Month: November 2012
He’s ba-ack! No, not Arnold, the ex-Governator, and certainly not The Donald, either. But, oh yes, The Gerald – Gerald Thomas, to be exact, the bad boy of Brazilian, American and European theater, and the uncrowned “Prince of Puns.”
After a nearly nine-month long hiatus, brought on by his near mental and physical exhaustion, along with his annoyance with contemporary theater as a whole, the multi-talented (and multi-national) playwright, producer and stage director has returned to peak avant-garde form by giving “birth” to (what else?) a controversial new stage vehicle wherein his 9/11 demons are finally confronted and – it is to be hoped – exorcised for all time.
The work in question is the tantalizingly titled Throats – and what a piece of work it is! To begin with, there’s a superbly realized crucifixion scene (with, of all things, a few reverential nods to Monty Python’s irreverent Life of Brian) set in, of all places, the ruins of the World Trade Center Towers. There’s also a recreation, if that’s the right word, of the Last Supper (!), which Thomas turns into an oral and visual free-for-all; what The New York Times once referred to as “verbal hemorrhage,” and what Thomas calls meta-language, i.e., something beyond mere words.
There are hints as well of past stage triumphs, particularly in the disembodied female head resting on the supper table, a disquieting and totally unexpected allusion to his classic Empire of Half Truths, with actress Fernanda Torres, from the early 1990s.
So what does it all mean? Fresh from a six-week-long run at the Pleasance Theatre, in a secluded London suburb that can only be described as off-off-off-Broadway – about as far from Manhattan’s “Great White Way” as one could get, and from the UK’s own West End play district – here is The Great Man himself, uncensored and uncut, verbally hemorrhaging in his own inimitable fashion, to shine a lone spotlight on his latest extracurricular accomplishments.
Josmar Lopes – Welcome home, Gerald! Are you glad to be back in the Big Apple?
Gerald Thomas – Am I glad? Joe, I suffer every single day when I don’t wake up with the noise and the smell of this town. You gave me a great intro – for which I’ll be eternally grateful. Do I deserve it? I’ll tell you, there’s always reason (of some kind or another) to moan and groan. But coming home this time was particularly hard because of Ellen Stewart’s death [the late founder of La Mama Experimental Theater in Greenwich Village, who passed away in January 2011].
JL – Yes, I was so sorry to hear about her passing. It was an especially hard blow for you, I’m sure, since you two were so close. Your Blog tribute to her was very moving. In his column, New York Times’ drama critic Ben Brantley paid her a wonderful compliment for her years of devoted service to up-and-coming artists (such as yourself) and quite a few others besides.
GT – I was going to come back for the service, etc., but Throats was a very demanding rehearsal process (not entirely to my satisfaction). Still, I felt that I should, could and did cry my guts out when I learned of her death; but she would have been proud of me, keeping my troops aligned and not skipping rehearsals.
Coming back to being in New York: I can sit for hours looking at the barges and boats and bigger ships, float along the East River, where I live. And being back here is almost like being born again because of U.S. politics, my prime interest. You cannot imagine the torture of being stuck with the BBC News revolving [around] the same old and utterly boring stories all day, all night, until dizziness takes over.
JL – There’s never a dull moment here, that’s for sure! You took a well-deserved break from the theater. Why did you leave it and what brought you back?
GT – I left it because I really had had enough and felt that we (the theater people) had lost ground to a generation of nerds and idiots who Blog, tweet, and text-message each other ABOUT NOTHING, while their ears are covered, insulating them from the realities of the world: them and their iPods, iPads, I-this, I-that. Why did I come back to this craft? Don’t know. Show me evidence that I did.
JL – Well, for one, your newest play Throats is ample evidence of that. What made you decide to stage it in London instead of in the Village, or in São Paulo, for that matter?
GT – London is where I learned to be an adult, it’s where I had my first child, it’s where I rented my first apartment and dealt with electricity bills, etc. It’s where I sat, for six years, and studied at the British Museum. Also, what needs to be considered in this equation is that London’s theater scene is amazingly conventional. They are politicized, they deal with Agitprop Theater, but nothing metaphorical or imagetically evocative ever had any ground to hold in London. It took Pina Bausch thirty-odd years to make it across the [English] Channel, and the same goes for [stage director] Bob Wilson. I, though, well, if my return was to be a Parsifal – like proof that I could grab the Holy Grail – then I made it as difficult as possible for myself. And now, after the closing of the play, I was proven right.
JL – Nevertheless, this lengthy “gestation period” did give rise to another vintage Thomas creation. This piece, Throats, has garnered its fair share of criticism, both pro and con.
GT – A fair share of criticism. Indeed. And I must confess that I like all this much ado about nothing. I mean, look at the world. Look at all the shit that’s flying around here in the U.S., with the GOP gaining terrain, with [billionaire investor] Donald Trump saying (and getting away with) outrageous claims. Still, people worry about what happens on a stage, or on a canvas, or on some sort of manifestation regarding the arts.
JL – Can you tell me what your play is about? And what is the significance of the title?
GT – Now, I can tell you that Throats isn’t about anything. What does that mean? It means that the same chaos I witnessed on September 11, 2001, in the hole, i.e., the banquet in hell I witnessed, day in, day out, with firefighters, NYPD, police from all over, the Army, etc., all covered in dust and asbestos, burning in hell (all of us, burning in hell), yet trying to sit and have some sort of a meal. I was one of those who served the meals.
JL – A tragic irony, one that you deliberately touched upon in your play. It must have been a true hell on earth for anyone who was there…
GT – Is the play coherent with real events? No, of course not. I take that as a departing point and from there my mind is free to associate and all kinds of thoughts come to mind. And when they do, they need to be staged.
JL – Indeed they do. And much of your work – in fact, I’d say a great deal of it – tends to be autobiographical in nature. This one appears to be no exception.
GT – Precisely. Throats is no exception.
JL – I read that you’re planning to take the play to Brazil. How soon will that take place?
GT – This is my biggest headache at this moment. Touring a play is a nightmare. Some countries can be more nightmarish than others.
JL – Nightmarish in what ways, Gerald?
GT – Speaking logistically, São Paulo is quite extraordinary when it comes to organization. SESC [Serviço Social do Comércio – Business Social Service] is one of the best, best organized cultural institutions that I’ve ever been part of. But Munich is chaotic. Most of Austria is chaotic. Not to mention Argentina, one of my favorites, but where the main theaters (such as Colón, San Martin, and so on) sometimes DO NOT have electricity and all [the] lights go out during the show. It hasn’t only happened once but almost during every single tour: around ten times or more.
JL – I rather enjoyed journalist Silio Boccanera’s thought-provoking interview with you (it’s featured on your Blog). In it, he mentioned your works as having a strong affinity with those of the late, great Brazilian playwright Nelson Rodrigues. Do you agree with that analogy?
GT – Did he say this? I’ll have to take another look at it. I liked talking to Silio. His knowledge and “twisted take” of the world is amazingly interesting. The interview was deep and took a long while (which, for TV, is amazing). The editing, as far as I can remember, is extremely well done.
But Nelson Rodrigues? I remember saying that I find Nelson’s work one of the best in drama History. I do remember that Professor David George does make that comparison in his book, The Flash and Crash Days, named after my 1991 play [starring celebrated actress Fernanda Montenegro].
JL – Have you ever considered staging any of Rodrigues’ plays?
GT – Would I like to? I tried, but the family denied me the rights. That was back in 1986. So, instead of insisting, I just decided to go and write my own piece, Eletra Com Creta (much encouraged by Philip Glass, who said: “Fuck ’em”).
JL – And that settled that. Speaking of staging, how did you find this latest incarnation of the Dry Opera Company? Was it “up to snuff” and how does it compare to the troupe from Rio and São Paulo?
GT – I’m laughing here. Cocaine addicts would ask: “Was it up to sniff?” Look, Joe, I honestly wouldn’t know how to compare companies. I mean, each one of them come with their own “master” personality and grade of professionalism.
If I go back in time and take the Danish Dogma Company, for which I wrote and directed Chief Butterknife or the Italian Grotowski Company, for which I did The Said Eyes of Karlheinz Öhl and the Great Jones Company here at La Mama, how could I possibly compare them?
I mean, I’m sick and tired of saying that Brazilians and the Polish are the best actors in the world. All of this is B.S. Each country produces marvelous actors. So, no comparisons.
JL – Getting back to Silio’s interview, there was a point near the end where you dropped to all fours and pulled a patented Thomas tantrum – all in good fun, I’m sure. With that bit, though, you completely won Silio over. In fact, you charmed the pants off him! I remember seeing you do something similar at a 2008 rehearsal in São Paulo (during Kepler the Dog, I believe). Is this another case of a frustrated actor taking out his frustrations on the observer?
GT – No frustrations, believe me. I mean, I could simply write a part for myself in all these works but choose not to. Silio made me climb a steep hill in a steep park named Primrose Hill. And climbing, breathing and trying to be intelligent all at once does not work. I was exhausted (it was the third day of being interviewed) and I thought they’d cut that scene out in the final cut. But I made Silio smile and that’s what counts.
Did I do a similar thing in Kepler? Where? Honestly, I do not remember. I do remember playing the electric guitar…
JL – You were banging your head on the wall and pounding your fists on it as well. It was a marvelous performance, better than some of the actors! And as far as the electric guitar, you were playing Led Zeppelin.
GT – You’re talking about that one rehearsal you attended with your family. Well, yes. Many rehearsals turn out to be that way. But no fisting (LOL) this time.
JL – You’ve been working lately with some well known artists. I’m thinking of John Paul Jones, ex-bassist for that same rock group, Led Zeppelin. It’s been rumored you and Jones are working on – dare I say it – an opera? Tell me a little about that project.
GT – Our latest decision is to make [Swedish playwright] August Strindberg’s Ghost Sonata into an opera. That was John’s idea. And I quite like the plot, the surreal craziness, etc.
JL – Didn’t Jones also do the score for Throats?
GT – Yes, he did. Picked each piece of music and/or agreed with my choice and composed four new pieces, amongst which a ten-minute-long piano solo which, unfortunately, did not make it into the play in its entirety.
JL – Weren’t you also working on an operatic adaptation of the life of Ernest Hemingway? And weren’t you dealing with his grandson, John Hemingway?
GT – I was, yes. I mean, years ago.
JL – Whatever happened to that venture?
GT – I still love the idea, simply because Ernest Hemingway’s life was such a fantastic representation of the (so-called) American Male! Yet, projects do get lost, get trashed or are forgotten. John (Hemingway) and I did not find a way to continue working together. It is a pity, in retrospect.
JL – Why the sudden interest in writing and/or producing-directing original operas? Is there a special place in your heart for that art form, or is it just another artistic challenge for you at this stage in your career?
GT – What else are we here for? I mean, us, the artists? If not to fast forward History or, at the very least, tell our story or a story that matches our times? Why always rely on the classics? What’s the point? What I’m telling you now hasn’t changed (in my persona): if, say, fifty years from now, they were to study our era, what will they find? A bunch of people doing Shakespeare, a bunch of people staging Wagner, and so on. That is all okay. There is – definitely – a place for that. But I don’t consider it my mission.
JL – You make a good point. Are there any plans in the near future to do anything from the standard repertoire? In other words, has Bayreuth or Salzburg come calling yet?
GT – I’ve been in touch with Bayreuth so many times… I was actually there, invited by Wolfgang Wagner, in 1988. I sat in his grandfather’s wooden chair overlooking the stage, through a weird, small wooden window.
