The Enraged Genius of Brazil’s Maestro Neschling

Brazilian maestro John NeschlingHer arms were extended outward, as if in gentle supplication to restless audience members to lend an attentive ear toward her wistful song.  The look was haughty and proud, but the attitude one of openness and warmth, with a touch of simpatia tossed in.

Her bearing was unwaveringly regal yet becoming of one whose build is so elegantly lean and slender. There was also the recognizable air of a diva about her.

It must have been the classic profile, the protruding chin, the dark complexion, and the magnificent blonde coiffure, its many endless and fascinating curls, like those of a face on an ancient Aegean vase, all intricately woven in unbroken lines across her faultlessly-formed features.

Suddenly, the hallowed name of Maria Callas sprang to mind. While remembering the faded kinescopes of the once celebrated star of La Scala, I was reminded of Portuguese singer Mariza’s striking resemblance to the immortal La Divina, and to the Divine One’s searing intensity and command of the stage.

In interviews granted throughout 2003, given concurrently with the release of her album Fado Curvo, the Lusitanian songstress (born in Mozambique but raised in the Mouraria section of Lisbon) cited the internationally revered Greek-American soprano as a strong influence on her own individualized take on contemporary fado.

Having seen Mariza perform live, in concert, on the campus of North Carolina State University’s Stewart Theatre, I whole-heartedly agree.

Though not strictly a Brazilian entertainment form, nor remotely related to traditional Western ideals of the operatic, this freely emotive and soulful style of singing has been with us for nearly two-and-a-half centuries – much longer, in fact, than any of the standard repertory items of Messrs. Verdi, Wagner, and Puccini.

Most of all, there is something grandly theatrical about the art itself – the hand gestures, the facial expressions, the song structures, and the lyric flights of poetic fancy – that has lately transformed fado into a worthy successor to the almost absent productions of opera in Brazil’s artistic firmament.

Mariza’s devout following knows, too, that years before her recent world conquests, the rebellious future stage figure had visited the land of Carnaval, where, as inevitable as the Copacabana tide, she became infatuated with the earthy sounds of samba and bossa nova, only to return to her adopted land as an invaluable dispenser of its native song collection.

“I was looking for something when I went to Brazil,” declared Mariza. “I had to do that to come back to my first love. But what I was looking for was in front of my nose all the time and I was the only one who couldn’t see it.”

The search for one’s true calling in the entertainment field can be an excruciatingly nerve-wracking venture for any artist, let alone one of Mariza’s repute. Relief came only in the satisfaction she gleaned from facing up to her initial resistance to the style’s built-in challenges.

Fado is an emotional kind of music,” she proclaimed, “full of passion, sorrow, jealousy, grief, and often satire… I just want to sing.” And that she does well enough.

As a yardstick for superior vocal ability, graceful arm movements are the stock-in-trade as well of another, better-known Marisa – MPB performer, producer, songwriter, and Tribalista Marisa Monte – who revealed to Brazzil‘s music editor Bruce Gilman, in October 2000, a similar back-story involving her own artistic coming of age.

“When I was eighteen I went to Italy to study opera, which gave me the opportunity to study the repertoire and to live outside Brazil awhile. But after living in Italy for a year, I began to see Brazil with different eyes.

“For the first time, I could see how rich, original, and unique Brazilian music is in relation to the rest of the world. I saw myself a long way from home and realized how hard it was going to be to put aside all the cultural weight.

“To escape my background, to forget all the culture that had been implanted since birth, I would have had to live outside of Brazil for the rest of my life. I also knew it was going to be very difficult for me to put aside modern production techniques.

“And since opera is something that is turned more toward the past, I could see clearly how, for me, it was more important to be in Brazil than to be singing opera in Italy. So I came back…but studying in Europe was just a way of taking enough time to find my way, to decide what I really wanted.”

The self-knowledge possessed by these two young artists – a rare gift at any age, and indicative of a highly developed maturity well beyond their tender years – is not quite as startling or as off the beaten track as it might appear, for historically, as most fans of the genre know, the rocky road to the top of the music charts has been strewn with all manner of classically-trained participants.

