MANILA — Brave, straightforward and always speaking her mind out. That was how a lot of people remember Armida Siguion-Reyna, singer, actress, TV/film producer. Yet, she was nonetheless well-loved up to her final days.
Siguion-Reyna passed away at the Makati Medical Center on Monday afternoon at the age of 88 due to cancer, according to her sister, Irma Potenciano.
Siguion-Reyna was the daughter of Purita Liwanag, one of the early graduates of the University of the Philippines College of Music. Liwanag was a budding soprano when she met Spanish-mestizo lawyer-politician Alfonso Ponce-Enrile.
The man insisted that a woman’s turf was simply at home, so while he enjoyed his philandering ways, she merely stayed at home and eventually gave up her dream of becoming a singer.
In the family’s grand abode in Malabon, Liwanag quietly raised her children, Siguion-Reyna and her sister, Irma Potenciano, also a known soprano, away from the rumormongers of Manila.
The sisters could not attend prestigious Catholic schools, even if the family wanted to, because of the issue of legitimacy. Instead, they attended Far Eastern University (FEU) and Philippine Women’s University (PWU), by virtue of their father’s connections.
In 1946, however, after World War II, Don Alfonso officially tied the knot with Liwanag. The Japanese military invaders allowed divorce in the Philippines, so Don Alfonso divorced his original wife, Rosario Martinez.
Still, Liwanag tolerated her husband’s womanizing ways. Siguion-Reyna was 18, when she met her half-brother, Juan Ponce-Enrile, then 21. He was Don Alfonso’s son with Petra Puruganan of Cagayan.
LOVE FOR CINEMA, PERFORMING ARTS
Siguion-Reyna was only in her late teens when she became engrossed with the cinema and the performing arts. Her aunt, pre-war pioneer female film director Carmen Concha, ignited her love for acting and the movies, as well.
When she was eight, Siguion-Reyna appeared in a film, “Yaman ng Mahirap,” directed by Concha. The film also featured then child star Tita Duran.
During the Japanese occupation, Siguion-Reyna regularly visited Star Theater in Manila, to simply look at the photos of stars Rosario Moreno and Rudy Concepcion. Siguion-Reyna also familiarized herself with the songs of her idol, Fely Vallejo. That eventually led to her passion for Filipino music.
After the war, she even took screen tests with Palaris Films and got an offer to be in the movie of Fernando Poe, Sr. Siguion-Reyna’s father, in an effort to thwart her interests, sent her to the United States where she had her high school and college education.
She finished high school at the Academy of St. Joseph in Long Island, New York. Secretly, she auditioned for “The King and I,” but her father got wind of it and prevented her from pursuing musical theater.
Siguion-Reyna failed to finish college in the US because while she was at the Georgian Court University in New Jersey, she became broken-hearted after she dated a rich playboy.
In 1950, she returned to Manila and was met by her parents, accompanied by young lawyers Leonardo Siguion-Reyna and Oscar Ongsiaco. Leonardo was immediately smitten with the sophistication of the lady he met. After a brief romance, Siguion-Reyna married Leonardo a year later in 1951.
She had artistic freedom throughout her marriage, which was one of the conditions she specified at the start of their union. True enough, because she was able to venture into singing, acting, hosting and film production, among others.
In the world of opera, Siguion-Reyna tackled lead roles in “Lucia de Lammermoor,” “Rigoletto,” “The Merry Widow,” “La Traviata,” “I Pagliacci” and the zarzuela, “The Mestiza.”
In 1970, Siguion-Reyna produced “Aawitan Kita,” one of the longest-running musical shows on Philippine TV that lasted for more than three decades. The program was supported by big-time clients of her husband’s law firm, so sponsors never became a major issue.
“Aawitan Kita” showcased Siguion-Reyna’s love for music, her passion for Filipino songs, traditional kundimans, contemporary pop ballads and memorable love songs – all of which were rendered in the show by music luminaries and even budding, young talents in classical and pop.
Among the “Aawitan Kita” performers were opera stalwarts Robert Natividad, Gamaliel Viray, Aurelio Estanislao and Fides Cuyugan-Asencio. Rachel Alejandro and Robert Sena also joined the show as regular featured performers.
Alejandro was only 15, when she was invited by Siguion-Reyna to join “Aawitan Kita,” where she became a regular for six years. At that time, Alejandro’s dad, Hajji, was also a regular guest performer in the show.
“So I supposed, when Tita Midz got wind of the news that Hajji’s daughter had become a budding recording artist, her interest was piqued,” Alejandro shares. “That was also the same time I released my first album.”
The other performers with Alejandro in the show at that time were Richard Reynoso, Bo Cerrudo, Michael Laygo, Lirio Vital and the late Robert Natividad.
“We would spend a whole week of taping together at various beautiful locations like Villa Escudero,” Alejandro recalls. “We also taped around Ilocos, where Tita Midz’s is from. We became like family.”
