Month: October 2012

Fun Flicks for a Fabulous Fright Night: Universal’s ‘Classic Monsters — The Essential Collection’

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Universal’s Classic Monsters Collection (amazon.com)

Boo!!! It’s that time of the year again, folks, when all we want out of life is to be frightened out of our wits at Halloween (Well… some of us do, anyway). And Universal Pictures has heeded the call. Yay! They’ve re-released their “Classic Monsters — The Essential Collection” on Blu-ray disc. Yikes!!

This is a not-to-be-missed assortment of fun (tongue planted firmly in cheek) fright flicks, guaranteed to make your hair stand on end. All right, maybe they’re not as frightening as they once were — and over the years, the majority of these creature features have lost a good deal of their shock value and “bite.” Nevertheless, they’re always worth a second or third look, mostly for their well-founded status as undeniable screen classics.

Packed with trivia, memorabilia, insights, interviews, making of’s, and beaucoup bonus material, this collection will have you up nights (!) as you wade through the treasure trove of extras. Just don’t drive any stakes through that classy packaging art, okay?

As an added enticement, I’ve provided brief write-ups of the individual items included in this truly worthy set. As Edward Van Sloan once told curious audience members, in the spoken introduction to James Whale’s Frankenstein, “I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even – horrify you.”

Huh! Now that’s an understatement. (It’s okay to cover your eyes during the scary parts, friends. But don’t worry, I won’t tell…)

Dracula (1931)

Bela Lugosi as Dracula (blu-ray.com)

The first of Universal’s Monster Classics is this Tod Browning-directed picture, based on a Broadway stage production of Bram Stoker’s novel. Starring Hungarian-born Bela Lugosi, who just happened to have been born in the same Transylvanian district as the bloodthirsty Count Dracula (how’s that for a coincidence?), it’s a labored, slow-moving effort, ponderous in spots and overly talkative, with some of the acting clearly belonging to another era entirely. Despite the lulls, the film comes “alive” (so to speak) anytime Lugosi is on screen. His darkly sinister stare and imposing presence and height are his most prominent features. But the best emoting of all comes from supporting player (and Universal staple) Dwight Frye as the crazed, fly-eating Mr. Renfield. Excellent camera work by Karl Freund, the misty atmosphere no doubt heightens the Gothic mood. The only thing missing is a decent film score. That said, the opening snippet from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake is about all we get. The collection also features an alternate score by Philip Glass with the Kronos String Quartet, as well as a Spanish-language edition. With David Manners, Helen Chandler, Herbert Bunston, and Edward Van Sloan as Dr. Van Helsing.

Frankenstein (1931)

Boris Karloff as The Monster (Universal)

Having scored a direct hit with Dracula, Universal offered the part of Frankenstein’s Monster to Lugosi. He turned it down flat (“There’s no dialogue!” he was reputed to have cried). In his place, contract player Boris Karloff (real name: William Henry Pratt) was tapped for the role that forever changed the course of his life and career. Certainly Jack Pierce’s iconic makeup lent a huge helping hand in securing this picture’s place among the immortals. Colin Clive is the anxious Dr. Frankenstein, our modern-day Prometheus, who flawlessly captures the scientist’s mad obsession with creating life from dead bodies (his resemblance to comic Jim Carrey is uncanny). Clive was a chronic alcoholic who died prematurely in 1937, only two years after Bride of Frankenstein was released. The flick is a tad “livelier” than Dracula, lacking a memorable score to enliven the proceedings (that would be taken care of with the next two installments, Bride and Son of Frankenstein). Fortunately, this version restores previously cut footage of the Monster throwing little Maria into the lake. With Edward Van Sloan, Mae Clarke, John Boles, Frederick Kerr, Lionel Belmore, and Dwight Frye as Fritz.

The Mummy (1932)

Karloff as Imhotep (moviemail.com)

Karl Freund went from cinematographer to film director with this stylish, Art Deco-derived fright flick. When the movie was originally released, it had only been a mere ten years since the incredible discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb (along with its highly publicized “curse”), so the novelty of the find was still very much on audiences’ minds. Contrary to popular belief, Boris Karloff (as Imhotep, the resurrected Mummy of the title), appears in only one scene wearing the dead man’s bandages, but for a precious few seconds. His piercing gaze, as well as his slow loping gait, were emblematic of Karloff’s acting style, which would take hold in subsequent fright features. It’s another slow one, we’re sorry to add, but the chilly atmosphere compensates somewhat for the lack of action. With the Universal stock company of players, including the ubiquitous Edward Van Sloan and David Manners, along with Zita Johann, Leonard Mudie, Arthur Byron, and Noble Johnson (the Native Chief in King Kong) as a Nubian Slave.

The Invisible Man (1933)

Claude Rains & Gloria Stuart (highbrowmagazine.com)

Claude Rains made his first motion picture “appearance” (in a manner of speaking) with this fascinating film version of H.G. Wells’ science fiction novella. This is the ultimate mad-scientist-on-the-loose epic to end all epics, with enough megalo-maniacal dialogue (“Power to make men grovel at my feet!”) and ironic twists of dark humor (“Here we go gathering nuts in May”) to satisfy any sci-fi fan. What made this feature so great, after all, were the astounding special effects for the period, painstakingly done with plaster models, process photography and double exposures. When Rains, as Dr. Jack Griffin, takes off the bandages that bind his head, he reveals… absolutely nothing. Top that, Industrial Light and Magic! Directed by James Whale, who also did the previous year’s Frankenstein. With lovely Gloria Stuart (The Old Lady in Titanic), William Harrigan, Henry Travers, Una O’Connor, Holmes Herbert, and E.E. Clive (Colin’s dad) as Constable Jaffers.

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Elsa Lanchester & Boris Karloff (moviediva.com)

It’s been called the greatest horror picture ever made – no faint praise for British director James Whale, whose iconic monster movie this is: a first-rate, and far superior, sequel to his earlier Frankenstein. Yes, it’s sentimental in spots, even downright cloying in its manipulation of the audience’s feelings for and identification with Dr. Frankenstein’s creation. Yet, for the last 80 years it cannot help but wipe the floor of the competition. Colin Clive repeats his role as the restless Henry Frankenstein, who is threatened and cajoled by the eccentric Dr. Pretorius, a wild-eyed Ernest Thesiger (a fey stand-in for the director), into creating a mate for the lonely Boris Karloff. Jack Pierce’s superb makeup job for both the Monster and his titular Bride (Elsa Lanchester, in a dual role, as author Mary Shelley as well) has passed into screen legend. Expressionistic sets, bizarre camera angles, and eerily comical secondary characters – in particular, the whiny-voiced Una O’Connor, the slow-witted E.E. Clive, and the sympathetic Blind Hermit (charmingly played by O.P. Heggie) – add up to a smashing good time for all. Featuring Valerie Hobson, Gavin Gordon, Reginald Barlow, Mary Gordon, and the ever dependable Dwight Frye as Karl.

The Wolf Man (1941)

Lon Chaney Jr. as The Wolf Man (Universal)

“Even a man who’s pure in heart and says his prayers by night / May become a wolf when the wolf-bane blooms and the autumn moon is bright.” A medieval ode of Eastern European origin? Not exactly: this catchy little poem was the invention of screenwriter and author (turned director) Curt Siodmak. But it set the right tone for one of the 1940’s favorite film monsters: the Wolf Man, played with anguish as well as charm by the young Lon Chaney, Jr. Chaney had the added advantage of having had a father who practically thrived on his long association with the horror genre (not for nothing was dad known as the “Man of a Thousand Faces”). Junior, whose given name was Creighton, was also the only actor to have played the Wolf Man, a.k.a. Lawrence Talbot, in all of Universal’s subsequent sequels. Directed by George Waggner, and makeup by (you guessed it) Jack Pierce, with Claude Rains, Evelyn Ankers, Ralph Bellamy, Maria Ouspenskaya, Patrick Knowles, and Bela Lugosi as (who else?) Bela the Gypsy.

The Phantom of the Opera (1943)

Claude Rains as The Phantom (monsters4ever.com)

Proving that Technicolor was no guarantee of box-office success, this sound version of Gaston Leroux’s Gothic tale (first filmed as a silent with the inimitable Lon Chaney as the ghostly apparition) features Claude Rains again as a rather kindly Phantom. His makeup is the weakest of Jack Pierce’s monster get-ups, though, and a big letdown for fans familiar with Chaney’s earlier death’s head figure. There’s decidedly more opera here than phantom, too, as the movie spends an inordinate amount of screen time on a silly romance between baritone Nelson Eddy (in solid voice), beauteous Susana Foster (his vocal equal – and then some!), and jealous police inspector Edgar Barrier. The opera scenes are excellent nonetheless, and provide a colorful backdrop to the secondary plot line involving poor old Claudin (couldn’t they have given Rains a better name than that?) as an aging violinist put out to pasture before his time. No wonder, what with all the comic relief among the scene-stealing supporting cast of Leo Carrillo, Hume Cronyn, J. Edward Bromberg, Fritz Feld, Steven Geray, and Fritz Leiber as composer Franz Liszt.

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

Creature from the Black Lagoon (wizardworlddigital.com)

Though not part of Universal’s original monster contingent, the titular Creature (alternately played on land by Ben Chapman, and in water by champion swimmer Ricou Browning) became part of the new generation of screen demons with this tightly scripted, expertly executed sci-fi shocker. Filmed in simultaneous 3-D and flat versions, the story takes place in an uncharted region of the Amazon (the so-called Black Lagoon), where scientists Richard Carlson, Richard Denning, and Julia Adams (in a white bathing suit, no less) have dropped anchor, in full research regalia, in order to study the fossilized remains of the supposedly extinct Gill Man. Little do they realize that the Creature is very much alive and well, and has set his sights (and claws) on the luscious Ms. Adams. It’s not quite Beauty and the Beast, but this will do for now. Great underwater photography and a terrific film score by Hans J. Salter, who was Universal’s resident composer of science-fiction and horror thrillers. Jack Arnold (It Came From Outer Space) directed, with veterans Antonio Moreno, Whit Bissell, Perry Lopez, and Nestor Paiva as Lucas.