From Pat Benatar and Freddie Mercury, to Linda Ronstadt and Rick Wakeman, all had shifted gears early in their professional careers to reap the greater financial freedom pop-rock stardom seemed to promise.

One such singer, German rocker Peter Hofmann, used his powerful pipes and Teutonic good looks to become, in 1979, one of the few pop idols around to have actually reversed the trend and reemerge, cocoon-like, as a Wagnerian heroic tenor (!).

But for the opera in Brazil, no such transformation has been possible. Indeed, never have the ghosts of the Fat Lady’s past been more eagerly awaited, or more desperately needed, than they are now: to help the long denigrated art form decide what it too wants for the future, while attempting to find its lost way in today’s pop-oriented music world.

In view of this situation, it would be wise to consider the cases of three of the most likely modern candidates for inclusion into our select gallery of opera greats:

* John Neschling, conductor and artistic director of the Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo, and a former director of the Municipal Theaters of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo;

* Eliane Coelho, lyric-dramatic spinto soprano, and a resident artist of the Vienna State Opera; and

* Gerald Thomas, controversial stage and theater director, and founder of the Dry Opera Company.

Culturally speaking, they represent a dynamic cross-section of the complexity, diversity, and, if you will, perplexity of the current Brazilian and international opera scene.

Their shining examples do justice to the final chapter of this study – a section given over to why these stellar attractions forsook any semblance of a normal work-life for the greater glory of their art.

To the Manner Born

What exactly is a malandro, and what does it have to do with the erudite world of grand opera, if anything?

Perhaps the most concise definition of this colorful term comes to us from author Joseph A. Page, in his classic work The Brazilians, who rightly associated the descriptive epithet with the ever-popular sport of soccer:

The malandro (street hustler) lives by his wits, converting his weaknesses into strengths and standing reality on its head, to the utter consternation of his betters…Neither conventions nor laws hold him back because of his expertise in bending them or finding ways around them. He is an individualist and a survivor, yet there is an unmistakable joie de vivre about him.

At first glance, it might prove difficult to conceive how a Carioca-born descendant of the Jewish faith – with a not very Brazilian-sounding name, at that – could ever have hoped to establish any kind of identification with the street philosophy quoted above.

Yet the quest for what was artistically right for John Neschling commenced, immodestly enough, not on the cobblestone walkways of his hometown of Rio, but in the Old World ambience of Western Europe – significantly, in Vienna, where his ancestral origins can be traced.

A grandnephew of composer Arnold Schoenberg, one of the inventors of the serial scale, and of Arthur Bodanzky, former head of the German wing of the Metropolitan Opera between the World Wars, Neschling’s musical blood-ties extended even to his maternal grandfather Robert Bodanzky, who was a librettist to “Operetta King” Franz Lehár.

With these fabulous progenitors as backdrops, a life in the lyric theater was all but a foregone conclusion for the musically gifted youngster.

Reflecting back on his multifaceted experiences, the cosmopolitan conductor recounted, in a 2001 interview for O Estado de S. Paulo newspaper, how, in 1936, his father and mother were forced to leave Vienna for Brazil to escape Nazi persecution.

“So I was really born in Rio by chance,” he confided. Although he considers himself to be Brazilian (“from head to toe”), psychologically Neschling had more trouble accepting his heritage than his immigrant parents did.

“It was much more difficult for me to find my own identity,” so much so that during the time he himself spent in the waltz capital, Neschling underwent years of intensive analysis at the hands of a confirmed Freudian: “Vienna can drive anybody crazy.”

His formal musical education, however, began in Brazil in 1959, at the age of 12, with the Pró-Arte Music Seminary of Rio de Janeiro.

By 1964, with the backing of his parents and teachers, the precocious music-lover decided to further his studies at the Vienna Music Academy, a move that would have fulfilled any starry-eyed newcomer’s fondest dream, but which, in the now 57-year-old maestro’s words, turned out to be his worst nightmare.

“The house I stayed in had no bathroom. The toilet was in the hallway, where there was no heat or hot water. The shower was in a corner of the kitchen. I froze to death every time I had to bathe in that two-foot by two-foot cubicle.”

