Saturday, October 1, 2011
Finding Healing in Her Mother’s Land
Filipino-American musical theater actor Stephanie Reese’s journey to find her roots in the Philippines occurred three years ago, at a “time of great despair.”
“I gave up my singing and acting career because the man that I had fallen in love with died in a car accident. It turned my life upside down,” relates the Seattle-born soprano.
From being an ambitious and successful actor and singer—she played Kim in the European production of Miss Saigon, and Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Tuptim in The King and I, both in West End—Stephanie became withdrawn and was ready to give up on life.
And then she met Gawad Kalinga founder Tony Meloto, who invited her to come to the Philippines. It was the first time Stephanie would ever set foot on her mother’s homeland.
She would find the healing she was looking for in the Philippines. Through Gawad Kalinga, a movement that raises money to help build homes for poor Filipino families, Stephanie met people who had also gone through difficult times in their lives. The immersion opened her eyes and inspired her to go back to her music and revive her theater career.
“Tito Tony [made me realize that] we always need a higher purpose in everything that we do. I felt that here in the Philippines, and I am forever indebted to this country,” Stephanie says.
Finding her roots
Stephanie’s homecoming was also a chance to know more about her Filipino roots.
Raised in the US by an American-Japanese father and a Filipino-Chinese mother from Camalig, Albay, Stephanie says, “I didn’t know how it was to be Filipino until I came to the country. I am of mixed blood and heritage, but after coming here, I feel I am a hundred percent Filipino.”
She has since taken great pride in representing the Philippines in her performances. “I’d like to break stereotypes of what people think and believe of Filipinos. There’s more to Philippine culture than just karaoke singing. I’m so proud to be able to represent our culture,” she says.
This Pinoy’s got talent
Now back on her feet, Stephanie is making a name for herself in the US through her unique singing style. Dubbed “The Standing Ovation Queen,” she’s wowed fans and industry insiders with her diverse repertoire of Broadway, opera, ballads, pop, kundiman, and even hip-hop. What’s more impressive is that she can switch from one genre to another without missing a beat!
Her recent concert in Beverly Hill’s Crustacean Restaurant, where she sang with Patti La Belle and Natalie Cole, has “put [her] on the Hollywood map.” Her rendition of the aria “Nessun Dorma” had the audience on its feet and impressed La Belle, who called this five-foot-one-inch singer “the little girl with the big voice.”
After conquering European musical theater and Hollywood, Stephanie is coming home to share her gift with her countrymen in a first solo concert, “I Am Stephanie Reese,” at the Teatrino in Greenhills on May 4.
“I really want to create a name for myself [here in the Philippines," she admits. "I want to share my music from the north to the south, to give back to the people, [because] when I come here I always feel a sense of healing. My grandparents and my mother are from here, and so I would really like to honor my grandparents and my heritage by embracing this culture.”
We got to talk to Stephanie Reese during her meeting with the Philippine press last week, and this Q&A is recreated from a one-on-one interview and her answers during the press conference.
PinoyCentric: How was it like growing up?
My mom raised me to be [very Filipino]. Everyone asks me, “Are you sure you were born here?” because they say I’m more Filipino than American, and I take that as a big compliment. I’m very conservative.
Did your mother ever make an effort to introduce you to the Pinoy culture?
She tried her best, but we were living with my dad’s family who were American, and it was hard for her until my grandparents came. So that was her effort: in bringing them to live with us.
My [lola] was my inspiration for my love of music. From the time she lived with us, she’d sing songs to me every day. She really planted that seed of the love of music in me. My first stage, I’d like to think, was my own living room.
Do you have a favorite Pinoy dish?
I love Bicol express and laing!
What do you consider the landmark of your career?
Originally I would have said Miss Saigon, but as I began as a solo artist, I’d like to say it’s my one-woman show, The Journey. [Editor: Stephanie writes, produces, and directs this autobiographical show.]
What’s "The Journey" all about?
It’s about my life–my life story told through music. It’s similar to what I’ll be doing in Teatrino, but because I’ve lived my life since I wrote it, I had to rewrite it to include my journey in the Philippines, so it’s gone now from this autobiographical story to [the Teatrino concert] “I am Stephanie Reese.”
There aren’t a lot of singers who write their own songs. What inspires your songwriting?
Life–people that I meet and whatever I experience in life is what I make comments on. When I get a little [idea] in my head, I just follow that inspiration.
How did you find your way to Miss Saigon in Germany? Did you have to know German?
I auditioned in New York. No [laughter], I didn’t know German. They just cast me and taught me phonetically.
How long did it take you to learn German?
They don’t give you much time—I had eight hours a day of phonetics. I had about a few weeks before I could go onstage.
What advice can you give to those who are starting out?
I would tell them to keep singing and to know that it is the biggest gift you can share with others. Know that when you’re given a gift from God, you have to take care of it. Your goal shouldn’t be to be famous or to make money but to share.
Sing anywhere and everywhere you can. Don’t wait for other people to give you opportunities. Create your own opportunities.