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Brazzil - Music - August 2003

Brazil's Fat Lady Can't Sing - Act One

Whatever happened to the opera in Brazil? And why has Brazil
produced no opera stars since Bidu Sayão? The causes for Brazil's
severe operatic drought remain elusive, but perhaps they lie more
within the nature of the Brazilian national character
than in the financial pages of the Gazeta Mercantil.

Joe Lopes


The broadcasts would all begin around 1:30 p.m., Eastern Standard Time, and in the same imperious manner: "Texaco presents the Metropolitan Opera. Welcome opera fans to the Saturday afternoon Texaco broadcast season."

You can imagine my surprise when instead of the familiar strains of New York-based radio announcer Peter Allen, I heard the Italian-inflected speech patterns of one Maestro Walter Lorenção, who spoke these same words not in the mid-Atlantic English I had been accustomed to, but in perfectly produced Brazilian Portuguese.

For over sixty years the radio transmissions of opera performances, "broadcast live and direct from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City," have been a greatly anticipated annual event, commencing in early December and lasting until the spring, and relayed to hundreds of radio stations across the country and around the world. But the news last month that next season's broadcasts would be the last to be sponsored by Chevron Texaco, the current moniker for the multinational Oil Company and longtime supporter of the opera, was most disheartening to devotees. The Met, meanwhile, is currently in the market for a new radio sponsor to continue the popular weekly transmissions.

As a former resident of the megalopolis of São Paulo, I, too, listened with rapt attention to the regular Saturday broadcasts, heard there over the facilities of Rádio Cultura FM. But to hear the opera in this foreign format was a bit of a shock, as there were no "Opera News on the Air" intermission features, no "Texaco Opera Quiz" games, and no revelatory interviews with celebrated Metropolitan Opera stars or directors. In their place were the lucid and erudite comments of Maestro Lorenção, who glowingly described this week's broadcast work in dulcet-toned reverence.

It seemed altogether fitting, I thought, to be listening to a radio feed of a fabulous musical event from the Big Apple in the South American equivalent of São Paulo, the very pulse of the economic, financial and industrial heart of Brazil, christened after St. Paul, the biblical Apostle, and the one-time cultural capital of the Sudeste (Southeast), now as much of a neglected backwater for live opera performances as the dry and arid Northeast.

In the meantime, over in the extreme northeastern corner of the state, another event was beginning to take shape, only this was to become a part of the annual celebration called the Festival de Inverno (Winter Festival) in the resort town of Campos do Jordão, where recitals of chamber, lieder, opera, jazz, and choral works are presented each year by an international array of participants, concerts that attract over half a million people during the month of July.

Like an army of invading ants, they climb the Serra da Mantiqueira mountains in a mass migration to this charming but maddeningly overcrowded Alpine-like abode, about a two-and-a-half hour drive from the big city. Dubbed the Suíça brasileira for its cool European climate and quaint Swiss-style chalets, Campos do Jordão has fast become one of the few spots left in Brazil where classical music fare of a reasonably high order is performed on any kind of regular basis—and in the dead of winter.

With piped-in broadcasts of live opera from the Met, beamed to Brazil for the "pleasure of opera lovers everywhere," and the yearly pilgrimage of rabid music fans ready to brave the freezing temperatures for the sake of a few short-lived moments of inspired music-making, this somewhat incongruous modulation in the musical habits of upper and middle class paulistanos is occurring at a most precipitous time for the classical music industry as a whole, and for Brazil in particular.

The reasons for this turbulence are manifold, relating partially to the ups-and-downs of the roller coaster Brazilian economy, to the revolving-door aspect of culture ministers and artistic directors, to the lack of conviction (read: funding) on the part of the federal government, and to the popular perception of opera as a strictly elitist form of entertainment, originating in Western Europe, and the intellectual province of princes, patrons and prima donnas.

But the most confounding condition of all—the noticeable lack of domestic singing talent to satisfy the growing demands of voracious opera fans—has become ever more pronounced with the years, until recently it has turned into a veritable scavenger hunt for native-born coloraturas and budding Brazilian basses.

Pre-Curtain Feature: So What's Up With Opera?

But what is it about the opera, anyway, that attracts people so? Why has this art of "belting it out to the rafters" suddenly afflicted so many novice aficionados with the same fanaticism usually reserved for movie icons and rock stars, and in Brazil of all places?

To begin with, opera is about personalities—the stressed-out soprano heroine, the dashing tenor lover, and the villainous baritone scoundrel—characters that have been fashioned from both literary and historical sources, and shaped into patently melodramatic plot points that some discerning audience members might find reminiscent of the next chapter in the latest television soap opera.

