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Brazzil - Music - January 2004
 

Bidu and Carmen: Two Brazilian Charmers

The old truism that "good things come in small packages" was never
more so than in describing the physically compact and vocally
alluring attributes of the lovely Bidu Sayão and the electric
Carmen Miranda. They were the central figures in Brazilian
opera and popular entertainment for the better part of 30 years.

Joe Lopes

 

BRAZIL'S FAT LADY CAN'T SING—ACT FOUR

Intermezzo: When the Stars First Came Out

As the soprano concluded the last of her encores, and was savoring the applause of an appreciative American public gathered to hear her command performance at the White House in Washington, D.C., then President Franklin Delano Roosevelt enthusiastically approached the fragile-looking figure before him and complimented Bidu Sayão on a most enjoyable concert program.

In the same breath, he casually proposed to the Brazilian singer an immediate American citizenship, most likely a calculated gesture on his part, and motivated by his administration's bold dedication to the policy of the "good northern neighbor."

Obviously flattered by her host's generous offer, the gracious Bidu politely declined. "Thank you, Mr. President," she was acknowledged to have stated, "but I am a Brazilian artist, and would like to die as one." The date was February 1938.

A little over a year later, on May 17, Broadway producer Lee Shubert, of the Shubert Brothers Theatrical Company, was getting ready to greet another Brazilian artist, one whose ship had just pulled into New York harbor, with her band and retinue in tow.

She was scheduled to make her U.S. debut in the Shubert's 1939 musical revue "The Streets of Paris," a show that also featured the local appearance of comedy duo Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. The artist's name was Carmen Miranda.

Disembarking from the S.S. Uruguay, she was met by a horde of big city newspapermen, all eager to record the spontaneous comments of this sizzling new Latin sensation.

Carmen did not disappoint them. Her first words to the waiting crowd were reported to have been, "I say money, money, money, and I say hot dog! I say yes and no, and I say money, money, money, and I say turkey sandwich, and I say grape juice," and so on.

These two radically distinct responses, and seemingly unrelated occurrences, would come to denote to the Brazilian artistic community that, for a precious lucky few, living and working in North America—even while earning fame and fortune on her streets and in her theaters—would prove to be a most illusory pursuit.

They would also serve to teach multi-talented Brazilians some valuable life lessons in the world outside their native land: that the pains and compromises, glories and frustrations, triumphs and disappointments all such artists regularly endured for their art were no substitute for the loss of their Brazilian identity.

To paraphrase a line from Rudyard Kipling, rare were the artists that could keep their own heads, when all about them others were losing theirs. And there exist no finer examples of this than the stories of these two marvelous Brazilian singers.

Certainly, the old truism that "good things come in small packages" was never more so than in describing the physically compact and vocally alluring attributes of the lovely Bidu Sayão and the electric Carmen Miranda.

In reverse proportion to their small stature, they were the central figures in Brazilian opera and popular entertainment for the better part of 30 years.

Act Four, Scene One: Prima Donna Par Excellence

Formally trained in Brazil and Europe, deeply influenced by the legendary Polish tenor Jean de Reszke and by her second husband, the Italian baritone Giuseppe Danise, Bidu Sayão was Brazil's most well known classical vocal export, and every inch an opera star of the first magnitude.

Although christened Balduína de Oliveira Sayão after her paternal grandmother, she would forever be known by the simple nickname "Bidu." Indeed, simplicity and restraint, in matters both personal and professional, were to become the hallmarks of her fame.

She was born in Rio de Janeiro on May 11, 1902 to a socially prominent upper-class family, which relocated to the beachfront district of Botafogo when Bidu was five years old. Tragically, her father died shortly thereafter, thus depriving her of a masculine role model and leaving the poor girl to her own juvenile devices.

Playful and tomboyish, with a unique flair for fun and mischief, the incorrigible Bidu was never to attend public school with the other children of her age group; she was instead to receive private tutoring at her mother's home up through the age of 16.