Nine years and many baths later, an abrupt end to a romantic relationship triggered a firm resolve to return to his native soil, in what he described as an “unconscious effort” at putting down Brazilian roots:

“I had already jump-started my career by winning competitions in Florence and London. I even guest-conducted the Vienna Symphony, but after the affair I became severely depressed…and profoundly aware of being alone.

“I had no more ties to Europe,” he went on, “so I tried to distance myself from Vienna, just as my Jewish conscience started to gnaw at me. By that time, my father had died and my mother lived by herself. That’s when I decided to go back to Brazil. It was during this move that my ‘second life’ began.”

That life revolved around his writing music, first for Brazilian television, then for the movies and the theater, with several of Neschling’s more ambitious projects from that period cropping up in the most unpredictable of places.

Notably, he is credited with the film scores to some of director Hector Babenco’s finest features, including Lúcio Flávio (1977), Pixote (1981) and O Beijo da Mulher Aranha (Kiss of the Spider Woman, 1985), as well as providing the music for the post-Cinema Novo classics Os Condenados (The Condemned, 1974) and Gaijin (1980).

“All this became a part of rediscovering who I was,” he later added, “of searching for my own rhythm, my own music, and getting into my own lifestyle: that of a womanizer and good-for-nothing.”

It was the malandro side of him taking over now, in almost a compete acceptance of the street hustler’s code of ethics: “Sometimes, I would sneak out of a popular-music program to conduct a classical concert. I was living in both worlds at once.”

Having returned to a nation unprepared to put his classical credentials to better use, Neschling lived solely by his wits, tailoring the rules to fit the occasion.

Still, the obvious contradiction of balancing the art of the sacred with that of the profane would eventually lead to a resolution, of sorts, in the mind of the eclectic conductor, despite constant clashes throughout his career with key individuals – many of whom have felt the abrasive sting of his notorious temperament, a holdover from his street days.

Conflicts and Resolutions (Sort of)

In 1983, that same impulsive nature forced Neschling to leave his fledgling brood and travel once more outside of Brazil – this time to Portugal, to take up the musical directorship of Lisbon’s Teatro Nacional de São Carlos, after having already accepted and served, in a similar capacity, at both Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo’s Municipal Theaters.

He realized early on, however, that the vastly different playing field that Brazilian politics thrived in took precedence over high art and his own personal ambitions in the running of a major opera house – in particular, two of the Southeast region’s premier PT (Partido dos Trabalhadores, or Workers’ Party) showplaces.

His tumultuous tenure at the Municipal of Rio, for example, bore witness to frequent exchanges with the state’s Vice-Governor Darcy Ribeiro, who, in 1984, accused Neschling of “pretentiousness” in his deliberate juggling of three theaters at once.

Not one to flee from controversy, the intrepid conductor lashed out at Darcy, in turn blaming his ruling party for the “precarious state of culture” in Rio at the time.

“There was a moment when I thought I could do it all,” he admitted. “Of course, I was acting like a megalomaniac.”

But in a separate article in Jornal do Brasil, Neschling observed: “We need to dispense with the notion that people must listen to classical music. Let them choose for themselves…but don’t force them to hear Mahler, let alone bring Clementina de Jesus (a popular singer of African-Brazilian songs) to the Teatro Municipal, as Darcy did when I was director. I resigned on the spot.”

In another potentially self-defeating incident, he again played the part of a bête noir, this time openly expressing his opposition, in 1990, to the administrator of the Teatro Municipal of São Paulo, Emilio Kalil, and to Secretary of Culture Marilena Chauí, over the course the city’s principal theater was then about to embark on.

“I had a huge falling out with Marilena,” he explained. “I felt the PT was unprepared to understand the real language of the theater. Unfortunately, she sided with Kalil, who had an artistic vision the exact opposite of mine. I haven’t spoken to her since, but would very much like to.”

Driven off by his own recalcitrance, Neschling settled down to a mostly Continental-based career, successfully serving as director of the St. Gallen Theater in Switzerland (1990-97), the l’Opéra de Bordeaux of France (1996-98), and the prestigious 100-year-old Teatro Massimo Orchestra in Palermo, Italy (1996-99), in addition to a brief turn as Resident Conductor of the Vienna State Opera Orchestra (1992-94).