It is about the extremes of human emotions, and the depths of human passions; it is about love and about hate, about jealousy and rage, bedrooms and betrayals, laughter and folly, sorrow and solace, treachery and murder. Indeed, the unlikely analogy to a telenovela is not at all a stretch in correctly depicting it, and Brazilians do seem devoted to their nightly dosage of drivel.

Yet despite the stereotypical trappings surrounding both genres, opera demands equally strong human personalities to fling these raw emotions and passions across the footlights and into the laps of modern-day audiences; it needs real flesh-and-blood figures to populate the flowery wardrobe and don the powdered wigs; and it requires the utmost dedication and sacrifice on the part of its performers, more so than most other art forms.

And for the true die-hard opera fan, this quintessential human involvement becomes the single most important fabric in any successful opera production. But it won't ever make it to that lofty point sans funding and resources, the current bane of opera companies everywhere.

Be that as it may, the operative words here are "passion," "emotion," and "personality," easily the most applicable of Brazilian traits. And the Brazilian people, made up of countless individuals with diverse personality quirks, are nothing if not passionate and emotional about life, and about music.

The performance history of opera and opera-singing in Brazil, then, begins and ends with extraordinary personages, from the least exceptional opera composers to the most fervent vocal interpreters. They are, in essence, what drive the opera to do what it does best: to allow us to look into, and to identify deeply with, our innermost selves on the stage.

Overture: Reality Check

The propitious announcement earlier this year of the appointment of pop singer and Tropicalismo co-founder Gilberto Gil to the post of Culture Minister was greeted with a mixed round of tepid approval and critical brickbats, thrown at the Lula administration for its choice of minister.

The criticism was leveled at Gil's perfectly innocent yet revealing remark that despite his elevated cabinet status, he would continue to perform as an entertainer to supplement his meager Minister's earnings. Gil did vow to campaign for more of a piece of the dwindling budgetary pie in order to provide further funding for arts projects, to be financed through a combination of tax breaks, fiscal incentives and additional private investment.

A quick perusal of the latest headlines from the local newspapers, however, will reveal that the financial resources of the federal government have been stretched to the limit, and the current combination of high unemployment, low growth and economic stagnation has dealt a severe blow to the initial optimism regarding funding for the arts, especially of the operatic kind. It has taken a reluctant back seat to the administration's primary objectives of providing new jobs and resolving deep-seated social problems, all worthwhile and noble pursuits.

This disequilibrium between what the government says it wants to do and what it can actually accomplish—given the harsh realities of the situation at hand—should come as no surprise to avid Brazil watchers, for this has always been the case in the country. I have never known an instance in the nation's past that has not been fraught with government intervention of one type or another: with frequent attempts to stave off inflation, address the ballooning federal deficit, reform the bloated public pension system, thwart bureaucratic and political corruption, and confront constant currency devaluation.

Yet even in Italy, the "biological parent" of opera, where this sort of administrative template has been followed for years, the perennial parliamentary crises found there—reflected in the accompanying anarchic conditions that have pervaded such institutions as the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, and the Teatro La Fenice in Venice—serve as the rule rather than the exception.

This state of political and artistic unrest, invariably ending in last-minute cancellations, substandard opera performances and dubious musical presentations, has never prevented Italian opera houses from attracting delirious opera fans to their doors. The same holds true for France and many other countries where funding for the arts is officially a matter for the state.

No, the causes for Brazil's severe operatic drought must be found elsewhere and remain as elusive as the long sought after Ring of the Nibelung. But perhaps they lie more within the nature of the Brazilian national character than in the financial pages of the Gazeta Mercantil.

Prologue: The Spanish Conquest

The relative paucity in Brazil of opera performers of the highest international caliber may indeed have something to do with the way Brazilians look at themselves, what Joseph A. Page in his informative book The Brazilians describes as an inbred inferiority complex and fundamental lack of self-esteem. When it comes to the positive aspects of their own cultural distinctiveness, Brazilians often tend to emulate the standards first set by their European and North American counterparts—not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to the opera.

And there has certainly been no lack of laudable vocal talent for lovers of fine singing to look up to and imitate. A quick scrape below the surface of artists past and present will unearth an impressive lineup of the Spanish, or Latin American, breed of romantic tenor, to cite only one example from among so many.