JL – As a die-hard Wagner fan, I’m envious.
GT – Several years passed but, somehow, the projects never fit my idea of provocation and vice versa. We’re still in conversation nowadays (with the two great-granddaughters), twenty-something years later. But I seriously do not consider my role as a director all that important. As for Salzburg, I believe that Ghost Sonata will open there. Not sure.
JL – Moving on to another area, you’ve ventured recently into independent filmmaking. What has become of that project? Is it still on the back-burner or is there a chance we might see a genuine GT production on the big screen?
GT – Yes, film. I’ve been toying with the idea since forever. I mean, that group in Denmark became the so-called Dogma 95. So, in other words, I did witness and encourage, and even inspire, the birth of a film movement, which had strong ties to Rules and Regulations about how a movie had to be shot. This included a certain dogma (no pun intended) and lots of fake shots – verified years later.
But it has inspired me to work on Ghost Writer – later [changed to] Copywriter. Since film is an extremely industrial process, I’ve needed the help of people like [British director] Hugh Hudson and other filmmaking friends to tell me how important a crane shot is and a steady cam and this and that. Well, guess what happened: the script itself became a secondary thing and I deflated like a flat tire running over a bed of nails.
JL – That in itself is a very cinematic description you just gave.
GT – But still, the script is in the works and so is the funding and – in Goethe’s words – I just hope that one day this shape takes form (or vice versa).
JL – So, on the whole, was the cinematic experience all it’s cranked up to be?
GT – I don’t find it any more amusing than driving along the New Jersey Turnpike.
JL – Which is not amusing at all, I hear. Did you work with film director Fernando Meirelles (City of God, The Constant Gardener) on this project?
GT – And [on] Blindness… He based a character of one of his adaptations of Slings and Arrows on me and called this character “Oswald Thomas” (a hysterical theater director who only quotes and quotes and cannot relate to humans). [It] turned out to be a good thing because it brought us close. He did look at the script, as did Braulio Mantovani (his screenwriter), and they did collaborate, yes.
JL – Did you know that his company, O2 Filmes, was also involved in the Oscar-nominated documentary Waste Land (Lixo Extraordinário), and that Meirelles was its executive producer?
GT – No, I didn’t.
JL – I guess the screen world is fast becoming as insulated a place as the theater world is. Waste Land is mainly about Brazilian-born artist Vik Muniz and his involvement in bettering the lives of the catadores (“garbage pickers”) of the Jardim Gramacho landfills in Rio de Janeiro. You were always much involved in social causes. I’m thinking of your years as an ambulance driver in London and, without a doubt, your heroic efforts after the 9/11 attacks.
GT – You’re missing what is perhaps the most important “militant” period of my life, social, political and everything else: the years spent in London, in the 1970’s, working in the International Secretariat of Amnesty International. My God! What a period that was: I worked on behalf of Chilean, Argentinean and Brazilian “prisoners of conscience.” Thousands killed for having expressed themselves. A Holocaust of sorts.
JL – With your busy schedule, Gerald, where do you find the time to dedicate yourself to these activities?
GT – Listen, there’s always time. If one can’t “wing it” during the day, there’s the night, and if there isn’t one just has to prioritize and sometimes, often enough, those social causes are MORE important than this self-centered thing called art.
JL – There appears to be mounting interest in all things Brazilian, due in part to the country playing host to the 2014 Soccer World Cup and the upcoming 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio, as well as to its revived economy. Because of this renewed interest, would you be willing to spend more time in Brazil?
GT – No. Especially because of the events you just mentioned. If there is a thing I like about Brazil it’s its ingenuity in having become a great isolated, self-contained and completely independent nation. They seem not to need anyone: they get fed by the novellas [TV soap operas]; there is a popular culture (MPB – Brazilian popular music), which nourishes itself. Is that a virtue or a defect? I find it a virtue when a country’s identity can be so strong that they can feed off one another. Brazil’s so-called “internationalism” is nothing but banging on the exotic stereotype and I’m certainly not interested in that.
JL – Where do you consider your base of operations to be: London, New York, or somewhere in Germany?
GT – I don’t know. Good question. Actually I do know: it’s New York. I don’t really keep stuff anywhere else. It’s all here. It has always been here. Since the OpEd Illustrating days [at The New York Times] to the first Becketts, it has all been here. This is where the texts get written. Of course, I may later change them entirely or cut and polish. But it’s all here. Always has been.
JL – What needs to change in Brazil for you to move back there on a more “permanent” basis? Has the climate for the arts improved any since you’ve been away?
GT – Gosh! You seem to insist that I go and stay in Brazil. Is that because you want me out of your way? Am I weighing too much here in N.Y. or in London? Just kidding, of course. But if you, yourself, were so keen on Brazil, you’d have gone and stayed, right? But you didn’t. It’s really not about Brazil. I could easily move to Amsterdam, but it’s not about Holland. I could… you got the idea.
I HATE being a foreigner and I simply HATE the false intimacy and false friendships that Brazilians put to you on a silver platter. That is an ingrained and intrinsic problem with that culture that I simply cannot get used to. Never will.
JL – Gerald, what is there on your professional horizons, now that you’ve come back in full force?
GT – Maybe today is not a good day to do my own predicting or forecasting. Maybe the air has, indeed, run out or maybe I need a break far longer than the one I got and visit places I have never been to, such as Africa, for example. I don’t know. I’m exhausted. The new book is out (Nada Prova Nada – “Nothing Proves Nothing”) and I should be jumping with joy. But I’m not. Should President Obama get reelected, I’ll promise to be a happier camper. That’s my real ONLY worry at this moment.
JL – I hear you. I’m looking forward to this latest burst of activity on our part. Thanks again for sharing and good luck in all your future endeavors.
GT – It’s always a pleasure. Always.
(Author’s note: Throats was subsequently re-worked and rewritten by Gerald. Re-staged in São Paulo during the month of July 2011, at Teatro SESC Vila Mariana, he renamed his play Gargolios. The title is a mixture of Portuguese with English, specifically the words “gargoyles” and gargantas (or “throats”). It’s just like Gerald to use verbal puns at every opportunity. And since President Obama did get reelected in November 2012, we’re still waiting for that “happier camper” to materialize… and waiting… any day now…)
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes
The Brazilian Bach
The standard contract for many visiting vocal artists allowed them to appear in a work of their own choosing — for instance, one of the rollicking stage comedies of Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini — while it stipulated for others that they perform in at least one national opera, usually those of the late Carlos Gomes.
But other important Brazilian works were represented as well, beginning with the operas of the aforementioned Henrique Gurjão (Idália, 1881) and Leopoldo Miguez (Pelo Amor! 1897; Os Saldunes, 1901), followed by the earnest efforts of Henrique Oswald (La Croce d’Oro, 1872; Il Neo, 1900; Le Fate, 1902), João Gomes de Araújo (Edméa, 1886; Carmosina, 1888), Francisco de Assis Pacheco (Moema, 1891; Flora, 1898; Estela, 1900), Alberto Nepomuceno (Electra, 1894; Artemis, 1898; Abul, 1905), Antonio Francisco Braga (Jupyra, 1898-99), Francisco Mignone (O Contrator de Diamantes, 1921; L’Innocente, 1927; Mizu, 1937; O Chalaça, 1973; O Sargento de Milícias, 1978), Mozart Camargo Guarnieri (Pedro Malazarte, 1932; Um Homem Só, 1960), and numerous others.
Yet the most distinguished of the Brazilian classical composers was not even present in this hardly illustrious pack. As if to take up the compositional power vacuum left by the untimely death of maestro Gomes, the young and hearty Heitor Villa-Lobos suddenly exploded onto the scene as a self-taught — and self-made — musical force onto himself.
With his endless fascination for popular and folk forms, and his incorporation of modern and neoclassical elements into his entire musical framework, Villa-Lobos appeared to possess the finest qualities of Dom Pedro, Carlos Gomes, and Arturo Toscanini, all rolled into one indomitable and charismatic entity: the eclecticism and intellectual curiosity of the emperor, blended with the ambition and musical talent of the composer, balanced against the poise and self-confidence shown by the conductor.
Here, at long last, the potential savior of the Brazilian national opera had conclusively emerged — or so it was believed — and began to loom large over Brazil’s expansive musical horizon almost from the very moment of his conception. What most readers and critics might find surprising about him — and what historically has been so glossed over, in view of the increasing number of revisionist accounts being offered by present-day researchers — is the prominent part Villa-Lobos played in crafting an absolutely unassailable mythology for himself. Unassailable, that is, until now.
Born in Rio de Janeiro, on March 5, 1887, as a premature infant (he could hardly wait to get started, it would seem), in the last decade before the end of the nineteenth century — and less than a year after Toscanini’s impressive debut in the same city — Heitor Villa-Lobos became, in the minds of most Brazilians, that peripatetic and immensely prolific musician of near Mozartean proportions he initially set out to be; one whose best work was consciously patterned after that of the German master Johann Sebastian Bach, whom he greatly admired.
The connection to Bach, one of Western civilization’s most industrious individuals, was indeed a prescient one in Villa-Lobos’ case: although he composed reams of widely performed church and organ pieces, Bach never wrote for the lyric stage (a serious man of faith, the inexhaustibly inventive genius may well have considered opera too frivolous a subject for his strictly Lutheran sensibilities).
Too, Villa-Lobos produced all manner of classical compositions, and, much like his European “mentor,” wrote in a wide variety of styles and genres. Yet most musicologists would be hard-pressed to name even one operatically themed work, a revealing fact of musical life that remains a mystery to this day.
Nevertheless, like the temperamental Toscanini before him, Villa-Lobos began in modest surroundings as a cello player, which, along with the clarinet, he learned to play at the tender age of six, thanks to a stern and foresighted parent named Raul:
“My father, besides being a man of first-rate culture and exceptional intelligence, was a practical, technically proficient musician. In his company I attended rehearsals, concerts, and operas, the purposes of which [were] to ground me in the nature of instrumental ensembles… he required me to discern the nature, style, and origin of the works, to quickly tell him the exact pitch of sounds or noise that I heard at any given moment, such as, for example, the screech of a streetcar on iron tracks, the chirp of a bird, or that of a falling metal object. All these things were done with discipline and absolute energy; poor me if I gave the wrong answer!”
Villa-Lobos would create some of his finest scores almost exclusively for that soulful string instrument, the cello (Grand Concerto, 1913; Fantasia for Cello and Orchestra, 1945), as well as for the guitar (Twelve Studies, 1923-25; Five Preludes, 1940), which he also mastered, and the piano (A Prole do Bebê, 1920-22; Cirandinhas and Cirandas, 1926). Indeed, it was a forgone conclusion that little “Tuhu” — “a runty, incorrigible child, undisciplined, willful and not at all coachable” — was the only one of his seven siblings destined to do something quite out of the ordinary in order to stand out from the crowd.
Blessed with an astonishingly accurate and refined ear for melodies, harmonies, chords, and colors of every shape and form, the incurably precocious boy from the bairro (“neighborhood”) of Laranjeiras soon started congregating with local street musicians, nightclub singers, sidewalk artists, and other disreputable types; all the while picking up and playing their tunes and dance rhythms, and improvising to a new and unique style of music called choro, an early precursor to samba, which formed the creative backbone for many of Villa-Lobos’ body of instrumental works:
“What is a Chôro [sic]? The Chôro is popular music. The Chôro of Brazil, as you could perhaps say about the samba or something else, but truly the Chôro, is always of the musicians that play it, of good and bad musicians who play for their pleasure, often through the night, always improvising, where the musician exhibits his talent, his technique.”
