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Brazzil - Nation - March 2004

The High Price of Fame in Brazil

A common enough fate had befallen Brazilian singer Carmen
Miranda that had also been shared by Bidu Sayão, Carlos
Gomes, and several other of their fellow citizens: that of a
tangible and totally unwarranted resentment for having made
it big abroad without their country's approval or consent.

Joe Lopes

Brazil's Fat Lady Can't Sing
Act Five, Scene One: Blame It on Rio

They booed. The audience had actually booed. It was unheard of, absurd to say the least, yet it was true. But how could it have happened in Rio, and, most disturbingly of all, to Bidu Sayão, the operatic sweetheart of the Southern Hemisphere?

Not five months had passed since the stylish Brazilian singer's appearance at the Metropolitan Opera House had caused a minor stir, and was labeled the surprise hit of the 1936-37 season. "Miss Sayão triumphed as a Manon should," wrote New York Times critic Olin Downes of her 1937 mid-winter debut, "by manners, youth and charm, and by the way in which (her) voice became the vehicle of dramatic expression."

Bidu had been chosen by the Met to assume the repertory of the recently retired Spanish soprano Lucrezia Bori, and within weeks of her initial engagement she was assigned the lead role in La Traviata, followed quickly by her first La Bohème.

Now with U.S. opera companies on hiatus until the fall, Bidu was free to enjoy the warmer waters of her tropical port city, and its own extensive concert and opera-going season. Her ambitions there were modest, in the extreme: to please her many fans and admirers, as she always had, at Rio de Janeiro's Teatro Municipal.

She had lately performed in the opera Il Guarany by Gomes, and was scheduled to sing the smaller but no less showier secondary part of Micaela in Bizet's Carmen, starring the celebrated Italian mezzo Gabriella Besanzoni, a past veteran of many a South American production of the work and a mainstay at the Municipal since 1918.

Called "badly-behaved and impertinent" by the Met's onetime director Giulio Gatti-Casazza, the high-strung Besanzoni had lucked into a society marriage with Brazilian industrialist Henrique Lage back in 1925. This tended to keep the temperamental diva anchored to the capital, with the Teatro Municipal serving as her favored homeport.

Upon leaving the stage in 1939, she turned to teaching to take up her spare time. As an instructor, it was widely rumored that the Roman native was a superior judge of vocal talent—one of her private pupils would turn out to be the Carioca baritone Paulo Fortes.

There was ample evidence to suggest by all of this that the July 1937 performance of Carmen in Rio would be a far from routine affair, if not a fairly exciting one. What actually transpired onstage could not by any means be considered unexpected, but the passage of time, muddled individual motives, and even sketchier personal recollections have a way of blurring the finer details of how and why certain events took form.

The indisputable facts, though, were these: unable to cope with Bidu's recent string of successes, the feisty mezzo-soprano organized a demonstration by the members of her claque to boo the prima donna into submission, and on her home turf.

Her boisterous negative campaign fizzled, however, as the entire theater soon got wind of the plot. After Micaela's moving third act solo, the audience erupted into a steady stream of applause that purportedly drowned out the offensive noisemakers, who proceeded to beat a hasty retreat from the peanut gallery.

Badly shaken by the incident, Bidu was overheard to have declared that she would refuse all offers to sing in Rio de Janeiro, and, for that matter, in Brazil, too.

Despite claims to the contrary, the soprano rethought her earlier position and thankfully returned to her native country on a few occasions near the end of the forties. She gave her last complete performance at the Teatro Municipal in 1950 as Mimì in La Bohème, but after that painful Carmen she would most heartily agree to become a regular member of the Metropolitan Opera's list of artists—the only one from South America.

Aside from the poor reception in Rio, there were other, more pertinent justifications for her decision to depart for friendlier Northern corridors, one of which was to be close to Met baritone Giuseppe Danise, the long-awaited love of her life; but the main reason was the volatile political situation of pre-World War II Europe.

For Bidu, this did not necessarily translate into a moratorium on her stepping onto Brazil's stages, but it did pose a serious threat to anyone bound for European opera houses, regardless of national origin. As it was, the escalating global conflict had put a severe damper on foreign classical pursuits, in essence restricting the coloratura and most other professional performers to the safer venues of North America for the duration of the war.

