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.