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