But the independence and resourcefulness she first exhibited in her youth would later manifest themselves on the operatic stage in many of her most memorable comic parts, especially those of Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro, Adina in The Elixir of Love, and Rosina in The Barber of Seville.

Soon after her father's untimely demise, Bidu's older brother would assume his rightful place as the family patriarch, but the real seat of power would always remain with her mother, Maria José. Significantly, though, the absence of a strong male figure in her formative years may well have been one of the causes of Bidu's early marriage to a man three times as old as herself.

Yet even before this would come to pass, the choice of a theatrical profession for a society debutante from Rio was much frowned upon at the time by the privileged upper stratum. Recalling the event some years later, Bidu commented that "going on the stage was absolutely out of the question for a girl born to a respectable family."

This aspect of her early career struggles was charmingly captured in a 1940s comic-book depiction of her life entitled Boast of Brazil. In it, the young 14-year-old is shown being scolded by her parents (the father's death a decade before notwithstanding) about her wrongheaded career decision, and told, in no uncertain terms, how disgraceful it was "for any well-brought up Brazilian girl even to consider such a thing."

Not to be dissuaded, the typically resilient teenager pleaded with her lawyer uncle, Alberto Costa, to take up her cause. As a result, the musically inclined Costa became instrumental in swaying the mother's opinion about a potential singing career for her daughter, having earlier arranged for his niece to take private lessons from Romanian soprano Elena Theodorini, a former star of La Scala—who personally thought the girl too immature, and the voice too small, for such a serious undertaking.

Nevertheless, Bidu persevered, and with patience, practice and stubborn persistence managed to survive Madame Theodorini's rigid voice sessions. This led to her informal 1916 debut at Rio's Teatro Municipal in the Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor, an appearance that would permanently put to rest the question of a career in the theater.

Theodorini's resolute decision in 1918 to retire from teaching and return to her native country coincided with the end of World War I; it also gave good cause for the adventurous Bidu to accompany her instructor back to the Continent, the first time the blossoming prima donna had ever been away from her family.

The time she spent abroad, however, was indeed fruitful, as Bidu applied for and was admitted to Jean de Reszke's famed vocal school in Nice, France, where she was the only one of his personally handpicked pupils to have hailed from Latin America.

The still-elegant Polish tenor had been a leading man with New York's Metropolitan Opera long before Caruso's debut there, and was a fixture at the house for many years prior to his retirement in 1904. He would be the next to take on the role of surrogate father to the little Brazilian novice, helping to refine and perfect her diction, and instructing her in the long-lost tradition of French singing style and vocal technique:

"De Reszke had an extraordinary ability to evaluate the text, integrating it to the music until they became one. This was to be of enormous help to me…(the score) became a real part of me, so many were the times he made me go over it, concentrating on the words' essence and producing sounds that would enhance them."

- Bidu Sayão

With the death of De Reszke in 1925, and Theodorini's own passing the following year, Bidu was forced to seek assistance elsewhere in planning for her operatic future. She journeyed to Italy for the express purpose of establishing contact with former diva Emma Carelli and her husband, the noted impresario Walter Mocchi, whom she had previously heard about while living in Brazil.

The couple ran the Teatro Costanzi in Rome, and since 1910, Mocchi had also been responsible for the opera performances at the Teatro Municipal in Rio, as well as the summer seasons at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires.

Mocchi took quite a fancy to the young Brazilian beauty, as did his wife. Suitably impressed by the little songbird's talents, Signora Carelli referred her to maestro Luigi Ricci for training in operatic repertoire, and on March 25, 1926, Bidu Sayão made her official European debut at the Teatro Costanzi as Rosina in The Barber of Seville, later adding Gilda in Rigoletto, and Carolina in Il Matrimonio Segreto, to her growing list of stage roles.