Here, There and Everywhere
The family moved several times while Villa-Lobos was still small — it might have had something to do with father Raul’s shady political past — but, for better or worse, the close-knit clan always managed to revert back to Rio. Regardless of where they resided, his parents strongly disapproved of their son’s association with these unsavory street sorts, the gist of which led to his being placed in a more “structured” musical environment.
After the premature passing of his father in 1899, Villa-Lobos could no longer be constrained from seeking an independent career in music, or from curbing his insatiable wanderlust. He abandoned plans to enter medical school and become a physician, a profession his mother, Dona Noêmia, once hoped he would take up, in favor of travel to every part of his adored Brazil.
Although documentary evidence of these excursions remains scant and unclear to this date, it is believed that between the years 1905 and 1907, and throughout 1907 to 1912, Villa-Lobos claimed to have paid frequent visits to the states of Espírito Santo, Bahia, and Pernambuco, in the Northeast, with occasional side trips to the South; to the central region of Minas Gerais, Goiás, and Mato Grosso; and to the Southeastern state of São Paulo. He purportedly explored parts of the Amazon rain forest, or so we are informed — a foray that, by all reports, left an indelible mark on the young wayfarer.*
In addition to the uniqueness of his individual style, “creativity” became an enduring part of Villa-Lobos’ historical legacy as well. Where does one begin? Why, every known and not-so well-known aspect of the composer’s life and art were suffused with this trait, which sometimes bordered on the pathological. Even at this seminal stage in his development, he was wont to display his storytelling skills at random, sometimes stretching his already incredible adventures to absurdly preposterous lengths. Tales of his having been captured by “native savages” or nearly devoured by “hungry crocodiles” were as fanciful and hard to fathom as those involving his alleged shipwreck off the coast of Barbados in the Caribbean — with his ever-present cello in tow, of course.
Constantly on the move during this period, which made it well-nigh impossible for him to be to pinned down about his various exploits, Villa-Lobos paused just long enough (in 1913) for a little romance and marriage to Lucília Guimarães, a respected pianist and composer, as well as a choral director, teacher, and arranger of note. She is said to have exerted a strong influence on her husband’s musical formation, which included lending a creative hand or two to many of his early compositions, and to his later piano-playing technique.
(End of Part One)
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes
* Early hagiographers took up this frequently cited point as if it were the unvarnished truth. Further research into what there is of the facts, however, revealed that Villa-Lobos’ brother-in-law, one Romeu Bormann, may actually have been the individual who partook of these so-called “extensive excursions” to Brazil’s interior (quite possibly with famed explorer Marechal Cândido Rondon), circa 1909-11. Villa-Lobos could very well have appropriated these stories about his relative’s jungle adventures for his own self-aggrandizing purposes.
Strange Operatic Bedfellows
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, opera began to draw the seemingly incompatible attention of the wealthy rubber barons, who settled the rugged northern portions of the country.
The riches that the world market for natural rubber commanded at the time fed a lavishly ostentatious lifestyle that first manifested itself, in 1876, with the planning and building of the Teatro Santa Isabel in Recife, in addition to the 1878 opening of the Teatro da Nossa Senhora da Paz (Our Lady of Peace Theater) — nowadays called Teatro da Paz — in Belém do Pará; and that would later reach its full flowering with the resplendent Teatro Amazonas in Manaus.
A gilded, 700-seat tribute to that bygone age of excess, it was the rubber barons’ way of leapfrogging over three centuries of European artistic and cultural development in a mere fifteen years — the exact length of time it took to complete the construction of the opera house.
The structure itself was located near the Amazon Basin, where the Rio Negro and Rio Solimões converged — the black waters of the one and the brown waters of the other, a physical (and symbolic) meeting place for the two mighty rivers. Its pink Carrara marble exterior, Portuguese stonework, imported Italian crystal, English laminated gold leaf and cast-iron balconies, as well as elegantly embossed French interior, boast of a Belle Époque opulence and rococo refinement that rivaled even the gaudiest palaces of the mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria, Wagner’s patron and supporter.
With its “golden cupola inlaid with thirty-six thousand ceramic tiles,” the house was inaugurated on New Year’s Eve 1896 — a few short months after Carlos Gomes’ death — with the opening performance of Ponchielli’s La Gioconda occurring about a week later. Many of the era’s greatest living artists, including (reputedly) actress Sarah Bernhardt, dancers Isadora Duncan and Anna Pavlova, singer Adelina Patti, and others, traveled hundreds of miles upriver and through dense jungle forest to appear there. There is still some controversy today as to whether or not these world-famous celebrities, in particular the tenor Enrico Caruso, actually set foot in the region.
Intriguingly, the rubber barons’ wild obsession with playing cultural catch-up to the rest of civilization was imaginatively re-worked in the 1982 Werner Herzog flick Fitzcarraldo.* German film director Herzog would assume a more integral role in re-establishing the Brazilian national opera to a semblance of its fin-de-siècle eminence, first with his 1994 production of Gomes’ Il Guarany in Bonn, Germany, staged two years later at Washington’s National Opera, both starring tenor Plácido Domingo and conducted by Brazilian-born maestro John Neschling; and later, of Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser in 2001, at the Teatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro, originally slated for São Paulo but prematurely scrapped due to budget cuts.
In spite of the combination of hubris and pretentiousness — or perhaps even because of them — the glory days of grand opera in the Amazon Basin lasted barely a decade. Reporter James Brooke, of The New York Times, remarked that, “The outbreak of World War I cut the theater off from European companies that had regularly visited. Only three companies traveled to Manaus during the 1920s, and the grand opera house sank into ruin” after 1946.
Too, the short-lived glitter of that era quickly faded, along with the fortunes of the would-be empire builders. But the imposing physical structures they brazenly erected still stand to serve as silent reminders of their misguided extravagance.
Other Temples of Worship
This was but a temporary setback, for opera as a viable art form in Brazil continued to survive well into the twenty-first century. The focus would soon shift from the under-developed Northern interior to the more progressive Southeast.
With coffee having supplanted rubber as the cash crop of preference, the nouveau riche barões do café (“coffee barons”) now longed to flaunt their new-found wealth to the world. They agreed to finance and support the building of two of the most well known Brazilian opera houses, both of which took the name of Teatro Municipal, or Municipal Theater
The theaters were built only a few years apart, with the work on the house in Rio (“a superb academic palace… defined as the symbol of our country’s full-fledged eclecticism”) beginning in 1905 and seeing completion in July 1909; and São Paulo’s version, anointed in September 1911, in the very center of old downtown, and both based on the classic Beaux Arts design of Charles Garnier’s Paris Opéra, which was in keeping with the period aesthetic of admiration for, and emulation of, all things European:
“The 1,816 seats seemed few for the gentlemen in their frock coats and the ladies with gloves, fans and hats. All were enchanted with the magnificence of the Theatre, at last in the image and likeness of the city [of São Paulo], cultivated and prosperous. Outside, such was the activity that cavalry and infantrymen in gala uniform had to call on a group of cyclists from the Civic Guard, to control the order of vehicles on the way out… There were so many speeches and acts of homage that the last act [of Ambroise Thomas’ Hamlet] ended at 12:45 a.m… The programme was shaped like a fan, and full of advertisements: chemists, barbers, glovemakers, grocers, cigarettes, sweets, toques, brandy, beer, remedies for dandruff and sweating… On performance days special trams, upholstered in white, served to carry the refined spectators and to protect their impeccably tailored and starched clothes.”
According to historical brochures of the time, the theaters were “created, above all, to attend to the needs of the emerging Italian immigrant community… with the objective of providing a house with characteristics similar to the best the world had to offer.”
“In addition to the [republican era’s] ambition to achieve higher cultural standards…,” the Municipal Theaters “were associated with extensive city renovation plans which, to a certain extent, they came to symbolize.” In layman’s terms, they became structural manifestations of “the moving force behind the urban renovation” projects of the self-same communities for which they were designed to serve, as well as a paean to the sturdy individuals who designed and constructed them.
The growing Italian population, having reached its migratory peak at about this same time, thrived in the Southeastern parts of the country, where “king coffee” was most abundant. By dint of hard work and personal sacrifice, the immigrants managed to carve out an indelible cultural niche in Brazilian society. In the process, they permanently enriched the Portuguese language with an indisputably Mediterranean flavor — somewhat accurately portrayed in the late-1990s soap opera, Terra Nostra (“Our Land”), on the Globo network — and gave Brazilians of the Sudeste their first real occasion to revel in the unrestrained joys of la bella musica Italiana, which, for most people, meant the opera.
With world-class theaters in full operation, Brazil could now boast of an especially attractive home base for opera performances. It soon became a major stopover point on every important artist’s South American leg of his or her world tour. The Via Sacra of performance venues for any great singer, then, would start with Rio de Janeiro’s main musical arena; moving on to the stages of São Paulo, it would finally conclude in Buenos Aires, Argentina, at the ornately decorated Teatro Colón, which opened in 1908.
Indeed, from the early twentieth century onward, Brazil’s principal lyric theaters were graced by a veritable who’s who of legendary opera greats: from the husband-and-wife team of soprano Eugenia Burzio and tenor Giovanni Zenatello (in 1904), to baritone Pasquale Amato (1907) and the Italian vocal phenomenon Titta Ruffo (1911), who had inaugurated the Teatro Municipal of São Paulo in that five-act opéra-comique version of Hamlet referred to earlier, and who reappeared four years later as Rigoletto in Rio. By 1922, both centers saw the local debuts of the likes of Elvira de Hidalgo, Gilda dalla Rizza, Claudia Muzio, Gabriella Besanzoni, Karl Braun, Miguel Fleta, Walter Kirchoff, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, Hipólito Lázaro, Emil Schipper, Pietro Mascagni, Vincenzo Bellezza, and Felix Weingartner.
The late 1930s and intervening war years were relatively lean ones for opera in the region; but the postwar period of the mid– to late forties, up through and including the 1950s, proved to be an enormous boom time, as Brazil played host to a marvelous assortment of performers, conductors, directors, and producers, typically of Italian extraction.
Among the principal guest artists who appeared, in both houses, at one time or another were sopranos Maria Callas, Victoria De Los Angeles, Magda Olivero, Antonietta Stella, and Renata Tebaldi; mezzos Fedora Barbieri, Adriana Lazzarini, Elena Nicolai, and Giulietta Simionato; tenors Mario Del Monaco, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Beniamino Gigli, Gianni Poggi, Tito Schipa, Ferruccio Tagliavini, and Ramón Vinay; baritones Gino Bechi, Tito Gobbi, Enzo Mascherini, and Giuseppe Taddei; basses Boris Christoff, Giulio Neri, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, and Italo Tajo; conductors Oliviero De Fabritiis, Franco Ghione, Vittorio Gui, Gino Marinuzzi, and Tullio Serafin; and American Verdi specialist, baritone Leonard Warren, billed as the very Latinate-sounding “Leonardo Veronese,” opposite Italian soprano Elisabetta Barbato and native-Brazilian singer Elias Reis e Silva, in Il Trovatore. (My own father was especially privileged to have caught these fine artists in their prime inside São Paulo’s Teatro Municipal.)