Happy Halloween, everybody!!!

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Sadness Has No End’ — Part Three: Back From The Dead

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Touch of Evil with Orson Welles, Victor Millan, Joseph Calleia, Charlton Heston (philonfilm.net)

In Los Angeles, meantime, Vinicius de Moraes’ old film-making buddy and ex-comrade in arms, director-actor-producer Orson Welles, had been experiencing quite a few clashes of his own with authority figures and the body politic in relation to the final cut of his B-movie Touch of Evil.

The original distributor, Universal Studios, had wrestled the picture away from the onetime “boy wonder,” presumably for his having squandered his time, and their money, over the endless editing process — a habit-forming mode of operation taken from the well-worn pages of the Welles playbook. Universal then went ahead with re-fashioning the work to its own, less critical standards.

Basically, it was reduced to a pitiable, if not altogether indecipherable, 93 minutes of convoluted screen blather. Fortunately for all concerned, Welles left the studio a lengthy outline — a remarkably lucid, 58-page memorandum detailing how he wanted the piece to be remembered and preserved.

His wishes prevailed in the end, and, in 1998, after almost 40 years of a butchered and unrepresentative edition in continuous art-house circulation, the cult favorite was made available to fans in its pristine form — or as close to it as was humanly possible, given the lack of the director’s imposing presence to oversee the reconstruction effort.

Because of the tender loving care belatedly lavished on it, Welles’ Touch of Evil was universally acclaimed (no pun intended) as a motion-picture classic, one of the best of a long line of crime dramas known generically as film noir, or “dark film.” It was fated to be Orson’s last hurrah as far as Hollywood-style productions were concerned.

Even with that long-ago blast from the cinematic past, it was a sure bet that amateur magician Welles would conjure up fewer and fewer celluloid surprises of any lasting value or worth for the duration of his career. He finally left the celebrity limelight, on October 10, 1985, after having expired of complications brought on by heart failure and extreme overweight.

As for his former friend Vinicius, he had cashed in his own chips a few years before in July 1980. Not a particularly large man to begin with — unlike the magnificently corpulent Welles — the unprepossessing poet, playwright, and performer nonetheless spent the last decade of his life expanding his artistic horizons by touring Europe and South America, while adding to his waistline and girth.

Vinicius de Moraes (lastfm.com.br)

He grew his hair out and even started wearing horn-rimmed glasses, which gave him the unflattering visage of an unkempt tortoise. He had the unusual habit as well of shedding wives at the slightest provocation. In total, there were nine Mrs. Moraes, with enough assorted flings and fancies scattered about the halls of the Civil Registry to make the average cidadão sit up and take notice.*

Despite their later bedraggled looks and somewhat sullied reputations as maverick auteurs, neither man saw his mutilated vision made whole again in his lifetime. Welles did regain a modicum of admiration and respect with the posthumous re-release of the “definitive” version of Touch of Evil. Could the same not be done for Vinicius’ theater piece Orfeu da Conceição, or its more celebrated offshoot, the movie Black Orpheus? Who would come to the venerable Brazilian bard’s aid and rescue his carioca tragedy from an ignoble end?

In a faint echo of what ultimately took place with Touch of Evil, help arrived more than 40 years after the fact — and in a not totally unexpected form, at that — in the sense that renewed interest in reviving the original inspiration for Marcel Camus’ Carnival-based Black Orpheus would come from a native filmmaker of note. Not just any filmmaker, mind you, but one of the master craftsmen of the classic Cinema Novo period (and beyond): Alagoan writer-director Carlos “Cacá” Diegues.

Along with Caetano Veloso and other impressionable personalities of their age group, Diegues, whose family relocated to Rio when he was still a young boy, had been fortunate to catch both the musical play and the movie at the time of their respective premieres.

“Seeing that play at the Teatro Municipal as a teenager in 1956 was one of the principal formative cultural experiences of my life,” Cacá revealed to The New York Times. “It not only touched me deeply; it [and Nelson Pereira dos Santos’ Rio 40 graus – ‘Rio 40 Degrees’] made me discover things about Brazilian reality I had not imagined before and helped set me on the road to this life I have as a maker of films.”

Diegues had a less sanguine opinion about the prize-winning 1959 movie version: “Black Orpheus is not an exploitative film. You can see that it was made with real affection and enthusiasm. Camus fell in love with Rio and its culture, but he made a superficial film about something he didn’t really understand.”

In reference to Orfeu, his own later 1999 film adaptation, written in collaboration with Hermano Vianna, Hamilton Vaz Pereira, Paulo Lins (Cidade de DeusCity of God), and João Emanuel Carneiro (Central do Brasil), the director commented to another publication about the unpopularity in Brazil of the first film version of the tale.

“It offered a certain utopian vision of the reality in a Brazilian favela,” Diegues insisted, “and perhaps people of that era could not identify with it. Perhaps prejudice had something to do with it as well. And if middle class people of today associate poverty with crime, imagine in the fifties, when the film by Camus was released.”

Righting the “wrongs” to Orfeu da Conceição (revived in Rio, in 1995, by actor-producer Haroldo Costa, the original protagonist) by treating it as a parable of urban blight, with a mass-cultural outlook and streetwise aesthetic to match — complete with mobile phone devices, deadly drug dealings, police shootouts, and the like — and featuring a hip-hop, rap-flavored funk-music score under the guidance of fellow Northeasterner Mr. Veloso, was paramount to the director’s contrasting in-your-face approach to Camus’ fondly remembered oeuvre.

Carlos “Cacá” Diegues (carlosdiegues.com.br)

“My version,” Diegues argued, “is much closer to the play by Vinicius, whose plot was part of the social context of Brazil.”

Closer, yes, but with a crucial difference, one the veteran filmmaker took additional pains to perfect: “Of course, at this point, in 1998 [when Orfeu was still in post-production], it wasn’t exactly the same as Vinicius’ play, as it was written, nor was it the film I imagined when I first saw the play. Much time has passed — the shantytowns aren’t the same, I am not the same, the world is not the same. Even cinema is not the same, so the movie is not the one I would have made in 1956.” That goes without saying. “This is a film about Rio at the end of the century,” he concluded, “not the Rio of 1956.”

Bad mouth the French flick if you must: it was still, in Caetano’s grudgingly honest analysis of the drama, “not only a moving modern and popular version of the Greek myth but also the revelation of the paradisaical country in which it was staged.”

Careful What You Wish For (You Might Just Get It)

Like it or not, there was a downside to Diegues’ long-simmering predilection for putting a more contemporary face to Camus’ idyllic vision of Rio, in that every time a beloved screen classic is redone in another moviemaker’s image — Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes and Peter Jackson’s King Kong are two examples that come to mind — it stands to be compared with the unassailable original. In that regard, Orfeu was no exception.

To put it bluntly, the Orpheus legend happened to be one of those recurring motifs that have managed, in both theory and practice, to adapt themselves almost too readily to other media — most egregiously to the operatic, cinematic, and theatrical art forms.

Why, then, would the maker of such distinguished international screen fare as Xica da Silva, Bye-Bye Brazil, Subway to the Stars, and others, risk his already assured motion-picture legacy on a story that, arguably enough, had been better told by others?

“It would be a serious mistake to see Carlos Diegues’ Orfeu as a remake of Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus,” wrote New York University film scholar Robert Stam, in as much as Latin poet Ovid’s update of the oft-repeated tale, recounted in his compilation Metamorphoses, could hardly be termed a mere replica of his predecessor Virgil’s original retelling.

“It’s keeping Vinicius’s first idea,” granted Caetano Veloso, “bringing the myth of Orpheus to the carioca shantytowns, but the ones existing today: there is a strong sense of realism, but at the same time [it] is very much a myth.”

The words “myth” and “realism,” as used here by Caetano, were the cornerstone of Cacá’s “got-to-get-it-right” project from the start, its primary purpose for being. These themes were explored in the official statement the Brazilian film director issued just prior to his movie’s unsuccessful New York debut in August 2000:

“Brazil’s image abroad had been largely associated with Carmen Miranda’s joyful and exotic extravagance. From 1959 onwards, this image has been replaced by the romanticism of Black Orpheus: a happy people, its back turned toward civilization, living, dancing and singing songs in a dreamy landscape. Since then Brazil has changed significantly, and this is what Orfeu addresses. Brazil has developed; it is now the world’s eighth or ninth largest capitalist economy. Yet, at the same time, it is one of the world’s most socially inequitable societies, with a massive gap between the poor and the rich.”

This corresponds closely to Vinicius’ earliest confrontation with this issue. From the foregoing, then, it would appear that Diegues had taken two giant steps backward in generational time, in acknowledging the appalling lack of progress within Brazil’s socioeconomic sphere as well as conceding to the current dilapidated state of the Brazilian union, so eloquently put forth in the latter half of his essay:

Cacá with Toni Garrido as Orfeu (allmoviephoto.com)

“Abandoned by the government, without urban services, hospitals, schools or any other sort of welfare benefits, [the poor communities on top of Rio de Janeiro’s hills] are today infiltrated by drug dealers who strategically control these impoverished areas, creating a state of constant war with the police and amongst themselves.

“Meanwhile, growth and progress have tamed the anarchy of Rio’s street carnival, turning it into an overpowering, for-profit, televised show that takes place in a stadium… Besides Carnaval, new artistic and musical experiments arise from the favelas: a fusion of traditional samba with hip-hop, a new form of political protest carried out by composers of these communities. And it is within this explosive atmosphere, in this steaming pot of fresh human and cultural experiences that Orfeu takes place.”

At the time of its writing, this kind of socially-minded missive would have fallen predictably on deaf ears, as it had for Orson Welles and Vinicius de Moraes before it. Nevertheless, we can see that it not only had much in common with the carioca poet’s 1956 declaration of his indebtedness to Rio’s black population, but a good deal more to do with Glauber Rocha’s now-classic 1965 treatise “An Aesthetic of Hunger,” an indispensable guide to the Cinema Novo mind-set (“Violence is hunger’s most noble cultural manifestation,” he once touted).