Her success in the Italian capital paved the way for Bidu's triumphant return to the Brazilian one; she reappeared in Rio de Janeiro as Rosina in June of that year. In the meantime, Mocchi had gone ahead and contracted her for several seasons at São Paulo's Teatro Municipal, where he had previously accepted the management's offer of a full-time directorship.

Bidu went on to perform there in various works, including the part of Sister Madalena in the opera of the same name by, of all people, her uncle Alberto, a sentimental payback of sorts for his having served as the family intermediary ten years prior.

How much Mocchi's new position had to do with the singer's extended local engagement, however, is not known, but it soon became a situation rife with romantic speculation. Irrespective of the rumors that might have been generated by the proximity of these two individuals, fate would inevitably thrust them even closer together, for in 1928, Emma Carelli was involved in a fatal car accident in Italy. Her sudden death left a personal void in the busy professional life of Walter Mocchi, who now looked to Bidu for consolation.

It would be easy to suggest that her subsequent marriage to the much older Mocchi was a relatively stable one, but the enormous 40-year difference in their ages proved a difficult gap for Bidu to close. She later admitted her mistake, claiming "I have always searched for my father in the husbands that I married." They separated after a time, and were finally divorced in 1934.

The following year, Bidu would at last meet her prospective soul mate in the person of Italian opera star Giuseppe Danise.

It was during a 1935 performance of Rigoletto in Naples, quite possibly in one of the many moving numbers they had so often sung together at rehearsal, that soprano and baritone decided to transform their budding emotional relationship into a permanent love duet.

They tied the knot soon afterward, and remained constantly devoted to one another until Danise's own departure from this world in 1963. He was 19 years her senior.

Act Four, Scene Two: The Brazilian Bombshell Bursts onto the Scene

Amazingly enough, Bidu Sayão was a close contemporary of another popular entertainer, the exceptionally-gifted Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha, better known by her professional name as Carmen Miranda.

Born in the town of Marco de Canavezes in Portugal on February 9, 1909, Carmen came to Brazil with her family when she was not yet two, and grew up in the city of Rio, at about the same time that Bidu was learning to climb trees in her backyard.

She was called "Carmen" in honor of the Spanish protagonist made famous by the eponymously titled Bizet opera, or so the story goes. Otherwise, her connection to the art form was minimal, if non-existent.

She, too, was the offspring of a well-to-do family. In her father's case, he was the owner of a successful wholesale produce business, after first starting out as a barber (!), although some sources are in disagreement over this.

But whatever the family's financial condition had been, the naturally plucky and irresistible personality that characterized the young Portuguese immigrant was already in evidence. Little Carmen left no doubt as to what her future aspirations might be: she would tell everyone that she was predestined by the entertainment Muses for a career on the stage and in the movies.

Like most working-class youngsters in Brazil at the time, she was forced to quit school at an early age to go into the business world, holding down a variety of low-paying jobs, including one as a chatty salesgirl, and another as a "singing" store clerk, which resulted in her being fired by an irate boss for deliberately distracting her co-workers.

Luckily for her, and for the labor market, Carmen was snapped up by several local radio stations while simultaneously cutting her first records for the Brunswick label. She eventually landed a contract in 1928 with RCA Victor, later with Odeon-Brazil and American Decca. Her large recorded output of popular songs, sambas, and other more obscure material would reach into the literal hundreds.

Some revisionist authors have described her early singing style as a Carioca version of Elvis Presley, that is, of a poorly educated white person with a modicum of musical talent who just so happened to incorporate the soul and substance of African descendants into her entertainment vocabulary, and in the process made them virtually her own.

While the jury may still be out on Elvis, it is an unfair indictment in the case of Carmen Miranda. In the first place, she was neither poor nor uneducated, nor was she a "pale" imitator of a prevailing ethnic trend; in the second, the growth of choro, marcha, maxixe, modinha, and samba had already spurred on many of Brazil's early songwriters and composers to write down and interpret them as far back as 1915, most strikingly by Ernesto Nazaré, Chiquinha Gonzaga, Pixinguinha, and Heitor Villa-Lobos, joined later by the likes of Noel Rosa, Ary Barroso, João de Barros, and Dorival Caymmi.

