory. You get that vibe that you understand the meaning of the song even if you don’t know the language at all,” recalls Chevon.

“At the time when I was studying under her, she was hard of hearing,” recalls another student, Fiona Dias Miranda. Sometimes, speaking at the regular decibel, Celia couldn’t hear everything being said to her. But when singing at that same decibel, “if I was even a semi note off, she would catch it. There’s nothing that would go past her,” Fiona says. Opera was a passion for Celia “and she made it a passion for other people too,” she adds.

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(Celia Lobo as Gilda, in Rigoletto, staged in 1967, at the end of the performance with (L-R): conductor Cesar Coelho, Imelda Lobo (Maddalena), Paolo Silveri (Rigoletto), David Parker (the Duke), and director Derek Bond. Photo courtesy Deirdre Lobo.)

In 2013, tragedy struck when Trevor passed away from cancer. “It was traumatic for all of us. Within weeks of discovering it [the cancer], he passed away. It was very quick,” says Deirdre. Following this, in 2014 and then again in 2015, Celia underwent two strokes. “She’s a person who internalises everything. So that could have been part of the reason for the stroke,” says Deirdre. Still, through all her trauma, music, which has been a constant since Celia’s infancy, is what keeps her going. “It’s high drama which is set to music. And the music itself touches my heart and my soul. It’s been everything to me. It’s all that I knew about music,” says Celia about the form she’s spent her whole life performing.

Now living in the US, Celia and Deirdre always have season tickets to operas and symphonies. When the leaflets come in, Celia’s the one who reminds her daughter that they’re to go for a performance. “She goes. With her stick, with her walker. She doesn’t care, she’ll come,” says Deirdre, adding with a laugh, “The other day we went for The Marriage of Figaro [by Mozart] and she started singing the arias in the opera when the artist was singing. I had to really shush her up, it was funny.”

A Musical Extravaganza: A Tribute Concert To Celia Lobo is organised by CLAV, Furtados, and Avid Learning. It is being held on Wednesday, 4 December, at the Royal Opera House in Mumbai. More information here.

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