Banished from Diegues’ personalized view of Orfeu were those quaint notions from the country’s nationalistic past, the slogan Brasil, ame-o ou deixe-o (“Brazil, love it or leave it”) for one. In its place was the grim reality of present-day slum life, which poor people couldn’t very well have banished even if they wanted to; filled more than ever before with the stifling cries of hopelessness and despair his friend Vinicius would have been thoroughly appalled at, not to mention all the blemishes and contradictions a megacity-gone-wild could muster. The carioca hills were alive, all right, but with the devastating sounds of gunfire:

“It is an ode to the energy, the love and creativity that survive in the midst of violence and misery, within a complex social web where it is easy to identify injustice, but very hard to differentiate good from evil and to draw the line between them.”

The more things try to change in that persistently troubled corner of the globe, the more stubbornly they cling to life.

(End of Part Three)

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes


* It was said that his favorite songwriting partner, Tom Jobim, once asked how many times The Little Poet intended to marry, to which Vinicius casually replied: “As many as necessary.”

Chico Buarque’s Modern Street Opera: The Influences on ‘Ópera do Malandro’ (Part One)

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Walk on the “Weill” Side

Kurt Weill (dw.de)

“I have never acknowledged the difference between ‘serious’ music and ‘light’ music. There is only good music and bad music… the great classical composers wrote for their contemporary audiences. They wanted those who heard their music to understand it, and they did.”

— Kurt Weill, in an interview in The New York Sun, February 1940

“It seems to me that the American popular song, growing out of American folk music, is the basis of the American musical theater… it is quite legitimate to use the form of the popular song and gradually fill it out with new musical content.”

— Kurt Weill, in a letter to music critic Olin Downes, 1949

Two quotes, two different occasions, two strikingly similar views on music’s universality and appeal. Both of these enlightened commentaries — spaced almost a decade apart, as they were — issued forth from the mouth of a German-Jewish immigrant to the U.S. noted for his enthusiastic embrace of American citizenship, in spite of Old Country ties to Europe.

Nevertheless, his candid claim to the Sun could have been tailor-made to fit the most recent addition to the twentieth century’s stagnant operatic repertoire, Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas — a 1996 Latin American homage to a fictional Fat Lady that has become rightly popular with contemporary audiences, as well as reflecting the “good” music we’ve come to expect from this hemisphere’s dwindling supply of classical composers.

Without a doubt, anyone hearing this fabulous score in the flesh can easily come away to understand, and be moved by, its emotional impact on listeners. In like manner, Weill’s riposte to critic Downes concerning the symbiotic relationship between popular song and musical theater also embraces the notion, so strongly held by writer-musician Michael Anthony Lahue, that “music, in the post-modern world, has become increasingly inter- and multi-disciplinary, [with] Brazilian musicians and composers commonly active in both the popular and the classical genres simultaneously.”

Apropos of the above, the likeliest question to be posed now is this: why has there not been a work written about a fictional Fat Man — a Brazilian Fat Man, for that matter — to entice lower and middle-class patrons, along with their more “sophisticated” opera-loving counterparts, into revisiting their local theaters after so many unproductive years in limbo?

In a word, such an attractive stage subject would be pure manna from musical heaven to the average blue-collar type, not to mention a major cross-section of Brazil’s avid theatergoers, still curious enough to take a chance on a domestic working-class drama they could more readily absorb and grab on to.

How about a play starring a character from the country’s cultural past, say, the 1940 war years? A fellow straight out of its most famous natural urban setting; that takes place in the city’s colorful lowlife section, specifically the old bohemian district of Lapa, a neighborhood once populated by loose women and loose morals, petty thieves and petty scoundrels, and even more perilous law enforcement officials?

A world reminiscent of the one German playwright Bertolt Brecht and his collaborator, the redoubtable Mr. Weill, so brilliantly encapsulated in their 1928 “cabaret musical,” The Threepenny Opera — itself a decadent Weimar Republic takeoff on English poet John Gay’s 1728 masterstroke, The Beggar’s Opera, and still widely regarded by reviewers as the “granddaddy of all the singing, stinging portraits of fat societies on their eves of destruction.”

It just so happens that such an extravaganza already exists. In fact, on August 15, 2003, the work celebrated the 25th anniversary of its world-premiere engagement (at the Carlos Gomes Theater, no less) in the region of its ignoble “birth,” lovely downtown Rio de Janeiro.

Opera do Malandro poster art

The piece in question, with the rather crude title of Ópera do Malandro (“The Street Hustler’s Opera”), was revived by the team of Charles Möeller and Cláudio Botelho (Cole Porter: He Never Said He Loved Me) — the Brazilian equivalent, shall we say, of the Great White Way’s Harold Prince and Stephen Sondheim (A Little Night Music, Pacific Overtures, Sweeney Todd), or, from a previous generation, Robert Wright and George Forrest (Song of Norway, Kismet).

It could only have been conceived by a true, native-born Carioca — and who better to have brought the spectacle to vivid life than one of Rio’s most celebrated talents: singer, songwriter, poet, playwright and producer, Francisco Buarque de Hollanda, better known to his fans as Chico.

Indeed it was that in 1978, a full half-century after its bawdy Brecht-Weill predecessor held Berliners in thrall before Hitler’s troopers stormed their way in to the city, and nearly 250 years since the original bowed in Britain during the reign of George II, did Malandro make its initial impression on an unsuspecting — and still military-governed — Brazil.

Described as a landmark of Brazilian musical theater, it established the publicity-shy Mr. Buarque (who incidentally had spent his formative years in dual residency among the denizens of São Paulo and Rome, respectively) as a “true innovator on the national arts scene.”

The show’s premise, a localized adaptation of the two earlier versions of the tawdry tale, features criminal Max Overseas — a stand-in for the notorious Macheath, or Mack the Knife of stage, screen and popular-song fame — pitted against Duran, the fearsome proprietor of Lapa’s houses of ill repute, with Lúcia and Teresinha set up as rival love interests, and a fifth major character, the transvestite prostitute Geni (“Jenny”), thrown into the stew as Max’s ultimate betrayer.

With such memorable numbers as “A Volta do Malandro,” “Viver do Amor,” “Teresinha,” “Folhetim,” “O Meu Amor,” “Palavra de Mulher,” “Geni e o Zepelim,” “Pedaço de Mim,” and the seven-minute-forty-six-second finale “Ópera” (based on the “Toreador Song” from Carmen and other operatic war horses), this irreverent pastiche cleverly mixes the sexy tangos and chords of the era with seventies-style sambas-canções and sugary pop ballads. Bragged the play’s musical director Cláudio Botelho, “No recent musicals, not even those on Broadway, have had as many hit tunes as this one.”

Produced on what most insiders would consider a shoestring budget (“At the start, we didn’t even have money for bus fare,” Botelho recounted), it boasted a cast of 20 singers and actors, twelve full-time musicians, 75 specially crafted costumes, and a three-tiered revolving stage platform.

Turning Back the Musical Clock

As the name alternately implied, however, Malandro might have spelled a good deal of trouble in Rio city right from its opening night, a time just after severe artistic repression had placed the still reeling Brazilian nation firmly in the grip of the military.

Always a foil of the dictatorial regime’s restrictive right-wing policies, the leftist-leaning Chico, along with dozens of other politically active performers, including musical colleagues Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, was forced to confront the rigid censorship practices heaped upon his creative output.

Consequently, many of Chico’s productions from that period, among them Roda Viva (“Live Wheel,” 1967), a story about a popular singer feasted on by his fans; Calabar (1973), a historical pageant about a Portuguese traitor to the crown; and, most especially, the biting Gota d’água (“The Last Straw,” 1975), a modern reworking of the Jason and Medea legend from Greek mythology, drew the ire of the ruling class, what with their unique blend of social satire, ironic wit, and keen, metaphorical observances of life under the generals — themes that were guaranteed not to win him friends in high places.

Chico Buarque in the ’70s (raizdosamba.com.br)

In the middle of this political maelstrom, Chico resolved in 1969 to cool things down a bit with the brass by leaving Brazil for a brief self-imposed European exile. Returning a year later to Rio, he found the country still under the Army’s sway and only slightly less intolerant of his polemic song structures.

Having so far succeeded in thumbing his nose at the authorities — an attitude dictated by his standing in Brazil’s intellectual community, to include lyricist Vinicius de Moraes and his own father, historian and sociologist Sérgio Buarque de Hollanda — the unrepentant Chico kept up a steady stream of compositions (“Apesar de Você,” “Bolsa de Amores,” “Samba de Orly,” “Acorda Amor”) that barely passed muster with the censors.

By the time the 1980s rolled around, he had realized the need to break loose from his previous pathway and venture forth into uncharted territory, first as a children’s book author (Chapeuzinho Amarelo – “Little Yellow Hat,” 1979), a film-score composer (Bye Bye Brasil, 1980), an untested screenwriter (Saltimbancos Trapalhões, 1981; Para Viver Um Grande Amor – “To Live A Great Love,” 1983), and — his versatility now in full display mode — a best-selling fiction novelist (Estorvo, or “Turbulence,” 1991).

Once a purveyor of so-called protest material that was, in the words of New York Times writer Larry Rohter, “full of untranslatable puns and double meanings,” he resisted the urge to constantly wear his social conscience on his sleeve and devoted himself instead to the creation of those “undulating sambas and love songs brimming with romance” that were symbolic of the next phase of his multifaceted career — o arroz e feijão (“the rice and beans”), so to speak, of his lasting fame and fortune.

As Chico himself later put it, “Even the handful of my songs most often cited as examples of political resistance,” those individual numbers that relied upon “artifices that seem incomprehensible today,” were, after all, “sambas with a happy sound. People may be protesting, but they are dancing while they do it.”

“In that sense, Chico’s songs are more traditional than the bossa nova,” wrote Mario Osava in Arts Weekly Brazil, “which reflected the euphoria of the prosperous and growing middle class in Rio’s beach neighborhoods in the 1950s and early 1960s.”

