Brazzil
March 1999
Music

Silenced
Nightingale

Brazilian Bidu Sayão was 18 when she premiered in the Teatro Municipal do Rio de Janeiro. In Rome she signed a contract with the Constanzi Theater. Soon she went to the Opera de Paris and then to Scala of Milan. In New York she interpreted 12 roles in 13 seasons. She was petite, not pretty and with a little voice, but she won the hearts of Americans and the world over.

Émerson Luís

Writer Mário de Andrade, who nicknamed her "The Nightingale," painted her in poetic colors: "She has an admirable voice with an impregnating allure. She proves that a bird's soul can escalate in passion." Brazilian nightingale Bidu Sayão is quiet now. She flew away March 13, at age 96, after fighting pneumonia in Penobscot Bay Medical Center in Rockport, Maine, USA. She lived in Lincolnville, Maine. Sayão had moved to the area, bitter with Brazil and the treatment Brazilians gave her. She asked to be cremated and her ashes spread in Lincolnville Bay just in front of her house.

The soprano, admired by Italian maestro Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) who called her "la piccola brasiliana," was one of the best prima donnas the world has ever known. Her first performance in the US happened in 1936. From the late '30s through the '40s Sayão was one of the most popular stars of the New York Metropolitan Opera. She was decorated by the U.S. government for her performances for soldiers during World War II.

She was born Balduína de Oliveira Sayão in the Rio beachside neighborhood of Botafogo on May 11, 1902. Balduína was named after her grandmother and also adopted the Bidu nickname that her mother had. The artist was only 5 when her father died. Her mother Maria José Sayão would be her biggest inspiration and her only monetary source during the beginning of her career. She later complained that no school, company, or government department would help her when she was starting. She carried some resentment for Brazil all her life, but at the same time preserved her Brazilian identity, refusing for example to seek American citizenship.

She was a mere 18 when she premiered in the Teatro Municipal do Rio de Janeiro interpreting Gaetano Donizzetti's opera Lucia de Lammermoor. Her work received rave reviews. After that she went to Europe and in 1922 was admitted in Nice, France, to the school of renowned Polish tenor Jean de Reszke, with whom she learned the delicate way of singing that would become her trademark. After starring as Rosina in Rossini's The Barber of Seville in Brazil, in 1926, she was invited to Rome and signed a contract with the Constanzi Theater. Soon she went to the Opera de Paris and then to Scala of Milan.

Sayão's American career began in 1937 following a successful two-year tour in Brazil during 1935 and 1936. In New York she interpreted 12 roles in 13 seasons, including among others Violetta, Rosina, Gilda and Mimi. She was petite, not pretty and with a little voice, but she won the hearts of her public by the intensity of the emotions with which she interpreted her roles.

Her last presentation on a stage was in 1954. Four years later, however, at the request of friend Villa-Lobos she agreed to record Floresta Amazônica, conducted by the famous composer himself. After that she retired.

The musical piece that became her biggest success was her role in Brazilian composer Villa-Lobos's Bachianas nº 5, which was recorded in 1945. Sayão was Villa-Lobos's favorite interpreter. She became also famous for playing Zerlina in Mozart's Don Giovanni.

Her last trip to Brazil was in 1995 when she was paid a tribute by Escola de Samba Beija-Flor, which chose her story to present during the Carnaval Parade. She participated parading on one of the floats. The singer had plans to return to Brazil for a last time on her 100th birthday in 2002 and had invited her long-time manager and friend Hazel Eaton to go with her on this trip. In an interview with daily O Estado de S. Paulo, Eaton revealed she was very happy with the recent release by Sony of her old recordings. She felt relieved for not having been forgotten by people after so many years, something that tormented her during the last few years.

In her last performance at the Rio Municipal Theater in 1937, she was intensely booed. It's been said that the jeering was orchestrated by jealous Gabriela Besanzoni Lage, a famous Carmen who couldn't accept being outdone by the diminutive Bidu. The singer didn't go back for tours in Brazil any more and when her singing career ended she gave up living in Brazil, buying her house in Maine.

Married twice—first with manager Walter Mocchi, 40 years her senior and then in 1935 to famous Italian tenor Giuseppe Danise, who died in 1963—she preferred to spend her time with her cats and playing cards with friends.

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