Still, the sad truth remained that Bidu Sayão was hurt, and it showed in her deliberate avoidance of Brazil as a routine layover spot.

As for Besanzoni, she would stay noticeably closed-mouth on the subject of her actions on that particular evening. We can only speculate at this point as to her convoluted reasoning behind them.

They indeed had a lot to do with the perceptive singer's suspicion of an unofficial snub by the Metropolitan Opera during the 1919-1920 season, a period in which she was asked to take on many of the same roles as the house's resident workhorse, the stalwart Austro-Hungarian artist Margarete Matzenauer.

According to various accounts, Besanzoni became convinced that her Teutonic rival had somehow bribed the claque to despoil her every Met appearance. Curiously, reviews from that time seem to corroborate this notion: there is a marked indication that an organized and clearly exaggerated favoritism for Matzenauer was at the heart of the anti-Besanzoni faction; and, in the Italian's own blunt assessment of things, "the `German' did everything in her power, including the impossible, to prevent me from being hired by the Metropolitan."

Her past ill treatment in the Manhattan press, plus the unfavorable reaction of Met Opera audiences, might well have gone a long way toward fanning the mezzo's future flames of envy with regard to Bidu's growing popularity there.

We may never know for certain, but Besanzoni's overly paranoid sensibilities do serve to explain some of the later green-eyed behavior attributed to her and unreasonably extended to the tiny Brazilian warbler.

Scene Change: Carmen Goes Bananas

As bad as this experience may have been for soprano Bidu Sayão, it was nothing compared to the cold shoulder offered by her own callous countrymen to Brazil's cultural ambassador of the war years, the exciting (and excitable) Carmen Miranda.

The Brazilian Bombshell's runaway success on the New York stage during the 1939-40 Broadway show season had only begun to whet the appetites of post-Depression era audiences starved for more novel and adventuresome musical fare.

It promptly segued into Carmen's American movie debut in the musical comedy Down Argentine Way, which starred Betty Grable and Don Ameche. Released in late 1940, this first of several 20th Century-Fox productions featuring the exotic performer was an immediate smash with enchanted movie audiences.

Whether she played Argentines, Cubans, Mexicans or Brazilians, film fans clamored for more of Carmen, and the Fox Studios wisely obliged, signing the lively songstress to a generous six-figure salary that would soon make her the highest paid female entertainer in the United States:

"Hollywood, it has treated me so nicely, I am ready to faint. As soon as I see Hollywood, I love it!"

- Carmen Miranda

But just before her Hollywood career took off in earnest, Carmen and her Bando da Lua paid a return visit to Brazil, and to the Cassino da Urca, the Rio de Janeiro nightspot that was the scene of their earliest stage triumphs.

Expecting to be greeted as they had been in the States, i.e. with wide-open warmth and fully appreciative affection, they could not have been more confounded by the chilly atmosphere that waited for them inside.

There have been many theories put forth for Carmen's overly cool reception at the Urca, from the unusually stuffy society crowd present, which included the wife of conservative strongman Getúlio Vargas (allegedly, one of the singer's former lovers), to the range of material chosen for the affair, an innocuous combination of sambas and Carnaval march favorites peppered with Tin Pan Alley pop confections.

Yet these few paltry explanations ultimately fail to provide a truly satisfying glimpse into the ambivalent feelings conveyed by Rio nightclub audiences toward the baffled diva and her song troupe.

Ostensibly, a common enough fate had befallen Carmen that had also been shared by Bidu Sayão, Carlos Gomes, and several other of their fellow citizens, particularly when confronted with their own notable achievements away from Brazilian soil: that of a tangible and totally unwarranted resentment for having made it big abroad without their country's approval or consent—as if these were absolutely necessary to affirm one's position at home, or anywhere else.

"To be successful outside of Brazil," sociologist Roberto da Matta observed, "is considered a personal offense to Brazilians."

