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Brazzil - Music - September 2003

Brazil's Fat Lady Can't Sing: Intermission Feature

As a young and musically inclined adolescent of Brazilian descent,
growing up in the sixties in New York was tough. I can recall
straining to hear the names of any remotely sounding Brazilian
artists or musicians in the cast lists of the many operatic
works that were performed by the Met in its radio heyday.

Joe Lopes


The first opera albums I ever bought were 1970 reissues on the Richmond budget label of two early fifties Decca/London monophonic recordings of my favorite works: one of Leoncavallo's Pagliacci, starring Mario Del Monaco, Clara Petrella, and Aldo Protti; and the other of Puccini's Tosca, featuring Renata Tebaldi, Giuseppe Campora, and Enzo Mascherini, both conducted by Alberto Erede.

Though the sound from these LPs was fairly constricted by modern studio standards, the singing of the principal soloists was marvelously free ringing and totally uninhibited by the rudimentary recording techniques.

I put on the Prologue to Pagliacci to test the waters of my first major record purchase, and was thrilled to hear the vibrant voice of the provincial Aldo Protti in a beautifully inflected and wonderfully full-toned reading of this gorgeous baritone showstopper.

My excitement quickly mounted as Protti floated up to and firmly took the devilishly difficult, and unwritten, climactic high A-flat, to be followed by a judiciously held final G, as the orchestra rose and swelled to a rousing, room-rattling flourish.

I had heard many more famous baritones on the radio—from the mellifluous-sounding voices of Cornell MacNeil, Robert Merrill, Sherrill Milnes, and Leonard Warren to the more pointed word-painting of Pasquale Amato, Tito Gobbi, Giuseppe Taddei, and Giuseppe Valdengo—attempt these same spectacular top notes.

The unassailable artistry of these magnificent singers has never been questioned, and was vastly superior to Protti's own youthful vigor in many respects; however, nothing that day could detract from my total enjoyment of his bravura performance, nor from the rightness of my choice of this particular recording from among the many extant versions of the thrice-familiar Leoncavallo opus, as the first in a long line of frequent additions to my very own permanent opera collection.

Early Operatic Stirrings

I have been a national member of the Metropolitan Opera Guild and a regular subscriber to its publication Opera News since the late 1960s. Along with many of my fellow opera buffs here and from across the shores, I was practically weaned on a steady course of uninterrupted live Saturday afternoon opera broadcasts of most of the core repertory works.

But even before that, I had already been hooked on the genre through the intervention of my Brazilian-born parents and most emphatically through that of my father, a confirmed dyed-in-the-wool opera fanatic from the late 1930s onward.

Dad had grown up at a time when outsized displays of every conceivable type were all the rage in his native São Paulo. As a young music lover with a strong personality and equally volatile Latin temperament—his mother and father were full-blooded Spanish immigrants from the southern cities of Granada and Múrcia, respectively—he gravitated naturally toward emotionally-charged public divertissements, among them the Saturday night gafieira (dance hall) gatherings, the street Carnaval of the Lenten season, and, of course, the opera performances at the Teatro Municipal.

These rather eclectic mixes were not as unusual as they may seem to us today, for my father's generation of Brazilians was quite accustomed to listening to all types of musical styles, from the street samba enredo, modinha and chorinho to the pop croonings of artists as diverse as Orlando Silva, Francisco Alves and Nelson Gonçalves, many of which weaved classical and/or operatic anthems into their songs.

One such forties Carnaval hit tune highlighted the soprano aria "Caro nome" from Verdi's Rigoletto, while another popular dance-hall piece "borrowed" the Habañera from Bizet's Carmen.

This was a commonly accepted practice even in North America, where bands regularly played the romantic "Full Moon and Empty Arms," based on the third movement of Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto, or the instantly recognizable "Tonight We Love," from the opening theme of Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1, to the extent that these tunes would peak a person's curiosity to go in search of the original source material, as it undoubtedly did for my father.

Once dad had discovered this wonderful world of operatic fare, he would spend as much of his free evenings as he could going to the opera, eventually becoming a paid member of the claque, that ragtag, semi-clandestine—and vocally demonstrative—assemblage of applauders and detractors engaged by the theater's management (and sometimes by the star of a performance) to laud or lambast a specific artist or group of artists.

At one such performance of Ponchielli's La Gioconda given during the late forties at the Teatro Municipal, dad and his lively bunch of cronies were directed to clap wildy during the second act ovation for the guest artist, tenor Mario Del Monaco, who was about to launch into his aria "Cielo e mar" to the sky, to the sea, and to his love, Laura.

As the curtain rose on the act, one of the claque members, who was not a seasoned opera goer, was quite startled to see a ship  as part of the mise-en-scène and commented a bit too loudly, "Meu Deus, puseram um barco no palco!" (My God, they put a boat up on the stage), which brought down the house in a glorious gale of laughter and thoroughly interrupted the action, much to the mortified management's chagrin.

My mother, who was not such a demented opera fan as my dad was, but who had sung contralto in the church choir, would recount to me the oft-told tale of how on the night before my birth she and my father had attended a performance of Madama Butterfly; how on the very next afternoon mom suddenly went into labor; and how, at precisely three minutes before the crack of midnight on the ides of July, her little infant boy appeared, wailing and bleating like an abandoned billygoat.

Dad then offered up the rather prophetic assertion that after the musical events of the previous evening, his firstborn son would simply have to grow up enamored of the opera.

Hitting the High Notes

After my father eventually settled down to raise his family, he nevertheless continued to listen to opera on the radio while curled up in his comfortable bed, especially on a cold Sunday afternoon or after a particularly large meal. He would sometimes place me or my baby brother on the pillow beside him, and the two of us would snooze away in a languidly drawn-out siesta to the steady poundings of the Anvil Chorus.