Going back as far as the time of Gioacchino Rossini, there were the Spaniards Manuel García, who sang in the 1816 premiere of the composer's The Barber of Seville, the legendary Julián Gayarre from the late 19th Century, and the wonderful Miguel Fleta and Hipólito Lázaro, who both graced the world's stages in the roaring twenties and early thirties; the forties and fifties gave us the extraordinary Otellos of Chileans Ramón Vinay and Renato Zanelli; in the sixties, the Almaviva of Peruvian-born Luigi Alva warmed the cockles of our hearts, as did the Duke of Alfredo Kraus (Canary Islands) and the Alfredo of Giacomo Aragall (Spain); the seventies and eighties brought the vocal splendors of Plácido Domingo (born in Madrid, but raised in Mexico) and his Catalonian counterpart, José Carreras (via Barcelona), as well as the fireworks generated by Mexican tenor Francisco Araiza and Argentine bel canto specialist Raul Giménez.

Today, there are ever more willing pretenders to the title of operatic superstar, and from just about every Latin American contingent, including Marcelo Álvarez and José Cura (Argentina), Ramón Vargas (Mexico), Juan Diego Flórez (Peru), and Aquiles Machado (Venezuela).

But where are the contributions from South America's largest country to this United Nations of vocal ambassadors? The single representative exponent, encompassing the categories of tenore di grazia, tenore di forza, lirico spinto and lirico robusto, from the vast Brazilian continental expanse is nowhere to be found; it is, to say the least, unaccounted for and made more conspicuous by its very absence.

From the sports arena to the world's fashion runways, Brazil has always brought to the forefront no less than certifiable world-class competitors in every major field of endeavor. The rarefied names of famous racecar drivers (Ayrton Senna, Emerson Fittipaldi, Nelson Piquet, Hélio Castroneves), tennis pros (Maria Bueno, Guga Kuerten), top models (Gisele Bündchen, Susana Werner), film directors (Carlos Diegues, Glauber Rocha, Bruno Barreto, Hector Babenco), stage and screen personalities (Carmen Miranda, Fernanda Montenegro, Sônia Braga), and soccer stars (Pelé, Ronaldo, Rivaldo) have all been acknowledged as the "best of the best" at what they did, or continue to do, as professionals in their spheres of influence.

With relatively few exceptions, no other country can quite approach the luxury, the ebullience, and indeed the passion, that Brazil's God-given, natural-born talents have brought to the fields of jazz and pop (Airto, Flora Purim, Egberto Gismonti, Naná Vasconcelos, Sérgio Mendes, Ivan Lins), MPB and Tropicália (Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, Chico Buarque, Milton Nascimento), samba and bossa nova (João Gilberto, Luiz Bonfá, Elis Regina), literature and poetry (Machado de Assis, Monteiro Lobato, Jorge Amado, Vinicius de Moraes), art and architecture (Cândido Portinari, Aleijadinho, Oscar Niemeyer), and musical composition (Ary Barroso, Tom Jobim).

So why have there been so few appearances by the proverbial Fat Lady from Fortaleza, singing of the wealth and pleasures of an invisible Valhalla in Wagner's Die Walküre, or before the inevitable inundation in The Twilight of the Gods? Perhaps that twilight has already descended, and a more appropriate death knell now needs to be tolled for opera in Brazil instead.

But if lesser, more volatile Latin American nations can inspire their young people to pursue an international operatic career abroad, why can't the more educationally advantaged, and undoubtedly more politically, competitively, musically and culturally diverse Federative Republic of Brazil, do the same? How can a country so steeped in musical tradition, so rich in rhythmic vitality and lyrical invention, so wrapped in melodic and harmonic subtleties, with a boundless energy and enthusiasm for public celebration, produce no recent homegrown opera stars of international repute? And what of Brazil's abundantly rich musical past? Must it always boil down to money issues (mainly the lack of it), or are there other possibilities still to be explored?

These puzzling thoughts have remained a conundrum in my mind for more years than I care to count. And as far as historians or musicologists having any particular knowledge or insight into any of them, it can be safely said that the underlying causes for this continuing mystery have never been examined neither have they ever been fully resolved to any degree in my lifetime.

Nevertheless, I will endeavor to dissect this fascinating subject into a continuing series of articles, the first installment of which takes a brief look at the life of Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Gomes.

Act One: Musical and Imperial Precedents

There were several false starts at presenting staged opera in Brazil during the late 18th to early 19th Centuries, mostly with the building of a few ad hoc theaters in fairly impermanent locations, with some even taking on the rather apt name of Teatro Provisório (Temporary Theater).

It was not until the establishment of the Portuguese court in Rio de Janeiro, circa 1840—where the "enlightened despot" Dom Pedro II was later formally crowned emperor of Brazil—did opera begin to make any serious inroads with like-minded audiences. His majesty was an extremely well-educated and well-traveled sophisticate who strongly believed in support of all scholarly pursuits.