Moreover, the non-adventurous repertoire for the country’s two main theaters was comprised of the usual operatic warhorses — La Traviata, La Bohème, Madama Butterfy, Tosca, Rigoletto, Aida, Cavalleria Rusticana, Pagliacci, and The Barber of Seville, in that order — offset by a smattering of less familiar showpieces, among them Boito’s devilish Mefistofele, Massenet’s exotic Thais, Mussorgsky’s dramatic Boris Godunov, and Mascagni’s Japanese-flavored Iris.
In his superbly detailed guide, Ópera em São Paulo: 1952-2005, author Sérgio Casoy meticulously outlines the season-by-season developments, to include the dates and times of all performances, complete cast listings, the ins-and-outs of orchestra leaders, major and minor substitutions, and production and design-team data, in addition to other miscellaneous matters associated with each work.
Unfortunately for opera, Brazil’s capital city was moved in 1960 from the festival atmosphere of Rio de Janeiro to the barren hinterlands of Brasília, in the central state of Goiás, with federal funds following soon after. Both theaters suffered artistically and financially as a result.
The houses underwent extensive renovations throughout the late seventies and into the middle-eighties. But due to perpetual funding problems, almost constant uncertainty over the economy, and the precarious political situation in the country during the 1990s — to include the somewhat off-beat nature of programming overall, which featured (among other things) Carnival and graduation balls, noisy political conventions, and official party banquets — the Municipal Theaters were no longer the vibrant centers of artistic and cultural life they once were. The golden curtain had been lowered on a full-scale Brazilian revival of the opera.
More recently, however, imported productions from other international institutions (such as Herzog’s Tannhäuser), plus scattershot performances of standard repertory items (Butterfly, Traviata, Turandot, and Die Walküre), mixed with the traditional (Gomes’ Fosca, Lo Schiavo, and Il Guarany) as well as more obscure fare (Guarnieri’s Pedro Malazarte, Villa-Lobos’ Yerma and A Menina das Nuvens), have conspired to keep the hope alive in Brazil for better opera days ahead. ☼
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes
* The legend that Caruso once graced the stage of the Teatro Amazonas was probably due to his all-but fictionalized presence in Herzog’s iconoclastic film epic. Regardless, the great Neapolitan tenor did, in fact, pay several visits to Brazil during his short lifetime, including an unforgettable one, in 1903, in Rio de Janeiro (September 8 to 26), where he performed in Rigoletto, Tosca, Manon Lescaut, and Iris; and again in 1917, in São Paulo (September 25 to October 10), as well as Rio (October 13 and 16). Both cities saw him in his greatest role as Canio in Pagliacci, in addition to Carmen, Tosca, The Elixir of Love, Lodoletta by Mascagni, La Bohème, and as the Chevalier des Grieux in both Massenet’s Manon and Puccini’s Manon Lescaut.
Modern technology has been a fabulous boon to our get-it-now society. Just think of all the electronic wonders available to us, and within our easy reach: laptops, routers, Webcams, BlackBerrys, iPods, iPhones, iPads, i-This, i-That, iYi-yi… Why, the list is endless and protracted.
Apparently, there’s nothing better than state-of-the-art, cutting-edge devices to bring people from diverse backgrounds together. It’s almost like taking an electronic trip to a foreign land, but without the discomfort and delay associated with our present-day air travel (ugh).
From a communications standpoint, though, one of the more practical innovations, and a blessing in disguise (to this writer, at least), is e-mail. It can also be a wolf in sheep’s clothing to anyone who’s ever opened an innocuous looking attachment by mistake, only to discover that the health of one’s terribly expensive hard drive has been irreversibly compromised by some hidden virus or other — the high-tech equivalent of a mail bomb.
On the other hand, heretofore-unknown senders of what passes these days for spam can likewise turn out to contain some quite pleasant surprises.
In my own case, I get dozens of messages a month from any number of individuals, some of whom have perused my online content and been sufficiently motivated to write me about them.
Letters, We Get Letters
To illustrate my point, I once received correspondence from an artist manager who resides in the windy city of Chicago. He began his letter by stating that he made regular quarterly visits to my home country of Brazil:
“I read your articles on www.riodejaneiro.com. As always, you are enlightening and entertaining. I especially enjoyed today’s article, ‘Did Bossa Nova Kill the Opera?’ Keep up the great work, and I hope to meet you in person one of these days in New York.”
Another writer possessed the most elaborate résumé imaginable: a consultant to Lockheed Martin Corporation near the nation’s capital, he claimed to have had a 30-plus-year relationship with Brazil as a career diplomat, a naval officer, and well-heeled business traveler.
Interestingly, this gentleman wrote me on July 4th after having participated in an Independence Day gathering at nearby Reston, Virginia:
“Yesterday I saw a show of Brazilian music and was surprised by the enthusiastic response of the audience to a program of bossa nova and MPB, and equally impressed by the number of Brazilians and Brazilian-wannabes present.
“The next time you come to Washington, give me a call and we’ll get together for lunch or dinner and shoot the breeze.”
That’s two invitations in a row for yours truly — and I didn’t even know these guys! Still, the unusual aspect of this American’s friendly demeanor was his excellent written Portuguese, which put my own stale efforts in that department to shame.
One of the most touching compliments I came across, however, was this fairly moving one sent to me on New Year’s Eve:
“Last night a dozen friends came by for pasta, wine, a couple of Jeannette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy films. After which I pulled up your delightful writings of Carmen Miranda and Bidu Sayão [‘Two Brazilian Charmers’ and ‘The High Price of Fame in Brazil’].
“We all have a little bit of film, jazz music, and opera awareness and it made for a wonderful roundtable discussion… I, of course, included more of Ms. Sayão’s second husband. It made for a special evening of old friends. Many thanks. Have a great New Year and my best regards. Fred Danise, Oceanside, California.”
I found out later he was the grandson of Italian baritone Giuseppe Danise, who was indeed spouse number two to the little Brazilian nightingale, soprano Bidu Sayão.
Coincidentally, just before Fred sent along his e-mail, another of Danise’s relatives wrote me about the same pair of Carmen-Bidu pieces. To be exact, he was interested in anyone who could provide him with information leading to missing or lost Danise family members. Immediately, I referred the writer to long-lost relative Fred, and the Internet Website dedicated to his grandfather’s operatic legacy.
I truly hope they were able to make the electronic connection and “link up” at some point. But that’s not the least of my e-stories. It was around this same period (November 2005, if I recall correctly), when avant-garde theater director Gerald Thomas — the perennial “enfant terrible” of the contemporary Brazilian stage — took it upon himself to make contact with me as well:
“Dearest, I’ve just read a very impressive article you wrote [‘Getting to the ‘Bottom’ of Gerald Thomas’], and would love to have more info about you and how to obtain a hard copy, if there is such a thing… Would love to hear from you. LOVE, G.”
He left me his telephone number to call. Naturally, I simply had to oblige and buzz Thomas back. One thing led to another, and within a relatively short time he graciously consented to be interviewed for a longer follow-up piece (“Brazil’s Brightest ‘Prima Donna’: A Candid Talk with Gerald Thomas”) — a rare opportunity for a budding author such as me.
Not only that, he went so far as to publish my original article on his personal Website, www.geraldthomasblog.wordpress.com, and even sent me a complementary video compilation of some of his best-known theater presentations. Bravo, Gerald! Since then, we’ve been friends. In addition, I’ve seen Gerald on several occasions, once in Brazil and again in New York City.
Along different but no less memorable lines, there was this poignant message from a reader, written in delectable Brazilian Portuguese:
“I just finished reading, ‘Brazil: A Fever Called Corinthians,’ with tears in my eyes, for I am the daughter of Professor Júlio Mazzei [the former coach of the New York Cosmos and mentor to Pelé and countless other Brazilian sports figures].
“My father now has Alzheimer’s disease and no longer recognizes me or even speaks, much less talks about futebol. Can you believe it? I try looking for anything at all about him para matar as saudades [‘to satisfy the longing’].
“I loved what you wrote about your father. I’ve always wanted to do an homage to my father, but do not write well in either language. God bless your talent for writing! Your dad is very proud of you, wherever he is. As my dad used to sign off: ‘Your friend in soccer,’ Marjorie Mazzei Raggo.”
No amount of rhetoric on my part could possibly have captured the feeling of satisfaction I sensed after having been the recipient of such a positively glowing testimonial. I thanked Marjorie for her warm words, especially concerning poor Professor Mazzei, who my dad once met and spoke to back in the mid-1980s.
I then told her about my own father’s troubles with debilitating stroke and dementia, and his eventual passing in 1993, to which she replied: “I feel you know exactly what I’m going through. To lose such a wonderful dad whose passion for soccer may no longer live in his memory, but will never be forgotten… I’ve always admired writers because they can keep memories alive forever so that other people can share in [them].
“Please add me to your list of fans and keep me posted on news about your wonderful writings. If ever we decide to write a book about my father we will call you!” (Sadly, the much-beloved sports figure Professor Mazzei passed away, on May 10, 2009, at the age of 78.)
I was most flattered. Not to be overlooked is the fact that I, too, have often wound up on the sending side of the technological equation.
Yes, in fact, it was probably due to my long-winded retort to Scottish journalist John Fitzpatrick’s eye-opening exposé, “For Job Seekers Brazil is No Eldorado,” in April 2003, and its subsequent appearance on various Internet Websites — which led to a well-received series of writings devoted to my experiences as a teacher in South America’s largest city, São Paulo (“How I Taught English in Brazil and Survived to Tell the Story”) — that my “career” as a cultural commentator took off in earnest.
Thanks, John! By the way, we still have a long-standing commitment for a tall, cold one in Sampa. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for that.*
(End of Part One)
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes
* I finally got together with John Fitzpatrick in downtown São Paulo one late afternoon in July 2008. The nearest I can recall, though, is that we had much more than just one cervejinha (“beer”) between us to enliven our conversation.
‘Deck the Hawrs with Bars of Hawry, Fara-Rara-Ra-Rara-Ra-Ra!’ The All-Time Best-Selling Christmas Movies… Ever!!!
And a ho-ho-ho to all! Welcome to my own personal selection of all-time, best-selling Christmas movies ever. What I mean by “best-selling” is that they’ve exploited the art of selling a heck of a lot better than any Mad Men episode I know of. And let’s face it, dear readers: Christmas is nothing if not a time for mucho product placement.
It’s this aspect, then, that I wish to address, what good ole Charlie Brown once decried as the commercialization of the season. Whether it’s a person, a feeling, an object or an ideal, every one of these cinematic fixtures is about selling something related to the holidays.
With that said, I’ve kept this list short: ten festive features for your consideration – to be judged, critiqued, and skewered to your heart’s content. But before you break out the eggnog, don’t forget to put up those evergreens – with their shiny little ornaments intact, naturally. You wouldn’t want to buck a yearly trend, would you?
In the meantime, have a holly, jolly Christmas everybody!!!