This simple yet insightful analysis was never more accurate than when applied to the seesawing musical endeavors of Carmen Miranda. After several critically panned appearances, the crestfallen singer and her band withdrew for a two-month rest, a period principally taken up by the group to revamp its basic song structure into something that more closely resembled an overt form of social commentary.

With that in mind, Carmen emerged from her isolation brandishing a buoyant new number, "Disseram que eu voltei americanizada" (They say that I came back Americanized), in the faces of her previously unresponsive patrons.

A cracklingly lyrical defense of her supposed conversion to American ways, and mockery of some distinctively Brazilian ones, this cleverly written topical ditty was a huge hit in Rio, and recatapulted the star to the top of her seaside area stomping-ground.

But the damage to her unshakeable self-esteem had been done. Had she really turned her back on her own people? Had she abandoned the poor favelados (slum dwellers) she had so sympathetically sung about, for the easy money and get-rich-quick ventures of greedy Northern capitalists? Had she sold off her highly-prized charms so cheaply to New York audiences, for a fleeting grasp at personal gain, as they all claimed she had?

None of these charges were true, of course, but the negative aspersions that continued to be cast at Carmen while she was holed up in Rio would only strengthen her iron-willed resolve never to perform in her country again—and to pin her future career hopes on North America.

Disappointingly, the remainder of her Hollywood film product would consist of a mixed bag of garish Technicolor spectacles (That Night in Rio, 1941; Weekend in Havana, 1941; Springtime in the Rockies, 1942), ridiculous tutti-frutti headgear (The Gang's All Here, 1943), and uninspired comedic romps (Copacabana, 1947; A Date With Judy, 1948), culminating in an ignoble guest effort in the 1953 Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis spoof Scared Stiff.

While they proved financially lucrative at the box office, these projects were eminently unworthy of her talents, which extended past her familiar hip-swinging milieu to fashioning and designing her own elaborate wardrobe and that of her band-mates.

In spite of the risk to her carefully constructed stage image, the mid-career tradeoff of her Latin-based musical livelihood for the uncertainty of Los Angeles' fickle film community was a chance that Carmen Miranda was only too willing to take, and never given enough credit for doing so.

In giving up her uniquely Brazilian identity for an all-purpose, stereotypical compilation of ersatz Latinate femininity, she acquired a definitive degree of international recognition—along with a hefty amount of notoriety, as that infamous wartime snapshot of Carmen without her underpants would plainly reveal.

Moreover, the drastic modulation of her inbred Brazilianness, mingled with the bland indifference her compatriots had detachedly shown her at the Cassino da Urca, deeply affected Carmen's inner psyche; it eroded as well what little pride she had left in her American accomplishments.

These in turn would serve as the absorbing subject matter of innumerable books, articles, and publications, in addition to a revelatory cinematic study, Carmen Miranda: Bananas Is My Business (1994) by Brazilian filmmaker Helena Solberg, about the entertainer's later life struggles.

Highlighted by an abusive 1947 marriage to American movie producer David Sebastian, a longtime dependence on uppers and downers, a miscarriage, depression, hypochondria, electroshock therapy and more, Carmen's mounting personal misfortunes would conspire to bring about her mental and physical breakdown sometime in late 1954.

Her prescribed method of treatment involved a four-month period of rest and recuperation in Brazil, her first trip there in 14 years, spent mostly in seclusion at the Copacabana Palace Hotel in Rio de Janeiro.

She returned soon after to the U.S. to quickly resume her busy nightclub and television schedule—too quickly, some would say, leading to a silent heart attack as she finished taping a strenuous dance sequence for The Jimmy Durante Show on August 4, 1955.

Later on at her Beverly Hills mansion, in the early morning hours of August 5, her lifeless body was found. She had expired prematurely at 46, the victim of cardiac arrest.

Act Five, Scene Two: The Brazilian Nightingale Flies Away

Carmen Miranda's shocking end and tumultuous Rio de Janeiro funeral produced a staggering outpouring of grief in the country—a vivid example of pent up guilt feelings for the way the nation had treated the dearly departed movie icon when she was alive.

It also struck a darkly foreboding chord with Bidu Sayão, Brazil's other international musical exponent, and a fervent follower of the once energetic entertainer.

Only a month before, Bidu had mourned the loss of her first husband, the late Walter Mocchi, recently interred in a Rio cemetery. And, in a manner of speaking, she had witnessed the slow passing of her own Metropolitan Opera career, what with her having to contend with a regime change at the company she had so long been associated with.

The new administration, put in place in October 1950 and headed up by crusty general manager Rudolf Bing, was peculiarly unreceptive to the popular Brazilian singer's request to perform in Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande, one of her Gallic specialties.

Bing, it seemed, had an aversion to the standard French repertoire, but his firm support of Verdi and Puccini, and outright backing of the Mozart canon, gave Bidu renewed hope that she would be given a fair stab at the meatier items on the Met's operatic menu of works.

Such was not to be. She sang in only four presentations of Bohème, the last of which, dated February 26, 1952, was her adieu to the house. It was followed two months later by a final April 23 performance on tour in Boston, as Manon, the role of her Met debut.

"I was too proud," she would later remark, "and I did not want to wait until I was asked to leave." It was commented on at the time that Bidu Sayão had left the Metropolitan at the top of her form, and with few regrets.

Cutting back on her operatic appearances, she limited her future assignments to the concert hall, but wallowed joyfully in her newly-acquired freedom away from the lyric stage.

In the same year as Carmen Miranda's wedding in Beverly Hills, Bidu and her husband Giuseppe Danise had purchased a home off the Maine coast reminiscent of her family's littoral abode in Botafogo. They called it Casa Bidu. After her retirement from the Met, she and Danise would spend considerable time there together, interspersed with occasional sidetrips to the Salisbury Hotel in New York City.

But more shattering news arrived in January of 1957: Arturo Toscanini, mentor, admirer, advisor, and supporter, died at his home in Riverdale, New York, at the ripe old age of 89. This was too much for the sensitive soprano to bear, as she now resolved to terminate her singing career before the year was out.

Bidu bid a fond farewell to concertizing in the same historic location (Carnegie Hall), singing the same lyrical showpiece (La Demoiselle Élue by Debussy), and with the same orchestral forces (the New York Philharmonic) as those of two decades prior, when she was first introduced to American audiences by the incomparable Italian-born maestro; except that on this occasion, the program in question was in the capable hands of a noteworthy Frenchman, the conductor André Cluytens, who would solemnly assist Bidu in drawing a final curtain on the predominantly classical cycle she had begun for herself back in the spring of 1936.

"It's hard to quit," she told the New York Times, "but how much better to do it when the public remembers you well. Now I could smoke, stay up late at parties, and catch a cold."

Within a few years of that defining concert, second husband Giuseppe Danise would join the celestial ranks of the other prominent figures in Bidu's life: uncle Alberto Costa, soprano Elena Theodorini, tenor Jean de Reszke, impresario Walter Mocchi, maestro Arturo Toscanini, and composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, a lifelong collaborator and close personal acquaintance.

All had made an incalculable contribution to her profession and art; while each had received their just reward, Bidu continued to be feted, honored and fawned over for years to come by ardent aficionados both here and in her native homeland.

With all that she had seen and done in her field of choice, what was there left to say about Brazil's most exalted opera personality?

Taking note of her award-winning 1945 Columbia Records rendition of Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5, and her status as a major interpreter of that composer's works, along with those of the less familiar-sounding Reynaldo Hahn, Hernani Braga, and Henri Duparc, Bidu's many stage and recorded milestones went far beyond the norm for a native-born classical performer of her time.

In fact, there was no denying (or even downplaying) her importance as a pivotal player in the development and spread of opera, in and around the Brazilian landscape.

Although some critics would go so far as to admit that her (and Carmen Miranda's) peak period of activity spanned the length of U.S. involvement in the Second World War—with its emphasis on the Good Neighbor Policy and the resultant rationing of the gene pool of foreign artists—it was not supported by the evidence.

Orchestral Interlude: Life is a Carnaval

But what was it that made the little diva so endearing to opera buffs? What carefully guarded secret had she possessed that so inspired the loyalty and admiration of even the most hardened of music critics?

On the whole, it can be safely stated that, in almost every respect, the lovely lyric singer exuded that rare and indefinable star quality known as charisma; which, added to her matchless stage deportment, manifested itself in the purity and ease with which she projected her small but penetrating instrument, beautifully contained within a miniature yet finely sculpted framework, and perfectly suited for the nobility and majesty of only the most dramatic of theatrical contrivances—namely, the opera.

With her usual self-effacing modesty, Bidu Sayão saliently, and quite succinctly, summed up her own precious vocal artistry in a 1989 radio broadcast interview:

"I had something appealing. I don't know what. The sincerity of my singing. I give my heart. I give my soul. I give myself."

She gave of herself one last time, when, in 1995, the Beija-Flor Samba School of Nilópolis invited the elderly but still determined petite dame of grand opera to appear in the annual Rio Carnaval parade.

Bidu's life story had been selected as the school's theme of that year, and she was more than happy to accommodate, as it provided the bona fide Brazilian charmer with a legitimate excuse to visit her Cidade Maravilhosa (Wonderful City) one last time.

Her attire was that of a typical Northeastern baiana, the only conceivable dress she could have worn under the circumstances—and a most fitting personal tribute to the memory of Carmen in her prime.

With that simple gesture, two otherwise incompatible entertainment forms had, for one brief instant, successfully melded into a singularly grandiose display. For what is Carnaval and opera, anyway, if not outsized representations of all that we would like for reality to be? Characteristically, Bidu stole the show.

On March 12, 1999, after a brief illness, soprano Bidu Sayão permanently left the world spotlight. She died at Penobscot Bay Medical Center in Rockport, Maine, two months short of her 97th birthday.

Her death brought to a quiet close a most remarkable chapter in Brazilian musical history, one that Bidu had so conspicuously made her own.

"During her career days, she held audiences in the palm of her hand," remembered Schuyler Chapin, ex-Commissioner for Cultural Affairs in New York City and a former general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. "Whether on the opera stage, the concert hall, a living room, or just in conversation,…she was, hands down, one of the public's favorites."

But the length of an individual's physical life did not necessarily translate into longevity in the public's mind, especially where it concerned the new and unconventional in music.

Alas, few of the current generation of Brazil's knowledgeable music lovers have even heard of Bidu Sayão, much less been made aware of her past classical attainments. Yet ever more enthusiastic devotees of Música Popular Brasileira have become thrilled all over again by the flashing eyes, the free-flowing arm movements, and the fluttering vocal tones of that too short-lived curio named Carmen Miranda. A major reappraisal of her body of work appears imminent and overdue, and is sure to follow in the wake of this modern reevaluation.

In the brief time she spent with us, Carmen's entertainment and musical legacy had apparently won out over, or even surpassed, Bidu's now overlooked ones.

Indeed, her tragic, unforeseen demise and subsequent reacceptance into contemporary Brazilian cultural society can be read, should we choose to, as the final triumphant victory over her earlier career adversity.


Sources & Recommended Reading:

"Biografia: Carmen Miranda," www.geocities.com/locbelvedere/Biografia/BiografiaCarmenMiranda.htm, no date.

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

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

"Death Notices: Bidu Sayão," The Times Mirror Company, Los Angeles, 1999.

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

Gilman, Bruce, "Viva Carmen!" Brazzil Magazine, Los Angeles, June 1996.

Giron, Luis Antonio, "A Carreira de Bidu Sayão," www.geocities.com/Vienna/8179/bidu.html, 1997.

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, Emerson, "Silenced Nightingale," Brazzil Magazine, Los Angeles, March 1999.

"Obituary: Bidu Sayão," The New York Times, New York, March 13, 1999.

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

Terré, Roberto Di Nóbile, "Cómo era Gabriella Besanzoni?" www.weblaopera.com/articulos/arti22.htm, 2001.

Thomas, Tony, and Solomon, Aubrey, The Films of 20th Century-Fox: A Pictorial History, The Citadel Press, Secaucus, New Jersey, 1979.

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 © 2004 by Josmar F. Lopes

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