He appeared as a guest conductor in numerous European cities, from Zurich and Stuttgart to Verona and Bonn, where he presided over a 1994 revival of Gomes’ Il Guarany with tenor Plácido Domingo. In November 1996, he made his North American debut in the same piece, brought to Washington Opera by Domingo and film director Werner Herzog.

His extensive theatrical repertoire has run the gamut of operatic works, from the classical to the late-romantic periods – The Magic Flute (Mozart), Don Pasquale (Donizetti), The Tales of Hoffmann (Offenbach), Macbeth (Verdi), Il Tabarro (Puccini), Elektra (Strauss), and Wozzeck (Alban Berg) – along with a novelty or two by the little-known Viennese composer Alexander von Zemlinsky.

Upon the passing of longtime music director Eleazar de Carvalho, the ubiquitous maestro Neschling was asked, in 1996, by newly-appointed Culture Secretary Marcos Mendonça, to return to Brazil and face the incredibly daunting task of reshaping the lethargic Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo (Osesp) into a world-class ensemble worthy of the Berlin Philharmonic.

The new Sala São Paulo Concert Hall, in the historic Júlio Prestes train station, was built for the express purpose of housing the revamped symphony’s players.

It was inaugurated in July 1999 with a gala performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony, subtitled the “Resurrection” – a symbolic rebirth not only for the once dilapidated Centro Velho (Old Center), but also for the conductor’s waning classical music career in his home country.

Heedless of the attention his high-profile position was prone to, Neschling has gone on to win solid support from most corners for his tireless efforts at achieving the orchestra’s aims, while at the same time garnering criticism for his no-nonsense approach – some coming from the ranks of his own musical forces.

Charged by disgruntled players, in mid-2001, with being an “authoritarian” and a “necessary evil,” the combative conductor banished several of Osesp’s more unruly members from the pit, claiming: “It’s a Brazilian thing.”

“I ask the musicians to come early, tune their instruments, and not talk during rehearsals. If they’re late, they get a written notice. If it happens a second time, they’re dismissed.

“Musicians have a right to voice their concerns, and conductors to keep alive their pet projects. There are some players who are a necessary evil as well, and if they want better conductors, then we’re even: I, too, would like better players.”

A Maestro, by Any Other Name

Ever the outspoken individualist, and a fiercely competitive survivor of the embattled classical music business, Neschling continues to persevere in his present-day struggles against artistic complacency.

He is the verbally defiant, but physically benign, embodiment of the rampaging “bull in a china shop.” Here is what he had to say about the condition of the country’s lyric singers, at the start of the new millennium:

“They’re such poor, miserable wretches who, because there’s no longer any operatic tradition left in Brazil, have so little opportunity to sing there.”

More recently, O Globo published a piece, in January 2005, wherein the wily maestro compared the supposed poor quality (and even poorer salary) of the rival Orquestra Sinfônica Petrobras Pró Música, or OPPM, of Rio, with that of his more “elite” group of musicians.

In retaliation, OPPM’s veteran baton-wielder, Isaac Karabtchevsky, countered with his own candid comments on the subject: “I think it’s unethical for (him) to have come all this way to a sister-city and speak ill of a kindred orchestra. It’s a position that can only be taken by someone completely out of touch with reality. I wouldn’t have said that.”

Maestro or malandro, composer or conductor, by any other name Neschling would still be Neschling – and just as contentious. Neither conventions nor laws seem to ever hold him back.

He exhibits, above all, a peculiar pride (or joie de vivre) in his curious status as classical music’s errant conductor with a cause: still speaking his mind, still sounding off at will, and still paying the ultimate price for his overly harsh assessments. Whether or not one agrees with his particular points of view are another matter.

But however the actual person may react to these momentary disruptions to his demeanor, there is no arguing the passion, dedication and integrity of the artist that resides within him.

If that artist happens to step on a few toes in the process…well, what else can one say, except: “Once a malandro, always a malandro.”

(To be continued)

Joe Lopes, a naturalized American citizen born in Brazil, was raised and educated in New York City, where he worked for many years in the financial sector. In 1996, he moved to Brazil with his wife and daughters. In 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 and contemporary films. You can email your comments to

Copyright © 2005 by Josmar F. Lopes


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