March of the Wooden Soldiers (1934)
The first of our holiday offerings is, of all things, an operetta, and is the earliest flick on our must-see program of Yuletide favorites. Based on Victor Herbert’s Babes in Toyland (its original title), this preseason opener includes such delightful numbers as “Toyland,” “Never Mind, Bo Peep,” “Castle in Spain,” and “Go to Sleep (Slumber Deep),” along with the lyric sounds of Felix Knight as Tom-Tom the Piper’s Son, Charlotte Henry as Little Bo Peep, and Virginia Karns as Mother Goose. Why, there’s even a dastardly villain to hiss at (Henry Brandon as Silas Barnaby, the meanest man in town), as well as the vintage comic antics of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy (as Stannie Dum and Ollie Dee, respectively) to share a good laugh with. A fair chunk of this film’s plot revolves around the intellectually challenged duo’s scatterbrained schemes, which eventually lead to their powering up the six-foot-tall Wooden Soldiers of the title. A charming, prewar ambiance prevails throughout. And if you still don’t get the implication, the black and white photography spells it out for you, plain and simple: good is good and evil is evil. We also get a surprise visit from Saint Nick (Ferdinand Murnier) and a good deal of tinkering at the old toy shop where Stannie and Ollie do their darnedest to make things work – until they get fired for botching up Santa’s order. Beyond that, there’s nary a Barbie doll or action hero in sight (how refreshing), just a bunch of rampaging Bogeymen to contend with. Ah, the sweet innocence of youth! It’s all in good fun, of course, while providing some lighthearted fare for the whole family to enjoy.
It’s A Wonderful Life (1946)
Things take a sharp turn for the worse, however, in Frank Capra’s darkly-hued vision of a Christmas Eve gone sour, the flip side of holiday cheer. Seriously, it’s that rarest of birds (and I don’t mean a roast turkey), i.e., a family-friendly film noir for the times. James Stewart is George Bailey, the Everyman of Bedford Falls. Donna Reed is his loving wife Mary, Henry Travers is Angel Second Class Clarence Oddbody, and Lionel Barrymore is crabby old Mr. Potter. Let’s be honest here and call this picture for what it is, i.e., a domestic take on an old English fable: Charles Dickens’ unforgettable A Christmas Carol brought to our shores and updated to postwar America. And to think it all started with a greeting card, according to accepted lore. It can’t get more commercial than that, now, can it? All the classic characters are present and accounted for, albeit in thinly-veiled forms: Potter is the town’s resident Scrooge, while George is the put upon Bob Cratchit (a composite of both Cratchit and Scrooge, in fact), with Mary as his spouse, their sick daughter Zuzu as Tiny Tim, Clarence Oddbody as the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come, and so on. We could spend all day analyzing the finer points of this incredibly insightful drama, made just after Stewart had come back from his many bombing raids over Europe (what must he have seen!). Although the commercialization angle gets short shrift, what we have instead is a prescient vision of capitalism gone amok. Among the more harrowing episodes is the frantic run on the town’s banks, the lack of adequate housing for the poor and destitute, and George’s frightening dream sequence, wherein he imagines what life would be like in his fair town (now a slum called Potterville) had he never been born. It still packs a wallop today, when foreclosures, financial crises, and “fiscal cliffs” threaten the very fabric of our lives. In the end, all turns out well: the townspeople gather at the Bailey household, where they break out in a stirring rendition of “Auld Lang Syne,” while little Zuzu delivers her closing gambit: “Look daddy. Teacher says every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.” Does that include the cash register?
Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
This is the first of our celluloid confections that treats the Christmas season and the rampant merchandising that invariably went with it as a for-profit business enterprise. And it doesn’t make any bones about it, either. Miracle appeared on the scene the year after It’s A Wonderful Life made its screen debut. Consequently, it perpetuates the rather cynical notion of Christmas as a gigantic theme park via the Thanksgiving Day Parade, a prefabricated annual “event” dreamed up by department store owners to preserve, protect, and defend their right to a quick buck. As it were, Macy’s and Gimbel’s figure prominently, and so does the greeting card industry. A bewhiskered Edmund Gwenn (Oscar winner for Best Supporting Actor) plays Kris Kringle, a merry old soul and stopgap Santa Claus, who happens to take his day job a tad too seriously – and with good reason, since he claims to be the real thing. Co-starring Maureen O’Hara as Doris Walker, the woman who hires him, young Natalie Wood as her grounded-in-reality daughter Susan, and John Payne as Fred Gailey, the handsome lawyer who defends poor Kris from an insanity charge (as one of the Marx Brothers would say, “You can’t-a fool-a me. There’s-a no such-a thing as-a sanity clause” Oh no?). With Gene Lockhart as Judge Harper, cornered into making a decision as to whether or not there is such a person as Santa, William Frawley as his political adviser, who cautions the judge about rendering the wrong ruling, and postal worker Jack Albertson, who unknowingly decides the case. A surprise ending brings the issue to a head, while settling the matter to everyone’s delight, including the skeptical prosecuting attorney (Jerome Cowan), who rushes out of the courtroom in time to buy his son a present. Talk about consumerism! This is one of those films that demands repeat viewings, especially for the bond shared between veteran scene-stealer Gwenn and newcomer Wood.
A Christmas Carol (1951)
We now come to Dickens’ timeless classic, a Victorian-era exposé of the grim consequences of the Industrial Revolution and its deleterious effect on Britain’s lower classes. It’s a dog-eat-dog world (right down to the bone) and the textbook example of Social Darwinism taken to the extreme. Comic actor Alastair Sim is the Grinch-like Ebenezer Scrooge, a man so tight-fisted with his finances that he’d rather freeze to death than throw another coal onto the fire. This is the preferred version – miles ahead of MGM’s less gritty 1938 adaptation featuring an all-too-easily motivated Reginald Owen as Scrooge. Owen was a poor substitute for Lionel Barrymore, radio’s premier acting voice at the time. Barrymore’s acute arthritic condition prevented him from participating in that earlier film venture, hence the substitution. Fortunately for viewers, Sim’s brilliant take on the character has been preserved for us for all time: his miser is drier, colder, more callous, and ergo more cruel than Owen’s grandfatherly one. Indeed, this is as dark as the old boy gets. His ghostly excursions will scare the Dickens out of you, too. Scrooge is portrayed here as a victim of circumstances beyond his control. Coming as it did on the heels of It’s A Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street, there’s no question the old skinflint’s misanthropic ways deserve a comeuppance. He’s redeemed in the end by a healthy dose of reality. The shocking image of the Ghost of Christmas Present harboring the two young children inside his cloak (“This boy is Ignorance, this girl is Want”) is forever etched in our memory. The film reaches its climax in the scene of the terrified Scrooge, alone and at the end of his rope, coming face to face with the Ghost of Christmas Yet-to-Come – a patently chilling moment, I don’t mind telling you. The message? Treat your fellow man as you would like to be treated yourself. With Mervyn Johns as Bob Cratchit, Hermione Baddeley as Mrs. Cratchit, Michael Hordern as Jacob Marley, Ernest Thesiger (Dr. Pretrorius in Bride of Frankenstein) as the Undertaker, Glyn Dearman as a bright-eyed Tiny Tim, and Peter Bull as the Narrator as well as one of the gentlemen who comes calling on Scrooge to lend a helping hand to the poor.
King of Kings (1961)
We talked about Christmas as a holiday, but we’ve yet to mention the person responsible for that whole gift-giving thing. So here goes: one of the two or three best film treatments of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, told with reverence and respect. Jeffrey Hunter is a most tender and winning Christ. I’ve always objected to this picture’s association with the gag-line “I Was a Teenage Jesus,” simply because Nicholas Ray, the man responsible for Rebel Without a Cause (the James Dean-Natalie Wood vehicle), was noteworthy for being the quintessential teen-angst filmmaker of his day. But his King of Kings is much more than that. To begin with, an uncredited Orson Welles narrates (superbly, I might add). There’s also an all-star lineup of leads, headed by the redoubtable Robert Ryan as a deadly serious John the Baptist, Rip Torn as a properly conflicted Judas Iscariot, Harry Guardino as the rebellious Barabbas, Hurd Hatfield as a pompous prig of a Pontius Pilate, Ron Randell as Lucius the Centurion, and Frank Thring (repulsive, as always) as the lascivious King Herod. With Brigid Bazlen playing a depraved and debauched Princess Salome who dances and preens in decadent Lolita-like fashion. What more could you ask? The picture was filmed on location in Spain, with many Spanish extras appearing throughout – including the worthy fellow playing Pompey the Great. Skewed camera angles and unusual perspectives make this production a thoroughly offbeat and entertaining one – for the subject matter, that is. I happen to think it’s one of Hollywood’s finest religious epics. Producer Samuel Bronston got his picture company off to an excellent start. Others soon followed (among them El Cid, The Fall of the Roman Empire, 55 Days at Peking, and Circus World), but King of Kings was the first and best of the lot. The highlight is the moving Sermon on the Mount, with Hunter’s inspired and beautifully realized Lord’s Prayer, and of course that marvelous Miklos Rozsa film score (it’s to die for). The widescreen image of a blue-eyed Anglo-Saxon Jesus is the selling point here.
The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965)
A medieval Passion-Play brought to life. But compared to the earlier King of Kings, however, it’s a slow, stately affair, a bloodless religious pageant and a challenge to one’s patience to boot. This is, without a doubt, the Hallmark Hall of Fame roadshow version of Jesus’ life and mission, brought to the big screen. Between the Swedish Max von Sydow’s intellectual approach to the role and American Jeffrey Hunter’s more emotionally compelling one, it’s difficult to choose which one wins out. Both actors display facets of Jesus’ personality that I like and respect. Sydow’s more studied interpretation does have its pluses and minuses, but the real star is the scenery. You can’t beat those Southwestern locales for authenticity (the picture was shot in and around Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Monument Valley, Utah, and California’s Death Valley). Whether they’re relevant to the Middle Eastern aspects of the story is another matter entirely. Maybe that’s as it should be, considering the number of familiar faces who participated in the spectacle. This bevy of Tinsel Town’s finest certainly helps to keep things moving, but those minute-by-minute-cameos of famous folk in minor roles are overused to irritating effect. With Charlton Heston as a John the Baptist-cum-caveman type, Claude Rains as Herod the Great, Jose Ferrer as Herod Antipas, Telly Savalas as Pontius Pilate (he shaved his head bald for the role, but kept it that way for the remainder of his career), Martin Landau as a youngish Caiaphas, Dorothy McGuire as Mother Mary, David McCallum as Judas (interesting casting here), plus Donald Pleasence, Roddy McDowall, Ed Wynn, Shelley Winters, Sal Mineo, and John Wayne as the Centurion (okay, maybe not so interesting after all). The original running time of almost four and a half hours remains unavailable on DVD and Blu-ray. Still, the deliberate pacing and atmospheric production values make up for the lack of excitement. Director George Stevens wrapped his career up in grand style with this magnum opus. The reverential music score by Alfred Newman (with a quote or two from Verdi’s Requiem during the Via Dolorosa and Handel’s “Hallelujah” Chorus after the Resurrection) was one of his last. Greatest Story is not in the same league as other Christ-centered works and is fairly slow-going over the long haul, but it’s definitely worth a moment of your time.