This was quite removed from the disillusionment prevalent throughout the remainder of the sixties, on into the seventies and beyond. Paradoxically, with the government’s later (and welcome) change of attitude toward his work, Chico went on to become “the towering figure of national unanimity,” as commented upon by fellow entertainer Caetano Veloso, “the fabulous and seductive composer-singer. He was also the great synthesizer of bossa nova’s modernizing advances with the hopes for a return to the traditional samba of the thirties.”

Danish-born columnist Kirsten Weinoldt, who has written extensively on the subject of Brazilian Popular Music, agrees with Caetano’s shrewd assessment of his colleague: “[Chico’s] first love were the traditional sambas of Noel Rosa, Ismael Silva, and Ataulfo Alves,” the very icons of the 1930s he grew up listening to and enjoying in his carefree youth.

While nostalgia has played a conspicuous and crucial part in the show’s successful stage run, both in Rio and abroad, it can also be argued that Ópera do Malandro was Chico’s first real attempt at a return as well to those earlier, simpler musical times — a bid, as it were, for his own personal trip down memory lane in his use of the form of Brazilian popular song and his subsequent filling it out with new musical content, as composer Weill once practically suggested.

Whether by design or not, what many failed to detect at the time of Malandro’s debut was the overpowering (and much downplayed) allure of the German theater on Buarque’s writing and art, particularly the philosophy present in the plays of Weill’s onetime stage-partner, Bertolt Brecht.

(End of Part One)

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

The ‘Italian’ Composer from Campinas: The Life and Times of Carlos Gomes (Part One)

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Carlos Gomes (italian-language-study.com)

Mozart, Rossini, and Weber set the standard for opera overtures; Verdi and Wagner simply elaborated on their form. The basic reasoning behind them, after all, was sound and sensible: what better way to summarize the musical and dramatic events to come than with a salient selection of aural highlights?

And what better way to begin our story than with an overture — or Sinfonia, as its composer preferred to call it; only later did it acquire the bizarrely pompous title of Protofonia. With its stately sounding main theme, familiar to older generations of Brazilians through over-exposure on national radio (i.e., A Hora do Brasil, or “The Brazil Hour” program), the music of the Overture to Il Guarany reminds one of the dynamic opening bars of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino (“The Force of Destiny”), or the prelude to his earlier Rigoletto.

In truth, the opera originally premiered with a much shorter orchestral introduction, while the Overture did not assume its proper place until more than a year after Guarany’s debut. Remarkably, the work was credited at one time with single handedly “reviving,” albeit briefly, the fossilized state of European grand opera in the late-nineteenth century.

But who was it that wrote this piece? What do we know about his life and times? How did a simple country boy from Campinas manage to find himself in the midst of operatically minded Milan? And why did he lose favor with the public (both Brazilian and Italian) with such seeming finality?

For one thing, Il Guarany’s creator — the musician and composer Carlos Gomes — was an overly ambitious, manic-depressive-type, openly prone to uncontrollable fits of rage and anger, who became, in spite of his all-too-human shortcomings, Brazil’s first internationally acclaimed classical-music celebrity. For another, he was a true native son who just so happened to have rubbed elbows with royalty, while living and working alongside some of the most unforgettable personalities of his or anyone’s time. These alone merit our attention and respect.

Our aim in this introductory section, then, is to try and serve the same purpose as the Overture: to summarize the musical and dramatic events of Gomes’ life in as succinct a manner as possible. The goal is not to tear the musician down, but to build him back up through the contributions he made to his country and to his art.

An incredibly complex individual who lived in extremely volatile times, as such Gomes can be held up as a model for the sorts of problems future generations of Brazilian artists would encounter away from their home soil. Though his life was a brief one (in comparative terms), enough clues have been left behind to give readers a fair hint as to the quality of his character, as well as to his personal and professional attributes.

For me, this section, equally as brief, represents a golden opportunity to set the record straight regarding this all-but forgotten national composer.

Musical and Imperial Precedents

There were several false starts at presenting staged opera in Brazil during the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries, mostly with the building of a few ad hoc theaters in fairly impermanent locales.

The first of these occurred in the state of Minas Gerais, followed by Rio de Janeiro, Bahia, Pernambuco, and São Paulo, with those in Rio serving as the primary focal point. One casa da ópera (or “opera house,” but which could have involved other activities besides plain old-fashioned singing) even took on the rather apt name of Teatro Provisório, or Temporary Theater. Rechristened the Teatro Lírico Fluminense in 1854, it shuttered its doors after 1875, only to be demolished later on — a poor indication of where the arts stood in the general scheme of things. In adhering to the prescribed pattern of the time, the thought was that when one theater closed another one opened somewhere else. At the very least, this would ensure their continuity.

Emperor Dom Pedro II (wheretogo-bymariahardy.blogspot.com)

It was not until 1840, when the country’s “enlightened despot,” Dom Pedro II, was formally crowned as emperor of Brazil, that opera and classical music began to make any serious inroads with like-minded audiences.

The tall, shy, fair-haired, and uncharacteristically bookish Dom Pedro was an exceptionally well-rounded and well-traveled sophisticate who believed strongly in support of all scholarly and intellectual pursuits. In that, he was a tireless and enthusiastic advocate of the opera, mostly from the Italian bel canto and French opéra-comique repertoires, while encouraging its performance everywhere in the realm, but particularly in Rio and São Paulo.

Granted he did not become an opera lover overnight, as an 1844 letter written by the emperor’s sister would seem to imply (“you my Brother who were always so bored with music”). Instead, Dom Pedro lavished just enough resources on the art to fully partake of its myriad delights, much as any highborn carioca of the imperial period might have done.

In spite of Brazil’s predominantly agrarian economy, His Majesty astutely grasped the efficacy of bringing high culture to the masses as a way out of their agricultural and educational rut. That this never actually took place during his long reign hardly crossed the emperor’s mind.

By 1857, the Imperial Academy of Music and the National Opera had both been established for this express purpose. Interestingly, they were placed under the guidance and tutelage of a non-Brazilian, the Spaniard Don José Amat, a former soldier, singer, musician, impresario, and composer in his own right. His “audacious objective,” as Paulo Castagna of the Instituto de Artes da UNESP (Arts Institute of the University of the State of São Paulo) officially referred to it, was, “To propagate and develop a taste for singing in [Brazil’s] native language,” more or less upholding the longstanding tradition of opera in the vernacular.

Francisco Manuel da Silva, the composer of the martial-like future hymn of the Brazilian nation, was one of the contributing members of the National Opera’s artistic council, as were fellow musicians Gioacchino Giannini, Manuel de Araújo Porto-Alegre, Dionisio Vega, and Isidoro Bevilacqua.

Thus, all the heavenly bodies (and their human components) were properly aligned in breathless anticipation for the coming of the extraordinary talent who would take the Brazilian lyric stage by storm. They did not have long to wait.

From “Tonico” to Master Composer

Through one of those divinely inspired confluences that brought worthy artists and their benefactors together when the need was at its greatest, the restless and urbane emperor of Brazil was introduced to a talented young composer from the sticks of São Carlos, now present-day Campinas: Antonio Carlos Gomes, born July 11, 1836, and one of 26 children from his father’s four marriages; of whom Giuseppe Verdi, the grand old man of the Italian lyric stage, was once purported to have proclaimed “a true musical genius” and “This youngster begins where I have ended” — words that would both uplift and challenge the impressionable Brazilian for the remainder of his life.

Having shown promise at a young age, the boy “Tonico,” as he was then called, often accompanied his older brother José Pedro Sant’Anna, a conductor and composer, and bandmaster father, Manuel José, on their frequent concert trips to churches and family gatherings in and about their hometown, and along the periphery of São Paulo.

An early record from 1879, entitled Brazil and the Brazilians Portrayed in Historical and Descriptive Sketches, written by two itinerant missionaries, the Reverends James C. Fletcher and D. P Kidder, offers a rare glimpse into the musically inclined youth in his natural state:

“He was first taught the violin, then the clarinet, and finally the piano. Before he was fifteen years of age he became renowned in the whole region for his singing and for his remarkable, clear, sympathetic, and thrilling soprano voice, which he possessed up to the time he was sixteen. In all the church festivals people flocked from far and near to hear the famous boy soprano. The year before my earlier visit to Campinas, Carlos Gomes (for thus his compatriots call him, dropping the Antonio) saw for the first time the whole opera of the Trovatore. It is still recalled, how, stealing out by himself, with Verdi’s masterpiece in his hands, he sought the shade of trees, and there became ecstatic over the wonderful music. He sang it, he acted it, he went through the movements as if he were playing upon the orchestral instruments used – and, in short, he seemed as if beside himself. From that moment he began to create.”

If numerous eyewitnesses had not provided independent corroboration of this bucolic bit of nostalgia it might just as easily have been taken for a calculating tale, the sort of childish fairy story one could readily associate with a precocious lad named Mozart. With respect to his future involvement in the operatic art, however, it serves to illuminate one incontrovertible point: from earliest youth on into his later years Gomes would be closely identified, whether rightly or wrongly, with the stirring works of his idol, maestro Verdi.

After firmly establishing himself with the locals as a viable musical candidate of substance, the youthful Antonio Carlos was able to supplement his studies by giving independent lessons in voice and piano; prior to moving on, at the urging of friends, in 1859 to the more worldly surroundings of Rio — exactly the ideal spot where a certain musical dilettante happened to hold court.

Accounts vary as to when and where Gomes and Dom Pedro first met. Some scholars believe that one Countess de Barral, “the instructress of the Princesses, and who had a warm friendship of their Majesties,” and an early admirer of his songs, was the person that brought young Gomes to the emperor’s attention, but no matter. From their first reticent exchanges composer and patron soon forged a close personal bond based on mutual need. More importantly, and in view of various individual crises, they built up a lifelong understanding of and respect for each other’s worth. Still, at certain times their obvious affection for one another often hampered Gomes from advancing beyond his means.

