Although fairly recent discoveries these artists, it can be said, have made Filipinos gain ground on the world stage. Unknown to many, however, the Filipino’s presence on the international stage began long ago.
Introducing Enya Gonzalez, a native of Baliwag, Bulacan. The fourth child of Spanish tenor Luis Gonzalez and Pilar Garcia, she spent part of her childhood in Baliwag and then completed her education in Manila.
Within a year of her arrival in the U.S., the strong-willed Enya got her big break as Cio-Cio San in the 1938 production of “Madame Butterfly” at the Center Theater in New York City when an original cast member fell ill one evening.
“Blithely assuring the director that she sang the role many times,” according to one account, Enya had less than two days to rehearse the part. In spite of this, she confidently played the role, wowing the night's audience with her impressive singing and acting skills. Two months after playing Cio-Cio San, she became one of the first Filipinos to grace the cover of Newsweek.
A rising celebrity, she went on a concert tour of the U.S., Canada and Mexico. A typical performance consisted of 17 numbers and five encores, according to the Beatrice Daily Sun. Enya sang in three languages, English, Tagalog and Spanish, specializing in rare Filipino and Spanish folk songs as well as operatic arias. She gave “piquant descriptions” of the folk songs before singing them, the New York Times reported, and that these “won her listeners even before she sang.”
Though petite, she cut a striking appearance. During one performance in the early 1940s, her five-foot-two frame was garbed in a “flame-red, sequin trimmed gown,” accentuating her exotic roots while playing Mimi in “La Boheme.” In another performance, alongside tenor John Carter, she was described as a “contrast to the night in her lovely gown of white ….” Here, as in many of her other performances, her “stage presence and outstanding personality won over the audience immediately.”
She had the gift of captivating all who watched her sing, be they high ranking-officials or ordinary citizens. One instance was at a gala ball to celebrate the inauguration of the new Cuban President Dr. Carlos Prio Socarras. Ambassador to the U.S. Joaquin Elizalde accompanied Enya on the piano. Their impromptu number reportedly caused guests to ignore the dance orchestra present.
Enya’s singing career started through the generous aid of Conrado Benitez, first Filipino Dean of the University of the Philippines' College of Liberal Arts and adviser to President Manuel Quezon, and his wife, Francisca Tirona, who provided her with tuition scholarship at the Philippine Women's University.
Ambassador Elizalde, who served as Philippine Resident Commissioner during the Commonwealth Period, played an equally big part, aiding her financially, introducing her to people who later supported her blossoming career and helping her obtain her first big break on Philippine radio. Her musical debut was at President Manuel Quezon’s birthday and while living abroad years later, she sang again for him on his birthday through a special broadcast at NBC Studios in New York City.
Enya first left the Philippines in 1937 together with Mr. Benitez and his daughter, Helena, on a tour of European countries including England, France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland. From Europe, she went straight to the United States and trained under Maestro Carl Edwards in the hopes of launching her singing career. Within a year, she was a shining presence on the U.S. opera scene.
Enya was lauded for the maturity with which she carried her performances. Influential critics praised the “exotic beauty” of her overall appearance and the “sharp, stimulating flavor of her voice.” Newsweek pronounced her an “operatic prima donna,” while Cecil Smith of the Chicago Daily Tribune described her voice as “fluent and bright,” displaying “tones of heartwarming strength and clarity.”
Praise for Enya went even further, as a critic in The New York Journal-American wrote, “Miss Gonzalez has fulfilled every promise of the preliminary announcements of her talents. She possesses rare beauty and a voice of growing quality, emitted and controlled with taste and assurance.”
Many of Enya’s performances were in the shadow of the Second World War. In 1942, she was asked to sing “Planting Rice” at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, DC to celebrate the 7th Anniversary of the Philippine Commonwealth while the Commonwealth government was in exile. At Manuel Quezon’s funeral in Washington, DC in 1944, she sang “Ave Maria,” later featured in John Ford’s documentary, “Manuel Quezon: In Memoriam.”
When she sang “When the Home Bells Ring Again” one evening, audience members were visibly moved, as many of them were then separated from family members fighting in the war overseas.
Enya suffered her own loss as a result of the war with the death of her brother, Edgardo, a guerrilla leader who was executed by the Japanese. She later spent some time with her family in the Philippines, to help them rebuild their home and livelihood when the war ended.
Enya joined three USO tours and performed at American bases in Latin America, Iceland and Greenland. She met her future husband, Wendell Beabout, on her final USO tour. They were married in a quiet ceremony in New York City, where they later settled down and had two children, Charles and Wendy.
Throughout her musical career, Enya performed with prestigious opera companies including the Chicago Opera Company, the Columbia Opera Company, the New York City Opera Company, and the San Carlo Opera Company.
She appeared as guest singer in numerous shows organized by well-known choirs and personalities from different states, performing in venues that ranged from the White House to Radio City Music Hall. She was among the first Filipinos to go on an international concert tour, delighting audiences in the U.S., Mexico and Canada with her dazzling renditions of popular arias.
In 1954, she played Cio-Cio San one last time at the revival of “Madame Butterfly” at the City Center in New York City. Coming home to where she first came to international prominence, it was a fitting end to a brilliant career. In her seventeen years as a singer in the United States, Enya Gonzalez truly performed an outstanding job presenting the fine musical abilities of the Filipino.
The above audio clip—Enya Gonzalez, “Mimi’s Farewell”—is an excerpt from a March 1942 broadcast of Treasury Star Parade, a series sponsored by the U.S. Treasury to promote bonds for the war effort. The program is in the public domain.
This article draws from references collected by the Philippines on the Potomac Project (popdc.wordpress.com). The complete list of references is available on request from the author.
Gaby Carandang Gloria is a communications freshman at the Ateneo de Manila University. She has written articles for Total Girl magazine and Planet Philippines. On most days, you would find her at her computer, excessively bookmarking links to DIY projects and articles about teenage wunderkind.