A Christmas Story (1983)
What follows next is a picture where crass commercialism begins to take center stage. A Christmas Story is indeed the funniest and most enchanting of the items on my list by far. The film version of Jean Shepherd’s book In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash (and other writings) has become a perennial holiday classic – a comedic triumph from beginning to end, abetted in no small part by Shepherd’s witty, deadpan delivery. He puts out a steady stream of verbal vignettes, savoring every word and spewing forth a running commentary that defines movie narration as never before. Nine-year-old Ralphie Parker (a terrific Peter Billingsley) is obsessed with getting an official Red Ryder carbine-action, two-hundred shot BB-gun for Christmas. Unfortunately, he’s stymied at every turn – even by the feisty department store Santa Claus (a nightmarish vision of shopping mall Santas and their helpers), who spouts the recurring line: “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid.” After several misadventures, some of which are relegated to the fantasy realm (including an uproarious one where Ralphie goes blind from having his mouth washed out one-too-many times with soap), he finally gets his wish, only to see it backfire on him. Oh well, in the land of the blind, the kid with one eye is king. Darren McGavin is his charming, grumpy self as Ralphie’s dad, known as the Old Man, whose constant fuming and fussing reach absurdist levels when the family’s turkey dinner is all but ruined thanks to his next-door neighbor’s famished canines. Battered but unbowed, the Old Man whisks his family off to enjoy a Christmas meal at their local Chinese restaurant, where the Peking duck smiles up at them in imagined disdain. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard a popular Christmas carol sung by the over-eager waiters in politically incorrect “Chinglish” accents. It’s one of this film’s many riotous moments. The only thing dad has going for him is that atrocious leg lamp he won in some stupid contest, the most hideous decorative objet d’art you’ve ever laid eyes on. No wonder his frustrated wife (played by Melinda Dillon) trashes it at the first opportunity – good riddance! The film incorporates many of the themes of this essay, but does so in mildly satiric fashion. No matter! You’ll love every minute of this outlandish slice of middle-American life.
Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)
Ever get a really good idea that somehow goes incredibly wrong? That’s the premise of The Nightmare Before Christmas. And brother, do things go wrong here, as Christmas comes to Halloween Town, courtesy of Jack Skellington, the town’s Pumpkin King and never-say-die (!) community organizer. In this imaginative stop-motion re-working of a Broadway show (we’re back to where we started with March of the Wooden Soldiers), Jack’s earnest attempts at capturing the spirit of the season (with the kind of Yankee ingenuity that made this country great), in the face of overwhelming odds, are thwarted by incompatibility. Perhaps the two holidays, Halloween and Christmas, were fated never to come together, but at least this film proves it – although nowadays, most commercially minded retailers tend to go from October 31st straight into December 25th, without a break in the holiday action. When the children in Nightmare wake up on Christmas morning to the disaster that awaits them, Jack does his level best to make things right. What a guy! You can’t keep a good skeleton down, I always say. Chris Sarandon is Bone Daddy Jack, with the haunting singing voice of composer Danny Elfman, who wrote the tuneful and sophisticated score as well as the macabre lyrics. Catherine O’Hara is Sally, the beautiful Bride of Frankenstein clone, and Glenn Shadix is the indecisive Mayor of Halloween Town. With his two-faced swerving head and stovepipe hat, he’s the splitting image of a powerless politician, while Ken Page is the soulful, swingin’ Oogie Boogie Man. Featuring strong support from William Hickey, Edward Ivory, and Paul Reubens (a Tim Burton regular), along with assorted vampires, phantoms, witches, mummies, werewolves, and other horror-movie types. The picture is directed by Henry Selick, and produced by Tim Burton and Denise Di Novi, from an original Burton story. Burton’s motto, “One’s person’s craziness is another person’s reality” becomes the catch-phrase for this production as well. In fact, the songs are what make this show shine, from the opening “This is Halloween,” “What’s This?” and “Kidnap the Sandy Claws” to “Making Christmas” (note the use of the Latin Dies Irae theme) and Jack and Sally’s lovely closing duet. We’re only a few steps removed from the Great White Way, folks! Parents may find this one a bit too intense for very young viewers, but I say give it a shot. You never know how kids react to things these days!
Jingle All the Way (1996)
Here’s a Christmas story that’s bound to give the holiday season a bad name. Did I say bound to? Why, it absolutely does give it a bad name: it’s called exploitation. Directed by Brian Levant (could he be related to composer and pianist Oscar Levant? I hope not), Jingle All the Way is a movie that practically wallows in cynicism, a joyless exercise in the art and substance of self-absorbance. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays Howard Langston (how he got that Austrian accent is never divulged or explained), a career-minded salesperson and negligent dad very much in the Jim Carrey Liar, Liar mold. Dad just can’t seem to keep his promises (boy does that sound familiar), missing his son Jamie’s karate exhibition and, in general, causing his constantly harried wife Liz (Rita Wilson) to turn to their smarmy divorced neighbor Ted (Phil Hartman) for comfort. To redeem himself in his son’s eyes, Ah-nolt decides to get him the most hard-to-find Christmas toy imaginable (sure, why not make things more difficult for him?): a do-it-all action figure of bogus super hero Turbo-Man. That any father in his right mind would give in to such a spoiled brat as Jamie – played with annoying indifference by the obnoxious Jake Lloyd – is reason enough to avoid this flick. That the lead character actually wants to please the terrible tike stretches credibility to the breaking point. Schwarzenegger is a big-name star (and an action hero in his own right), but when he meets up with unfunny comic Sinbad, playing an equally miscreant parent and impatient postal worker named Myron, you know he’s met his match. Myron’s in the same boat as Howard (maybe they should’ve switched names, not that it matters much to the plot). You can just imagine the troubles this implausible pair shares as they raid the various department store shelves (the movie was filmed in Minnesota and at Bloomington’s Mall of America) in a mad rush for the unobtainable trinket. When Howard is accosted by a shady-dealing Santa Claus (Jim Belushi), who introduces Arnie to his illegal toy operation — while trying to sell him a Spanish-language Turbo-Man — the whole thing starts to unravel. To say there’s crass commercialism afoot is an understatement. There’s not a single redeemable moment or positive message in the entire picture – in other words, it’s a perfect representative of all that we’ve been railing against from the start. See it if you must, all others stay clear!
If the above entry was enough to discourage you from holiday shopping (and participating in the Christmas season ritual altogether), then the unfettered innocence of Jon Favreau’s Elf will do much to restore your faith in humanity (well, almost). Individual initiative, of the kind that lifted A Christmas Story and The Nightmare Before Christmas to newfound heights, is touted here in this sweetly sentimental (and often quite funny) tale of a fellow named Buddy (childlike clod Will Ferrell), brought up as one of Santa’s elves in the North Pole, who makes a total nuisance of himself in the blithely unsentimental Big Apple. A cold fish out of ice water? Maybe so, but Ferrell is so likable, and the story is, how shall we put it, so unrelievedly sincere, that you wind up siding with the big lummox almost from the opening reel. His dilemma is simple: abandoned by his single mother to an orphanage, Buddy sneaks into Santa’s toy sack and, lo and behold, he’s adopted by the old boy’s elves and made to live among them. Realizing he doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the toy-making crowd (you think his six-foot-three-inch frame had something to do with it?), Buddy takes off on his own in search of his biological dad (James Caan). The story is told in flashback and in the form of a children’s book, a major coup in the storytelling arena. However, some of the cast members could use a strong cup of Christmas cheer, most notably a relentlessly irascible Caan (what, Sonny Corleone as a children’s book publisher? Not likely!), who never really convinces one that he’s an okay guy after all; while Santa (played by grouchy old Ed Asner with a perpetual scowl on his kisser) had better not pout if he knows what’s good for him. However, there’s a reason for the lack of holiday spirit, which I’ll not spoil for you here. Bob Newhart is his low-key self as the narrator and Papa Elf. A radiant Zooey Deschanel is Buddy’s love interest, whose lack of self-confidence is put to the test (her shower scene with Ferrell, as they blend together on “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” is a riot). Mary Steenburgen is Caan’s understanding wife Emily, and Daniel Tay is Caan’s son, and Buddy’s half-brother, Michael. He’s another one of those neglected movie children, cast aside by over-achieving parents as well as hack screenwriter’s with no originality. The children’s book-publishing motif, with the firm being run as a cutthroat business venture – and with money and profit the be-all and end-all of corporate existence – is given a well-deserved drubbing. This is a welcome return to the long-dormant realm of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, It’s A Wonderful Life, and other holiday favorites of one’s youth. It even concludes on a high note (!), with a community sing-along (of sorts) featuring the whole of Manhattan accompanying Zooey’s efforts in doing justice to “Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Uh, I think I’ll have that eggnog now…
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes
The Triumphal Scene of the second act of Verdi’s Aida was well underway, with all of the extras actively engaged in one of grand opera’s most elaborate ensemble displays. Wave after wave of dancers, laden with the spoils of war, completely filled the main stage.
They were followed almost immediately by the appearance of Signor Bertini (Metropolitan Opera tenor Carlo Bergonzi, in a ridiculous but no less authentic handlebar mustache) as Radamès, the victorious Egyptian general in charge. Trumpets proclaiming his arrival blare forth from every corner of the auditorium, to the spectators’ growing excitement and delight.
Just as the chorus of high priests announces the entrance of the defeated Ethiopian captives, now permanently enslaved to the haughty Egyptian empire, the prima donna portraying the slave princess Aida holds up her hand to quiet the proceedings.
Taking his cue from the singer, the wiry conductor Arturo Toscanini, played by the even wirier C. Thomas Howell, brings the massive spectacle to a halt, as the star soprano, Madame Nadia Bulichoff — interpreted by American actress Elizabeth Taylor, a notoriously flamboyant diva in her own right — makes an impassioned, impromptu speech against the evils of slavery.
Her words and glances are directed upward, toward the private parterre box where the emperor of Brazil, Dom Pedro II (French actor Philippe Noiret, in a flowing gray-white beard), sits with his entourage, attempting to enjoy the show. His imperial glare strongly implies a certain lack of sympathy for the soprano’s liberal stance, as well as hints of a previous “encounter” he would rather not be reminded of at that point.
Nevertheless, Bulichoff’s show-stopping oratory hits her intended target, as the emperor dutifully rises and exits the opera, followed by his royal retinue; amid the cheers, boos, and bravos of the delirious audience members, and to the prima donna’s spontaneous shout of “Long live Brazil!”
Undeterred by the goings-on, the young maestro radiates admiration and respect for the older artist’s bold resolve, as unheralded in its way as his own appearance was earlier that same evening.
* * *
This thoroughly entertaining clip from the limited-release 1988 film Il giovane Toscanini (known by its American-English title as Young Toscanini), directed by famed auteur Franco Zeffirelli, superbly dramatizes the very real and unscheduled debut of the illustrious Italian conductor in a late nineteenth-century Rio de Janeiro opera house — with the fictitious episode above excepted and duly noted.
Playing fast and loose with the facts, the picture was lambasted in serious circles for the liberties that were taken in its depiction of this oft-repeated “rags-to-riches” story. Its centerpiece quite properly focused on the young Arturo’s surprise conducting appearance.
Beginning, comically enough, with the opera company’s impresario, one Claudio Rossi (an egregiously miscast John Rhys-Davies, of Indiana Jones and Lord of the Rings fame, whose looks were about as Italian as Miss Taylor’s), it details his pathetic attempts at placating an unruly theater audience so that a performance of Aida could take place there. It concludes, in all-too formulaic a fashion, with the serendipitous substitution of the unknown Arturo Toscanini, who succeeds in saving the day with his ovation-inducing podium assignment.
The tall and lanky Mr. Howell, impersonating a tall and lanky Toscanini* — while striving mightily to capture the maestro’s steely-eyed resolve and unrivaled intensity in the pit — is a far cry from the ferocious, hard-driving personality and widely-rumored scourge of symphony orchestras and opera houses that history has preserved for us.
It brings us little comfort, too, to learn that the movie never made it to Stateside. If it had, the picture would have been laughed off the screen for its absurd deviations from the norm. Surely the real Toscanini would never have tolerated any kind of disturbance, especially one coming from a boisterous Brazilian audience.