Carmen's particular genius was in taking the basic raw elements found in this multitude of musical styles and thoroughly reinvigorating the form by applying to it her own unique blend of crystal-clear vocalism, rapid-fire verbal patter, and razor-sharp rhythm. This would ultimately lead to her creation of a black-white composite of the streetwise baiana, an endearing (and idealized) cultural by-product of Northeastern Brazil, accessible to even the most sophisticated of theater-minded audiences.

She would develop this character further in her later domestic and 20th Century-Fox film work, but for now she strived hard to concentrate on her nightclub routines with younger sister Aurora. The two of them would appear frequently throughout the thirties at the Cassino da Urca in Rio, and usually backed by the Bando da Lua combo.

Such bubbling effervescence as Carmen Miranda seemed to exude should have been a veritable shoe-in for the nascent Brazilian film industry; and, true to form, she soon appeared in her first feature O Carnaval Cantando no Rio, in 1932, although she sang in only one musical number. A Voz do Carnaval was released the following year, along with Alô Alô Brasil and Estudantes (both 1935), Alô Alô Carnaval (1936), and Banana da Terra (1939), where she introduced moviegoers to her Bahian alter ego.

During one of her many flamboyant performances at the Urca, visiting American impresario Lee Shubert decided to hire the flashy entertainer for his new Broadway extravaganza, to premiere in New York in the summer of 1939.

The stage was now set for the Hollywood phase of Carmen Miranda's showbiz career, a change not as readily accepted, or as welcomed, by fellow Brazilians as her "O que é que a baiana tem?" (What is it that the Baiana has?) period.

Act Four, Scene Three: Enter Arturo Toscanini and the Old Met

That most formidable of early 20th Century classical musicians, Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, would once again influence the direction of Brazilian opera by his fortuitous intervention in the burgeoning American career of soprano Bidu Sayão.

There exist several versions of their fabled encounter, but suffice it to say that the notoriously demanding maestro may have been moved by the Brazilian singer's sensitive portrayal of the consumptive Violetta Valery in Verdi's La Traviata, given in 1935 at Milan's historic Teatro alla Scala, where Toscanini had once served as director.

At a formal reception for the diva in 1936 at Town Hall in New York City, Toscanini introduced himself to Bidu, and immediately piqued her musical interest in a work she had not previously performed in: French composer Claude Debussy's poetic cantata La Demoiselle Élue (The Blessed Damozel), originally written for mezzo-soprano, a voice category the normally stratospheric coloratura was unaccustomed to.

Undaunted by the challenges inherent in this offbeat proposal, Toscanini offered to coach "la piccola Brasiliana" in the difficult piece, and even recommended an alternative higher key for her comfort, to which he likewise supplied a revised vocal score. Needless to say, Bidu was hooked by this rare chance to work with the renowned Italian taskmaster, and willingly swallowed the bait.

With the experienced hand of Arturo Toscanini leading her and the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra and Schola Cantorum Singers, Bidu Sayão made an auspicious Carnegie Hall debut in the Debussy work on April 16, 1936, to rave reviews in the press.

Taking advantage of the increased exposure her New York appearances had provided, Bidu spent the next several seasons commuting to and from her native Brazil, and her soon-to-be-adopted North American homeland. She gave innumerable performances on both continents, but paid particular attention to Brazilian shores, by some accounts appearing in as many as 200 different locales spanning the length and breadth of the country.

Upon her return visit to the States, the board of the Metropolitan Opera (at Toscanini's insistence) tapped the busy soprano to appear in a part not generally associated with South American artists: that of Jules Massenet's wholly and beguilingly Gallic young heroine, the beautiful and coquettish Manon Lescaut.

