Culture vultures to find finer feed in Philippines

IT looks as if Asia's premier culture-fest - the Hong Kong Arts Festival - is going to be upstaged by a neighbour across the South China Sea, the Philippines.

For Luciano Pavarotti, arguably the greatest operatic tenor of the century, is due to perform a charity concert at the Philippine International Convention Centre on March 18. And music-lovers from across the region are scrambling for seats at the 6,000-capacity venue.

More than $1 million worth of tickets have already been snapped up by Pavarotti fans in Hong Kong, with the territory's contingent believed to include several notable names, including multi-millionaire businessman Eric Hotung and his wife Patricia.

One luxury Manila hotel has even blocked off two whole floors for Hong Kong guests expected to arrive for the concert.

Although Pavarotti agreed to the concert at short notice because it would benefit street children (indeed, he is even donating part of his fee to the charity involved), his impending arrival in Manila is not music to everyone's ears.

In some political quarters the event has been referred to as ''extravagant and wasteful'', something that ruffles the delicate feathers of wealthy Filipina socialite Rosemarie ''Baby'' Arenas who was the prime instigator in persuading Pavarotti to come to Manila. (Incidentally, her mother, opera diva Remedios Bosch Jimenez and Pavarotti shared the same voice coach, Arrigo Pola, in Rome).

''You would have thought that some of our politicians had more important things to worry about than the visit of Pavarotti that will not cost the Government one centavo,'' Arenas hisses.

''Their arguments are based on nothing more than utter ignorance,'' she adds with barely concealed disdain which seems to imply that her detractors probably think Il Trovatore is an Italian restaurant in Makati Avenue.

Such was the ferocity of her critics that the politically and socially well-connected Arenas (both the local and international media have linked her romantically with President Fidel Ramos whose election campaign she reputedly bankrolled to the tune of 30 million pesos) at one time was even considering staging the concert in Hong Kong instead. But wiser counsel has since prevailed.

There is a further intriguing aspect to ''Pavarotti in Manila''. The scheduled date happens to fall on the birthday of Ramos.

Mention this fact to Arenas and her eyes roll heavenwards as if seeking divine help to convince everyone that it is ''nothing more than sheer coincidence''.

She wearily explains: ''What people don't realise is that Pavarotti's diary is booked up until 1998. There is no way I could have picked a date and got him to fulfil it. We gave him a time frame for the concert and he chose the exact date.''