Maestra Jovita Fuentes was born on February 15, 1895 in the poblacion of Capiz (now Roxas City) when it was a prosperous town with about seven thousand inhabitants.
Jovita is the 3rd of thirteen children of Canuto and Dolores Fuentes. Her siblings are Pedro, Candelaria, Mercedes, Jose, Juan, Everilda, Josefa, Candelaria, Trinidad, Manuela, Socorro and Silvestre.
Jovita was Manang Inday to younger siblings, Vitang to childhood friends, and Tata to nieces and nephews.
Jovita's Music-Loving Family
At 5 years old, young Jovita charmingly wowed family members and guests with the popular songs of the time, like habaneras and danzas. She learned playing the piano from a town organist named Maestro Gorio and later on Juliana Chiyuto. She had a happy childhood with siblings playing improvisations of dances, songs and dialogues. She would act, in their little plays, operettas and zarzuelas learned from neighbouring Acuñas as she peeped through a hole in a stage's back wall.
Belonging to a family of landed gentry in the 1900s, she heard songs from the farms from household helpers. One of the songs was that instilled itself in Jovita's memory as a kid was Ay! Kalisud.
Piano Trainings and Summer Zarzuelas Lead Jovita to Singing
At 8 years old, noticing her artistic talents, Jovita's family sent her to study piano in one of Manila's best schools for girls – Colegio de Santa Isabel – run by the Order of Daughters of Charity nuns. The idea was a welcome treat to a young, decisive girl like Jovita who had a mind of her own. Convent life shaped her faith in God and pious personality. In this school, she mastered the Spanish Language, learned Home Arts, Spanish History, Geography, Christian Doctrine, Ethics, Good Manners, Arithmetic, and Music.
It was, however, in the field of music and stage that Jovita's strength and interest flourished. Unlike many children, she easily stood before a crowd to sing a song or recite a poem.
Vacation time found Jovita organizing with friends and family plays and zarzuelas for eager town folks. One of the group's early production was the zarzuela – La Marina. This was participated in by prominent Capizeños, one of which was the young Manuel Acuna Roxas, fondly called Manoling (later to become the 1st President of the Republic of the Philippines). Such productions usually benefited a worthy religious or socio-civic cause.
The summer zarzuela experience of Jovita certainly gave her a bit of experience in singing in public. As such, upon return to Santa Isabel after that summer in Capiz, she confidently presented herself during choir rehearsals. She learned songs diligently until she found that she loved to sing even more that she loved playing the piano.
So 14-year old Jovita convinced her father to allow her to study voice lessons (while studying piano) with the best voice teacher in Manila, Italian Sra. Salvina Fornari. It was this teacher who suggested that she studies further in Milan, Italy.
At 15 years old, Jovita's debut as a young artist (either a singer or as a pianist) was at the Manila Opera House. In her early performances, she was described as “a future star ... with a voice so fresh, of such exuberant strength, vibrant ....and captivating”. In some concerts, she was joined by younger sister Everilda who played the violin.
Learning from Music Masters Abroad
Thus, started Jovita's dream of going to Italy to study voice in an Italian conservatory. After so much discussion, she convinced her family in Capiz that she had to go abroad for further training. She raised funds for her plans by organizing a farewell concert at the Manila Grand Opera House in February 1924. Being the “Darling of the Philippine Press” and a shining star of the country's musical world, her concert was a success. She left for Italy via Spain on 2nd of June 1924.
In Milan – the city of theaters, operas, and arts – she immediately sought for the best voice teacher for her. During her search, she chanced upon music lover and critic Mrs. Anna Pratt Simpson and daughter Fernanda Doria. Mrs. Simpson, upon hearing Jovita sing, saw in her Japanese-like features and “a lyrical voice full of expression” an opera artist who can bring to life Puccini's heroine, Madame Butterfly.
Jovita then took voice lessons under Opera Coach Maestro Arturo Cadore. Being the diligent learner, she supplemented this with another teacher who taught her techniques of sound production, Maestro Luigi Lucenti. She was singing with more resonance and confidence. As to her acting in an opera, foremost teacher Maestro Villiani complimented, upon seeing Jovita act and sing the first aria of Madame Butterfly, that she already knew who to act.
Accidental Debut in Madame Butterfly
One pleasant afternoon while Jovita singing for her Italian friends, Mrs. Simpson and her daughter, a tenor by the name of Emilio Jani heard her sweet, lyrical and expressive voice singing. The tenor was in Milan with his impresario looking for a soprano for Madame Butterfly. Upon hearing Jovita voice blend well with the tenor, the impresario was pleased, confident that Jovita would be a success.
