By Andew Isiah P. Bonifacio and Celina Ann M. Tobias
Photos by Kerwin Patrick M. Mercadal
A match made in heaven best describes the marriage of performing couple Robert Seña & Isay Alvarez. In their collaborative recording Dueto, music lovers would instantly fall for the sweet, contagious love the couple evokes in their singing.
“Because we produced Dueto, we hand-picked the elements that we wanted to include in the album,” Alvarez said. “Although we exerted a lot of effort, we are both very happy with how it came out.”
Seña and Alvarez spent their college years in UST during the early 1980’s. Although both of them were Thomasians, their love story unfolded only after college as their paths never crossed when they were on campus.
“I was ahead of him by two years,” Alvarez said. “We never met inside the campus though.”
Taking AB Sociology major in Translation in the Faculty of Arts and Letters, Alvarez belonged to the first batch of Artistang Artlets when it was organized in 1981, a year short of her graduation year. She was also a member of the UST Action Singers. Meanwhile, Seña, who took Industrial Design in the University, was a member of the Salinggawi Dance Troupe and the Atelier Cultural Organization. Although they knew people from each other’s organizations, they never met.
“I even told Robert my amazement about us not even meeting each other in the then UST Cooperative Canteen during break time,” Alvarez said.
Growing up, Alvarez always joined school songfests. Her love for music started when she saw and heard Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music.
“I even wanted to be her sister and until now I do,” Alvarez said. “I think she inspired me the most to penetrate the world of theater later on.”
Seña, even at a young age, was always being asked to perform at family gatherings because of his breathtaking singing prowess. A play in Fort Santiago that he saw as a child inspired him to become a theater artist. “I was only 10 years old then and that play really sank right into my mind as very impressive.”
Their aspirations continued to blossom in college. Alvarez became active at the Artistang Artlets and the UST Action Singers (forerunner of today’s UST Singers). When asked about her fondest memories in UST, she would mention her friends in those two organizations. “Up to now I’m still very well-bonded with my batch mates in Artistang Artlets,” she said.
Meanwhile, Seña enjoyed the arduous life of an Industrial Design student. It was in the strain of putting up exhibits and staying up late at night finishing projects that he found his best friends and colleagues. Seña was then already performing in stage productions in the now defunct Metropolitan Theater.
“Those activities are really close to my heart,” he said.
Meanwhile, right after her classes, Alvarez would go straight to the Metropolitan Theater to sing with the chorus in theatrical productions there. Later, she was soon given roles to play until she portrayed Monina in Gines Tan’s 1985 musical Magsimula Ka. It was during her stint in the musical that she met Seña who was also in the production. They were introduced by their friends during rehearsals and gradually, the two performers became close. Although they became inseparable during the staging of Magsimula Ka, their relationship was purely platonic. No sparks flew between the graceful alto and the vibrant tenor.
“There was nothing romantic initially,” Alvarez recalled. “Even up to the time when we went to London to do Miss Saigon, we were just very good friends.”
Four years later, they found themselves performing together in the original 1989 London production of the hit musical Miss Saigon. Alvarez narrated how Seña would sweetly send her flowers or fruits during rehearsals. “He never failed to surprise me,” she said. “Robert is really sweet and thoughtful.”
In the musical, Alvarez played the role of Gigi, the world-weary prostitute who sings the heart-breaking song Movie in My Mind, while Seña played Thuy, the man betrothed to the female lead, Kim. But outside of the fiction of the stage, musical romance was blooming between the two actors.
In 1991, three years after the opening of Miss Saigon, Seña and Alvarez got married in a civil wedding in London. Two church weddings followed, first in London, then in Manila. Alvarez left Miss Saigon after getting pregnant with their first daughter, Maria. Seña, meanwhile, played the role of Judas in the hit West End revival of the musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, and the lead role of the engineer in the German production of Miss Saigon.
Back where they belong
Despite the greener pastures in London, the couple decided that it was better for them to raise their growing family back in the Philippines.
“We were waiting for our papers in order to become residents in London, but when we had a baby, we didn’t think that London was the best environment to raise children, so we forfeited our residency and went back to the Philippines,” Alvarez said.
“It was really the best decision for us because here we get to rest, go on holiday, and spend time with our kids. In London, we had to work non-stop because the shows were eight times a week,” Seña added.
At present, the couple has three children: 20-year-old Maria, 13-year-old Roberto Jericho, and seven-year-old Emilio. After Emilio was born, Alvarez took a break from the stage to raise her kids. She would wake up at six in the morning to drive her children to school.
Meanwhile, Seña continued to work on stage companies. He played Emilio Aguinaldo in Miong, Ravana in Rama at Sita, and Judas in the Philippine production of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Alvarez returned to the limelight through plays such as Himala, My Fair Lady, Mga Anghel sa Lupa, West Side Story, Once on This Island, and They’re Playing Our Song. Both of them reprised their original roles in the Philippine production of Miss Saigon in 2000. They also produced a show together, Love You, Hate You, Love You, at the Music Museum last year.
To God be the glory
Both credit their strong faith in God for the success of their personal and professional lives together. “For some people, being together as a couple and working together at the same time is difficult. But because we’re both Christians, we try to do an excellent job in everything that we do,” Alvarez said.
Aside from this, what separates the couple from the rest of the artists is their undying support for Filipino music. According to the couple, through their newest album, they aim to revive the beautiful Filipino songs of the past that they believe should not be forgotten.
“What we really want is for Filipinos to be exposed to a different kind of music genre and at the same time, for them to appreciate old Filipino music,” Seña said. “Hopefully, artists like us who are trying to bring these songs back to life would succeed in this endeavor.”
The couple encouraged Thomasians and aspiring performers not to give up, to cultivate their craft, and to join organizations that will help them improve and develop their talents.
“Don’t be afraid to explore different things, and when you learn something new, don’t forget to share your discovery,” Seña said.