The truth would eventually win out and prove to be much more enticing than this fictionalized slice of cinema life. Or would it?
Triumph in Rio
After the deaths of Emperor Dom Pedro II and his favorite composer, Carlos Gomes, it would seem that equally adventurous and domineering figures than these two deserving individuals were needed to firmly place Brazil on the musical map. What the national opera most required at this critical juncture was a permanent home, in addition to a strong and fearless guiding spirit — preferably, a native-born spirit — who could drag the culturally backward nation into the modern musical age.
In the end, these two elusive elements would emerge from the most implausible of sources, for imbedded within this scenario was a single act of courageous defiance committed by one of classical music’s most tempestuous personae.
This act, considered by musicologists as a watershed in the history of the operatic art — an event that has long since passed into the realm of musical myth, as evidenced in the opening section — was the unexpected conducting debut of principal cellist and assistant chorus master, Arturo Toscanini, during a combative June 1886 performance of Aida by a visiting opera troupe, the Compagnia Lirica Italiana, at the Imperial Theater in Rio. (Note: There is no record of the emperor or his court having attended the opera that night, or of a mid-act disruption by one of the cast members.)
As it was, the fiery maestro from Parma was forced to step into the shoes of Brazilian composer-conductor Leopoldo Miguez, after a storm of controversy and a vociferous public outcry compelled Miguez to quit the orchestra prior to show time. The protest had much to do with the Italian company’s stubborn refusal to take orders from a contracted Brazilian “outsider” as well as to Miguez’s questionable musical abilities. It all spilled over in the press and ultimately rubbed off on the shoulders of his hapless replacement, conductor Carlo Superti, who was prevented from taking up his baton just as the opera was about to begin by a steady hail of catcalls and projectiles.
In desperation, the company’s management approached a recent conservatory graduate, the nineteen-year-old Arturo Toscanini, who was not directly involved in the squabble, as a last-minute replacement to salvage what he could of the evening and the rest of the tour. This is the officially accepted version of the events that unfolded on that remarkable occasion.
Actual period accounts, moreover, do not differ markedly from each other in that respect, despite the haphazard nature of the situation. Consequently, they have leaned more toward shining needed light on the probable causes for the young maestro’s podium bow. One in-depth retelling, by Italian author Filippo Sacchi, placed the blame for what happened squarely on maestro Miguez, who “showed himself not only incompetent in dealing with music but also with money.”
Continuing along these same lines, Sacchi records that “Miguez was a native of Rio, where he had many partisans. He wrote an open letter to the papers to announce that he was retiring from the company, which, he contended, had not fulfilled his hopes… He had been forced to abandon his post because of the unjust and preconceived prejudice manifested towards him by the company, which, owing to misguided chauvinism, had not wanted to obey a Brazilian conductor. The statement finished by accusing Superti of instigating the insubordinate action of his compatriots.”
According to Sacchi, there was nothing left for the opera company to do but to move ahead with its planned presentation of Aida: “To cancel it meant destitution for the company, which was already owed a month’s pay; it would also involve interminable complications because of the contracts already entered into with the management of the theatre, costumiers, etc.; it also involved the thorny problem of their return to Italy, which Miguez had not budgeted for. They decided, therefore, to proceed as if nothing happened. So the good Superti stepped on to the rostrum, successfully concealing his nervousness by an outward appearance of great self-confidence, exactly on time. But this was not his night.”
As Sacchi relates it, “Before he could begin, the whole audience rose to its feet with the roar: ‘Down with the Italians! Up with Brazil!’ …Some of the gentlemen from the front rows of the stalls threw themselves on the luckless Superti, dragged him to one of the side-doors, and flung him out… the players were paralysed [sic]. Two or three of the more quick-witted of them had run on to the stage to consult with the others. There, terror-stricken and perplexed, high priests, warriors, and Ethiopian slaves cowered behind the curtain, which had been lowered, frantically searching for a solution. The audience [was] shouting and whistling and gave no sign of wanting to leave the theatre. The more courageous members of the orchestra were for carrying on at all costs. But who would step on the rostrum? Who would be capable of pulling the performance together under these conditions and facing a rowdy and hostile audience?”
Who indeed? At that lowest of possible low points, a light bulb went off in someone’s head: “Suddenly somebody suggested, ‘Toscanini.’ ‘Toscanini? But Toscanini is a cellist.’ Nevertheless, the name was on everybody’s lips.” A frantic search was begun to find the young musician before the house’s wrath came down around them all.
In the interim, the company’s chorus-master, Aristide Venturi, was coaxed (“like a lamb to the slaughter”) into the unenviable position of leading the opera’s prelude, which under normal conditions would have quieted the crowd down. This was not one of those conditions, however: “At sight of him there was a roar of fury from the audience. The poor fellow jumped down and hid behind the double-basses.”
A makeshift scouting party finally located the absent Arturo. “He had been spending the day with a girl and had brought her back to his hotel, fortunately only a few yards from the theatre.”
Other versions placed Toscanini somewhere inside the opera, but decidedly not in the orchestra. Regardless of the circumstances involved — and against his not inconsiderable will — the annoyed and visibly antagonistic principal cellist was whisked off bodily to the theater, where, “To his amazement the young man found himself on the stage surrounded by the whole company. A vehement argument ensued. They explained that he was their only hope, that unless the performance continued they would not have enough money to buy food the next day, and promised to help him as much as they could. Toscanini told them that they were mad. How could they expect him to conduct? …he had never conducted in his life. He had never even held a baton in his hand.* He persisted in his refusal. It seemed unlikely that any argument would move him.
“All of a sudden, his eyes focused on… two young members of the chorus, both from Parma. One of them, in particular, gazed at him imploringly. She had a simple, honest, peasant face – a face from home. She clasped her hands as if in prayer, then the poor woman broke into Parmesan dialect: ‘Come on, up with you, Toscané!’ That settled it. It was the voice of Parma. He murmured: ‘Very well, if you want me to, I’ll try.’”
Fuming and fussing every step of the way, Toscanini was physically deposited onto the conductor’s platform, with a fair amount of cajoling from some of the orchestra members: “Nobody, not even Toscanini, remembers exactly what happened subsequently. Either the audience had grown tired of demonstrating or they had come to their senses and were behaving in a rational instead of an emotional manner; or perhaps the unexpected sight of this beardless youth had shocked them into silence. The fact is that there was complete silence in the theatre. Toscanini mounted the rostrum, tapped on the music stand, and gave the attack.”
In the absence of convincing evidence to the contrary, nothing could possibly have topped this engrossingly told, if patently artificial, example of storytelling at its best. Another contemporary take — this one compiled, in 1929, by Tobia Nicotra — tried its own hand at myth-making, while corresponding closely to the details already provided in Sacchi’s theatrically flavored rendering, especially where it concerned Brazilian maestro Miguez:
“Although his dignity had been seriously offended, Miguez made no protest during the two months spent with the company at San Paulo [sic]. But once they reached Rio, where he was at home, he published a scathing letter denouncing the disloyalty the Italians had shown him, and announced his resignation from the conductorship.”
Picking up the narrative where Sacchi had left off, Nicotra then describes what came afterward: “[T]he musicians of the orchestra acted. They knew that their nineteen-year-old ‘cellist had extraordinary talents; they divined the ‘born conductor.’ And when Toscanini seemed reluctant, they came forward and deposited him on the rostrum by main force.”
No mention of a girl or a hotel room was included in this slightly more sanitized reading. But from this point on the story would progress inexorably toward its ultimate conclusion: “The sudden appearance of this boy and the utter novelty of the situation caught the audience. Their curiosity pricked, and silence descended as though by sorcery. An impressive silence after that earlier hubbub. But was the audience really appeased or was this merely a pause for astonishment before a worse uproar?”
The answer came quickly enough. To his lasting fame and credit, the fledgling conductor’s initial exposure was a tour de force for himself and for the struggling opera company. He even succeeded in leading the work entirely from memory (an absolute necessity, given his severe myopic condition), which was thought to be an uncommon practice at the time:
“There stands young Toscanini on the conductor’s dais wearing somebody else’s dress coat – which they have got him inside of without his being aware of it – holding a baton someone has managed to thrust between his fingers. He closes the score (for he is never during his whole career to conduct except by memory), lifts his baton, sends the familiar electric glance to left and right, and gives the signal for attack. The prelude begins. Self-pledged, the orchestra makes its most heroic efforts to second this conductor in whose hands the fate of their season may possibly be saved.
“The opera closes; there is a delirium of applause. Disaster had been averted for the company; and Toscanini’s ordination in the conductorship, accomplished by the luck that had put him on the rostrum at the crucial moment, was attended by a tumult of praise. The season continued without a break in success, and the youthful leader arranged and directed eighteen operas during the company’s tour. Luck had done better than the conservatory.
“Toscanini’s fellow musicians had recognized intuitively qualities his teachers had overlooked. He had had to leave the school to find himself.”
Toscanini did indeed “find himself” in Rio. His unequivocal triumph there led to additional European and South American engagements — including a four-season stint at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, which contributed greatly toward solidifying his international reputation abroad, thus launching him on one of classical music’s most outstanding, and long-lived, conducting careers.
He went back to Italy a victorious field commander, but not before playing second “fiddle” (or second cello, as the case may be) in the February 1887 premiere of Verdi’s Otello. His long anticipated return trip to Brazil, however, occurred only in June 1940 — four and a half decades after the fact — as part of the NBC Symphony’s “good neighbor” tour of the South American coastline. Author Lisa M. Peppercorn, reporting for The New York Times, wrote rapturously of the event: “Rarely has an artist received such an impetuous, almost frenzied, reception as Toscanini got on his return to Rio de Janeiro this year.”
Wherever they went, the same ecstatic reviews followed the Italian conductor and his all-American troupe of players, in nostalgic recognition of their past and present accomplishments. The tour was lauded in the press as “one of the most elaborate good-will gestures made toward South American countries in recent years.”
The orchestra’s musicians, whom Toscanini normally kept at bay, found him to be eminently approachable: “The trip was marvelous on the way down… We spent all our time in the pool, eating all our meals on the deck – it was great,” raved bassoonist Leonard Sharrow. “And Toscanini was up on deck with all of us. We could get close to him, talk to him.” Everyone took advantage of their time together, but the moments of repose became fewer and far between and would soon pass from memory as the tour began to wind its way down:
“The day after the Fourth of July concert, the orchestra boarded the S.S. Uruguay [the same ship that brought Carmen Miranda and her band to America not one year earlier] for the last leg of the journey… The group performed in São Paulo on July 8 and in Rio the next two nights and then immediately boarded the vessel to begin the voyage home.”
Although he lived another seventeen years, during his lifetime the Maestro, as he was now called, never sought re-engagement in the country that had given him his start. And why should he have? Unlike the nearly destitute Carlos Gomes, Toscanini had found a more suitable outlet for his talents in the abundant cultural life of New York City. He spent his days directing (some would complain that he “browbeat”) an orchestra specifically tailored to his rigid performance standards, along with profiting handsomely from an exclusive RCA recording contract.