FORCE OF NATURE
Siguion-Reyna was a force of nature then, according to Alejandro. “She was always fun and full of great stories, but also quite strict. All of us had to know our songs very, very well when we came to the recording sessions. Otherwise, she would send you home.
“That never became a problem for me because I am a quick study and also very meticulous about learning the right notes. I was such a newbie singer then who hadn’t yet found my own style of singing. My study material was Tita Midz’s voice. I learned her phrasing and placement so exactly that I sounded like her.”
The tapings of “Aawitan Kita” were enjoyable but also a lot of work, under the meticulous direction of Siguion-Reyna’s director-son, Carlitos. “We would be up by 5 a.m. to start makeup then by 7 a.m., we were grinding,” Alejandro remembers.
“Carlitos was a perfectionist. We had to do the same song over and over again, sometimes for hours, until he got exactly the shots he wanted. This meant being under the sun or wading in a cool stream or sitting on a branch of a tree, with ants crawling on you. If the song is sad, they would ask you to really get into the emotion and cry.”
Siguion-Reyna never tolerated tardiness, attests Alejandro. “So even the way I am always punctual today could be attributed to the training I got from being on ‘Aawitan Kita’ during my formative years. I am very grateful to Tita Midz for mentoring me. I learned to enunciate every word and pronounce deep Tagalog words with utmost clarity and accuracy. I learned how to strive for excellence always, thanks to her.”
One of Alejandro’s best experiences working with Siguion-Reyna was when she asked Alejandro to play the young wife of the character of Albert Martinez in the tele-sine version of “Inagaw Mo Ang Lahat sa Akin,” which later became a film starring roughly the same cast.
“My role, although not one of the leads, was a pivotal character,” Alejandro points out. “I thought I did quite well, but for the movie, Tita Midz decided to cast Sharmaine Arnaiz, instead. That broke my heart, actually because I was so close to her at that time. That was the reason I left ‘Aawitan Kita.’ I never told Tita Midz that.”
Eventually, “Aawitan Kita” paved the way for Siguion-Reyna’s other passion, acting. For “Tahan na Empoy,” she made life miserable for the young Nino Muhlach and that performance won for her the FAMAS best supporting actress trophy.
Through the years, Siguion-Reyna acted in a number of films – “Kakabakaba Ka Ba?,” “Sa Pagitan ng Dalawang Langit,” “Salome,” ”Bilanggong Birhen,” “Paradise Inn,” “Ang Totoong Buhay ni Pacita M,” “Inagaw Mo ang Lahat sa Akin,” “Pag-ibig na Walang Dangal.”
She worked with such actresses as Vilma Santos, Nora Aunor, Alma Moreno, Maricel Soriano, Sharon Cuneta, Dawn Zulueta and Rosanna Roces.
Siguion-Reyna successfully ventured into film production, too. Under Reyna Films, she produced critically acclaimed and well-remembered movies like “Hihintayin Kita sa Langit,” “Ikaw Pa Lamang,” “Inagaw Mo ang Lahat sa Akin,” “Abot-Kamay ang Pangarap,” “Kahapon, May Dalawang Bata,” “Ligaya ang Itawag Mo sa Akin,” “Azucena” and “Ang Lalaki sa Buhay ni Selya.”
Reyna Films churned out excellent, well-received and award-winning films, mostly directed by Siguion-Reyna’s youngest son, Carlitos, with scripts by her daughter-in-law, screenwriter Bibeth Orteza and music by Ryan Cayabyab.
The films that Siguion-Reyna produced reaped countless awards in international film festivals. She even graced some of the ceremonies abroad, went up the stage and proudly accepted the award.
Under the administration of former President Joseph Estrada, Siguion-Reyna served as chairman of the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB). She was a staunch supporter of anti-censorship.
When her husband, Leonardo, died in 2010, Siguion-Reyna “deteriorated,” her granddaughter, Cris Villonco, earlier revealed. Though not health-wise, the lady often failed to remember names of people close to her.
She was always overjoyed when people who worked with her on and off the camera, visited her at home. She loved the company of people around her, according to Villonco, the child of Siguion-Reyna’s only daughter, Monique with lawyer Opap Villonco.
In February 2015, Siguion-Reyna launched her biography, simply titled “Armida,” which celebrated her legacy as one of the pillars of show business and respected names in the entertainment industry. The book was launched by ABS-CBN Publishing, Inc.
Lea Salonga was one of Siguion-Reyna’s favorites because she’s “brillo.” When Salonga debuted as Kim in “Miss Saigon” in London’s West End, Siguion-Reyna and her husband were there.
She loved a singer who tells a story, among them Gary Granada and Bayang Barrios. Siguion-Reyna also remembered Celeste Legaspi, for her “perfect recording.” Moreover, Siguion-Reyna had high regard for musician Levi Celerio.
In acting, Siguion-Reyna loved Susan Roces and Vilma Santos, Maricel Soriano and Dawn Zulueta.
Quijano de Manila, more widely known as Nick Joaquin, once said, “Armida may have law in her blood, but she has art in her heart.”