The emperor, through his royal connections, helped Gomes gain entry into the Imperial Academy of Music in Rio de Janeiro (1860-61). Upon graduation, he found steady employment as a conductor and vocal coach at the National Opera, thanks to the auspices of Señor Amat. Truth be told, it was the perfect training ground for an enthusiastic opera buff such as Gomes to evolve and develop in.

To further his potential along, especially after two promising early efforts for the stage, A Noite do Castelo (“The Night of the Castle”) in 1861, and Joana de Flandres in 1863, Dom Pedro packed the young man off to Europe, the highpoint of any nineteenth-century musician’s career, where he was given a generous grant, in 1864, to complete his musical training at the Milan Conservatory.

Empress Teresa Cristina (en.wikipedia.org)

His Majesty’s original plan called for Gomes to worship at the feet of Richard Wagner* or some other German Meister, much to the composer’s dismay. But for the intervention of the emperor’s Neapolitan-born spouse, Empress Teresa Cristina, Gomes might well have been on his way to Munich. Fortunately for Brazilian opera, the empress succeeded in tempering her studious-minded mate’s bold scheme, which allowed the fledgling musician to follow his own creative path to the Mediterranean. Gomes never forgot the kindness and courtesy shown to him during this most formative time.

It must also be pointed out that it was through his innate skill at composing that the grant was extended at all. The emperor himself, along with Gomes’ mentors Francisco Manuel and José Amat, were the first to voice their unanimous endorsement of his gifts. “True musical genius,” as Verdi and some later biographers insisted, had very little to do with it.

For example, in the second-act ensemble from Joana de Flandres there is ample evidence of a sure, if imitative, hand at work; of a delicately shaped line and elemental grasp of music and drama, and how the two flowed together as one. Clearly, the youngster’s ease with the basic strictures of opera was no amateurish “first step.”

That fact, along with the realization that here was a native-born musician with a built-in capacity for refurbishing the old forms, must have excited Tonico’s benefactors to no end. His next stop would have to be Milan.

Due to his being over the mandatory age limit, however — he was 27 at the time — as well as a complete outsider, Gomes’ application to the Conservatory was rejected; whereupon the guidelines governing his grant stipulated that private lessons could be taken instead from one of its directors, the composer and stern taskmaster Lauro Rossi, as well as from resident musician Alberto Mazzucato.

From pupil to teacher, then back again: it would not be the last time the tables would be turned on the unsuspecting artist. Coincidentally, this denial of entry into one of Western Europe’s most prestigious institutions had been a source of much bitterness for the inexperienced Verdi some 30 years prior, and for substantially the same reason: his age. Only, the Italian master’s musical pathway would take a far different route from that of the Brazilian novice.

Gomes eventually received an official sanction from the Conservatory’s ruling body, managing to complete his formal schooling in a mere three years’ time, yet he would never reap the financial rewards this honor would presumably seem to bestow. Verdi, on the other hand, nursed his earlier rejection for the rest of his days, but went on to even greater glory in spite of the turn down.

(End of Part One)

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

===================================

* Apparently, Pedro II was quite the “perfect Wagnerite,” having kept up a steady correspondence with the temperamental German genius until the composer’s death in 1883. In fact, the Brazilian emperor once invited Wagner to prepare a program of his works for Rio’s Imperial Theater. Though he never visited Brazil, the financially strapped composer took the emperor’s advice to heart by beginning work on his next project, the opera Tristan und Isolde, on the condition that Wagner would premiere it in Brazil.This too never came to pass. However, Wagner would meet his biggest fan in 1876 – to the delight of Dom Pedro, who, along with King Ludwig II, the young Kaiser Wilhelm, statesman Otto von Bismarck, composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and numerous others, had gathered in August of that year for the first ever Bayreuth Music Festival.

In Defense of Brazil’s ‘Hino Nacional’: A Crash-Course in the Hymn of the Nation

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Brazilian Flag (footage.shutterstock.com)

When I told my Brazilian wife about an article I had read bashing her country’s melodious Hino Nacional (“the world’s worst national anthem,” was the staggeringly forthright, first line of the piece), she grew absolutely indignant — irate, I dare say, all four-foot-eleven inches of her — over what I truly thought was a tongue-in-cheek approach used by the author, Englishman Ricky Skelton, regarding this potentially incendiary subject.

Playing devil’s advocate for once (but ever so gingerly where my combative spouse was concerned), I jumped to Mr. Skelton’s defense, and even agreed with some of his shaky line of reasoning, including the statement that of all the soccer nations in the world today, Brazil, with its unique genres of music, i.e., samba, bossa nova, axé, Tropicália, forró, MPB, and funk, could certainly “do better, far better” with its national anthem.

The solution Mr. Skelton offered would be for someone with the musical talent of, say, Martinho da Vila, to “compose a new Samba Anthem… which will get the players and crowd infused with the vibrancy and exuberance of their amazing country.”

That’s all well and good, as far as it goes. However, where we must part company is in his designation of what is a “good national anthem” (citing France’s and Scotland’s as the best examples), which should be, he went on to explain, “an expression of the characteristics of a nation and its people.”

“Yet for some reason, Brazil has some turgid, 200-year-old military marching music, which should be more suitable for an old central European country like Liechtenstein.”

I do not want to repeat what my dear and loving wife had to say about that last part. I also do not wish to respond in an adversarial manner to this peremptory challenge, but would like instead to take a less aggressive tone — sort of a friendly rebuttal, if that would be permissible — in my reply to Mr. Skelton’s contentious arguments.

First off, why bad-mouth a battle hymn to an already embattled republic without first reciting some of the all-important lyrics inherent in it, which, in this case, are as full and complete expressions of the characteristics of the Brazilian nation and its people as any that are currently out there?

Secondly, why offer a viable solution to a supposed problem where none even exists? Has anyone ever complained before about the failings of the Hino Nacional? Where is the documented evidence of such an allegedly egregious offense? Shouldn’t we rather adopt the more neutral tactic of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”?

And thirdly, why not provide some enlightenment to the general public (in the way of much-needed background information) about the actual historical events surrounding the creation of Brazil’s nationalistic theme?

Brazilian Fact-Finding Mission

Now here’s where my history degree and love of popular and classical culture came into play: for you see, unlike Mr. Skelton, whose “exhaustive research” took on the rather unscholarly form of “watching World Cups and international football for a lifetime,” I decided to go a step further and conduct my own unofficial investigation into this matter.

Francisco Manuel da Silva (wikipedia.org)

What I learned from this experience, then, was this: that a constitutional sympathizer named Francisco Manuel da Silva (1795-1865) composed the music to what we know as the Brazilian national anthem in 1822, as a reaction against detested Portuguese monarch Dom João VI.

The story goes that da Silva wrote the piece in a shop frequented by intellectuals yearning for freedom. The melody went on to serve for many years as the de facto Hino Nacional by default, as well as a military band-music standard, hence the reason why it sounds the way it does.

Okay, so Francisco Manuel da Silva was no Rossini or Bellini — and he probably couldn’t hold a candle to American bandmaster John Philip Sousa, either — but he’s definitely no slouch in the Salieri mold, of that I am certain. He captured the musical ear of the young Emperor Dom Pedro II, who, after having appointed him composer-in-residence to His Imperial Majesty in 1841, subsequently decorated da Silva three years later with the prestigious Order of the Rose.

Interestingly, it took another hundred years for the lyrics to be joined together with the existing tune. This eventually came about in 1922, when on the eve of the centenary celebration of Brazil’s Independence, poet and journalist Joaquim Osório Duque Estrada (1870-1927) delivered up the definitive text to “Ó Pátria Amada” (“Oh Beloved Country”), the current lyrics to the anthem.

The music was played (minus the words) throughout the royalist period, covering the years 1831 to 1889, and primarily at official receptions. Incidentally, when the last of Brazil’s emperors, Dom Pedro II, was deposed and sent into permanent exile in 1889, the governing body of the New Republic realized the need for replacing old imperial ideals with newly installed republican ones.

A competition was thereby held promoting a new national anthem (and, by implication, a new political allegiance). The country’s foremost classical exponents were invited to participate, including famed opera composer Antonio Carlos Gomes. He respectfully declined, however, due to his previous close relationship to Dom Pedro (would that some of our present-day political figures are able to do the same). Gomes went so far as to have one his early operas conducted by maestro Francisco Manuel, an early advocate and supporter.

The winning entry turned out to be that of composer-conductor Leopoldo Miguez (1850-1902) and his patriotically themed “Liberdade, liberdade, abre as asas sobre nós!” (“Liberty, liberty, spread your wings over us”), with appropriately vibrant verses by José Joaquim de Campos da Costa de Medeiros e Albuquerque (1867-1934) — now that’s a hearty mouthful even for native Brazilians!

Upon hearing the committee’s choice at the official unveiling, the first president of the republic, Marechal Deodoro da Fonseca, in typical eleventh-hour fashion, made his now-famous pronouncement to one and all: “Prefiro o velho” (“I prefer the old one”), meaning da Silva’s century-old “military marching music,” thus lending support to the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” school of thought previously invoked.

As a consolation prize for his efforts, Miguez’s song of liberty was honored with the official title of Hino à Proclamação da República (“Hymn to the Proclamation of the Republic”), a position it holds to this day.

Staying with da Silva’s music for the moment — the one that Mr. Skelton finds so unworthy of consideration of Brazil and her multi-talented population — there is this extraordinary bit of trivia I wish to impart to readers.

Louis Moreau Gottschalk (classical.net)

Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869), an itinerant American composer, musician, and pianist, a native of the city of New Orleans and a Creole-Jewish descendant, spent an inordinately large portion of his professional career abroad and in the salons of European, Latin American, and Caribbean society, as well as on our own Brazilian shores, where he met his tragic and untimely end.

It was Gottschalk who not only found Brazil’s anthem worthy of his consideration, but was credited with having written not one but two of the most bombastic, most colorful, and most thoroughly enjoyable concert showpieces that anyone has ever heard around it.

