The Enraged ‘Genius’ of Maestro John Neschling (and Two Others Besides)

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The degree of self-knowledge possessed by these three singers, Mariza, Teresa Salguiero, and Marisa Monte — a rare and precious gift at any age, and indicative of a highly developed maturity well beyond their years — is not quite as startling as it might appear to be at first; 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 formally-trained participants.

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

One such singer, a German-born rocker named 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 emerge, cocoon-like, as a Wagnerian heroic tenor (!).

But for the opera in Brazil, no such transformation has yet been possible. Indeed, never have the ghosts of the Fat Lady’s operatic past been more eagerly anticipated — 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 present 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, former conductor and artistic director of the Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo, and a past 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 more than justice to the next installment of this study — a section given over to why these stellar attractions forsook their home country, and 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? 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 [or ‘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 appellation, at that — could ever have hoped to establish any kind of rapport or identification with the street philosophy quoted above.

John Neschling (wdk-koeln.de)

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 ambiance 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 twelve-tone 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 composer Franz Lehár, the “Operetta King.”

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 an entertaining 2001 interview for O Estado de São 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.”

Although he considers himself to be thoroughly 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,” he confided, 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 twelve, 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 wish, but which, in the now 65-year-old maestro’s words, turned out to be his own 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 kick in. 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), along with providing the music for the post-Cinema Novo classics Os Condenados (The Condemned, 1974) and Gaijin (1980).  He was also the musical director for Chico Buarque’s carioca version of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s popular The Threepenny Opera, called, coincidentally enough, Ópera do Malandro (1978).

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

It was the malandro side of him talking now, in an almost complete 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.”

Conflicts and Resolutions (Sort Of)

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 who have felt the abrasive sting of his notorious temperament, a holdover from his street days.

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) show palaces.

His tumultuous tenure at the Teatro 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 over-zealous 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 acknowledged. “Of course, I was acting like a megalomaniac.”

But in a separate piece printed in Jornal do Brasil, Neschling wryly asserted, “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 career-destroying incident, Neschling 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 upon.

“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 conducting 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 one-hundred-year-old Teatro Massimo Orchestra in Palermo, Sicily (1996-99), in addition to a brief turn as Resident Conductor of the Vienna State Opera Orchestra (1992-94).

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

Impressively, 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 (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 State Culture Secretary Marcos Mendonça, to return to Brazil and face the incredibly daunting task of reshaping the now leaderless Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo (known locally as 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, and symbolic of a renewal not only for the city’s once dilapidated Centro Velho (“Old Center”), but also for the conductor’s waning classical-music career in his home country.

Neschling at Sala São Paulo (composicaoeregencia.wordpress.com)

Heedless of the attention this high-profile position was prone to, Neschling has gone on to win 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 of which has come 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 perfect 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 today’s embattled classical music business, Neschling continues to persevere in his present-day struggles against artistic and bureaucratic complacency.

He is the verbally defiant yet 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 combatively, O Globo published a January 2005 statement wherein the wily conductor was alleged to have 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” band of music makers.

In retaliation, OPPM’s veteran baton-wielder, Isaac Karabtchevsky, countered with his own equally candid comments on the subject: “I think it’s unethical for [him] to have come all this way to a sister-city to speak ill of a kindred orchestra. It’s a position that can only be attained by someone completely out of touch with reality.”

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. An individualist? Yes, certainly. A survivor? By all means!

He exhibits, above all, a peculiar pride (call it a joie de vivre) in his lofty 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 caustic assessments. Whether or not one agrees with his personal points of view are another matter.

But however the average 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; if that artist also happens to step on a few toes in the process… well, then, what else can one say, except: “Once a malandro, always a malandro.” ☼

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes


* At the end of June 2008, Neschling announced his decision not to renew his contract with Osesp. He cited undue pressure from São Paulo State Governor José Serra, as well as from João Sayad, the State Culture Minister. After much dillydallying over his eventual succesor, the orchestra’s chairman, former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, summarily fired the recalcitrant conductor in February 2009. Neschling ended up with a huge US$500,000 payout for his troubles. Not bad for a South American symphony conductor!

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