One time, while I was resting cozily on the bed, my aunt Rosaria crept into the room and cautiously cradled me in her arms. To keep me from fidgeting about she started to sing opera, to which I responded in kind, giving out what was probably my very first piercing high note.

I have no recollection of the execrable sound that might have issued from that tiny underdeveloped throat, but whatever noise emerged definitely had a delirious affect on my aunt: she was seen scurrying about the house announcing to one and all that her newborn nephew had just sung an operatic air at a mere six months of age.

At five years old and with my younger sibling in tow, my mom and dad took us to live in New York City, and my precocious efforts at caterwauling in São Paulo soon became restricted to the inner-city surroundings of a six-storied tenement in the South Bronx.

As a young and musically inclined adolescent of Brazilian descent, growing up in the sixties in the Soundview section of the city was tough enough; for a boy who enjoyed listening to classical music in general—and to opera singing in particular—it was doubly difficult. But enjoy it I did, and from this early exposure I soon developed a lifelong appreciation and intense passion for music, theater, film, and the arts, and for this most sublime and precious of all theatrical art forms, the opera—pretty much as my father had predicted.

More to the point, I can recall straining to hear the names of any remotely sounding Brazilian artists or musicians in the cast lists of the many operatic works that were performed by the Met in its radio heyday.

Looking back on this practice today, I tend to dismiss it as a quaint and perfectly naïve childhood pursuit of mine. But at the time there was a distinct longing on my part to learn of other Brazilian countrymen who had also participated in my favorite pastime, and an even greater desire to be able to identify with their fearsome struggles to reach those blazing high notes, which to my mind had mirrored my own juvenile—and quite natural—yearning for a national role model.

Please, Lock Me Away

Let my poor put-upon parents, my long-suffering brother, and my two older cousins bear witness to the untold hours I spent locked in my bedroom recording operatic excerpts from the radio onto a prehistoric portable tape recorder, playing back and listening to those same excerpts ad nauseam, reading and memorizing the lyrics to all of the best known arias, and pretending to be an undiscovered performer or burgeoning opera impresario.

This preoccupation with the operatic art gave rise to a phenomenally creative period of opera-related activity, wherein I spent most of my free time putting together imaginary casts of great opera recordings; planning the seasons of my own makeshift opera company; drawing the likenesses of famous opera stars; copying their portraits from the copiously illustrated Victor Book of the Opera; writing the plots to my own operatic oeuvres based, coincidentally, on the works of Donizetti, Rossini, Puccini, and Verdi found buried in the pages of Milton Cross' Complete Stories of the Great Operas; and carefully typing, cataloguing, and preserving them all in a raggedy dog-earred dispenser folder secretly squirreled away under my writing desk.

Yet, for all the time, energy and devotion dedicated to this mountain of busywork—and while my early tryst with opera was still genuine and strong—what I most fervently longed to happen would never come to pass: the discovery of a truly unique Brazilian singing sensation who would boldly declare before a breathless and expectant worldwide audience, "I'm fulano de tal (so-and-so), the famous opera singer, and I come from Brazil."

As bad luck would have it, I had been stricken with the affliction of opera fanaticism at a point long past the retirement of lovely Bidú Sayão, at a time many years after the death of maestro Heitor Villa-Lobos, and at a period far beyond the peak popularity of opera composer Carlos Gomes. I would have to content myself with the operatic status quo, such as it was some thirty years ago, and with the then current crop of American and foreign-born opera stars, very few of whom were South American let alone Brazilian.

Be that as it may, I was determined to become as knowledgeable as I possibly could about this fabulous art form through reading books, listening to recordings, and attending live performances, even as I cloistered myself away in the bowels of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound; even as I religiously checked out complete opera albums from the circulation desk of the Lincoln Center Library; and even as I tentatively ventured forth to seek out my first opera productions at the New York State Theater.

In researching and compiling this ongoing series about opera and opera-singing in Brazil, I can finally bring to fruition a long-held dream of mine to pay tribute to this dismally overlooked aspect of Brazilian cultural life which has so enlivened the spirit, so enthralled the senses, and so captured the imaginations of so many of my fellow citizens, and which today hobbles along in the country only in abject anonymity and neglect.

To the modern MTV-reared televiewers who wouldn't know O Guarani from Guaraná (the Brazilian national soft drink), I would like to quote this incisive passage from the Prologue to Pagliacci, which began this intermission feature, and is sung by Tonio the clown as he directly addresses the audience before the opera proper—in the hope that, like Leoncavallo's creation, my pieces can too serve to enlighten as well as entertain the interested readership:

"The author is reviving on our stage today
"The ancient masks of comedy and drama.
"He wishes to restore for you these age old customs,
"And has sent me to you once more."

"(On the stage) you will see people in love,
"You will feel the bitter fruits of their hate,
"You will witness the spasms of their pain,
"You will hear the sounds of their wrath
"And the laughter of their cynicism."

"For we are all men of flesh and blood
"And, like you, we breathe the self-same air
"Of this sad, orphaned world."

"Come with me then, and let's begin the play!"

— Ruggiero Leoncavallo, composer and librettist of Pagliacci


Joe Lopes, a naturalized American citizen born in Brazil, was raised and educated in New York, where he worked for many years in the financial sector. In 1996, he moved to Brazil with his Brazilian wife and two daughters. In January 2001, he returned to the U.S. and now resides in North Carolina with his family. He is a lover of all types of music, especially opera and jazz, as well as an incurable fan of classic films. You can email your comments to JosmarLopes@msn.com

Copyright © 2003




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