Although he himself no longer had any direct involvement in running the company, Toscanini nonetheless proved relentless in persuading the Met's stodgy leadership to take on the Brazilian nightingale for this plum assignment—this despite the fact that Manon was not a role that required the kind of vocal fireworks that Bidu was then capable of, nor was it yet a regular staple of her core repertoire.

Fortunately for the Met, the singer had been slowly expanding her roster of parts to encompass the more lyric roles of Violetta in La Traviata, Juliette in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette, and Mimì in Puccini's La Bohème, even before she had met her second husband, Giuseppe Danise. It was to Danise's lasting credit, however, that he was able to confidently guide his wife further along this newfound path, thereby stretching her usual list of soubrette parts by including more dramatic vocal opportunities.

This admittedly opened up fresher avenues for Bidu to explore, now that she had been performing ad infinitum the same well-worn roles of Lucia, Susanna and Rosina over the entire course of her career, even though audiences still flocked to see her in them.

With her authentic French diction and remarkable ability to breathe dramatic life into increasingly complex characters, Bidu Sayão was ideally poised to conquer the stages of North America, just as she had done in Europe and Latin America for the last 10 years.

Finally, on February 13, 1937, on a cold and wintry Saturday afternoon, the captivating Brazilian soprano stepped out from behind the golden curtain and into the warm glow of the stage at the old Metropolitan Opera House on Broadway and 39th Street, to bask in a well-deserved ovation for her premiere performance in Massenet's Manon. She delivered what many of her staunchest fans would come to regard as her most elaborately prepared, most fully realized, and most passionately heartfelt portrait to date.

Manon would go on to become her third most requested role (22 performances in all) during her Met tenure, lagging behind only Susanna and Mimì (46 performances each), and Violetta (with 23), in number of times sung.

It is noteworthy to point out that Bidu Sayão had established a firm foothold on the legitimate Broadway stage two years and four months before Carmen Miranda was to do so, and a full three years prior to Carmen's own footprints were to be permanently enshrined on Hollywood's immortal Walk of Fame.

Intermission

Sources & Recommended Reading:

"A Bidu Sayão Album: 1902-1999," from the Metropolitan Opera Archives, www.metopera.org/history/week-990920.html, 1999.

Academia do Samba: "Bidu Sayão e o Canto de Cristal," www.academiadosamba.com.br/passarela/beijaflor/ficha -1995.htm, 1995.

"Carmen Miranda: Sambas," www.wwoz.com/html/rev_three_brazillian.html, no date.

"Cultura e Conhecimento: Prima Donnas," www.brasilcult.pro.br/teatro/painel31.htm, no date.

"Ecco! Bidu Sayão," www.ecco.com.br/vita_mia/oriundi_tradcar.asp, no date.

Iosue, Giancarlo, "Beyond the Bananas," Brazzil Magazine, February 2003, www.brazzil.com/pages/p136feb03.htm.

Dibbell, Julian, "Notes on Carmen: A Few Things We Have Yet to Learn from History's Most Incandescent Cross-Dresser," The Village Voice, October 29, 1991.

Higginbotham, Carlton, "Opera Shop: Bidu Sayão," www.bassocantante.com/opera/sayao.html, 2000.

Jackson, Denny, "Biography for Carmen Miranda," Internet Movie Database, http://us.imdb.com.name/nm0000544.bio, no date.

Jackson, Paul, "Obituaries: Bidu Sayão, 1902-1999" Opera News Magazine, New York, June 1999.

Luís, Émerson, "Silenced Nightingale," Brazzil Magazine, March 1999, www.brazzil.com/pages/p11mar99.htm.

Sachs, Harvey (editor and translator), "The Letters of Arturo Toscanini," Knopf Publishers, New York, 2002.

São Paulo ImagemData, "Bidu Sayão," www2.uol.com.br/spimagem/bidu/melhor.html, no date.

Stevenson, Joseph, "Bidu Sayão," All Classical Guide, www.allclassical.com.cg/acg.dll?p=acg&sql=1:50887~C, 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 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 by Josmar F. Lopes


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