He was a tireless and enthusiastic advocate of the opera, mostly from the Italian and French repertoires, and encouraged its performance everywhere in the realm, but particularly in Rio and São Paulo; he astutely grasped the efficacy of bringing high culture to the Brazilian masses as a way out of their agricultural and educational rut.

Through one of those divinely-inspired confluences that brought worthy artists and their benefactors together when the need was at its greatest, the restless and urbane Emperor of Brazil was introduced to a talented young composer from the rural sticks of Campinas, Antonio Carlos Gomes, of whom Giuseppe Verdi, the Italian grand master of opera, was once purported to have proclaimed, "This young man begins where I have ended."

Accounts vary as to exactly when and where the two first met, but from their initial reticent exchanges composer and patron soon forged a close personal bond as well as a strong financial relationship; but more importantly, they built and maintained a lifelong mutual respect for each other's worth.

The Emperor, through his royal connections, helped Gomes gain entry into the Imperial Conservatory of Music in Rio de Janeiro (1859-61). To further his potential as an opera composer, especially after two highly successful early works for the stage (A Noite do Castelo, 1861, and Joana de Flandres, 1863), Dom Pedro packed the young man off to Italy—the highpoint of any 19th Century musician's professional career—where Gomes was given a grant to complete his studies at the Milan Conservatory (1864).

Due to his being over the mandatory age limit, Gomes' application to the Conservatory was at first rejected, and he began private lessons with one of its former graduates, the composer Lauro Rossi. Coincidently, this denial of entry into one of Italy's most prestigious institutions had been a source of much bitterness for the inexperienced Verdi some thirty years earlier, and for the same reason. Only, the Italian master's musical pathway would take a far different route than that of the Brazilian novice.

Gomes eventually received an official sanction from the Conservatory's ruling body, yet would never reap the financial rewards this honor would presumably bestow. Verdi, on the other hand, nursed his earlier rejection for the rest of his days, but went on to greater fame and fortune despite the turndown.

It would seem the Milanese were as adept at recognizing nascent musical talent as the perceptive Dom Pedro was, for while the composer was in the city he became the toast of the industrial town. Some of his greatest operatic compositions received their premieres at Milan's La Scala Theater, including his most popular piece Il Guarany (O Guarani, 1870), performed and revived by opera companies worldwide but never given at New York's Metropolitan Opera. His subsequent La Scala works, Fosca (1873), Salvator Rosa (1874), and Maria Tudor (1879), were all semi-favorably received by critics and public alike, but were nothing like the success he had enjoyed with Guarany.

In 1880, the disillusioned and economically hard-pressed composer returned to Brazil, where he set to work on several new projects, but all were prematurely aborted for one reason or another, thus repeating a pattern of fits-and-starts he first displayed back in Milan. Traveling to and from Italy, Gomes put the finishing touches to his next opera, Lo Schiavo (O Escravo, or The Slave, 1889), which debuted in Brazil to wide acclaim.

Unfortunately for Gomes, the atmosphere there was rife with revolution, and by late 1889, the Proclamation of the Republic was a fait accompli. The aging sovereign Dom Pedro II, the very symbol of Brazilian aristocracy and the ruling elite, was deposed and unceremoniously shipped off to Portugal.

As a recipient of the benevolence and generosity of the now-exiled monarch, Gomes lost the yearly stipend to which he had been accustomed to receiving for nearly thirty years. Because of his diminished financial status and his personal connection to his royal patron, he was forced to leave Brazil for Italy, where he went to fulfill a contract with La Scala for a new opera, O Condor, given in 1891, to much local fanfare but very little monetary recompense, and even less critical regard. Sadly, the year ended with the death in France of his most erstwhile supporter, Dom Pedro, thus sealing the composer's financial fate.

For the Fourth Centennial Celebration of the Discovery of America, Gomes wrote a "symphonic poem with chorus," Colombo, which premiered in Rio in 1892. He even traveled later that year to Chicago to oversee a performance of Il Guarany. However, when an expected subsidy from the Brazilian government failed to materialize, the put upon composer was forced to give free public concerts of excerpts from his work instead. In a letter from that period, written in the U.S. to a friend in Italy, the exasperated Gomes complained:

"The presentation in Chicago of Guarany went for nothing… I had hoped to make a world of contacts, but too late I realized the sad truth. In this country, art is a myth. Americans are only interested in new and practical matters, that is, in the easiest methods for making money!"

Despite the comparisons to Verdi and the earlier predictions of his being the great man's successor, Gomes never attained the success and recognition in his profession that had once been expected of him. Although some of Verdi's own librettists, i.e. Antonio Ghislanzoni and Arrigo Boïto, supplied texts to several Gomes works, in the long run they did nothing to help earn his operas a permanent place in the standard repertory. Further, the composer's work habits were often erratic, as a peremptory burst of enthusiasm for a subject would give way to complete abandonment of the idea soon after.