Called, appropriately enough, the Grande Fantasia Triunfal Sobre o Hino Nacional Brasileiro, or “Grand Triumphal Fantasy on the Brazilian National Anthem,” it was originally conceived for solo piano, and was to be given as part of a much longer composition entitled Marcha Solene Brasileira (“Solemn Brazilian March”).

Both works premiered at the Teatro Lírico in Rio de Janeiro, on November 24, 1869, with Emperor Dom Pedro II and his full court in attendance, along with three of the city’s orchestras, the marching bands of the National Guard, the Imperial Army and Navy, and around 650 other performing extras, including mixed chorus and backstage cannon (shades of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture). It made quite an impression, as you can imagine.

Unfortunately, it was during these same series of “monster concerts,” as they were then called, that Gottschalk collapsed from pain and exhaustion. He died a few weeks later, at age 40, from general peritonitis, brought on by a ruptured abdominal abscess.

I recommend a listen to the compact disc, especially the one with Brazilian pianist Cristina Ortiz, as it will soften anyone’s hardened heart about these marvelous pieces — I guarantee it.

Getting Down to Basics

I come now to the most difficult part of this summation (difficult, I should add, for anyone unfamiliar with the complicated Portuguese language): and that is, the words to the Hino Nacional itself.

Space and time prevent me from delving too deeply into all of the intricacies and nuances found in this fairly longish and distinguished piece, and for which some knowledge of Brazilian history may also be a prerequisite. Suffice it to say, however, that some of the fervor and inspiration Mr. Skelton felt was so sorely lacking in Brazil’s national anthem can be heard right here, to its fullest extent, in the beautiful and moving lyrics to this mighty ode. Some highlights of the same are:

E o sol da liberdade em raios fúlgidos

Brilhou no céu da Pátria nesse instante.

Se o penhor dessa igualdade

Conseguimos conquistar com braço forte,         

Em teu seio, ó liberdade,

Desafia o nosso peito a própria morte!

The words, loosely translated by yours truly, now begin to take on a more stirring note:

And the sun of liberty, with its brilliant rays,

Shined on in our nation’s sky at that supreme moment.

The guarantee of that equality

Was so bravely won with our own strong arms,

In your breast, oh lady liberty,

Forever challenge our hearts, even unto our death!

Does this smack of patriotic fervor? You bet it does! Does it urge fellow Brazilians to fight and die for their country? Why yes, absolutely! Then again, so did the Marseillaise (“Aux armes, citoyens! Formez vos bataillons! Marchons, marchons!” – “To arms, citizens! Form your battalions! Together let us march!”), which is even older than Brazil’s unfairly maligned theme and a part of the so-called “good” ones mentioned by Skelton.

Of course, Brazil hasn’t fought in a real battle since World War II, by my calculation, but surely every World Cup match-up, every local soccer entanglement — indeed, every time the players hit the football field — a fight ensues for honor, for country, and for all Brazilian soccer fans everywhere, with the exception of Germany 2006. (Where was that fervor back then? I don’t know… you’d have to ask the Portuguese and the Italians that question.)

Chico Buarque de Hollanda (obviousmag.org)

Still, to put an end to this lengthy harangue let me propose a peace offering, if you will, and without the aid of a Secretary of State: for all future World Cup and international soccer appearances by Brazil and its national team, why not have the musicians expand upon Chico Buarque de Hollanda’s classic song, “A banda,” that wonderful hit tune from 1966, a first-prize winner in the Second Música Popular Brasileira Festival,* when the country still had a world-class outfit to boast of?

The number can be played as both a march and a samba, and makes excellent use of an existing band (already in the stadium, most likely, if we’re talking about Brazil). It also has an imaginative and literate text by an acknowledged master of the genre:

Estava à toa na vida

O meu amor me chamou

Pra ver a banda passar

Cantando coisas de amor

A minha gente sofrida

Despediu-se da dor

Pra ver a banda passar

Cantando coisas de amor

I was feeling down and out

When the love of my life called me

To see the band go by

Playing nothing but songs of love

Even the poor and downtrodden

Said farewell to their pain

To see the band go by

Playing nothing but songs of love

It’s the perfect musical alternative to the “problem” from a recognized Brazilian authority. I think even my wife might be able to compromise on that idea (though I’m not going to ask her just yet).

In conclusion, Mr. Skelton should read the following extract from an online posting of London’s The Guardian, dated June 20, 2002:

“Brazil’s Hino Nacional is arguably the jauntiest, cheeriest, most tuneful, and most beguiling national anthem on the planet. It feels as if it comes ready composed from the opera house… by the time [Englishman Charles] Miller first brought football to Brazil in 1894, the Hino Nacional had long expressed in song what Pelé and his successors later expressed so wonderfully on the field. While the Marseillaise makes bellicose calls to arms, the Hino Nacional stirs national feelings by appeals to Brazil’s ‘pure beauteous skies,’ its sound of the sea, and the flowers of its ‘fair smiling fields.’ “

If the above description can’t convince Mr. Skelton of the error of his ways, then nothing can. With that, I rest my case. ☼

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes


* From the beginning its popularity has never waned. In fact, according to journalist, songwriter, television and music promoter Nelson Motta, “more than one hundred thousand recordings of ‘A banda’ were sold in the first week” of its debut, “transforming it into one of the biggest Brazilian success stories of all time.”

Taking Flight on Florencia’s Fragile Wings — Mexican Composer Daniel Catán’s ‘Brazilian’ Opera

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Florencia en el Amazonas (diapasoncd.com)

A Bug’s Love-Life — or Rather, Love-Death!

In the 1915 novel The Metamorphosis — Franz Kafka’s timeless, semi-autobiographical take on the alienation he felt as an angst-ridden, German-speaking Jewish youth growing up in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire — the main character, Gregor Samsa, wakes up one morning to find himself transformed into a huge insect (or a cockroach, in some editions).

Unable to cope with this disfigurement, Gregor’s uncomprehending family members lock him up in his upstairs bedroom, where as the story progresses he slowly withers away from despondency and neglect.

Looked at for what it was — an allegorical escape from the crushing responsibilities of a harsh, bourgeois lifestyle — Gregor’s pitiable condition and grief-filled end grew out of not just his unconscious choosing, but from the Czech writer’s personal recollections of, and experiences with, his own notoriously troubled relations. They eventually became, in his subsequent writings, indistinguishable from himself.

Why anyone would believe such a depressing subject would make for an equally enthralling lyric showpiece is beyond imagining. This undeniable fact has mercifully spared tune-starved adherents of modern music from witnessing the unfolding of such a distasteful stage event — until now. All it took to change most minds was for one dauntless Mexican-born composer to give a dying diva her due.

To be precise, in Daniel Catán’s twentieth-century masterwork Florencia en el Amazonas (“Florencia in the Amazon”), the title character, an aging prima donna — the emblematic Fat Lady herself, come to life — returns home, to a late nineteenth-century version of northern Brazil, for a trip down the Amazon River; to the fabled pink-marbled opera house of Manaus (the starting point being the city of Leticia, in Colombia), in what she hopes will be a life-altering reencounter with her former lover Cristóbal, a lepidopterist gone missing in the jungle for over 20 years.

His life’s work, reflected in the plot by his unsuccessful quest for the rare Emerald Muse butterfly — a search that led the aspiring singer to abandon her beau for a career on the European stage — mirrors Florencia’s own unfulfilled ambitions, in what composer Catán has circumspectly described as “the return journey we all undertake at a certain point in our lives: the moment when we look back at what we once dreamed of becoming, and then confront what we have now become.”

Final scene of Act II (cincinnatiopera.org)

The moving final scene, a luminous aural summation of the best of such classical scene-painters as Debussy, Ravel, Puccini, and Erik Satie — with hints of Richard Strauss and Erich Wolfgang Korngold thrown in, primarily in the shimmering orchestral writing and glowing vocal line — has Florencia collapse at the moment the steamboat El Dorado pulls into port upon hearing the dreaded news that cholera has broken out in the area.

Realizing she may never see her lost love again, Florencia bursts into song and, in accordance with the composer’s written precepts, “her voice, her song, and she herself, become intertwined with the image of a butterfly.” The diva then “breaks through her cocoon; her voice soars, her song acquires transparent wings,” and, thus liberated from her earthly confines, she is magically transformed, through the power of love and her own self-imposed metamorphosis, into the very object (or “Muse”) her lover was looking for all those missing years in the rain forest.

Whereas Gregor’s symbolic change occurs near the beginning of Kafka’s rueful tome, Florencia’s takes shape at the tail end, so to speak, of nearly two hours of “concentrated music drama,” culminating in what delighted reviewers have correctly referred to as an ennobling, Latin American account of Isolde’s transcendent Liebestod, or “love-death.”

As fascinating as all this may sound to readers, what possible link can there be between these two diametrically opposed oeuvres?

Gabriel Garcia Marquez (ecuadortimes.net)

In the first place, Florencia’s skillfully-constructed, Spanish-language libretto, written by Marcela Fuentes-Beráin — a protégée of Nobel Prize-winning laureate, Gabriel García Márquez — was inspired, to no small extent, by the renowned Colombian writer’s “magical realism” style, a trend endemic to many of his fiction works, in particular the novels Love in the Time of Cholera (1986) and One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967), as well as the short story A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings (1972).

In the second, it should come as no surprise to learn that while he was still a struggling student of law in his native land, young Márquez was given a copy of the aforementioned Metamorphosis to leaf through.*

In recounting the “liberating effect” this epiphany had on his literary output, the author sheepishly disclosed to fans that he “didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that… that’s how my grandmother used to tell stories, the wildest things with a completely natural tone of voice.”

The astounding musical conception that emerged from this fictional backdrop — a marvelous compendium of hallowed themes (“love, redemption and transfiguration”) both familiar and sublime to followers of composer Richard Wagner — takes root in the natural world; the tactile, all-enveloping physical realm of tropical flora and fauna, something the nature-loving German master would have found great affinity for, while not straying too far afield from its essentially preternatural state.

