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In the overwhelming majority of Giuseppe Verdi’s grand operas — even an elaborate, four-act spectacle such as the Egyptian-based blockbuster Aida — the Italian-born composer often went to unusual lengths in providing his audiences with some relief from the pomp and pageantry, to show us the human side of his characters.
Certainly by the third act of this exotic masterwork, set on the moonlit banks of the Nile River, the hard-pressed title character is allowed a welcome respite, as she yearns for the verdant beauty of her Ethiopian homeland, expressed in haunting vocal terms:
O patria mia, mai più,
Mai più ti rivedrò!
Oh my beloved country,
Never more to see you again!
At this point in the drama, she waits for Radamès, leader of the Egyptian forces, whom she secretly loves, to confront him with the news that he has been awarded the hand of Pharaoh’s daughter in marriage — an unexpected plot twist that would surely have turned many a Hollywood showman green with envy.
But instead of her beloved, Aida’s warlike father Amonasro steps out from behind the shadows to coerce her into tricking Radamès to reveal the passage by which the enemy plans to attack.
Mercilessly, Amonasro taunts his daughter into submission, until at last she gives in to his outrageous demands in the exquisite, high-lying phrase, “O patria, patria, quanto mi costi!” (“Oh country, my country, how much you have cost me!”).
With that, the angry parent departs, convinced that his loyal offspring would just as soon betray the man she loves, than deny her downtrodden nation its last chance for revenge.
As always, the famed “Master from Busseto” spared no musical expense in making this generational clash twixt love and duty as emotionally shattering as any in opera.
Still, fervent followers of the great man’s music would be pleasantly surprised to learn that the evocative soprano air that precedes this turbulent duet was written not two months afterthe work’s 1871 premiere at the Cairo Opera House.
By most accounts, “O patria mia” was an afterthought on Verdi’s part, reserved primarily for the first La Scala performance, which took place on February 8, 1872, and a vital part of the finished score thereafter.
It could well have served as soprano Eliane Coelho’s personal calling card, were it not for the tenacious qualities to be found in the carioca singer herself. While many of the her finest achievements would inevitably unfold on the world’s most celebrated stages, the diva’s exceedingly conservative clan members were adamantly opposed to their daughter’s plans for a career in the performing arts.
“It was a terrible time,” Eliane told the Estado de São Paulo press, especially after 1966, when the lure of the theater had so assiduously taken hold of the impressionable neophyte — and on her maiden visit to Rio de Janeiro’s Teatro Municipal.
“At sixteen, my great-uncle took me to see La Traviata. I was absolutely entranced. It was there that I discovered what I wanted to do with my life. But my father insisted I go to a ‘decent’ college and forget about music, so without even speaking a word of German I decided to leave Brazil because I thought I would either sing or die.”
Though no Aida-like confrontation has ever been detected or hinted at, the family pressures faced by the young Eliane, as well as by her illustrious predecessor, Brazilian soprano Bidu Sayão, were eerily similar and suspiciously prophetic, too, of what was soon to follow.
Sure enough, in 1971 the courageous and, by now, seriously motivated music student departed the tranquility of her idyllic home life, near the shores of Ipanema Beach, for the scholastic rigors of the Musikhochschule (“Higher School of Music”) in Hannover.
While there she successfully completed her course load, but not before beginning vocal training in Rio with French soprano Solange Petit-Renaux, a former star of the Paris Opéra. What did this crucial career move mean to the determined novice, in light of her subsequent long-term commitment abroad?
“We’re such a sentimental people,” the emboldened singer avowed. “We cling stubbornly to our families and homes, and many cannot bring themselves to let go, although I realize you need a certain musical fanaticism, such as I had, to be able to leave your country behind.”
By the late seventies, Eliane had done just that, staying true to her family name (which in Portuguese means “rabbit”) by hopping across both German Republics until the 1983-84 seasons, when she temporarily gave pause to become a regular of the Frankfurt Opera.
Further operatic exploits on the European Continent, throughout the remainder of the eighties and into the nineties, brought her renewed engagements with the Bregenz Festival in Austria, the Teatro Regio in Turin, Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, the Berlin Opera, and the Vienna Volksoper.
Her first assignment at the Municipal of Rio — on the self-same stage that had once dazzled her with post-adolescent dreams of operatic stardom — occurred in 1991, as Donna Anna in Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
In and Out of Old Vienna
She later settled in Vienna where, from the early nineties to the present, ecstatic European audiences have cheered themselves hoarse over her, even going so far as to claim the talented South American for their own, as a permanent and endearing member of the city’s historic Vienna State Opera.
In 1998, she received the official designation of Kammersängerin, or House Singer, with the company — a title Eliane took seriously to heart.