Though they were popular in their day, the quality of the music to be found in his operas was inconsistent and derivative, what one modern critic called a "clichéd stew of Verdian heroics and Donizettian flightiness," and another reviewer termed "Bellini without tunes, Rossini without wit." These may seem like unduly harsh assessments, but they are not far from the mark.

Gomes chose as his musical models the operas of early and middle-period Verdi, spiced with the unwieldy five-act opuses of Giacomo Meyerbeer, whose oeuvres were already considered passé just as the Brazilian approached his creative prime, and topped them off with a dash of Wagnerian leitmotiv, for which he was severely taken to task by the press.

It was quite probable that Gomes was eclipsed by the mature Verdi's late career output, which included Aïda (1871), the Requiem Mass (1874), and the final masterpieces of Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893).

There was a whole new stylistic form called verismo to contend with, and new challengers on the Italian front to defend against, among them Pietro Mascagni (Cavalleria Rusticana, 1890), Ruggiero Leoncavallo (Pagliacci, 1892), and the up-and-coming Giacomo Puccini, whose Manon Lescaut caused a sensation at its 1893 premiere, which Gomes attended.

It was not so much feelings of inferiority that finally did Gomes in, so to speak, as that of the caliber of the competition. History eventually relegated the campineiro to a position not unlike that of Viennese court composer Antonio Salieri, vis-à-vis the extraordinary body of work produced by that musical genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Poor timing and equally bad luck would continue to badger the unfortunate composer all the way back to his native land. In fragile health from years of neglect, battered by bouts of depression over the earlier deaths of three of his children—intermittently relieved by the liberal ingestion of opium—and constantly pressed for funds, Gomes returned to Brazil one last time in 1896, to assume the directorship of the Belém Conservatory, at the mouth of the Amazon River, which for him was a personal and artistic nadir compared to his earlier triumphs.

Antonio Carlos Gomes died only five months after he had taken up his post, in the same year that opera was about to delight in a decade-long rebirth in the region. He was sixty years old, but his legacy would forever be assured as the first and only widely renowned composer of Brazilian national opera.

A beautiful marble bust of Gomes, sculpted by the Genovese artist Achille Canessa, reposes in the great hall of the Teatro da Paz Opera House, in the northeastern city of Belém do Pará, as a posthumous tribute to the man and his works. It occupies a spot next to the bust of a relatively unknown fellow composer named Henrique Gurjão.

The irony of juxtaposing the perceived greatness of a Carlos Gomes with the almost total obscurity of an Henrique Gurjão cannot be lost on the visitor: of course, Gomes towers head and shoulders above this unfamiliar countryman; but he stumbles ever so markedly, and so utterly, before the likes of Verdi, Puccini, Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini.

We need only be reminded of the ephemeral quality of fame, and of how truly fleeting the memory of a great artist can be when compared to his peers.


Sources & Recommended Reading:

Berger, William, Verdi with a Vengeance, Vintage Books, division of Random House, Inc., New York, 2000.

"Carlos Gomes," São Paulo ImagemData, www2.uol.com.br/spimagem/cgomes.html, no date.

Ching Chang, "In Review: Rio de Janeiro," Opera News, New York, October 2001.

Feeney, Ann, "Carlos Gomes: Biography," All Classical Music Guide, www.allclassical.com/cg/acg.d11?p=acg&sql=1:7377~C, no date.

Ferreira, Alcides, "Funding for the Arts: Brazil's Questionable Dilemma," InfoBrazil Web Magazine, www.infobrazil.com/conteudo/front_page/analysis/af4187 , May 10-16, 2003.

Kozinn, Allan, "Feathers and Fireworks in the Jungles of Brazil," The New York Times, November 11, 1996.

Page, Joseph A., The Brazilians, Addison-Wesley Publishing, Reading, Massachusetts, 1995.

Page, Tim, "Domingo's Debut: A Capital Gain," Washington Post, November 11, 1996.

Radil, Amy, "Letter From Rio," Opera News, New York, October 2002.

Scherle, Arthur, "Antonio Carlos Gomes: A Brazilian Opera Composer," from the Sony Classics Recording of Il Guarany, translation Gwyn Morris, 1995.

"Teatro da Paz: 120 Anos," www.uol.com.br/amazonview/view14/teatro.htm, no date.

Warrack, John and West, Ewan, The Oxford Dictionary of Opera, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York, 1992, updated 1994.


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

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