Jovita auditioned with the Teatro Municipale de Piacenza. As she began to sing, listeners were moved at how this dainty lady excellently sang to life the main character of Cio Cio San in Madame Butterfly. And, thus, began her debut as an operatic singer on April 29, 1925! It was barely 9 months after she arrived in Milan.
Reaping Fruits of Hardwork
Jovita's debut on the world stage was well applauded. Her lovely voice and natural acting delighted the public. Theater management were astonished to learn that it was the evening star's operatic debut. They had to relax their standing policy of “forbidding singers who had not made their professional debuts to contract with their theater” as long as debutantes were as extraordinary as Jovita.
After her debut performance at Piacenza in Italy, Jovita signed contracts which brought her to the great cities of Europe. She duplicated her successes wherever she would go. Her gentility and charm made her gracious with the European press, especially because she knew Italian Language. The great soprano of the 1900s, Nellie Melba, upon listening to Jovita (whom newspapers described as a “marvelous” and soulful in her interpretation of Madame Butterfly), left a note for Jovita, saying: “I love your voice and your acting”.
Jovita's Conquer of Europe
From 1925 to 1930, Jovita performed operas in many royal homes and theaters, much to their adulation. In Italy, she had auditioned with Italy's foremost conductor Maestro Arturo Toscanini, and world renowned composer Pietro Mascagni. It was in an audition with Mascagni, composer of Iris, that Jovita gained the respect and admiration of the opera composer.
Thus, opened the doors for Jovita to perform it in several other European theaters. In Germany, “Jovita came, sang, and conquered” Germany's cultivated public, including its successful impresario and businessman, Norbert Salter, and critic Dr. Becher. This contract Mr. Salter brought her to Hungary, Romania, Czechoslovakia, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Holland, France, Norway, and Poland.
Amidst her busy schedule, Jovita continued improving on her techniques. She would take time to study under Maestro Ugo Benvenuti, a music professor and critic. Critics would notice the improvement in her voice. Since then, she would return for lessons every summer.
Among her royal and official audiences were aristocracies from Greece, Romania, Serbia, Yugoslavia, Germany, Malta and all over Europe. Jovita was the peak of her career as an artist and a personality. A Fuentes performance was much-awaited, stunning, and uplifting. As for the artist herself, she was described as a “pure blooded tragedienne”, and her voice “the most beautiful voice of the world”, “rich in dynamic modulation” with “brilliant capacity”.
Inspite of her prima donna status, she always had a special heart for the ordinary folks who, after a performance, would catch a glimpse of her, ask for her autograph, or shower her with flowers.
Jovita's Asian Performance and European Comeback
After her 6 years of European sojourn, Jovita returned to the Philippine in September 1930 as an artist on a concert tour to her native land, China and Japan. Her Manila arrival on August 23, 1930 was declared on official holiday. Her concert series that started at Manila Grand Opera House on September 7 were applauded. Visayans eagerly listened to her homecoming recital in Iloilo. She finally reached Capiz to be with her family and friends till mid-October 1930.
In China and Japan, Jovita's performance received glowing reviews. After her Asian Concert Tour, she and brother Juaning went home to the Philippines. She sang for charitable institutions, especially leprous patients for government-run San Lazaro Hospital.
She gave a concert in San Francisco and visited New York before she returned to Europe for another contract in Germany. Due to the political turmoil engulfing Germany and the rest of Europe, contracts were decreasing in number.
Nevertheless, in 1932, leading German opera composer Richard Strauss still notice of her. He had been looking for a singer to perform the demanding role of Salome. Upon listening to Jovita perform in the town of Wiesbaden, Germany, she found in her the dramatic ability demanded by the opera, the lyricism, and the expression direly needed for the role. Jovita sang the most difficult parts to Strauss' delight. She performed Salome with success in German theaters. With the advent of anti-foreigner sentiments, Jovita decided to go back to the Philippines in 1933.
Jovita's Educational-Socio-Civic Works
Back in the Philippines, from 1933 to 1937, Jovita focused on her goal of enhancing the country's cultural paradigm shift through musical education and appreciation. She had an abiding and unselfish love for aspiring young talents. As done abroad, she held concerts, recitals and operas, taught at Academia Musical de Filipinas.
Jovita's Return to Europe
By March 1937, Jovita left for a vacation in Japan. But her longing to continuously learn, found her en route to Europe. After visiting Maestro Benvenuti and wife in Venice, she left for Milan to attend a La Scala presentation. She was recognized by Impresario Falbriard Sauter who previously took her on tours to Switzerland. And again, Jovita found herself happily back on stage as she toured the main Swiss and German cities.
That time, the European continent was on the verge of political instability. The option of singing in America, as suggested to her by the renowned soprano Nellie Melba, was considered. But not being able to bring any German franks to America, she went on a clothes shopping spree for money she had saved.
