Canada-based soprano Eleanor Calbes performs series of last curtain calls
Prima Ballerina Lisa Macuja Elizalde isn’t the only Filipino artist staging what she calls her Swan Song series with last performances of “Swan Lake,” “Don Quixote,” “Giselle” and “Carmen.”
The country’s great voices are also headed for last curtain calls with farewell concerts.
In Ohio, the fundraising event last year of tenor Otoniel Gonzaga was called a farewell concert.
Kathleen Megown, a singer who helped promote the Ohio concert, said the fundraising committee was fortunate to have someone with Gonzaga’s ability.
“He’s full of class and has a great voice,” she said. “It’s very appropriate to finish in the big ballroom with someone who has such a big voice.”
Evelyn Mandac, the first Filipino to sing at the Met in New York, was last heard in a recital in Cagayan de Oro many years back and is content to do master class every time she visits Manila.
Canada-based soprano Eleanor Calbes—who had her last well-received concerts in Manila and Aparri, Cagayan, in 2005 with former President Gloria Arroyo in attendance—had her last curtain call in a farewell concert in Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, last Sept. 29.
“I’m so grateful from the bottom of my heart for the life I was given.” Calbes told Canada’s Great Life Magazine. “My singing career began in the Philippines in a church in the small town of Aparri. So that’s why my farewell concert belongs to a church and not a theater. I want to give honor to the Lord, the one who gave me my voice.”
Calbes had her opera debut with the Canadian Opera Company in the early ’60s and wrapped up her opera career with a last performance of the title role of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” in 1991, also in Canada.
When Calbes appeared as soloist of the Toronto Symphony, a Canadian music critic noted: “One cannot recall anyone singing Strauss’ “Voices of Spring” with such carefree abandon and vocal ease as that which Eleanor Calbes gave us.”
In the mid-’60s, Calbes made music history by becoming the first Filipina to invade Broadway, singing Liat in “South Pacific.”
For that Broadway role, Calbes personally auditioned for Richard Rodgers (of the Rodgers-and-Hammerstein tandem) and got the part right away.
That performance of “South Pacific” at the New York City Center was recorded and New York critics called Calbes’ portrayal “endearing.”
She was also given the role of Tuptim in “The King and I” and her part was described by American critics as a “vocal event.”
This was followed by the role of Maria in “West Side Story,” which she sang in German in 24 German cities.
She admitted there was nothing like hard work to make it anywhere in the world. “There is no easy way to public acceptance abroad where thousands of other talents are all waiting for the big break. Of course, I do believe in luck and I thank my lucky star for a long and colorful career.”
A former soloist of the Bayanihan Dance Company, La Calbes was last heard in Manila in the female lead role in Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers” at the Manila Metropolitan Theater; and in “La Loba Negra” by Francisco Feliciano at the Cultural Center of the Philippines in the early ’80s.
Calbes earlier intimated her journey to the music world wasn’t exactly a walk in the park. “There will always be frustrations and hindrance on the way. But to make it in music and survive, you will need intense passion for your art no matter what. Otherwise, consider other profession.”
In 1983, Calbes made her debut as a stage director in “The King and I” for the Brampton Musical Society. In 1985, she became the founding artistic director of Mississauga City Center Opera (MCCO).
She has directed many concert and stage performances of lyric theater for MCCO, including a gala performance of “Die Fledermaus” in 1990 starring Mark DuBois and conducted by John Barnum.
She was named Mississauga’s Musician of the Year in 1986.
“When I fell in love with music, my mother said she couldn’t afford my studies abroad, but I pursued my dream,” she recalled. “I passed auditions left and right, including the Bayanihan, and before I knew it, I was touring abroad and getting a scholarship in Canada. Indeed, God works in mysterious ways to help me realize my dream to be a full-time opera singer.”
She pointed out she had considered many career choices, among them, acting, but all forces decided in favor of singing. “I also wanted to be a doctor but the mere sight of blood made me sick.”
In 1979, Calbes was selected one of the Ten Most Beautiful Women of Canada and featured in Toronto Life magazine, which captioned her picture “Dynamite.”
“In the early ’60s, there were only about 60 of us in Canada. Now there are more than 300,000 Filipinos here,” she said.
Calbes summed up what it took to make it as a performing artist abroad.
“First, you must have discipline,” she said. “Singing is a very selfish profession, and there must be no compromise if you want excellence in this field. You must set aside quality time to be in good shape, or else someone else will be taken for the part.”
The Filipino soprano summed up her most memorable events in her singing life thus: “I can’t forget singing with Victor Borge for a command performance for Prince Philip and guesting on “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson and seeing composer Richard Rodgers giving you thumbs-up for a role in “South Pacific.”
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