“I jumped at the chance. In a career as stressful as this one, involving constant travel and contract negotiations, and maximum adrenaline rushes on stage, I opted to work as a resident singer, but I still long for the warmth of Brazil. That’s why I go back as often as I do.”
As good as her word, the 61-year-old spinto continued to make fast forays to her home country’s principal theaters, appearing in 1996 at Rio’s Teatro Municipal, as Mimì in La Bohème; then as Cio-Cio San in Madama Butterfly, at the Amazonas Opera Festival in Manaus (1999); and back again to Rio, for a proposed run of La Gioconda (2002), to be replaced by a recycled production of Butterfly with the continuously busy brasileira. She agreed to stay on, despite the last-minute schedule change and a temporary reduction in her usual fee.*
The conductor for those aborted Gioconda performances, maestro Luiz Fernando Malheiro, had previously led Coelho in a 1998 revival of Carlos Gomes’ Maria Tudor, in which she recreated the strenuous name part for the National Opera of Sofia, in Bulgaria. Their joint efforts were preserved on video and released, in Brazil, by Fundação Nacional de Arte (National Arts Foundation), or Funarte, a non-profit organization.
Other stage triumphs included lead roles in Tosca, Arabella, Fedora, Falstaff, Idomeneo, I Lombardi, Rusalka, Hérodiade, and Lulu, as well as two towering Germanic masterpieces not normally presented with a Latina in mind: Richard Strauss’ one-act shockers Elektra and Salome.
Eliane first took on the taxing part of the depraved Judean princess Salome back in 1991, and has since performed it more than one hundred and thirty times over the past decade and a half — undoubtedly, some kind of record for a singer with her sunny disposition.
On a more recent 2001 trip to her homeland, she surprised many of her local fans with the first-ever recording (on the Swedish label BIS) of Jupyra, a short subject for the stage by native composer Antonio Francisco Braga, with the esteemed John Neschling at the helm of Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo.
Soprano and conductor had crossed paths before, appearing together in the early to mid-nineties during Neschling’s brief dalliance with the Vienna State Opera. On her own, Coelho has participated in numerous international productions featuring such world-renowned stars as José Carreras, Natalie Dessay, Plácido Domingo, Samuel Ramey, Bryn Terfel, and the late Marcello Viotti.
In a non-stop singing career that has taken her to every major cultural center — the sole exception being New York’s Metropolitan Opera — the energetic and still youthful-looking prima donna (and proud mother of two) has barely had time to entertain such homespun notions as returning to her place of birth: “I’ve been living in Europe for thirty years now, so my life is here.”
She quickly added, “I would live in Brazil again if I didn’t have to work. Then, I’d buy a house in Buzios, with a tennis court on the side… That would be fantastic.”
What advice can Coelho offer to today’s promising young artists interested in pursuing a similar career path?
“It’s important to remember that opera is an art form that represents another musical era that is no longer our own. On the other hand, the basic themes are human ones, and, therefore, always relevant to our time.
“The problem is that in the current climate opera tends to get left behind. Young singers, for example, don’t have the necessary time to develop and are soon thrown into roles they are not properly prepared for.
“Another problem is the recording industry, which, with its antiseptic productions, is selling a musical reality that simply does not correspond to live theater, which is indeed a musical reality.
“On the stage, this reality is produced at a given instant, subject to different sets of circumstances, and transformed into highly emotional moments that stay with the public forever. No singer can hope to compare those moments to his or her own studio recordings. We are not robots or computers.”
Having thrilled audiences at the outset with literally hundreds of such memorable moments, Eliane now prefers to take the less rigorous concert route, devoting much of her time to solo recitals — at last count, some thirty to forty a year.
“An ideal number,” according to the singer. “This profession remains an extremely demanding one. When you are on the stage, in front of thousands of people, it’s as if you’re being thrown into the arena,” or, heaven forbid, tossed to the wolves. Not even poor Aida had to face such an arduous ordeal. But what really draws the artist to her various and sundry stage parts?
“I’m attracted to roles that have strong personalities; that evolve over the length of the work, and that present dramatic challenges for my voice, as well as those that fit comfortably within my range.
“With all the love I have for the art of song, above everything else opera, for me, is theater with music, and not the other way around. I just adore the performance part of it.”
If Bidu could hear her now, she would likely concur with Eliane Coelho’s refreshing candor — particularly with regard to her personal and professional honesty, the human side of her character.
Whether in romantic Rio or in good, old-fashioned Vienna, she instinctively strives to live abundantly for her art. In itself, that is certainly something to cheer about. ☼
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes
* A longtime resident of the European Union, diva Coelho’s 2002 salary was rumored to have been somewhere around US$8,000.00 per performance. When compared to those of other stellar performers, it was hardly an astronomical sum. But as far as Brazilian classical artists’ salaries go, that is another matter entirely.