Jovita's American Dream
In America, her first performance was at the Diaz Tuesday Afternoon Recital at the Waldorf Astoria. She sang Beethoven's Ah, Perfido, arias from Iris and Madame Butterfly, and folk songs. She was warmly received by her American audience. But her European success was not duplicated in America. Theaters and opera houses were not state-subsidized unlike in Europe. Instead, it was run by a structured organization of profit-oriented companies that was difficult for a rising but gifted artist without "capital".
Nevertheless, her Diaz Tuesday Afternoon Recital bagged her an offer to perform in Madame Butterfly and La Boheme with New York's Hippodrome Opera Company under Maestro Alfredo Salmaggi on February 1938. She delighted the audience whose applause and reviews were laudatory. With the great performance came the title “Jovita Fuentes, a Philippine Nightingale”.
Behind such ovations were teachers who continued to hone Jovita's singing talent like Maestro St. Leger (operatic coach of the Metropolitan Company), Mr. Leon Rothier (an excellent teacher in New York musical circles), and Mr. Milne Charnley (coach-accompanist).
Months of study and hard work made Jovita acquire a broad and interesting repertoire for recitals and operas at the Guild Theater in January 1939, Carnegie Hall in May 1939, and even in Cuba. She even recorded on two occasions Filipino songs, all the more, making US-based Filipino community so proud of her.
Back to her Beloved Homeland
Jovita continued dreaming to help her native land in the realm of music. Upon learning that her mother and sister were ill, she hastened homeward with much patriotism and self-esteem.
In her beloved country, World War II hit Manila in 1942. She remained there, despite the opportunity to have gone with President Quezon, his family, and Philippine government-in-exile to Washington. She stayed and helped the war victims among Manila's residents as a volunteer caretaker at a hospital. She paid for medicines of soldiers under her care, and gave money from her own to the needy. As she saw the poor, she became more understanding of life and more spiritual in her faith.
Against Japanese occupation of the Philippines, Jovita denied requests by the Japanese Military Administration in Manila for her to sing. She, however, agreed to educate Filipinos on operas by successfully directed Puccini's La Boheme while tapping her students to do the acts.
Post-War Manila with Jovita
In February 1945, Jovita and her family were among the crowds who welcomed the joint liberation forces of the Americans and Filipinos from the Japanese. As her gratitude for liberation and in honor of lives lost, she once again sang to public. After the war, Jovita taught music at the College of the Holy Spirit, Centro Escolar University, University of the Philippines, and Santa Isabel College. Students were developed by her to the best of their capabilities.
In August 1948, Jovita went of a goodwill mission tour to Hawaii with the Municipal Symphony of Manila, her last performance with an orchestra.
In the fifties, Jovita taught songs and hymns to University of the Philippine's Faculty Choir. It helped raise funds for the construction its Catholic chapel. At the same period, the Music Promotion Foundation of the Philippines was established. This became a vehicle for Jovita and friends to lobby with the top officials of the Philippine government for financial allocation for music promotion.
In the sixties, the Jovita Fuentes Musicultural Society started presenting operas, arias and scenes to the public as Filipino singers gained more expertise and confidence. Despite her hectic schedule, she would sing at churches, preside over meetings and projects, especially of organizations working for the needy like the Asociacion de Damas de la Caridad and the Zonta Club.
In her eighties, she inspired the organization of the Opera Foundation of the Philippines, a private foundation for the presentation of operas.
For all of Jovita's indefatigable efforts for Phillippine Music, she was awarded the following:
- Music Teacher of the Year in 1952 and 1953 by fellow musicians,
- The Presidential Medal of Merit in 1958 by President Garcia,
- Diwa ng Lahi in 1975 by the City of Manila,
- Most Distinguished Alumna by Santa Isabel College,
- Phi Kappa Phi Honor by the University of the Philippines,
- Voice Teacher Citation for having taught for 25 years at College of the Holy Spirit, among others.
And best of all, Jovita was rendered the highest honor in the Philippine as its First Female National Artist in Music in 1976... fitting for an artist her stature who was the first Filipino to project the Philippines with rare distinction in musical arts abroad... a true ambassadress of the 1900s!
The most elusive of opera houses and composers in Europe, America, and Asia, a Filipina was able to conquer. To Jovita's fans, she was the Madame Butterfly, she was Salome and every role that she is assigned to her. To lovers of music in the Philippines and Europe, Jovita was an artist par excellence who taught the world that it is possible to reach a dream with focus, discipline and dedication.
Reference: Hernandez Chung, Lilia, “Jovita Fuentes A Lifetime of Music”, Philippines: The Jovita Fuentes Musicultural Society, 1978.