Catán explained it further: “The fantastic elements (in magical realism) really are symbols for some emotional or internal solution to a problem dressed in this exotic way. But the solutions to situations are internal solutions — not like a deus ex machina — that get presented in a poetic way.”

As director Andrew Morton, who remounted the successful 1996 world-premiere production of Florencia in Houston for its 2001 return engagement, in addition to supervising the 1997 presentation at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles, so deftly elucidates for us: “What it means is that strange things go on which are metaphors for the feelings and emotions which the characters are experiencing.”

Keith Miller as Riolobo (denverpost.com)

One of these “strange things” is eloquently conveyed in the lead baritone role of Riolobo, El Dorado’s resident steersman — in reality, a mercurial, form-changing figure who is not quite what he seems: part magical tour-guide, part Greek chorus-style commentator, he’s an operatic second cousin to the gods and nobles once embodied by celebrated male castratos of the gaudy Baroque period.

A dashing free-spirit of the rain forest region as well, Riolobo (or “River-Wolf”) is also the grand manipulator of environmental events — such as the sudden pink rainstorm that washes the characters clean at the close of the first-act curtain — that gives the opera its mysterious air and feel. He is no match, however, for the mythical Amazon itself.

Indeed, the world’s mightiest river takes on a musical life of its own, thanks to the tender loving care Catán lavished on it in characterizing this vital aspect of his work: “I learned about the dangers of river navigation, and also about the psychological states the Amazon induces in its travelers; the way it conjures up their most secret desires and deepest fears.”

Praised by critics for his “finely honed sense of theater” and “wonderful command of sonority,” the composer was unjustifiably pounced upon by others for his supposed indifference to the rich legacy of native-Indian sources seemingly at his beck-and-call.

“I was not interested in caricaturing any indigenous element in the Amazon,” Catán was quick to counter. “When thinking about the way I would capture the music of the river, or the soul of the river, I decided to use a lot of wind instruments and a lot of percussion instruments. It seemed to me [those] would be the right ones to capture the flow of the river, and the way it constantly changes as it flows.”

A cursory peek at the opera’s 45-piece construction would seem to corroborate this point: it reveals a decided shortage of strings, supplemented in turn by such exotic-sounding additions as tubular bells, marimba, djembe, ukulele, mandolin, accordion, harmonium, electric organ, synthesizer, and something called a sarrusophone — an unwieldy cross between a saxophone and a bassoon.

In acknowledging the score’s one-of-a-kind sound-design, original stage director Francesca Zambello, who, along with set designer Robert Israel, was responsible for the Houston and Los Angeles co-productions, eagerly affirmed that, “Nowadays, we are returning to an era when people want music to be something that relates to their emotional world. Daniel writes music that people have an immediate response to… [his] style is very romantic, lush and emotionally expressive. It’s quite direct and powerful.”

Florencia is Flourishing

Discounting the strictly romantic notions surrounding this extraordinary, post-romantic piece — chronologically, Catán’s third large-scale effort and his second for the lyric stage — what makes Florencia en el Amazonas so attractive to present-day theatergoers is its distinctly melodic appeal, even in the insufferable salons of Western Europe, which hardly knew what to make of this delicate yet passionate classical creation.

“Old realism is [being] replaced by the ‘magical realism’ of Latin America,” declared Bernd Feuchter, the German-born former editor of the magazine Opernwelt (“Opera World”) and one of the newly crowned heads of the Heidelberg Theatre, where Florencia was about to be unveiled — for the first time — on European soil, in a less-than-lavish new production set for the end of April 2006.

“I fell in love with this music,” Feuchter insisted, in a 2005 e-mail interview for Opera News, “and I wrote a rave review. And I knew, nobody in Europe will dare to stage this opera because it is too beautiful.” Nobody, that is, until he himself decided to do it.

“While opera in old Europe seems dead as a doornail,” he went on, “over there [in America] it is giving birth to magnificent things… In cultural matters, it’s important to put aside this arrogance we have in consuming only what is produced here in Europe, and look instead at what’s being done in other parts of the world.”

Like the incredible, long-distance journey of the monarch butterfly, this more open-minded attitude regarding major works from across the shores was a long time in coming. Moreover, it fit right in with the Mexican composer’s ethnocentric views of the art, as he certainly saw it: “I’m going more deeply into my own culture… I’m going back to a Latin American story. I’m taking characters out of my own literature and my own mind. I want to look south and in, rather than toward Europe.”

As the eminently approachable theater-piece it was predestined to become, possessed of “the artful beauty of traditional opera, a form that, at its best, values grace, craftsmanship, and lyricism over the sugar-high of instant gratification,” Florencia initially turned up in the revitalized repertoires of American regional opera companies.

Florencia en el Amazonas (operacolorado.org)

Commencing with Houston Grand Opera, which commissioned, and strongly supported, the soul-searching South American-themed work (and where it was later revived in the spring of 2001), it was followed by the Los Angeles Opera version almost a year later, then by Seattle Opera’s subsequent staging in both 1998 and 2005. Cincinnati Opera brought the partially rebuilt original production to its main stage in July 2008, where once-skeptical audiences pronounced it “a musical triumph.”

Miraculously, the opera did not stop there, having taken flight on its own sometimes-fragile wings (albeit in concert form) to Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes, in 1999; from there, it quite naturally alighted, in May 2003 — in a hastily-arranged tropical display — atop the Teatro Amazonas in Manaus, where excerpts were performed by a team of native-born artists, namely baritone Homero Velho and mezzo Madga Painno.

All that remains at this point is for Florencia to secure a stronger foothold on the world’s premier concert platforms — it’s already well on the way to doing just that, as evidenced by the foregoing — and for it to be given the center spotlight on the stages of such universally recognized landmarks as New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, London’s Covent Garden, and the Beaux Arts beauties of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, in Brazil.

What Flies Around, Comes Around

It would be the perfect homecoming gift for a real-life prima donna: i.e., carioca soprano Eliane Coelho, the country’s own wandering minstrel and the emblematic Fat Lady herself, come to life — and, like the character of her fictitious counterpart, Florencia, a longtime resident of the European continent — in a memorable return trip to the Teatro Municipal of Rio, the singer’s venue of choice.

Striking a characteristic Christ-the-Redeemer pose, the theater’s management would welcome the deserving diva with the same wide-open stance; but, more importantly, it would regale Madame Coelho with a fabulous new production of the work — you will forgive the author if he indulges here in a bit of “magical realism” of his own— designed, built, and conceived, especially for her, by none other than that innovative theater director, Mr. Gerald Thomas; and majestically conducted, of course, in inimitable Mahler-like fashion by noted Brazilian maestro John Neschling.

What a triple-threat feature that jolly threesome would make! If they can’t affect a metamorphic turnaround in the fortunes of New World stage-works, then no one can.

Considering what Brazilian opera once dreamed of becoming and has now undeniably become, by its very nature and title alone Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas would seem to encompass all the requisite qualities sufficient to satisfy the most demanding of stage connoisseurs, while lighting the way to a (hopefully) brighter future for the art.

It could even transcend the form, if need be, to become a viable candidate for that first-ever non-Brazilian, Brazilian national opera — a radical proposal, I agree, given that there’s nothing remotely Brazilian-sounding at all in the music, something a committed nationalist such as Heitor Villa-Lobos was incapable of doing in his vast composing career.

No matter how it’s done, though, please let it happen soon, before the Fat Lady starts to sing. By then it may be too late, for new operas, along with the rarest of butterflies, all too often die an early death.

Daniel Catan (latimes.com)

Such will not be the fate of this gorgeous work, I can assure you — not if Catán had anything to say about it.

“The image of the butterfly, supremely beautiful from the moment of its birth, is overtly present at the end of Florencia,” the composer cogently summarized, in his album notes for Albany Records’ recording of the live 2001 performance from Houston Grand Opera. “But it is an image that has been present in my mind as I composed several of my works. I have asked myself why.

“I think it is my way of understanding the moment when something is no more, my way of transforming it, like when I finish an opera, and say goodbye to characters that have lived with me for so long and have taught me so much, that grew out of me so I could be born out of them, that are, in the end, indistinguishable from myself.”

Kafka and Márquez would most heartily agree. ☼

(Final Note: Daniel Catán passed away suddenly on April 8, 2011, at the age of 62. He will be sorely missed.)

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes


* Kafka himself had once been a frustrated law school graduate. In his case, it was probably a good enough reason as any to have turned away from an unfulfilling career with the bar to become a full-fledged fiction writer with a fervent following.

It’s Wagner, By Thunder! – A German ‘Ring’ in the Brazilian Rain Forest

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Watch on the Rhine

Rhine Maiden (Douglas Engle)

On the evening of May 7, 2005, darkness engulfed the ornate auditorium of the Teatro Amazonas Opera House in the northern city of Manaus. The only sound to be heard — the primeval groan of a low, E-flat major bass note — emanated surreptitiously from the theater’s packed orchestra pit.

No, it was not another power outage so typical of the region, but was in fact the prelude to Richard Wagner’s opera Das Rheingold (“The Rhinegold”), the first of his four-part, sixteen-hour Norse saga, known collectively to fans as The Ring of the Nibelung — a cautionary pre-Tolkien tale that ambitiously tracks the corruption of a mythical world-gone-wrong through its chaotic destruction and redemptive rebirth.

At the curtain’s rise, three nubile nymphs (called “Rhine Maidens”) are seen to frolic off the waters of the onstage riverbank. They are soon joined by the gloomy figure of Alberich, the Nibelung troll, sung by Brazilian bass Pepes do Valle. Seeking to catch one of them off guard, he is teased then aroused by the maidens’ obvious charms.

Despite his loathsome visage, the sprites continue their amorous play by deliberately tempting the poor creature to a watery grave. Disgusted by their taunts, the lustful gnome resolves to wreak havoc on them: if he cannot steal their hearts, he gathers, then their fabulous treasure trove will be his instead.

Renouncing love forever, the Nibelung plunges into the briny depths and swims off with the horde of gold, leaving the Rhine Maidens behind to mourn the loss of their luster. To solidify his power-base, Alberich later forces his minions into forging an all-powerful ring — the object of each character’s singular pursuit and the ruinous cause of their eventual downfall.

