Brazil's Fat Lady Can't Sing
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
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
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
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
talentone 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 artiststhe 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
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
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:
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
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 consentas 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 againand 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 recognitionalong
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 scheduletoo
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
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 countrya vivid example of pent up guilt feelings for
the way the nation had treated the dearly departed movie icon when she was
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
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 Warwith
its emphasis on the Good Neighbor Policy and the resultant rationing of the
gene pool of foreign artistsit was not supported by the evidence.
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 contrivancesnamely,
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 circumstancesand 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.
"Cultura e Conhecimento:
Cunha, Milton, "Bidu
Sayão e o Canto de Cristal," Academia do Samba,
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,
Jackson, Denny, "Biography
for Carmen Miranda," Internet Movie Database, http://us.imdb.com.name/nm0000544.bio,
Jackson, Paul, "Obituaries:
Bidu Sayão, 1902-1999" Opera News Magazine, New York, June
"Silenced Nightingale," Brazzil Magazine, Los Angeles, March
Sayão," The New York Times, New York, March 13, 1999.
São Paulo ImagemData,
"Bidu Sayão," www2.uol.com.br/spimagem/bidu/melhor.html,
Di Nóbile, "Cómo era Gabriella Besanzoni?"
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.
2004 by Josmar F. Lopes