After the war, Toscanini continued to remain active in the U.S. until his retirement in 1954 at the age of 86. Seeming to wag his finger at the reader despite his previous commentary, writer Sacchi has nonetheless come back to admonish against our taking too much of what transpired earlier in Rio at face value:
“This factual account of the first occasion on which Arturo Toscanini conducted a full orchestra in public may help to dispel some of the misconceptions, which have almost become a legend. It has been presented as a simple stroke of luck. Some of his admirers even seem to believe that some sort of supernatural agency intervened and that he was transported to the rostrum by magic. In fact it should be realized that this incident was the logical result of incessant and meticulous hard work. The orchestra chose him as their leader and conductor because they were conscious that he was the only one who knew the score by heart from first note to last: for, when the company was still at São Paulo, Arturo spent most of his free time helping to rehearse singers and instrumentalists, who realized that they were weak in some part of their roles… It was no simple stroke of luck: but luck was on his side.
“When Toscanini left Rio, he took away with him more than a small sum of money. The citizens of Rio, long before the end of the season, had forgotten all about their hatred for the Italians, and now loved and admired them as much as they had formerly hated them.”
It was a lesson that did not go unnoticed by others. Recovering from his earlier fiasco, Leopoldo Miguez eventually went on to earn kudos of his own as a champion in Brazil of the works of composers Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt, and Richard Wagner — an unprecedented feat for a Brazilian of that epoch. A frequent traveler to the European mainland, the native from Niterói eventually proved his worth as a competent and respectable administrator, in his capacity as the head of Rio’s Music Conservatory.
He even won a First Prize for himself in an 1890 competition, the result of which was the scoring of the Hino à Proclamação da República (“Hymn to the Proclamation of the Republic”), once known to every schoolchild until it was supplanted by the lyrics to the current Brazilian national anthem; it no doubt helped his chances that Miguez was an avowed republican sympathizer as well.
But as far as the Brazilian national opera was concerned, neither he nor the supremely gifted Toscanini would prove to be that true guiding light destined for domestic greatness.
(End of Part One)
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes
* In reality, the famously short-tempered Italian maestro also came up short in the height department, although that never stopped Toscanini from engaging in a number of dalliances with a variety of leading ladies, to include an all-too well-known liaison with American soprano Geraldine Farrar.
* Here, Sacchi’s use of literary legerdemain has gotten in the way of the facts. The truth is Toscanini was thoroughly schooled in the rudiments of the conducting art during his student days at the Parma Conservatory. Still, having the young maestro state his case in this purposeful manner did make for a riveting good tale.
When the Stars First Came Out
As the soprano concluded the last of her encores and was savoring the applause of an appreciative public gathered to hear her command performance at the White House in Washington, D.C., then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt enthusiastically approached the fragile-looking figure before him and complimented Bidu Sayão on a most enjoyable concert program.
In the same breath, he casually proposed to the Brazilian singer an immediate American citizenship — most likely a calculated gesture on his part, motivated by his administration’s bold dedication to the policy of the upcoming “good Northern neighbor.”
Obviously flattered by her host’s generous offer, the gracious Bidu politely declined. “Thank you, Mr. President,” she was acknowledged to have replied, “but I am a Brazilian artist and would like to die as one.” The date was February 1938.
A little over a year later, on May 17, Broadway producer Lee Shubert, of the Shubert Brothers Theatrical Company, was getting ready to greet another Brazilian artist, one whose ship had just pulled into New York harbor, with her band and retinue in tow.
She was scheduled to make her U.S. stage debut in Shubert’s 1939 musical revue The Streets of Paris, a show that featured the local appearance of comedy duo Bud Abbott and Lou Costello.* The artist’s name was Carmen Miranda.
Disembarking from the S.S. Uruguay, she was met by a horde of big-city newspaper reporters, all eager to record the spontaneous comments of this sizzling new Latin sensation. Carmen did not disappoint them. Her first words to the waiting crowd were reported to have been, “I say money, money, money, and I say hot dog! I say yes and I say no, and I say money, money, money, and I say turkey sandwich, and I say grape juice,” and so on.
These two radically distinct responses, and seemingly unrelated occurrences, would come to denote to the Brazilian artistic community at large that, for a precious lucky few, living and working in North America — even while earning fame and fortune on her streets and in her theaters — would prove to be a most illusory pursuit.
They would also serve to teach multi-talented Brazilian nationals some valuable life lessons in the world outside their native land: that the pains and compromises, glories and frustrations, triumphs and disappointments all such artists regularly endured for their art were no substitute for the loss of their individual identity.
To paraphrase a line from Rudyard Kipling, rare were the artists that could keep their own heads, when all about them others were losing theirs. And there exist no finer examples of this than the stories of these two marvelous Brazilian singers.
Certainly, the old truism that “good things come in small packages” was never more so than in describing the physically compact and vocally alluring attributes of the lovely Bidu Sayão and the electric Carmen Miranda. In reverse proportion to their small stature, they were the central figures in Brazilian opera and popular entertainment for the better part of 30 years.
Prima Donna Par Excellence
Formally trained in Brazil and Europe, and deeply influenced by legendary Polish tenor Jean de Reszke and by her second husband, the Italian baritone Giuseppe Danise, Bidu Sayão was Brazil’s most well-known classical vocal export — and every inch an opera star of the first magnitude.
Although christened Balduína de Oliveira Sayão after her paternal grandmother, she would forever be known by the simple nickname “Bidu.” Indeed, simplicity and restraint, in matters both personal and professional, were to become the hallmarks of her fame.
She was born on May 11, 1902, in Rio de Janeiro, to a socially prominent upper-class family, which relocated to the beachfront district of Botafogo when Bidu was but five years old. Tragically, her father died shortly thereafter, thus depriving her of a masculine role model and leaving the poor girl to her own juvenile devices.
Playful and tomboyish, with a unique flair for fun and mischief, the incorrigible Bidu was never to attend public school with the other children of her age group; she was instead to receive private tutoring at her mother’s home up through the age of sixteen. But the independence and resourcefulness she first exhibited in her youth would later manifest themselves on the operatic stage in many of her most memorable comic parts, especially those of Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro, Adina in The Elixir of Love, and Rosina in The Barber of Seville.
Soon after her father’s untimely demise, Bidu’s older brother would assume his rightful place as the family patriarch, but the real seat of power would always remain with her mother, Maria José. Significantly, though, the absence of a strong male figure in her formative years may well have been one of the root causes of Bidu’s early marriage to a man three times as old as herself.
Yet even before this would come to pass, the choice of a theatrical profession for a society debutante from Rio was much frowned upon at the time by the privileged upper stratum. Recalling the event some years later, Bidu commented that, “Going on the stage was absolutely out of the question for a girl born to a respectable family.”
This aspect of her early life struggles was charmingly captured in a 1940s comic-book depiction of her life entitled Boast of Brazil. In it, the young fourteen-year-old is shown being scolded by her parents (the father’s death a decade before notwithstanding) about her “wrongheaded” career decision, and told, in no uncertain terms, how disgraceful it would be “for any well-brought up Brazilian girl even to consider such a thing.”
Not to be dissuaded, the typically resilient teenager pleaded with her lawyer uncle, Dr. Alberto Costa, to take up her cause. As a result, the musically inclined Costa became instrumental in swaying the mother’s opinion about a potential singing career for her daughter, having earlier arranged for his niece to take private lessons from Romanian soprano Elena Theodorini, a former star of La Scala — who personally thought the girl too immature, and the voice too small, for such a serious undertaking.
Nevertheless, Bidu persevered. With patience, practice, and stubborn persistence, she managed to survive Madame Theodorini’s rigid voice sessions. This led to her informal 1916 debut at Rio’s Teatro Municipal in the Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor, an appearance that would permanently put to rest the question of a career in the theater.
Theodorini’s resolute decision in 1918 to retire from teaching and return to her native country coincided with the end of the First World War. It also gave good cause for the adventurous Bidu to accompany her instructor back to the European mainland, the first time the blossoming prima donna had ever been away from her close-knit family. Not to fear, but her mother stood close by her as chaperone throughout her years there.
The time she spent abroad, however, was indeed fruitful, as Bidu applied for and was admitted to Jean de Reszke’s famous vocal school in Nice, France, where she was the only one of his personally handpicked pupils to have hailed from Latin America.
The still elegant Polish tenor had been a leading man with New York’s Metropolitan Opera Company long before Caruso’s debut there, and was a fixture at the house for many years prior to his own retirement in 1904. He would be the next to take on the role of surrogate father to the Brazilian novice, helping to refine and perfect her diction, and instructing her in the long-lost art of French singing style and vocal technique:
“De Reszke had an extraordinary ability to evaluate the text, integrating it to the music until they became one. This was to be of enormous help to me when I took on many of the Debussy scores… [The] dazzling mad scene [from Thomas’ Hamlet] which became a must on my concert programs, became a real part of me, so many were the times he made me go over it, concentrating on the words’ essence and producing sounds that would enhance them.”
After the death of de Reszke in 1925, and Theodorini’s own passing the following year, Bidu was forced to seek assistance elsewhere in planning for her operatic future. She journeyed to Italy for the express purpose of establishing contact with former diva Emma Carelli and her husband, the noted impresario Walter Mocchi, whom she had previously heard about while living in Brazil.
Together, the couple ran the Teatro Costanzi (later changed to the Teatro Reale) in Rome, and, since 1910, Mocchi had also been responsible for the opera performances at Rio’s Teatro Municipal, as well as the summer seasons at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Mocchi took quite a fancy to the young Brazilian beauty, as did his soprano wife. Suitably impressed by the little songbird’s talents, Signora Carelli referred her to maestro Luigi Ricci for training in operatic repertoire; and on March 25, 1926, Bidu Sayão made her European debut at the Costanzi as Rosina in The Barber of Seville, later adding Gilda in Rigoletto, and Carolina in Il Matrimonio Segreto, to her growing list of stage roles.
Her success in the Italian capital soon paved the way for Bidu’s triumphant return to the Brazilian one: she reappeared in Rio de Janeiro, as Rosina, in June of that year.
In the meantime, Mocchi had gone ahead and booked her for several more seasons at the Teatro Municipal in São Paulo, where he had previously accepted the management’s offer of a full-time directorship. Bidu went on to perform there in a wide variety of works, including the opera Sister Madalena by, of all people, her uncle Alberto Costa, a sentimental payback of sorts for his having served as the family intermediary ten years prior.
How much Mocchi’s new position had to do with the singer’s extended local engagement, however, is not known, but it soon became a situation ripe with romantic speculation. Irrespective of the rumors that might have been generated by the physical proximity of these two individuals, fate would inevitably thrust them even closer together.
In 1928, Emma Carelli was involved in a fatal car accident in Italy. Her sudden death left a personal void in the busy professional life of Walter Mocchi, who now looked to Bidu for consolation.
It would be easy to suggest that her subsequent marriage to the much older Mocchi was a relatively stable one, but the enormous 40-year difference in their ages proved a difficult gap for Bidu to close. She later admitted her mistake, claiming: “I have always searched for my father in the husbands that I married.” They separated after a time, and were finally divorced in 1934.
The following year, Bidu would at last meet her prospective soul-mate in the person of Italian opera star Giuseppe Danise. It was during a 1935 performance of Rigoletto at the San Carlo Opera House in Naples, quite possibly in one of the many moving numbers they had so often sung together at rehearsal, that soprano and baritone decided to transform their budding emotional relationship into a permanent love duet.
The couple officially tied the knot in 1946, and would remain constantly devoted to each other until Danise’s own departure from this world in 1963. He was nineteen years her senior.
(End of Part One)
Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes
* Future Hollywood film actor, dancer, choreographer, and Broadway stage director, Gower Champion, had also been present in the cast, but only as a member of the chorus. The other participants included French singer Jean Sablon, comic Bobby Clark, and Luella Gear, all of whom have been lost to entertainment history.