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Behind-The-Scenes: How Coach Lea Salonga Saves the Day; Big D's Standing O at Carnegie Hall

Behind-The-Scenes: How Coach Lea Salonga Saves the Day; Big D's Standing O at Carnegie Hall
Darren Espanto, dubbed "The Total Perfomer" in
the first season of "The Voice Kids" in the Philippines
Photo: Dion Trinidad,

There doesn't seem to be enough of 13-year-old Filipino-Canadian singer Darren Espanto to go around these days, especially since he has made headlines in what could only be described by his legions of fans as a run of charismatic, breakthrough performances on "The Voice Kids" Philippine edition, under the tutelage of Coach Sarah Geronimo (other coaches were Tony winner Lea Salonga and rock star Bamboo Manalac).

Fresh from performing four back-to-back provincial shows, topped by a successful sold-out solo debut concert at the Music Museum in the Philippines, Big D--as fondly called by his nearly one million registered followers called Darrenatics, who are spread across more than 20 countries so far--now joins the ranks of international Filipino singing headliners that include Charice and Lani Misalucha, who were featured as special guest performers at the annual The Outstanding Filipino American Awards in New York (TOFA-NY) Awards held at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

Oliver Oliveros, TOFA-NY board member and regional director, shares how Big D landed the prestigious gig on October 25 this year:

"Lea (Salonga), as we well know, is one of the coaches of 'The Voice Kids' in the Philippines and is a recipient of TOFA-NY's Heritage Award; without Lea's endorsement stamp, booking Darren for this year's awards ceremony would have been more difficult--that kid has been super busy since he competed on 'The Voice Kids' just around five months ago! However, Lea had one request: 'Please take care of Darren'," Oliver says.

Darren did make it to his very first trip to New York, but in the cusp of a cold threatening to put a damper on his Carnegie Hall debut. With the crucial days leading up to the TOFA-NY Awards seeing only a little improvement in his condition, people around him began to worry.

"So when Lea, who was on tour with Il Divo in Europe, learned that Darren was sick when he arrived in New York, she immediately sent her pediatrician based in Battery Park, Dr. Thelma Reyes. On Thursday night (October 23)--two days before the awards night; Darren's Carnegie Hall debut as well--Dr. Reyes did a checkup on Darren. She said Darren had 'symptoms of a throat infection' and prescribed antibiotics. We were in touch with Lea on Facebook private messaging the whole time!," recalls Oliver.

Behind-The-Scenes: How Coach Lea Salonga Saves the Day; Big D's Standing O at Carnegie Hall
Darren with pediatrician Thelma Reyes
Photo: Oliver Oliveros

"After the doctor's visit, the kid's most important tasks were to rest, drink a lot of water, and take a lot of Vitamin C! On Friday night (October 24), he was invited to watch 'Here Lies Love' on Off-Broadway, co-produced by Jhett Tolentino, TOFA-NY honoree this year, but we had to decline the invitation. Darren also didn't bring a tuxedo ensemble. So I had to run errands for him in Astoria, Queens--find a decent tuxedo ensemble and a pair of shiny black shoes that would fit a 13-year-old kid--while he was resting in Blakely Hotel in Manhattan," he says.

On the day of the performance, Lea (Salonga) kept in touch with Oliver and Elton Lugay, (TOFA-NY founder) reminding them to tell Darren to "'just hit the high notes safely,' which Darren did," Oliver continues.

Big D's big stage presence as he took over Carnegie Hall that night managed to keep audiences clueless as to the wrought nerves of his humble entourage of two firing up backstage because of his throat condition.

"At the theater wing, nearing the finale of the awards ceremony, Darren was still not in his top form. Tita Marivic (Gonzales), Darren's aunt who accompanied him to New York, and the rest of us prayed like we've never prayed before," Oliver recalls.

As Darren finally made it to the Carnegie Hall stage, in between rousing renditions of Whitney Houston's "One Moment in Time" and his finale, Beyonce's "Listen," he excuses himself, politely coughing off-mic.

"I hope I can make it through this one, please forgive me as I have a cold," he briefly explains, with a flash of his disarming smile, as he goes on to warmly congratulate the 2014 TOFA-NY honorees before launching into his final number.

Behind-The-Scenes: How Coach Lea Salonga Saves the Day; Big D's Standing O at Carnegie Hall
Darren with aunts Pam and Vicky
Photo: Oliver Oliveros

"Before the night ended, kinumusta sa amin ni Lea si Darren and his performance. We told her, 'The kid gave his all and earned double standing ovation!'" Oliver shares.

"I performed in Carnegie Hall. It was very exciting lalo ng makita ko yung mga Filipino sa ibang bansa na sumusuporta din sa akin. I was very happy and excited na naka-perform ako ng maayos kasi dun na nag-trigger yung sipon ko, lahat lahat na po. I was coughing and I had phlegm pero naka-perform ako ng maayos and I was just so happy. At saka yung mga Pilipino na nakita ko very welcoming silang lahat," Darren said in a press conference held in Manila after his TOFA-NY Awards performance.

With the TOFA-NY--honoring 19 Filipino Americans (including five Heritage Honorees) this year, plus a special award for Darren--now recognized as a yearly highlight of the Filipino-American History Month, the ceremony has gradually become a veritable showcase of poignant stories of professional achievement and community spirit.

Making it to the list of the most significant highlights of this year's TOFA-NY awards ceremony was 2014 Miss USA Firrst Runner-Up Audra Mari recalling her Filipino roots and tracing her lineage to how her Filipino grandfather, surgeon Justo Mari, married an American woman and raised a family in North Dakota. In her brief keynote speech, Audra paid a glowing tribute to the enduring love between her grandparents who just celebrated their 58th wedding anniversary.

It was apparent from the official videos of Darren's TOFA-NY performance that Audra might as well be counted as a "Darrenatic," with her enthusiasm brimming over as she almost instinctively leads the audience in giving the young singer his back-to-back standing ovations.

As Darren closed this year's TOFA-NY Awards, his supporters may be quick to ask if his well-lauded debut at New York's famed Carnegie Hall is enough of a feat to cement 2014 as Big D's breakthrough year in the music industry. Fans will be delighted to know that he is moving on to yet other international venues as he performs in a homecoming concert on November 7 at the Grey Eagle Resort and Casino in Calgary, Canada and on November 8 at Mirage Banquet Hall in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

Darren, who is set to release his first solo album, under MCA Music, soon, will also be performing with his fellow "The Voice Kids" alumni in "The Voice Kids All-In" concert at the Philippine International Convention Center on December 6.

Behind-The-Scenes: How Coach Lea Salonga Saves the Day; Big D's Standing O at Carnegie Hall

Photo: Dion Trinidad,

Videography by Pamela Zamora and Dion Trinidad; edited by Michelle Ramos and Ginza Chavez

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