Little did the audience of 800-or-so strong realize it was the German composer himself who started the by-now familiar trend of lowering a theater’s houselights in order to press his public to pay closer attention to the works at hand — works that Wagner had long desired to have performed in a house built to his own exacting standards.

The locale chosen was a picturesque tract of land a brief walking distance from the town of Bayreuth, a humble middle-class burgh ideally situated in the hills of northern Bavaria.

Thus it was that in 1876 the celebrated annual Summer Music Festival was first inaugurated there.

By contrast, Manaus at the time was but a hollowed-out clearing in the middle of the tropical rain forest. Today, it is a bustling business and commercial center, thanks to the so-called Zona Franca (“Free-Trade Zone”), with a population of over a million and a half.

Even so, the significance of a German-language Ring cycle, a supremely challenging endeavor for any opera company — one whose extra scenic and musical demands have tested the mettle of lesser theaters — performed in its entirety on Brazilian soil, cannot possibly be overlooked. This was indeed a monumental undertaking of truly historic proportions.

The expected budget for the event, reported to be around 3.2 million reais, or USD$1.6 million — the equivalent of one American greenback for every resident in the Amazon capital — would have to make due not only for the Ring but the other works anticipated for 2005, including a rapid run of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.

With that in mind, two complete cycles were planned: one for May 7, 8, 10, and 12, and the other for May 14, 15, 17, and 19. For the past few seasons, however, single performances of the various Ring components have been fully mounted and staged in Manaus, with Die Walküre (“The Valkyrie”), the second opera in the cycle, the first up in 2002, followed by Siegfried in 2003, and Götterdämmerung (“Twilight of the Gods”) in 2004.

This year’s new production of Das Rheingold, made possible by state grants and private-sector donations, was unveiled only as an integral part of the whole. “It was a kind of test to see how the Brazilian voices were going to function,” Luiz Fernando Malheiro, principal conductor and artistic director of the Amazonas Opera Festival, told Folha de S. Paulo newspaper. “Any apprehensions I may have had were ultimately unjustified.”

Though heavily billed as the first complete Brazilian Ring, in actuality the Festival’s “low-budget and low-tech” approach is only the second time Wagner’s epic tetralogy was presented in the country: the first one, in 1922, took place in Rio de Janeiro and was done by a visiting German troupe contracted by legendary opera impresario Walter Mocchi.

But how did the seeming incompatibility of a “Ring in the rain forest” happen to come about? The answer is deceptively simple, and can be traced back to the naiveté of Aidan Lang, the show’s 47-year-old British-born director, whose stage experiences boast of previous stints in Manaus and São Paulo, in addition to appearances with Glyndebourne’s touring wing, the Netherlands’ Maastricht Festival, and the Buxton Festival in England, which he still runs.

“Malheiro and I were talking about what we should do next one year and he suggested something German. ‘What about the Ring?’ I joked. Well, that’ll teach me.”

A Formidable Task

The task at hand was a formidable one, to be sure, and not to be taken lightly, considering the stifling working conditions they all had to endure (and sweat) in, and the high degree of planning undoubtedly involved with the project itself.

“If I offered this to Welsh or Scottish Operas, they would tell me to think again,” the director exclaimed. Remarkably, though, the surprising success of the series was well worth the extra effort.

“To be able to do a Ring cycle here,” an exuberant Lang later declared, “for an audience that has never seen one is absolutely extraordinary. It’s the ultimate gig in the ultimate place” — even if that place turned out to be a rather steamy tropical jungle.

Alan Woodrow as Siegfried (baybuzz.blogspot.com)

Canadian tenor Alan Woodrow, who sang the lead role of the young Siegfried, concurred with the director’s views: “The climate here is very hot and very humid, but I think that because of that you can sing well. After all, singers inhale steam to help get their voices into good shape, but with the 90-percent humidity here, you don’t have to do that.”

Notwithstanding the theater’s on-again/off-again air-conditioning system, nature sometimes has a way of taking its own precarious path, especially with regard to regional lumber practices.

“They’re very good with wood,” said Lang of the stagehands, “but we do have to remind the set-builders to use screws. Because of the humidity, nails tend to pop out.”

Other exotic hindrances were almost as life threatening, such as the incident involving Japanese soprano Eiko Senda (Sieglinde in Die Walküre), who suffered a debilitating allergy attack just moments before the curtain, thanks to a particularly noxious variety of garden spider. A massive dose of antihistamine was administered to Senda in time for her onstage cue.

In spite of the potential hazards of opera in the Amazon wilderness, the final bill for the two cycles went blissfully unnoticed by most patrons: with the best seats in the house going for a top price of USD$20.00 per ticket, all of the individual performances were quickly sold out.

Equally attractive to the foreign press corps were the production’s raked-platform stage setting — complete with scientific and molecular décor (both cost-cutting, space-saving devices) — and its pro-ecological message.

“I’m especially proud of the helmets, which are made of papier-mâché,” boasted Ashley Martin-Davis, the British set and costume designer. “They look like aluminum, and of course the singers love them because they have almost no weight.”

In a land where the average person’s monthly wage can be just as skimpy as Rio’s scantily-clad Carnival participants, that spoke volumes for the locals’ creativity and resourcefulness in the face of ever-mounting political and economic pressures. Said Mr. Martin-Davis: “[It] taught me that if you have the labor and the ingenuity, you can always make the materials work for you.”

Nevertheless, the sense of being a part of something so bizarre as to border on the surrealistic was a difficult one to shake, even for some of the more veteran cast-members.

“When I first came to Manaus in 2002, it was definitely a very big new experience for me,” voiced soprano Maria Russo, an opera singer from upstate-New York who played Wotan’s favorite daughter, the Valkyrie Brünnhilde. “It’s extreme. Even now, it sometimes seems amazing that we are actually doing this here. I’ve done a lot of Rings, and this is definitely not your ordinary situation.”

Multiplying the Effect

For the record, the Brazilian operatic event of the year, which went on to become the near “miracle in Manaus,” could only have come off through the continuous effort and financial support of the local Amazonas State government.

With the administration’s solid commitment to, and backing of, the entire classical enterprise (no doubt, a ghostly echo of opera days gone by), scores of crazed Wagnerites from dozens of foreign lands, including Argentina, Australia, Austria, England, Germany, the Netherlands, South Africa, and North America, as well as host nation Brazil, faced the long trek and arduous travel conditions — hand-in-hand with the twin discomforts of torrential rain and tropical heat and humidity — to hear the Ring works performed in sequence by a proportionately international cast of artists.

The orchestra, known locally as the Amazonas Philharmonic, was comprised mainly of musicians from Eastern Europe (Russia, Bulgaria, and Belarus) and from native-Brazilian forces living overseas.

By all reports, it exceeded every expectation and played at the highest possible plane demanded of Wagner’s exacting scores. This elevated level of competence, however, was bought at a stiff price, and illustrates both what was right and what was wrong with musical education in Brazil today.

In a sobering June 2004 article, “A Brazil Out of Tune,” published by the SESC (Serviço Social do Comércio — Social Service of Commerce) organization, journalist Flávio Carrança examined the myriad challenges facing the performing arts there since the 1996 adoption of the revised Lei de Diretrizes e Bases da Educação Nacional (LDB, or Basic Educational Law), which, prior to that time, had already folded the teaching of music into overall artistic education, i.e., dance, theater, drama, and the visual arts. What this did for the pedagogical system was to place the responsibility for musical education squarely on the shoulders of teachers, “who may not have had specific training in music — an unfortunate reality of public education,” claimed Mr. Carrança.

The problem became a major concern for Brazilian maestro John Neschling, who during the time of his 1997 reorganization of the Orquestra Sinfônica do Estado de São Paulo (Osesp) was pressed to concede, “We have never had a tradition of musical education in Brazil, nor a solid school, particularly for strings. We were always limited to a few good teachers — many of them immigrants — who trained individual talents.”

Neschling further indicated that, “Instruction in music is not limited to learning the instrument, but includes an entire musical culture which must be transmitted and stimulated.”

Julio Medaglia (griggspeter.wordpress.com)

This is precisely what was done with the original Amazonas group back in 1977, when conductor Júlio Medaglia was still presiding over it. He was forced at that time into recruiting new members from abroad — coincidentally, from Eastern Europe, where, as luck would have it, Brazilian players were firmly entrenched.

Medaglia was one of the first native musicians to have given credibility to the phenomenon he labeled the “multiplier effect,” whereas in exchange for services rendered foreign players would take promising local youngsters under their wing and, over the course of time, these same youngsters would themselves become teachers, thus increasing the quality and number of musicians obtainable to scouting-for-new-talent Brazilian orchestras.

“You can see kids from the outskirts studying with musicians who were trained in St. Petersburg, which produces the best string players in the world,” the conductor revealed. “Each one of the Russians who came here has about 20 students by now.”

Other deficiencies worth noting included the “lack of a good structure for musical instruction,” viable graduate and post-graduate training, scarcity of resources, and, most surprisingly of all, “not enough schools of music at the introductory level,” at least according to Cláudio Cruz, Osesp’s first violinist, and a noted symphony conductor (the Sinfônica de Ribeirão Preto, in São Paulo) on the side.

“We are not able to fill orchestras with 90 percent Brazilian musicians,” he lamented, “because when they finish undergraduate school, they are not ready.”

As distressing as this bit of news may have sounded, the multiplier effect has had some lasting benefits, most noticeably with young Elismael Lourenço dos Santos, a 20-year-old clarinetist from Northern Brazil, in the pit for the Ring premiere in Manaus and a recent graduate of its lauded training initiative.

“If it weren’t for the government’s program, there is no way I could have gotten this far, because my family is not rich and could never have afforded private instruction for me.”

His personal testimonial represents the optimistic icing on the orchestral cake for the future of these types of learning ventures: “To have this opportunity to play not just Wagner but the Ring cycle is a real honor and a dream, one that is still a bit hard to believe.”

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes