‘Chestnuts Roasting’ on Your MP3 Player – The Best Loved Christmas Songs and Carols Collection

Pachelbel’s Canon performed by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra

It’s time to cozy up to that Lay-Z-Boy of yours, folks, and turn up the volume on your favorite listening device. All right, now, settle in … Put your arm around your honey and take a sip of some of that holiday cheer … Oh, yeah … Are you comfy yet ..? Good! Why, you can hear the fireplace crackling, while the music sweeps over you in a wave of luscious sound — the sound of Christmas.

Oh, and I know you’re going to love this part! It’s one you and I have been looking forward to all year long: the annual playlist of holiday Christmas songs and carols by your favorite artists and instrumentalists. And there are hundreds, nay, thousands of these recorded selections. The trick is to narrow the choices down to a precious few.

I’ve taken the drudgery out of this assignment by doing the heavy lifting for you. In other words, I separated the musical wheat from the proverbial chaff. How’s that for an early Christmas present? Well, then, what are you waiting for? Go on and put those feet up. While you’re at it, throw another yule log onto that fire. Because ready or not, here we go!

1. “The Christmas Song” (Nat “King” Cole)

Nat "King" Cole (blogs.babble.com)

Nat “King” Cole (blogs.babble.com)

The first track on our imaginary download of seasonal classics is quite possibly the most recognizable piece of holiday music around: the wonderfully nostalgic “The Christmas Song” — universally known by its first line, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” — performed by the incomparable Nat “King” Cole as only he could perform it.

Other singers have covered this mirthful tune from time immemorial, but only Cole could do it justice. Such a feel for the words (by fellow musician and singer Mel Tormé), such elegance, such class, such style … Ah, I could go on and on about this magical cut. Cole must have had the most soothing baritone voice in pop-music history. No other singer, male or female, has affected me in the way he does with this number, which I’m certain you’ll agree with for yourself. Nat was equally venerated in Brazil and Latin America as well.

He left us much too early in life, but what a treasured legacy he left behind, this being the finest example of his art. I can think of no better way to begin this survey than with him. To paraphrase a quote from Yogi Berra, “It ain’t Christmas till Nat ‘King’ Cole sings.” Ain’t it the truth?

2. “O Little Town of Bethlehem” (Andy Williams)

Andy Williams (theseconddisc.com)

Andy Williams (theseconddisc.com)

This sweetly sentimental number was first published back in 1865. It, too, has been recorded by just about everyone who is anyone in the music business, but my favorite version was done in the early 1960s by the late, great Andy Williams.

Years ago, in primetime TV Land, Christmas just wouldn’t have been Christmas without an appearance from this laid-back vocalist. Williams has often been inaccurately pegged as a baritone, but he’s nothing of the kind. Robert Goulet and Gordon MacRae were baritones, while Andy was more of a robust type of tenor with a tranquil, mellifluous tone, an extended and easy top range, and a smooth-as-silk delivery.

He personified sincerity to my mind, which was why he proved so popular with young and old alike. Williams’ sensitive take on “O Little Town of Bethlehem” hits just the right note of tenderness and awe. His “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” is another popular tune from one of America’s premier singing stars, one we will sorely miss in this milieu.

3. “Silent Night” (Barbra Streisand)

Barbra Streisand (myplaydirect.com)

Barbra Streisand (myplaydirect.com)

Another popular favorite is the perennial “Silent Night,” or “Stille Nacht” in the original German. Yes, this song originated in Austria and was composed in the early years of the 1800s. Lately, it’s had a tremendous resurgence as the song that brought two opposing armies together for a few nights of peaceful calm and camaraderie (rightly so) back in the war-torn Western front of the First World War.

There must be umpteen recordings of this one number alone, but the all-time best seller has got to be Barbra Streisand’s stunning edition from her 1967 A Christmas Album. Barbra’s remarkable singing voice was captured in its glorious prime. That unbelievable pianissimo high note she hits at the words “Sleep in heavenly peace” literally takes one’s breath away.

The other tracks are on a par with this one (“I Wonder as I Wander” proved especially affecting), but never has “Silent Night” been so beautifully handled by any singer before or after Barbra’s take on the matter. You’ll want to replay this one over and over again, I assure you.

4. “The Twelve Days of Christmas” (John Denver and The Muppets)

John Denver & The Muppets (forums.tannerworld.com)

John Denver & The Muppets (forums.tannerworld.com)

Now here’s a novelty item for you: bespectacled folksinger and popular soft-rock artist John Denver singing the lengthy “The Twelve Days of Christmas” carol with the inimitable Muppet bunch.

Included in this illustrious assortment of furry television friends are the always-dependable Kermit the Frog, the pitch-shy Miss Piggy, forgetful Fozzie Bear (who continuously flubs his lines), the Great Gonzo, piano accompanist Rowlf the Dog, Kermit’s nephew Robin, and those grumpy old geezers Statler and Waldorf.

The Muppets prove their acting chops (and their “singing” ones as well) in this all-together rollicking addition to our musical foray. It’s cute and lovable; a charming bit of fun and frolic from the above named team of characters, voiced by Muppet creator Jim Henson and master puppeteer-turned-movie director Frank Oz. The top-hatted Mr. Denver takes it all in stride in typically winsome fashion. Miss Piggy’s hilarious interpolations of “Five gold rings” are the highlight.

5. “Jingle Bells” (Frank Sinatra)

Frank Sinatra (rediscovermusic.com)

Frank Sinatra (rediscovermusic.com)

How can you resist an opening line that starts off with the swingin’, big-band sound of “I love those J-I-N-G-L-E bells – BONG!” Man, does that bring back faded memories of the 1950s, when Ole Blue Eyes ruled the pop-music charts.

Backed by the Ralph Brewster Singers, this bouncy holiday treat, arranged by Gordon Jenkins (one of Sinatra’s best, the two others being Nelson Riddle and Billy May), is an undisputed classic. It’s part of the album A Jolly Christmas, which includes such terrific seasonal fare as “Mistletoe and Holly,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “The First Noel,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

As was the case with Nat “King” Cole, there’s no one around these days (with the exception of Tony Bennett, still going strong at 86 — see the recent review of his trip to Rio: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/12/11/he-left-his-heart-in-rio-de-janeiro-tony-bennett-in-brazil-an-appreciation-of-his-artistry-by-guest-contributor-claudio-botelho/) who can even approach the matchless singing style embodied by the Chairman of the Board. He was especially adept at creating a mood, which he succeeds in capturing with the lively “Jingle Bells.” Ring-a-ding-ding!

6. “White Christmas” (Bing Crosby)

Bing Crosby (recordsale.de)

Bing Crosby (recordsale.de)

And speaking of moods, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when this holiday record was played, particularly during the bleakest (and snowiest) days of World War II. No soldier or G.I. serving overseas would ever forget the melancholy feelings of longing and pride in his country with this supremely nostalgic rendition of Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas,” as sung by Der Bingle and Company.

The original 78-rpm record was cut in mid-1942 or so, and went on to top the “Your Hit Parade” charts for the remainder of that year and beyond. It’s undoubtedly the biggest selling Christmas record ever made. The version that’s played today, so I’m told, is a 1947 re-recording, but with the same session artists (the John Scott Trotter Orchestra and Ken Darby Singers) as the original.

Bing Crosby was a model singer, a radio crooner who developed a devoted following and influenced an entire generation of vocalists, including a talented young artist named Farnésio Dutra e Silva – better known to fellow Brazilians by his American-sounding moniker, Dick Farney.

7. “O Holy Night” (Perry Como)

Perry Como (ioffer.com)

Perry Como (ioffer.com)

On the opposite end of the vocal spectrum, Pennsylvania-born Pierino Ronald “Perry” Como, who began his career as a barber in his hometown of Canonsburg, was another of those easygoing song stylists to have emerged from America’s grueling Depression and war years.

A byproduct of the big band era, Como performed in just about every medium, including the infant television industry almost from its birth. He had a long-running hit TV show while also hosting a variety of programs throughout the ‘50s and ‘60s; he also had a fairly successful recording career with RCA Victor. Como’s later clean-cut, sweater-spouting visage was honed during this period.

Audiences the world over would continue to enjoy his countless Christmas and Easter specials, which aired from the early 1960s well into the mid-1980s. Perry would often conclude his Easter programs with Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” but for his annual Christmas show the climax would be “O Holy Night,” accompanied by a heavenly boys’ choir and delivered in the subtlest of even-tempered tones imaginable. Como belonged to the same category of singers that begat the likes of Vic Damone, Al Martino and Jerry Vale, to name a few.

8. “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas” (Burl Ives)

Burl Ives (drakes-christmas-music.blogspot.com)

Burl Ives (drakes-christmas-music.blogspot.com)

Jewish songwriter Johnny Marks, who gave the world such Yuletide wonders as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” did it again with this jaunty little title. And itinerant ballad singer, author, raconteur, and television, theater and movie personality Burl Ives (“Big Daddy” in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and an Oscar-winner for his role as Rufus in The Big Country) recorded it in 1965.

Ives was affectionately known as the Wayfaring Stranger, becoming active in the folk field for a number of years thereafter — even teaming up with fellow artists Pete Seeger, Will Geer and Woody Guthrie. He was blacklisted for a time, due to his admitted involvement in several Communist Party gatherings. He appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which sullied his reputation somewhat.

Later on, his smiling bearded image became synonymous with the Snowman who narrates the Rankin-Bass stop-motion feature Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Ives’ claim to fame was a pleasingly mellow, reedy tenor voice of near-operatic proportions, along with a massive, hulking form which made him a formidable figure both on and off the screen.

9. “Adeste Fideles” (Luciano Pavarotti)

Luciano Pavarotti (oldies.com)

Luciano Pavarotti (oldies.com)

We go from the near-operatic to the tenorial splendors of the sensational Luciano Pavarotti, recorded live, in 1978, at Montréal’s Notre Dame Cathedral. The Fat Man outdid himself, if I do say so myself, in this magnificent concert of Christmas classics, given in one of the Canadian city’s most beautiful churches (I will personally vouch for that statement, having once visited the very same church).

The program consists of such standards as “O Holy Night,” Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” “Agnus Dei,” “Silent Night,” and César Franck’s “Panis Angelicus.” Luciano is joined by a symphony orchestra, led by Paul-Franz Decker, the Petits Chanteurs du Mont-Royal Boys Choir, and the Disciples de Massenet Mixed Chorus, for a solid hour of old favorites.

While Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” from Messiah concludes the program, the high point comes early on with Signor Pavarotti’s delightful rendering of “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” sung in Latin and known the world over as “Adeste Fideles.” The tenor succeeds in demonstrating why he was one of the most charismatic and capable crossover artists around — his aborted movie career notwithstanding.

10. “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow” (Gloria Estefan)

Gloria Estefan (magi-rus.ru)

Gloria Estefan (magi-rus.ru)

For a welcome change of pace, lend an ear, and give a close listen to, this hearty blend of salsa meets jazzy big band, in Cuban-American sensation Gloria Estefan’s rousing version of Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne’s “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow.” You can’t help but join in with the Miami Sound Machine crowd, as Gloria and her band-mates take off in this strictly Latin flavored outing, produced by the legendary Phil Ramone.

The cut is from Estefan’s 1993 album, Christmas Through Your Eyes, which features the usual holiday suspects (“Silver Bells,” “The Christmas Song,” “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas,” “Silent Night”), along with the title track (an original composition by Gloria herself, with Diane Warren) and a few unexpected surprises, including Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas” and José Barros “Arbolito de Navidad” (“Little Christmas Tree”). But the real toe-tapper is definitely “Let It Snow,” which lets out all the stops, and then some  — check out that syncopated horn riff — a must-have for any record fan’s collection.

11. “The Christmas Waltz” (Karen Carpenter)

Richard & Karen Carpenter (amazon.com)

Richard & Karen Carpenter (amazon.com)

While you’re at it, add this one to our growing list of tried-and-true Christmas classics. Another Sammy Cahn/Jule Styne specialty number — this time, written for Frank Sinatra — the song’s been chronicled by a multitude of performers (starting with Ole Blue Eyes), all of whom laid down fairly respectable, if not exactly notable, accounts.

But it took the warm, chestnut roasted alto voice of Karen Carpenter (whose recording of “Merry Christmas, Darling” is another worthy candidate to search for) and her piano-playing brother Richard to bring this catchy air to vibrato-less life.

The line, “And this song of mine, in three-quarter time, wishes you and yours the same thing too,” perfectly encapsulates the sentiments of the holiday season; and lets listeners know the reason Karen was so beloved by so many. She epitomized this brand of earthy, get-to-the-heart-of-the-matter vocalizing without blasting one’s eardrums. Certainly, singing of this low-key nature is very much out of style. But don’t let that stop you from enjoying her crowd-pleasing work on this cut.

12. “Sleigh Ride” (Johnny Mathis)

Johnny Mathis (zerode.wordpress.com)

Johnny Mathis (zerode.wordpress.com)

Much like the artists cited above, it seems that Johnny Mathis has forever skirted the upper limits of popularity with the paying public. However, whenever pop music is mentioned around the water cooler, before you know it his name invariably comes up as the one and only exponent of the lost art of singing Christmas songs. How right they are!

Along with Tony Bennett, there’s no one today who has done more to ensure the durability of the popular song canon than the ageless Mr. Mathis. Amazingly, after a 60+-year career Johnny continues to pack them in wherever he goes. His mercurial tenor voice, though hardly the same now as it was in his sterling youth, is still at it, with frequent show-stopping tours all over the globe.

A sure sign of his continuing relevancy is Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride,” which started out as a light classical piece with sound effects popularized by Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra. The tongue-twisting lyrics were added later, and voila: an instant Christmas classic took form. What Mathis brought to his version is an infectious brio, a lighthearted sense of fun, and sheer, unabashed enjoyment of the times. Not only that, but his phrasing was well-nigh perfect. Johnny’s stretching out of the line, “We’re riding in a wonderland of snow,” is so full of warmth and good cheer you can’t help but smile along with him. So this is Christmas!

13. “Christmastime is Here” (Vince Guaraldi Trio) and “Pachelbel’s Canon” (Trans-Siberian Orchestra)

"A Charlie Brown Christmas" (j103.com)

“A Charlie Brown Christmas” (j103.com)

The last two numbers are basically instrumentals (with some added vocal lines, of course), and they’re both viable as annual holiday favorites.

First up is West Coast cool-jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi’s lovely number “Christmastime is Here,” first heard on the CBS-TV network in the primetime Peanuts special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, in December 1965. The first of many such programs, this one holds a special place in people’s hearts as a scrupulously honest representation of how kids feel about the commercialization of the season (see my list of holiday movies for more on this subject: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/11/20/deck-the-hawrs-with-bars-of-hawry-fara-rara-ra-rara-ra-ra-the-all-time-best-selling-christmas-movies-ever/). Guaraldi composed the minimalist score (very much in the Bill Evans mode). The original soundtrack album that resulted from his efforts is still a sought-after collector’s item.

And finally, there’s the Trans-Siberian Orchestra’s stadium-rattling, children’s-choir accompanied arrangement of Johann Pachelbel’s ubiquitous “Canon,” which is guaranteed to end any Christmas Vigil on a high note. In case you were wondering, none of the orchestra members are from Siberia. Try hearing this one on a first-rate surround-sound system (the low bass is ground-shaking, to say the least).

That’s it! I hope you’ve enjoyed this song-filled excursion of holiday classics. All that’s left to say is … HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!!

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

From Brazil to Broadway: Marcel Camus’ Film Version of ‘Black Orpheus’ to Become a Major Musical

By Ubiratan Brasil – O Estado de S. Paulo Newspaper – August 20, 2012

Directed by Charles Möeller and Claudio Botelho, the show is scheduled to premiere in London in 2014

Alia Jones-Harvey, Leonardo Ganem, Charles Moeller, Stephen Byrd, Claudio Botelho (Edgar Duvivier/Divulgacao)

Alia Jones-Harvey, Leonardo Ganem, Charles Moeller, Stephen Byrd, Claudio Botelho (Edgar Duvivier/Divulgacao)

When American producer Stephen Byrd first saw the movie Black Orpheus [known in Brazil as Orpheus of the Carnival], he was touched – the marvelous score by Tom Jobim and Luiz Bonfá, allied to the story fashioned by Vinicius de Moraes, made Frenchman Marcel Camus’ feature truly irresistible, despite the fact that the winner of the Palme d’Or at the 1959 Cannes Film Festival offered a more exotic view of carioca slum life.

“I immediately perceived a tremendous potential for a totally fabulous musical, the idea of which fermented in my mind for a number of years,” Byrd told this reporter. Our meeting occurred in the restaurant of a luxury carioca hotel, where Byrd, now president of Front Row Productions, was firming up plans to turn his dream into a reality. To make them workable, he is counting on two native specialists: the Brazilian team of Charles Möeller and Claudio Botelho.

The duo deemed responsible for the success of musical theater in Brazil will be taking an important step in their already successful career with the premiere, at the end of next year, of an English version of Orfeu da Conceição [“Orpheus of the Conception Hills”], an opera-samba written by Vinicius, which debuted in 1956 and was the inspiration for Camus’ film. The staging, to be produced by Byrd, will begin its run in London and, in 2014, will then reach Broadway. The producer’s intention is for a bilingual cast of Brazilian actors.

“Our coming together was a curious one,” relates Botelho, who will be providing a first draft of the musical in English. “For four years Stephen Byrd had been trying to contact Vinicius’ family members, at the same time he was looking for an American director. Julie Taymor, who directed The Lion King on Broadway, was on the short list, but Stephen discovered our work and became interested in working with us.”

Their encounter was facilitated by Möeller-Botelho’s recent appointment as creative directors for GEO Eventos. The company, affiliated with the American firm Base Entertainment, has invested massively in the production of musicals in Brazil. “We’ll be working as co-producers on the project,” explained Leonardo Ganem, general director of GEO, for whom Orpheus of the Carnival is a chance to rescue the musical from oblivion. “Bossa nova is no longer the deserved headliner in Brazil it once was due to the public’s fascination with a song’s melody rather than its lyrics.”

Indeed, Vinicius de Moraes’ ace in the hole was his idea for a musical, an idea that came to him on the eve of the Carnival celebration of 1942, when the sounds of distant samba reached his ears just as he was reading a book about the Greek myth of Orpheus, a musician who played his lyre with such perfection that he convinced the gods of the underworld, Hades and Persephone, to return his dead lover, Eurydice, to life. The combination of samba and myth seduced the poet.

The musical premiered in September 1956, at the Municipal Theater in Rio, with songs by Tom Jobim, sets by Oscar Niemeyer, costumes by Lila Bôscoli [Vinicius’ wife at the time], the live solo guitar of Luiz Bonfá, and poster art by Djanira. In the cast: Haroldo Costa, Daisy Paiva, Abdias do Nascimento, and Léa Garcia, the first time an all-black cast of actors mounted the stage of the carioca Municipal Theater.

This back story also bewitched Byrd, responsible for such Broadway showcases as A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, also with all-black casts. “With Orpheus, we intend to do something along the lines of the recent revival of West Side Story, which featured a combination of dialects, mixing English with Spanish,” observed producer Alia Jones-Harvey, who is also visiting Rio and, alongside Byrd, became enchanted with Möeller and Botelho’s style upon seeing their revue, Milton Nascimento – Nada Será Como Antes (“Nothing Is As It Was”), which premiered the previous week.

(English translation by Josmar F. Lopes, Copyright © 2012)

Chico’s Modern Street Opera – Part Two: Theater, the ‘Brecht’ Of Life

Playwright Bertolt Brecht (aphorism4all.com)

Playwright Bertolt Brecht (aphorism4all.com)

The significance of Bertolt Brecht’s groundbreaking theories from the twenties and thirties on the burgeoning Brazilian theater of the mid-fifties to late sixties cannot be overstated. Indeed, his works have had a lengthy history and influence in the land of samba long before Chico ever wrote a note of the song form.

As well, his dynamic views on the art and substance of the theater have spread across most fields of human endeavor, beginning of course with the European stage. As one of the acknowledged architects of “epic theater,” Brecht’s revolutionary ideas about his craft — put into worldwide practice upon his early death in 1956 — revolved around, among other things, the complete destruction of all pretense and illusion.

For starters, both actors and stagehands, along with members of the orchestra, played his pieces in full view of the audience; no curtain was discernible as such; the houselights were invariably kept on, not dimmed; the proscenium arch no longer provided an imaginary divide between artist and public; signs and placards were displayed to announce the beginning and ending of scenes; exhortation was encouraged outright for those sitting in attendance; and there were other innovations at play as well, many of which we take for granted today.

Suffice it to say, then, that what Herr Brecht hoped to achieve by this more didactic approach to theater was a certain distancing (or “alienation,” if you will) of the spectators by those directly involved with the play’s production.

Theoretically, this distancing effect would prevent viewers from becoming overly bound-up in the drama they were witnessing. Moreover, by precluding any real attachment to the onstage action, the main message of the piece would reveal itself with facility and ease, thus the end result would be a play that could be judged “objectively and with intelligence,” and on its own terms, independent of the performance in question.

In sum, reason, not the emotions, would be properly engaged, and (again, in theory) understanding would ultimately prevail.

But the real thrust behind Brecht’s formal arguments was a call for social justice and change through heightened political awareness. (Not for nothing was he known as a lifelong follower of Karl Marx.) Although some of the more conservative elements in Germany thought he had gone well beyond the normal conventions of the times, Brecht nonetheless held fast to his belief that a better-informed lower class could conceivably expect — no, demand — some improvement (or “transformation”) in their lives by the complacent upper crust.

If all this sounds vaguely familiar, it was because the German playwright’s practical dialectic found equal favor with, and rang remarkably true for, most socially conscious dramatists of the day, particularly the downtrodden masses of Brazilian artists longing to break free of the military’s suffocating grasp.

Among the early proponents of Brecht’s far-reaching techniques were some of the country’s most progressive stage figures, including Oduvaldo Vianna Filho, with Centro Popular de Cultura and Grupo Opinião; José Celso (“Zé Celso”) Martinez Corrêa, and the Teatro Oficina; Millôr Fernandes and Flávio Rangel, and their play Liberdade, liberdade (“Freedom, freedom”); the writings of Dias Gomes (O berço do heroi – “The Hero’s Cradle”); and the still relevant work of the late Augusto Boal, with the Arena Theater and, most radical of all, his Teatro do Oprimido (“Theater of the Oppressed”) and the huge debt it owed to Brecht — the direct benefit of which was Boal’s own studies into empowerment of the people by means of finding and expressing their individual voices through carefully worked-out activities and routines (“forum theater,” “cop-in-the-head,” “rainbow of desire,” et al.).

To this list must also be added Brecht’s unofficial “offspring,” those contemporary, cutting-edge directors — Antunes Filho, Ulisses Cruz, Moacir Góes and Gerald Thomas — who have contributed mightily to the exploration of what is feasible on the Brazilian stage, and succeeded (for the most part) in reshaping the building blocks of postmodern theater into new and untried forms.

Filmmaker Glauber Rocha (rdeminas.tv)

Filmmaker Glauber Rocha (rdeminas.tv)

But it did not stop there, as the approaching “new wave” of the Cinema Novo movement (“a cinema of the humble and the offended”) — another of the popular Brazilian art forms to have profited from the Brechtian ideal — seemed to have projected.

Such award-winning filmmakers as Nelson Pereira dos Santos (Rio zona norte, 1957; Vidas secas – “Barren Lives,” 1963), Ruy Guerra (Os fuzis – “The Guns,” 1964), and Glauber Rocha (Barravento, 1962; Deus e o diabo na terra do sol – “Black God, White Devil,” 1964; Terra em transe – “Land in Anguish,” 1967; Antonio das Mortes, 1969), along with Joaquim Pedro de Andrade, Carlos “Cacá” Diegues and Roberto Santos, were just a few of the domestic auteurs active during this period, the most politicized of which was the Bahian-born Glauber, whose classic 1965 essay, “An Aesthetic of Hunger” — a Marxist manifesto (“Violence is normal behavior for the starving”) if ever there was one — is required reading for any lover of neo-realist cinema.

Not to be discounted, of course, was the somewhat spotty revival in Brazil of the rich Brecht-Weill repertory of cabaret standards, first undertaken by Grupo Orintorrinco, and featuring Maria Alice Vergueiro (who sang in the 1978 premiere of Ópera do Malandro) as soloist; then with the 1988 release of Cida Moreira’s album (in Portuguese) of Cida Moreira Interpreta Brecht; followed a decade later by the CD Concerto Cabaré with nightclub staple Suzana Salles, a native paulistana perfectly at home not only with the Teutonic language and style (“Her interpretations transcend the Brazilian milieu,” raved music critic Daniella Thompson), but in Brecht’s home city of Berlin, where she had studied during the 1980s.

(End of Part Two)

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Un Ballo in Maschera’ – Verdi’s ‘A Masked Ball’: Regicide on the Radio

Amelia (Sondra Radvanovsky) & Gustavo (Marcelo Alvarez) in ‘Un Ballo in Maschera’

Last Saturday, December 8, was the first broadcast of the new Metropolitan Opera radio season. It was of composer Giuseppe Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera (“A Masked Ball”) in a new production directed by David Alden. It was good to have the Met Opera back on the air I have to say, after a long, hot summer and a tediously unproductive fall.

I’ve been listening to the Met broadcasts since (yikes!) 1965-66, and regularly after the 1967-68 season. The first opera I heard was Aida, also by Verdi and scheduled for airing this coming Saturday, December 15. I was very young at the time, but I can still remember the names of the individual cast members, which included American soprano Leontyne Price as Aida, tenor James McCracken as Radames, and baritone Robert (“Oh, say, can you see”) Merrill as Amonasro. I can’t tell you any more about the performance without consulting the Met Opera’s archives, but I do recall taping most of Act II for later playback, so I guess it wasn’t a total loss.

But this post is more about the current scene, so let’s get back to Ballo, one of the Italian master’s finest and most intricately detailed works. Composed between 1857 and 1859, Un Ballo in Maschera is a transitional piece that came just after his so-called middle period (1851-1853), a time that produced three of his most popular operas, i.e., Rigoletto, Il Trovatore, and La Traviata. It shares similar thematic material with Rigoletto, in the basic plot of an assassination attempt on its tenor lead; and looks forward to the Judgment Scene in Aida (1871), particularly the heavy use of brass, which adds considerable weight to the conflicts that take place between the main characters. There are nods to the future Otello (1887), too, in the Third Act drawing of names sequence with its sonic echoes of Otello’s farewell to arms speech (“Ora e per sempre addio”) and the Vengeance Duet that closes Act II of that work.

Verdi wrote Ballo on commission for the theater in Naples. He chose as his subject the assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden, which took place there in 1792. However, due to the sensitive nature of the story, highlighted by the actual onstage murder of a royal figure, the Neapolitan censors refused to stage it unless drastic changes were made. An old hand at dealing with bureaucratic stonewalling (especially after the modifications to Rigoletto’s plot and characters), Verdi directed his first-time librettist, Antonio Somma, to comply with the censors’ demands. Somma did as he was told and the original title of Gustavo III was changed to Una Vendetta in Domino (“A Revenge in Costume”).

Still not satisfied with the results, the censors called for even more cuts and alterations, no doubt spurred by a terrorist’s bomb hurled at French emperor Napoleon III’s carriage. Both Verdi and Somma were thoroughly dismayed by the actions demanded of them and subsequently withdrew the work. A short while later, after further adjustments to the story, which transformed King Gustav into the fictitious Riccardo, governor of colonial Boston, and placed the opera in pre-Revolutionary War times (!), they offered the re-worked and re-titled Un Ballo in Maschera to the Teatro Apollo in Rome, where it met with sizable success.

A masked King Gustavo (Alvarez) tries to bid farewell to Amelia (Radvanovsky)

There were other incongruities involved in this new context as well, the most noteworthy being the character of King Gustav (now Riccardo) himself. An extravagant individual and patron of the arts, the historical Swedish king was an admitted Freemason as well as rumored to be of a homosexual bent, although this has never been proven. That did not stop Verdi from giving him a love interest, Amelia, the wife of his would-be assassin Count Anckarström. In the Boston scenario, Amelia remained Amelia, but the Count had his name changed to Renato, the conspirators Horn and Ribbing were now called (don’t laugh) Sam and Tom, Oscar the page stayed Oscar the page, and Ulrica the mysterious medium became Ulrica the witch (or a soothsayer or prophetess, either one was acceptable). The work has since been performed in both its Swedish and American locales, while the Met uses the original Swedish one for its current production.

In the opera proper (and in the history books), the murder of the king occurs at the Royal Opera House in Stockholm, where the titular masked ball takes place. It’s this scene – the final one in the opera – that most resembles its predecessor Rigoletto, although everything about Ballo has an orderly flow and logical connection to the earlier work. The music here is bouncy and bright, full of ironic contrasts and startling juxtapositions, and done by the simplest of means: a minuet serves as the musical backdrop to the king’s murder, thus increasing the tension almost to the breaking point. Compare it to Rigoletto’s opening scene in Act I, which is equally light and airy, but with nary a hint of the darkness to come.

Enter Oscar, the king’s lighthearted page, voiced by a coloratura in boy’s clothing, what is often termed as a “trouser” role. Verdi fashioned this character after the page Urbain in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots, but he clearly took after the adolescent Cherubino of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Needless to say, Oscar’s music is the main attraction in Ballo, and the most titillating Verdi ever wrote: at once charming and carefree, full of youthful vigor and warmth, the master would not compose themes of this flavor and wit until his very last work, the comic Falstaff, some 44 years later.

Scene for Act I of Verdi’s ‘Un Ballo in Maschera’

The story, in brief, involves King Gustav’s affair with the married wife of his chief counselor and friend, Anckarström, who hatches a plot to kill the king after he catches his spouse in an illicit encounter with the monarch. The role of both King Gustav and his friend are plum parts for tenor and baritone, as are Amelia, Oscar and Ulrica.

Now on to the review: Marcelo Alvarez did well as Gustavo. The Argentine tenor has a real feel for the words, and his lyric singing – the opening “La rivedra nell’ estasi,” for example – was exceptionally heartfelt and exquisitely phrased. However, he does not like to linger on high notes (unlike the late Luciano Pavarotti, who relished every aspect of this part). Elsewhere, Alvarez refused to dawdle. The attitude was, let’s get this show on the road, which was fine by me (and no doubt the conductor’s choice).

Unfortunately, he ducked the high C in the great second-act duet with Amelia, sung by the excellent Sondra Radvanovsky – what’s with that? Pavarotti was known to have thrust his face (and prickly beard) into the back of his female lead’s hair at this point, but he still managed to get that C-note out. In conductor Georg Solti’s Decca/London recording of the work, Carlo Bergonzi was all-but overwhelmed by the Wagnerian Birgit Nilsson, but he still made it to C (or tried to, albeit in drowned-out form). As I recall, Marcelo (as Cavaradossi) sang the note in Tosca’s Act III duet with Karita Mattila, so I was a little taken aback by the omission. He did deliver a ravishing last act lament, though, so reminiscent of Otello’s death scene, with the final word cut off just as Gustavo expires – a nice touch, that.

How like the Duke of Mantua the king is, but without that character’s insouciance and self-centered egotism. A truly rewarding role for any tenor to tackle, which Alvarez could have made more of than he likely did. His “È scherzo od è follia,” Gustavo’s mocking reaction to Ulrica’s prophecy that the next person to shake the king’s hand would be his assassin, lacked the customary “laughs” and “giggles,” a practice started by Alessandro Bonci, and later taken up by Beniamino Gigli. Perhaps Alvarez was going for a more straightforward approach. Not that the scene was badly sung, it just missed that final spark of “fun” that would have truly ignited his performance.

Sondra Radvanovsky’s Amelia was sublime, the only word that comes to mind when talking about this marvelous artist. Sondra has done magnificent work in Verdi and Puccini before, but in Ballo she really outdid herself. All the emotional impact and dramatic thrust this role can have on an audience were there in spades. Mind you, Amelia is not the most gratifying of soprano roles – she makes a brief appearance in Act I, in a remarkable trio with Ulrica and the disguised king. But she really comes into her own in Act II, where she is onstage throughout. Act III starts off with her pathetic farewell to her son, “Morrò, ma prima in grazia,” which earned Sondra a huge round of applause at its close. Brava!

Count Anckarstrom (Dmitri Hvorostovsky) repudiates his wife (Radvanovsky) after he learns of her “betrayal”

The Anckarström was Siberian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, in good, solid voice but in my opinion he took an inordinately long time to warm up. He may have been under the weather, but Dmitri picked up steam in Act III during “Eri tu?” This aria stands as a carbon copy of Rigoletto’s great scena, “Cortigiani, vil razza dannata,” from Act II of that opera, they’re so strikingly similar (in musical terms, that is, not textually), especially in the way both pieces start off fast and furious, but end up slow and calm. A prolonged and well-deserved ovation was in order! Stephanie Blythe was Ulrica, and a good one, to boot! I love her low notes. It’s one of the few true contralto roles that Verdi wrote, one to be savored no matter how brief it is. And no contralto worth her salt can hope to make it in the opera world without making one’s hairs stand on end in this part. Blythe met the challenge head on.

On the high-end of the scale, Kathleen Kim was delightfully chirpy as Oscar. I remember her as Madame Mao in Nixon in China – a killer role, to be sure, but she pulled both of them off with aplomb. Basses Keith Miller and David Crawford chuckled convincingly as the conspirators Horn and Ribbing, respectively, without actually delineating their personalities to any audible degree (at least not over the airwaves).

Maestro Fabio Luisi conducted. He, too, refused to dawdle, although I like this opera to be more expansive in spots. Luisi sped things along á la Toscanini, much unlike James Levine, who used to find great drama in this piece. Less tautness and more deliberation next time, maestro, please. The Met’s chorus was in tiptop shape, a tribute to its chorus master, Donald Palumbo, who in the last six years has done yeoman work in making this aspect of the performance stand out from the rest. A job well done! Let’s see what awaits us with Aida. The season is young and there’s more to come… Stay tuned!

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

He Left His Heart in Rio de Janeiro: Tony Bennett in Brazil — An Appreciation of His Artistry by Guest Contributor Claudio Botelho

Folha de São Paulo Newspaper, December 1, 2012

Tony Bennett in Rio (rio-de-janeiro.sortimentos.com)

Tony Bennett in Rio (rio-de-janeiro.sortimentos.com)

TONY BENNETT is the last remnant of that so-called “great generation of interpreters” of American music still active today. That statement may do a bit of injustice to Johnny Mathis, who’s still performing and at the top of his game; but the fact remains that after Frank Sinatra’s death, the baton automatically passed to Bennett. Why is that?

Well, that’s because Sinatra had once proclaimed Tony Bennett as “the best singer in America.” But this rite of passage was, for certain, much more than a symbolic exchange of pleasantries or a figurative passing of the baton: it makes perfect sense. This style of singing is ending – no, will end – when Tony himself ceases to exist.

But from what was seen in Rio de Janeiro the night before last, we’ll have Tony Bennett around for quite some time yet.

Nobody sings like this anymore. And nobody sings those great songs in exactly the way that he does, either. For almost 90 minutes, Tony brought to the stage what we’ve come to expect from him: the best of Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen, Michel Legrand, in addition to his signature tunes “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” “Smile” and “The Shadow Of Your Smile.”

The fact is, even at 86, Tony can still deliver the goods, almost as if these songs were being presented for the first time. Even for those, such as myself, who’ve been coming to his shows for all of fifteen years, the feeling is always of embarking on a maiden voyage.

And it’s not just Tony’s voice. A pop singer with a strong jazzistic vein, he values a song’s lyrics by vesting them with his undivided attention. Each word is put across as if to convey every pain of love, every pang of joy, every amorous encounter, every parting of the ways, which form the basis for what is called a “standard” American song of quality.

Nothing sounds tired or routine, everything sounds fresh and new, seemingly born in the moment – the moment when Tony pauses, lifts his eyes skyward and sings the rarely recorded introduction to a frequently heard number: “Fly me to the moon / And let me play among the stars.” It’s more than just music, it’s theater. And this goes on throughout the entire program: he’s there, on stage, for the sole purpose of relating a story firsthand – original, complete; he’s obligated to tell us, the audience, the meaning of every one of those songs we’ve heard a dozen times over. And that’s exactly what he does with, for example, “For Once In My Life”, a song covered by half of humanity, but with Bennett it acquires a sentiment so unique that the audience’s stillness as they weep is simply unavoidable.

There are those who say the voice is gone, that it’s not the same voice he had in the ‘50s, ‘60s, or even the ‘70s. Well, then, if he’d have kept the same voice for the 60 years he’s been performing, he’d be a lot more than a phenomenon: he’d be ET. Of course the voice has changed, but who cares? The great interpreter still remains, and everything he does convinces you he’s doing it on the spot.

Accompanied by a jazz quartet of the first order, the show features the discreet presence of his daughter Antonia in a duet with dear old dad, along with the unnecessary participation of Ana Carolina, who practically ruined “The Very Thought Of You” with a horrendous Portuguese translation and a singing style that’s the exact opposite of Bennett’s: no emotion, no truth, all phoniness and false sentimentality. No matter.

What does matter is that Tony Bennett – the greatest singer in the world, with a repertoire of popular songs as classic as anything in the canon – is in Brazil. If you love those songs, drop everything and go see him, now. For when the songs come to an end, so will that singing style.

Claudio Botelho

(English translation by Josmar F. Lopes, Copyright © 2012)

Claudio Botelho is one of Rio’s best known musical directors, as well as a performer, composer, translator, adapter, and lyricist. Most, if not all, of the Broadway and West End musicals that have appeared in Brazil over the past 20 years have used his translations and/or adaptations, including The Sound of Music, West Side Story, Company, Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera, Hair, Spring Awakening, Fiddler on the Roof, The Addams Family, Gypsy, The Witches of Eastwick, and most recently The Wizard of Oz. He and his partner, Charles Möeller, are known throughout the country as the “Kings of Brazilian Musicals.” They are also my friends.

When Forms Cease to Follow Function: The Passing of a Brazilian Legend — Architect Oscar Niemeyer, Dead at 104

Oscar Niemeyer, 1907-2012

Oscar Niemeyer, 1907-2012

On Wednesday, December 5, 2012, the world mourned the passing of Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer at age 104. The way that Niemeyer seemed to talk about himself and his achievements, one would think that he planned to live forever – and in a way, he will. Let me explain.

An architect is, generally speaking, not the sort of individual that inspires people to great passions. No, they tend to be plain old, “down to earth” folk, although in Ayn Rand’s novel, The Fountainhead, her lead character Howard Roark (an architect) is anything but down to earth. As interpreted by Gary Cooper in the 1949 film version, Roark works up a steamy head of lather and a fair amount of sweat, and not just over some old buildings (I believe his co-star, the lovely Patricia Neal, had something to do with that).

Nevertheless, Niemeyer’s place in forging a modern Brazilian nation is firmly secured, what with his imaginative contributions to the country’s futuristic capital city of Brasília. He also designed her Our Lady of Aparecida Cathedral, which resembles an upside-down crown of thorns – unusual, in that Niemeyer was an avowed atheist as well as a die-hard communist sympathizer. No matter. The old saying, “Do as I do, not as I say,” comes to mind here in properly assessing his life and work.

Niemeyer did bring life back to staid forms. You can say that he saw the benefit that curves possessed over straight lines; in addition, he gave form to what was arguably the tired and the formless — see his Rio Sambadrome if you have any doubts of his abilities. Indeed, he took a well-worn architectural turn of phrase, “form follows function,” and twisted it around to read “form follows feminine,” which tells you more about Niemeyer the man than you may have wanted to know.

He lived so long that he buried both his first wife and his one and only daughter. You can read about his range of accomplishments in any of this past week’s obituaries. Still, I would like to draw your attention to the superb one written by one of my favorite print journalists and television commentators, the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson (http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/eugene-robinson-oscar-niemeyer-soared-as-an-architect).

What went unstated in all these glowing postmortems, however – and what most of the architect’s many admirers may not even have known about him – is Niemeyer’s impact on Brazilian theater, vis-à-vis his revolutionary set designs for the musical play, Orfeu da Conceição (“Orpheus of the Conception Hills”), written by two of Brazil’s leading artists, poet Vinicius de Moraes and composer-musician Antonio Carlos “Tom” Jobim.

The work premiered on September 25, 1956, at Rio’s Teatro Municipal. Here is what I had to say about Niemeyer’s participation in the venture:

“Oscar Niemeyer, a master of curvilinear shapes and forms (who incidentally marked his stage debut with this piece), was himself strongly influenced by classical antiquity, as was Lila Bôscoli de Moraes and her designs for the show’s captivating gowns. Beyond this, Niemeyer’s plans for Brazil’s futuristic new capital city — by filling its ‘vast empty space’ with ‘sensuous white curves in glass and concrete’ — were the visible manifestations of what Tom and Vinicius aurally tried to capture with their epicurean taste in tunes.”

Now here is what Niemeyer himself said about his involvement:

“Invited by Vinicius to design the sets for Orfeu da Conceição, my first reaction was to decline, for I had never worked for the theater before and the subject seemed rather complicated to me. But my friend insisted, so I accepted the challenge which, fortunately for me, became more of a pleasure.

“When I began the design of the sets…, I decided not to make any preconceived notions, considering instead the blocking of each scene and the poetic gist of the text. Hence the absence of realistic elements and the sketchiness of the scenery, the idea being to preserve the climate of lyricism and drama, at once so fantastic, that Vinicius created and that leaves the characters hovering in space, entirely at the mercy of their passions.” (From the Songbook Vinicius de Moraes: Orfeu, published by Jobim Music, 2003)

The play inspired the passions of French filmmaker Marcel Camus, who went to Brazil to direct the Academy-Award winning Black Orpheus, his own cinematic paean to the beauty of Rio de Janeiro. Most of the music for the film was provided by Jobim (along with Luiz Bonfá). What fans of Vinicius and Jobim’s song output may not have realized is that Jobim first took up architecture as a profession, only to drop it in favor of music. He toured the site for the proposed Brasília project with his songwriting partner Vinicius and Niemeyer in tow. This later bore fruit in a major new composition, the Sinfonia da Alvorada, from 1961.

Barely a year later, as poet and musician were comfortably ensconced outside the Veloso Bar in Rio, a teenager by the name of Heloísa Eneida Menezes Paes Pinto (later Pinheiro) crossed their path. She became the inspiration for the entranced pair to write their most wittily sensuous and widely recorded song hit, “The Girl from Ipanema.”

If “form follows feminine,” as Oscar Niemeyer so claimed, then let the above incidents serve as “concrete” proof of that sentiment. And as far as inspiring passion goes, Niemeyer had plenty of it to spare. May he be granted eternal rest from his labors… †

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

Two Brazilian Charmers – Part Three: Enter Toscanini and the Old Met

Bidu with Toscanini (juliacoulmas.com)

Bidu with Toscanini (juliacoulmas.com)

“Damozel” in Distress

That most formidable of early twentieth-century classical musicians, Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini, would once again influence the course and direction of Brazilian opera by his fortuitous intervention in the burgeoning American career of soprano Bidu Sayão.

There exist several versions of their fabled encounter, but suffice it to say that the notoriously demanding maestro may have been moved by the Brazilian singer’s sensitive portrayal of the consumptive Violetta Valery in Verdi’s La Traviata, given in the mid-1930s at Milan’s historic Teatro alla Scala, where Toscanini had once served as musical director.

At a formal reception given for the diva in early 1936, at Town Hall in New York City, Toscanini introduced himself to Bidu, and, while reminiscing about her La Scala appearances, he immediately piqued her musical interest in a work she had not previously performed in: French composer Claude Debussy’s poetic cantata La Demoiselle Élue (“The Blessed Damozel”), originally written for mezzo-soprano, a voice category the normally stratospheric coloratura was unaccustomed to singing in.

Undaunted by the challenges inherent in this offbeat proposal, Toscanini offered to coach la piccola brasiliana in the difficult piece, and even recommended an alternative higher key for her comfort, for which he likewise supplied a revised vocal score:

“I am sending you the high notes that I think ought to be suitable. They aren’t difficult because they more or less follow the orchestra’s melodic line. You are a good enough musician to adapt immediately to these few changes. With my most cordial greetings, Arturo Toscanini, 14 April 1936”

Toscanini & Bidu from "Boast of Brazil" (Met Opera Archives)

Toscanini & Bidu from “Boast of Brazil” (Met Opera Archives)

Needless to say, Bidu was hooked by this rare chance to work with the notorious Italian taskmaster, and willingly swallowed the bait. With the experienced hand of Arturo Toscanini leading her and the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra and New York Schola Cantorum Singers, Bidu Sayão made an auspicious Carnegie Hall debut in the Debussy work on April 16, 1936, to rave reviews in the press:

“Sayão captures the plaintive, mysterious atmosphere of LA DAMOISELLE ÉLUE. Conveying the purity of the vocal line, the innocence of the character, and the tenderness of Debussy’s setting of Rossetti’s poem, Sayão is an ideal interpreter of this music. Toscanini referred to her singing as ‘just like a dream, an angel, from the sky’.”

Broadcast Debut in Manon

Taking advantage of the increased exposure these Manhattan concerts had provided her, Bidu spent the next several seasons commuting to and from her native Brazil and her soon-to-be-adopted North American homeland. She gave innumerable performances on both continents, but paid particular attention to Brazilian shores, by some accounts appearing in as many as 200 different locations spanning the entire length and breadth of the country.

Upon her return to the States, the board of the Metropolitan Opera (at Toscanini’s insistence) tapped the busy soprano to appear in a part not generally associated with South American artists: that of Jules Massenet’s wholly and beguilingly Gallic young heroine, the beautiful and coquettish Manon Lescaut.

Although he himself no longer had any direct involvement in running the company, Toscanini nonetheless proved relentless in persuading the Met’s stodgy management to take on the Brazilian nightingale for this plum assignment — this despite the fact that Manon was not a role that required the kind of vocal fireworks Bidu was then capable of producing, nor was it yet a regular staple of her core repertoire.

Fortunately for the Met, the singer had been slowly expanding her roster of parts to encompass the more lyrical aspects of such roles as Violetta in La Traviata, Juliette in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, and Mimì in Puccini’s La Bohème, even before she had met her second husband, Giuseppe Danise.

It was to Danise’s credit, however, that he was able to confidently guide his young protégée further along this productive path and stretch her usual list of soubrette parts by including more “dramatic” vocal opportunities. This admittedly opened up fresher avenues for Bidu to explore, now that she had been performing ad infinitum the same well-worn roles of Lucia, Rosina, and Susanna over the entire course of her career — even though audiences still flocked to see her in them.

With her authentic French diction and remarkable ability to breathe dramatic life into increasingly complex characters, Bidu was ideally poised to conquer the environs of North America, just as she had done in Europe and Latin America some ten years earlier.

Bidu as Manon (Met Opera Archives)

Bidu as Manon (Met Opera Archives)

Finally, on February 13, 1937, on a cold and wintry Saturday afternoon (a national radio broadcast), the captivating 34-year-old Brazilian stepped out from behind the golden curtain and into the warm glow of the stage at the old Metropolitan Opera House, on Broadway and Thirty-Ninth Street, to bask in a well-deserved ovation for her premier performance in Massenet’s opera Manon.

She delivered what many of her staunchest supporters would come to regard as her most elaborately prepared, most fully realized, and most passionately heartfelt portrait to date. In addition to the chilly weather, there was a last-minute cast change in one of the leads, that of the Chevalier des Grieux:

“It was supposed to have been [Belgian tenor] René Maison,” Bidu recalled some years later for the New York Times, but it turned out not to be case. “He was sick, but they didn’t tell me, because they didn’t want to make me nervous. So I stood looking and looking, and I was getting nervous because I didn’t see him. Then a strange man greeted me! I almost fell down! When there was a moment, he said, ‘Hello, I’m Sidney Rayner.’ I said, ‘I’m Bidu Sayão,’ even though I think he already knew that, and we went on from there.”

Despite the impromptu nature of the proceedings, the broadcast came off as scheduled. Manon would go on to become her third most requested role (22 appearances in all) during her extensive Met Opera tenure, lagging behind only Susanna and Mimì (46 performances each), and Violetta (with 23), in number of times sung.

It is noteworthy to point out that Bidu Sayão had established a firm foothold on the legitimate Broadway stage two years and four months before Carmen Miranda was to do so – and a full three years prior to Carmen’s own footprints were to be permanently enshrined on Hollywood’s immortal Walk of Fame. ☼

(End of Part Three)

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

Brazil Getting Less ‘Kick’ Out of Soccer – Part One

Felipão & Carlos Alberto Parreira (mail.com)

Felipão & Carlos Alberto Parreira (mail.com)

Our Day Will Come

With Luiz Felipe Scolari, 64, better known to soccer fans as Felipão (or Big Phil), returning as head coach, and former coach Carlos Alberto Parreira (five years younger than Scolari) being appointed as technical director, Brazil’s National Team received a much needed jolt of excitement into the upcoming 2014 World Cup Finals, to be held in Brazil for only the second time in football history.

As an added bonus, I will be re-running a series of articles I wrote a few seasons back about soccer’s rise in the United States, along with my previous 2006 World Cup Soccer coverage – the less said about Brazil’s disastrous 2010 non-performance, the better.

So here you go, soccer fans! Score one for our side!!! And may the best (ha-ha) team win.

To Broil and Play in L.A.

At the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, California, two rival forces were vying with each other for bragging rights as to who would come out on top of a month-long sports tournament that seemed to verge on the interminable.

The temperature on the playing field that scorching Sunday afternoon in mid-summer soared to a sizzling 100 degrees Fahrenheit. There wasn’t a shady spot to be had anywhere, and most definitely not in the stands, where over 90,000 sunbaked and dehydrated sports fans nervously awaited the outcome of the decisive game.

From the air-conditioned comfort of my fifth-floor living quarters in New York City, I too agitatedly witnessed this sweltering spectacle on live network television, alongside my Brazilian-born wife, my two school-age children, and my invited guests.

Obviously, this was not some leftover Super Bowl halftime activity, nor was it an outdoor track and field event from the Summer Olympic Games. This happened to be the final contest in the 1994 World Cup Soccer Championship between three-time titleholders Italy and Brazil, two ancient combatants of this mighty “kicking game,” and two countries that have partaken of a customary Latinate pride and Continental code of honor with regard to their illustrious past soccer accomplishments.

Roberto Baggio's missed penalty kick (soccerplusnet.blogspot.com)

Roberto Baggio’s missed penalty kick (soccerplusnet.blogspot.com)

Unfortunately for the Italian side, its last and best hope for total team victory abruptly ended in crushing defeat, thanks to Roberto Baggio’s miraculously misdirected penalty kick (purportedly diverted by Divine Providence, some wags would say).

As the overflow crowd heaved a collective sigh of relief, the jubilant Brazilians bounded onto the playing field and gave thanks to the goddess Fortuna for having granted them the special favor of a belated, and unprecedented, fourth World Cup.

It was the epitome of market strategy and maneuvering in this country, the crowning achievement of soccer in America, to have the International World Cup Soccer finals held on North American soil for the first time in its history. A previous attempt at staging the games here in 1986 was rudely quashed by the International Football Association Federation, or FIFA, the governing arm of world soccerdom, with the main reason given as “a lack of commitment” on the part of the paying public and the sport’s domestic sponsors.

But as the congenial host country for this most highly-publicized and anticipated of all international sporting events, America had acquitted itself admirably enough, considering that the U.S. national team miraculously survived first-round play, only to be ousted in the second round by heavily favored Brazil on a lone, game-winning goal by the speedster Bebeto.

Futebol Scores Big in America

Instead of an untimely end to soccer’s bold advance, it was barely the beginning of a steady surge in America of this emotionally charged spectator sport, a literal rising tide that has gained noticeably in force and momentum — and national acceptance — over the 15-year period since the quadrennial event was first held here.

And what better evidence of this progress in the field than the impressive Team USA performance at the 2002 World Cup matches in South Korea, where it toppled the highly regarded Portuguese by a score of 3-2, then stunned early morning viewers with an equally sensational 2-0 triumph over Mexico, only to lose out 1-0 in the quarterfinals to the much stronger German squad.*

Indeed, the current popularity in America of the “beautiful game,” in a nation that has owed much of its very existence to the hard work and sinewy strength of her huddled ethnic masses — who were first credited with having brought the alien sport to these formidably unfriendly shores some 200 or so years ago — was certainly a long time in coming.

But like many foreign imports, such as the German Volkswagen Beetle or the Japanese transistor radio, the blue-collar, working-class game of futebol (as Brazilians often refer to it) had dared to compete directly in the mid– to late ’70s with the other, more traditional television-viewing pastimes, i.e., Major League Baseball, NBA Pro Basketball, and Monday Night Football; in the process, it had deliberately set itself up for a precipitous fall from TV-ratings grace.

Despite the almost insurmountable obstacles the sport has had to overcome since then; amid the often-times antagonistic competition offered by this delectable garden of armchair delights, soccer has held firm to the cause by ingratiating itself with young and old alike. It has survived, relatively unscathed, its initial battle for media attention, to re-surface in more modest middle-class surroundings as the playground game of choice.

From those heady early times, soccer in the U.S. has continued to expand beyond state boundaries and exceed all previous low expectations, as more and more of the nation’s athletic directors have become enthralled by the game, and ever more willing to push for it.

Almost 20 years ago, it was estimated that approximately eight million Americans had played some form of the sport (all figures compiled by the United States Soccer Federation and the YMCA); by the late 1990s, over seventeen million had actively participated in the game, from the enthusiastic junior and youth levels up to and including college varsity play.

There are now over 70 indoor and outdoor soccer franchises scattered throughout the continental United States, and the numbers continue to grow with each passing year. Even the words “soccer mom” have become as fashionable and familiar a term in the everyday lexicon of English usage as “baby boomer” and “couch potato” have been. They define the very image of a harried suburban housewife, trotting her snotty seed off to scrimmage practice.

With the yearly hike in soccer participation appearing to have brought about a somewhat more favorable turnaround in the fortunes of the sport — perhaps heralding a mass cultural phenomenon still to be corroborated by more current quantifiable data — the demise of the Women’s United Soccer Association (WUSA) in September 2003, after only three short seasons of unprofitable operation, has put but a small dent in this steady upward trend.

Practice Makes Brazil Perfect (Well, Maybe)

USA Women's Team (Doug Mills / NY Times)

USA Women’s Team (Doug Mills / NY Times)

While soccer in North America can resolutely boast of some successful outward signs of positive growth, and has even experienced a semi-reasonable facsimile of media mega-blitz, especially concerning the press coverage allotted women superstars Brandi Chastain, Mia Hamm, Hope Solo, Tiffeny Milbrett, and Abby Wambach (albeit, in much more constrained form here than in other soccer-crazed countries), all was not going as well as it should have for the sport in the land of Carnival.

In spite of its premier ranking (followed closely by France and Spain), the five-time world champion Brazilian national team had so far performed perfunctorily, if rather unremarkably, in a series of friendlies and World Cup qualifying matches, and against some low-rated international competition.

The Brazilian players’ cavalier attitude toward simple physical exertion has sometimes bordered on the lethargic and driven over-eager World Cup watchers, such as myself, to near frenzied distraction by the team’s diversionary tactics.

In more distant soccer days, this slower-paced style of play was once looked upon as a source of national pride, with the national team performing a sort of quasi-mystical field combination of soccer mixed with samba. Today, the fast-break techniques of most European soccer teams tend to leave behind many of the second-string Brazilian players, many of who are not used to stretching themselves so in their own country’s more tropical climate.

Other higher-priced starters — Ronaldinho Gaucho, Ronaldo, Rivaldo, Roberto Carlos, Cafu, and rising star Kaká — were more conformed, for the most part, to this rapid-fire running mode than their lower-salaried counterparts, since all of them played in the European leagues, another break with the traditional past. This clash of personal playing styles (and forms of monetary compensation) inescapably leads to frustration and resentment on the part of both players and coaches over the direction the national team should take regarding international combat duty. In addition, much needed practice time is invariably limited or lost due to the differing playing schedules of many of the European clubs versus the national team’s own training requirements.

These are far from new wrinkles in the Brazilian team fabric, mind you, just old war wounds and festering sores that continue to rankle and that will require more immediate attention.

How the Mighty Corinthians Had Fallen

The abandonment by native Brazilian talent for richer, more financially fertile soccer plains abroad has even pervaded the ethos of my own favorite local team, São Paulo-based Sport Club Corinthians Paulista.

A three-time winner of the Brazilian national crown, and a keeper of the country’s second largest and most vocal fan base (behind Rio de Janeiro’s Flamengo), Corinthians was clobbered 6-1, in late September 2003, in what can only be politely described as an “historic” encounter.

By the widest margin in the team’s history, it lost an embarrassingly one-sided fray against upstart Juventude, after a fog-enshrouded cover had descended upon the dampened enemy camp, blanketing the players with an impenetrable and, as it turned out, faintly portentous mist of near-Shakespearean proportions. Upon the culmination of this patently horrific display, head coach Geninho promptly quit the club, refusing to answer reporters’ queries, or even justify his spontaneous action — as if it needed any defense.

In despair, the club turned to legendary World Cup star Roberto Rivellino, a former Corinthians player-turned-television sportscaster, to manage the team from the technical side, together with a new field commander, ex-national team member Júnior.

After a trying week, the hapless Júnior became the next casualty of the club’s unlucky losing streak, as his campaign for all-out conquest all-but ended with two more devastating defeats: the first, against São Caetano, in his maiden appearance as técnico (or “coach”); and the second, a heart-breaker to arch-rival São Paulo, and by the same depressing 3-0 tally.

As the sole survivor of this carnage, the bloodied but unbowed Rivellino had his hands full trying to recover sufficient enough ground to qualify Corinthians for the 2004 Libertadores Cup (highly remote, as it turned out). One of his biggest challenges was to find suitable replacements for his top-seeded starting lineup, many of who had already defected to other teams or had been sold off to foreign clubs in Lisbon, Istanbul, and Hanover, prior to Geninho’s precipitate departure, as a stopgap measure concocted by Corinthians for raising much-needed capital.

Judging from all of this, it is hard to believe that the same team had once won the coveted FIFA 2000 World Club crown, not to mention 2002’s prestigious Copa Brasil and Paulista championships. And before them, all Brazil trembled!

Romário to the Rescue?

Romario (footballers-info.blogspot.com)

Romario (footballers-info.blogspot.com)

Speaking of which, let us not forget the latest nefarious misdeeds (via the infamous “chicken incident,” wherein an overly enthusiastic fan expressed his low opinion of the player’s performance by throwing six live hens at him) attributed to the sport’s clown prince and prima donna of the playing field, the Mike Tyson of professional futebol: Fluminense’s own Romário.

His rambunctious, bully-boy attitude, loopy rock-star lifestyle, and hair-trigger temper tantrums notwithstanding, this one-man demolition derby went on to score the only goal against the sad-sack Corinthians troop. No matter, as flustered Fluminense fans still had to face the likelihood of their team being banished to the ignoble second division, if it had continued on its then-current downward course.

Ironically, the flamboyant Romário was at one time the main attraction of the 1994 World Cup Brazilian national squad (along with fellow teammate Bebeto), and the raison d’être for its record-breaking victory performance. Despite this formidable field reputation, however, he was officially dismissed from the 1998 team due to a pulled calf muscle. But the unofficial word had it that he and national team coach Mário Zagallo simply could not get along with each other, ergo out he went. A pity, since his absence had been given as one of the main causes for Brazil’s 3-0 loss to France.

How much sparkle and élan O Pequeno Príncipe (“The Little Prince,” with appropriate apologies to the Marquis de Saint-Exupéry) still has left in reserve, after several eventful years atop the profession’s upper echelon, remains to be seen. Nevertheless, the trouble-making player-cum-prankster may still have a few hat tricks up his metal cleats, and his future most earnestly bears watching — if he can keep himself from self-destructing beforehand.

Perhaps Corinthians could have made better use of his talents, which would not have hurt the club’s chances in the least, nor put them in any worse position than they were already in.

Soccer Scrutiny Requested

All of these fascinating turns of soccer events in the United States and Brazil — in a sport once relegated here to the lowest rung on the financial ladder of American athletic programs, but given far too expansive a coverage (and frequent overexposure) in South America’s largest country — scream for closer examination.

Not surprisingly, there are no simple answers as to why the game of soccer has gained such a strong foothold on the Northern Hemisphere, only to begin to lose its all-encompassing grip and, more importantly, its pride and self-respect in the Southern one.

As a result, soccer will continue to score big with U.S. sports fans, while it could conceivably amble on, indefinitely, in comparative malaise in Brazil, the very place where the game had previously outshone all others. It should, by all rights, privileges, and historical precedents, continue to do so, once it’s finally learned what is truly ailing it.

Unfortunately, the actual long-term treatment and prognosis for Brazilian soccer’s many ills may prove to be much more problematic to minister to and manage than was originally thought. Indeed, only time will tell. ☼

(End of Part One)

Copyright © 2010 by Josmar F. Lopes


* At the June 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup semifinals in South Africa — a preliminary run for the 2010 World Cup Soccer tournament in the same country — Team USA shocked the sports establishment with a 2-0 victory over top-ranked Spain, “the best team in the world,” according to New York Times sportswriter George Vecsey. In the final match-up against Brazil, however, it took an early 2-0 lead at the half, only to give up three consecutive goals to the never-say-die Brazilians, who went on to win their third consecutive crown.

The ‘Italian’ Composer from Campinas – Part Three: Carlos Gomes, Down on His Luck

A “Slave ” to Passion

Carlos Gomes in his later years (memoriadaopera.blogspot.com)

Carlos Gomes in his later years (memoriadaopera.blogspot.com)

In 1880, the ill-tempered, disillusioned, and financially hard-pressed Carlos Gomes returned to native shores, where, by his own account, he was greeted “like a prince” and treated “like a king.”

He immediately set to work on several new projects, all of which were prematurely aborted for one reason or another, thus repeating a pattern of fits and starts first displayed back in Milan. It was during this same period that his fellow Brazilians became fully cognizant of his stage works, due in part to the slew of productions Gomes had personally supervised while on extensive tour there.

Traveling to and from Italy, he put the finishing touches to his next opera, Lo Schiavo (O Escravo, or “The Slave”), which debuted in Rio, on September 27, 1889, to wide acclaim. Based on “a hurried five- or six-page draft” by his good friend, the liberal activist Viscount Alfredo d’Escragnolle de Taunay, the scenario called for an African slave named “Ricardo” to participate in the epic struggle against slavery in Brazil circa 1801, no doubt a powerfully authentic tale — a little too authentic, in the eyes of some.

At the insistence of librettist Rodolfo Paravicini and publisher Giulio Ricordi, the black slave would be transformed into the Tamoio Indian “Iberê” in deference to the continuing European taste for “exoticism” in art music. Additionally, the time of the action was pushed back some two and a half centuries, purposely dulling the effect of the more relevant slavery issue and resigning the drama to the long-ago plight of defenseless South American natives and their brutal Portuguese colonizers.

In short, it was all a rather diaphanous attempt to recapture the glory years of La Scala by recycling some of Guarany’s previous plot threads. Doubtless the composer had been spoiling for a comeback, wherein his mounting financial obligations would finally be met and his future employment secured; consequently, he conceded to these changes without much of a fight. The catch, however, was that Lo Schiavo was never performed in the Italian mainland during his lifetime. It had been tentatively scheduled for Bologna, but due to Gomes’ continuing cash-flow problems and simultaneous legal action by Paravicini to prevent him from inserting his polemic Hino à Liberdade (“Hymn to Liberty”), with words by a different poet, into the score, the engagement was abruptly cancelled.

Adding insult to his injuries, Gomes broke free of Casa Ricordi’s constraints. He had reached the unavoidable conclusion that once the publishing house had secured the services of its newest discovery — one Giacomo Puccini, a fast-rising talent from Lucca — it perceptibly lost interest in the problematic Brazilian. From here on, Gomes would have to go it alone in the publishing world without Ricordi’s backing. In retrospect, he was no worse off for leaving Casa Ricordi than if he had stayed with them from the outset.

Still, why would the appearance of a black-African male figure on the Italian stage have caused such a stir, in light of the sympathetic treatment wise, old maestro Verdi had given his Ethiopian princess Aida, or the Moorish general Otello, for that matter? The only explanation one can arrive at is a none-too-subtle hint of racial prejudice: Indians battling settlers was one thing; but black slaves seeking independence from their masters may have hit too close to home for nineteenth-century audiences to accept.

We should not be at all surprised that the composer’s freedom-loving “Slave” was being treated no differently in his second homeland than Gomes himself had been treated of late. The experience of producing the opera was a most painful one for his friend Taunay to be embroiled in as well. Profoundly disappointed with the whole manipulative affair, Taunay repudiated any claim of authorship to the work  — a situation that, almost 70 years later, would call to mind a similar act performed by poet-musician Vinicius de Moraes, after the Brazilian premiere of the 1959 movie Black Orpheus.

Negotiations to bring the new opera to Brazil, where the political climate was no better, commenced almost immediately. These were long and drawn out, and eventually necessitated the direct involvement of Emperor Dom Pedro and his daughter, Princess Dona Isabel, who helped inject much-needed capital into the proceedings — to the absolute displeasure of the anti-royalists.

Cover page of the piano score of Lo Schiavo

Cover page of the piano score of Lo Schiavo

In spite of the various setbacks, however, the opera’s long-awaited first night was a smashing success. Along with its predecessor Guarany, Lo Schiavo is but one of only a handful of works in the entire active repertoire that have even treated or addressed Brazilian-based subject matter, in this instance the politically charged, hot-topic issue of slavery. The Gazzetta Musicale, Casa Ricordi’s representative voice in Milanese circles, dispatched its critic to Rio to deliver a favorable verdict, for once, on one of Gomes’ finest achievements: “…this Slave has many times the enchantment of musical might; it is ardent, imaginative, and moving, it draws you in and convinces. The ‘Hymn to Liberty’ is one of those fresh and spontaneous inspirations that [should] serve to popularize its author.”

The most curious description of the piece came, astoundingly enough, from Brazil’s Veja na História magazine: “A pity that the music’s sparkle is distorted by the grotesque image of semi-nude tenors in improbable mustaches, singing in Italian, an example of which occurred in Il Guarany. Indians in place of Negro slaves is difficult enough to take – but an Indian in a mustache is just too implausible.”

Facial hair or no, the melodic advancement Gomes showed in his writing of Lo Schiavo has never been equaled by him in his remaining works. Similar to Peri, the juicy starring part of Iberê is a favorite among baritones. The opera itself was dedicated to Her Serene Princess Dona Isabel, who had earlier signed the Lei Áurea, or “Golden Law,” into existence, abolishing the institution of slavery. Bolstered by that now-historic event and by Lo Schiavo’s impassioned ex-post-facto appeal, her father, the emperor of Brazil, decorated his most “faithful and reverent subject,” Carlos Gomes, with the title of Grand Dignitary of the Order of the Rose, and so much as promised him the directorship of the reconstituted Music Conservatory in Rio de Janeiro.

A Revolting Development

Unfortunately for the composer, the atmosphere in his home country was rife with revolution. In all, the bloodless coup d’état that resulted had altogether rocked Gomes to his very foundation:

“The shock that affected my heart, which was so devoted to the Royal Family, was so great that to this day I have yet to completely recover. My health has suffered greatly, even to the point of my body losing its balance. I cannot describe my profound sorrow, the reality of which appears to me more like some horrible dream that such a thing could take place in my native land… God forgive the perpetrators of this brutal act and, at the same time, protect the Brazilian nation and its people.”

By November 15, the Proclamation of the Republic was all but a fait accompli. The aging sovereign Dom Pedro II, the very symbol of Old World aristocracy and the ruling elite, was deposed and unceremoniously shipped off to Portugal. As a recipient of the benevolence and generosity of the now-exiled monarch, Gomes lost his yearly stipend, which he had been accustomed to receiving for nearly three decades. Because of his diminished economic status and personal connection to his royal patron — and amid unremitting allegations of his having squandered the emperor’s money while “living it up” in Europe — he was forced to temporarily leave Brazil. “They don’t even want me as the doorman,” the composer complained in an 1895 letter, written long after he had been passed over for the job of director, “because the government wants Miguez to be there.”

Leopoldo Miguez, a European-trained musician and composer from the city of Niterói, near Rio, had been chosen as the new head of the Music Conservatory. A disciple of Wagner and Franz Liszt, he became the New Republic’s man of the moment. As overtly political as this appointment appeared to be, Gomes’ unguarded praise for his former benefactor did his cause no justice and likely contributed to the Conservatory’s decision to go with Miguez. “I come from a barbarous race,” Gomes grumbled to his editor, “yet I am grateful until death to him who deigned to appreciate me, above all as a man.”

Statue of Condor at Praca Ramos de Azevedo, Sao Paulo (Antonio de Andrade)

Statue of Condor at Praca Ramos de Azevedo, Sao Paulo (Antonio de Andrade)

Placing his tail strategically between his legs, Gomes clawed his way back to La Scala — the last time he would associate himself with that venerable institution — to fulfill a contract for a new work: the oriental-themed Condor, his own variation on those exotic stage pageants that were all the rage in Europe. Given in February 1891 to much local fanfare but very little monetary recompense, it nonetheless racked up a fairly respectable number of performances, and against some remarkably stiff competition that included Wagner’s Lohengrin. The appearance of the opera a year later in Rio, with Romanian soprano Elena Theodorini as Odaléa, left Brazilian audiences cold. Sadly, the year 1891 ended with the death in France of his most ardent supporter, Dom Pedro II, thus sealing the composer’s financial fate.

As a test of his allegiance to the new order, he was invited by the recently-installed government to write an appropriate musical theme for the occasion. Surprisingly, Brazil’s most revered classical musician turned down the monetarily lucrative offer. Quite rightly, Gomes felt that his closeness to the dethroned ex-ruler should have excused him from taking up such a disloyal (in his eyes) commission; that being the case, his overtly righteous tone about it all played right into unscrupulous hands. Where he did the most damage was to his own long-term career prospects: by refusing the government’s one and only handout, he shot his chances for further advancement in the foot, as well as cleared the way for Miguez to be accorded the honor.

America Discovers Columbus

For the upcoming Fourth Centennial Celebration of the Discovery of America, Gomes contributed the four-part oratorio Colombo, which he dubbed a “symphonic poem with chorus.” One of his most ambitious and fully evolved large-scale compositions, it premiered in Rio de Janeiro on October 12, 1892 — Columbus Day, to be exact — to generally negative reviews. Desperate for new sources of revenue, Gomes had earlier grasped at the chance to present Colombo in two separate venues: one, a contest sponsored by the city of Genoa, the Italian explorer’s home port; the other in Chicago, for the International Columbian Exposition the year after. It lost out on both counts to others.

Rehearsal of Colombo at the Teatro Municipal, Sao Paulo (Tiago Quieroz / AE)

Rehearsal of Colombo at the Teatro Municipal, Sao Paulo (Tiago Quieroz / AE)

Gomes may have run afoul of partisan politics, but there was something else besides the writing of his symphonic poem that caused the cantata to be dropped so quickly from competition. Apart from its celebration of a major past event, this lushly orchestrated and lyrically refined masterwork re-enacted, in musical terms, his earliest encounters with the emperor and empress of Brazil, in the historical personages of Christopher Columbus, the Spanish King Ferdinand of Aragon, and his headstrong spouse, Queen Isabella of Castile. The scene in Part Two, in which Columbus tries to entice the monarch with his dreamlike vision of a sumptuous New World; followed by Isabella’s prodding of her irresolute spouse to finance the explorer’s questionable sea venture, mirrored that decisive point in Gomes’ own life when he was presented with the opportunity for study abroad, along with the more recent behind-the-scenes controversy involving the Brazilian staging of his “Slave.”

This final show of gratitude to the late emperor and his wife for their favor and trust in his abilities did not sit well with republican sympathizers. By and large, they were as outraged by the composer’s obliging attitude toward the royals as the abolitionists had been with the ludicrous alterations to Lo Schiavo’s plot. Who was the real slave to special interests, they pondered warily, the opera’s title character or the composer himself? Their uncompromising view of his work practically guaranteed that no such favor and trust would be forthcoming from the current administration — of that, Gomes learned firsthand.

Tired of waiting for authorization to participate in the International Columbian Exposition, Gomes used his own severely limited resources to journey westward from Europe to the Windy City. In September 1893, he caught up with his country’s delegation, which paid little heed as he scurried about preparing for what he had imagined were fully-staged performances of Guarany and Condor. However, when an “expected” subsidy from the Brazilian government failed to materialize — the result of political foot-dragging for his unofficial attendance at the fair — the put upon composer was forced to give free public concerts of excerpts from his works instead.

So what were his lasting impressions of an Industrial-Age Middle America? In a letter from that period, written in the United States to a colleague in Italy, the exasperated Gomes complained:

“The presentation in Chicago of Guarany came to nothing… I had hoped to make a world of contacts, but too late I realized the sad truth. In this country, art is a myth. Americans are only interested in new and practical matters, that is, in the easiest methods for making money!”

(End of Part Three)

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes

Lo, the Savior Approaches! – The Arrival of Villa-Lobos, Part Two: Paris Sojourn and the New Nationalism

Villa-Lobos in Paris (AFP Photo / Archives)

Villa-Lobos in Paris (AFP Photo / Archives)

His Own Man

Of all the classical works written by Brazilian musicians from the time of Carlos Gomes, up to and including the early twentieth century and beyond, none could be accused of having taken full advantage of the incredible wealth and availability of native indigenous sources, along with West African, folkloric, caipira (“country”), Caribbean, and urban-style street influences, as had the numerous hybrid creations of Heitor Villa-Lobos.

The remarkable collection of songs, airs, sounds, tunes, snippets, and themes he amassed during this and other subsequent times in his life were put to fruitful, and often ingenious, use in much of his voluminous output.

In this, Villa-Lobos can be construed as the most nationalistic of Brazilian composers (certainly the most vocally demonstrative), and his country’s first truly authentic, resident musical representative:

“Yes, I’m Brazilian – and very Brazilian. In my music, I let the rivers and seas of this great Brazil sing. I do not put the brakes to or a gag on the tropical exuberance of her forests and skies, which I instinctively transpose to everything I write.”

Of course, this was all much easier in the saying than it was in the doing, a rather common occurrence with Villa-Lobos. Where exactly the voluble composer faltered, if one may be so bold as to use that term in connection with such a profoundly brilliant virtuoso, was in the area that he was most needed, i.e., the opera.

Two youthful short works, Agláia (sometimes given as Algáia) and Elisa, written in 1909 and 1910, respectively, were later fused into a single, four-act opus entitled Izath (or Izaht), completed between 1913 and 1914. It was met with some favor at its 1940 premiere and especially after the late 1950s, when the opera was revived in Rio for such prominent native talents as tenor Assis Pacheco and baritone Paulo Fortes.

The work showed trace influences of Wagner and Puccini, an early characteristic of Villa-Lobos’ vocal writing, along with the sophisticated scoring of French composer Vincent d’Indy. The end result, however, was a stillborn piece that paid considerable homage to traditional forms, the kind of thing Carlos Gomes used to do in his sleep, but with noticeably less assurance on Villa-Lobos’ part. The experience of writing his first opera convinced him to henceforth relegate all further attempts at the art form to the musical trash heap, what the composer himself termed “the graveyard of composers” — from his perspective, a remarkably clear-eyed appraisal. He would revisit the genre only after the Second World War’s hostilities had ended.

Unhappily, Izath has virtually vanished from the modern operatic repertoire and, to our knowledge, has never been performed in North America, nor has it received a complete recording, either in the United States or in its native Brazil.

The Week of Modern Art

The post-World War I period in Rio de Janeiro was one of undue privation for the enterprising young musician. He could be seen plying his trade in the many silent-movie houses, boîtes, bars, and bistros of the café-nightclub circuit, both as a composer-arranger and as a cello-playing accompanist. If anything, these early life experiences brought the unusually sociable Villa-Lobos into regular contact with an exceptional array of artists, writers, poets, and intellectuals,* all of whom shared his views and beliefs as well as his hand-to-mouth existence.

Those views and beliefs would be put to the test in February 1922, with Villa-Lobos’ acceptance of an invitation to participate in the now legendary Semana de Arte Moderna (or Week of Modern Art) at the Teatro Municipal in São Paulo. The exposition — more accurately, a continuous non-stop cultural happening — was taken up with lectures, symposiums, concerts, and workshops devoted to literature, painting, poetry, and sculpture, along with the “new music” of Claude Debussy, Erik Satie, Francis Poulenc, and Villa-Lobos himself.

The composer had already commenced work on one of his “two great cycles,” the fourteen Choros (1921-29), which stand as the “first large-scale application of new, Latin American and thoroughly tropical musical forms and structures.” Indeed, much has been made of Villa-Lobos’ contribution to this event and its subsequent influence on future musical endeavors. Ask any musicologist or historian about it, and immediately the Week of Modern Art becomes linked in their mind to his name. The truth is Villa-Lobos lucked into the event by default as the only Brazilian composer around who was of age, or available, to attend.

Participants in the Week of Modern Art (diariodotrovador.7p.com)

Participants in the Week of Modern Art (diariodotrovador.7p.com)

The resultant Modernist movement, launched by such luminaries as writer and musicologist Mário de Andrade, poets Oswald de Andrade and Ronald de Carvalho, author and diplomat José Pereira da Graça Aranha, painters Tarsila do Amaral and Anita Malfatti, and pianists Guiomar Novaes and Hernani Braga, among others, represented a cultural backlash against the previous generation’s obsession with European influences. It was considered a major first step toward forging a purely nationalistic and fundamentally native-grown literary, artistic, and musical identity. Politically, it was “reflected… in the growing dissatisfaction with the coffee-oriented Old Republic, which was eventually overthrown by the revolution in 1930 that brought Getúlio Vargas to power.”

Negative, ad hominem reaction to Villa-Lobos’ presence, and to his flamboyant style overall, reverberated within the Municipal’s walls. Foot troubles had forced the normally fastidious and stylishly bedecked composer to make his entrance via cane and slippers. Quite amusingly, the noise these personal effects made as he cautiously groped his way down the aisles was loudly imitated by his detractors. None of this ado, however, appeared to have bothered Villa-Lobos in the slightest. Much as he had been leading — and would continue to lead — his own event-filled life, the maestro simply raised his baton on cue and, without hesitation, plunged headlong into one of his works, the audience and critics be damned.

The City of Light Awaits

With the modest success of the Modernist agenda behind him, Villa-Lobos, now an “undisciplined, willful and not at all coachable” adult, was encouraged in the early 1920s to spend time in Paris, the epicenter for artistic development (Germany and Italy had served the same purpose for previous generations of Brazilian artists and musicians).

Fortified by the confidence and self-reliance that were intrinsic to his makeup — and by the one-year government grant he was fortunate enough to have procured — Villa-Lobos took this stored up baggage with him to France. “I didn’t come here to study,” he immodestly announced upon his arrival there in 1923. “I came to show you what I have done.”

This was a different sort of bearing than most Europeans had been accustomed to hearing up to that point. Coming from a charming, tale-spinning Brazilian national, who relished the job of serving as “his own best publicity and promotion manager,” they were somewhat taken aback at first. Nevertheless, the “incorrigible child” within him literally lept at this opportunity of a lifetime, one he did not let go to waste.

It remains unclear if Villa-Lobos had any inkling of the troubles once experienced by his illustrious predecessor Carlos Gomes, who first set foot on foreign soil as a soon-to-be-feted Brazilian artist, only to be unconscionably tossed to the side by the region’s envious inhabitants, and later by his own compatriots.

Villa with Florent Schmitt (ENF Richlieu)

Villa-Lobos with Florent Schmitt (ENF Richlieu)

What is known about his two trips there was that, between 1927 and 1930, during the composer’s second Paris sojourn — financed this time by the philanthropist brothers, Arnaldo and Carlos Guinle — Villa-Lobos succeeded in attracting “the attention of the musical press, particularly that of the music critic of the influential daily newspaper Le Temps, Florent Schmitt, who turned into a great admirer and close friend…”

Philosophically and temperamentally, Villa-Lobos, the man and the artist — as intensely involved in self-promotion as any of his fellow expatriates — was as far removed from the Gomes model of “success” as coffee was from rubber. Vive la différence!

While in the City of Light, Villa-Lobos took it upon himself to hobnob with the leading aristocracy of the avant-garde, most notably composers Erik Satie, Maurice Ravel, Edgard Varèse, and Darius Milhaud (who he had previously befriended, in Brazil, in 1917); conductor Leopold Stokowski; French cinéaste and poet Jean Cocteau; Spanish painter Salvador Dalí; classical guitarist Andrés Segovia; eccentric Russian émigré Igor Stravinsky; cellist Serge Koussevitzky; and Polish-born pianist Artur Rubenstein, to whom he dedicated a vivacious (and fiendishly difficult) piano piece called Rudepoêma (1921-26), and who in turn promoted and played much of the Brazilian’s music abroad.

We are indebted to maestro Segovia for the following humorous passage in which the Spanish instrumentalist, who revered the legacy of Bach as much as anyone else, recalled his dramatic first encounter with the extroverted Brazilian:

“Among all the invited guests that night, the one who impressed me the most upon entering the hall was Heitor Villa-Lobos. Although short in stature, he was well proportioned and had a virile bearing. A wild forest of unruly hair topped his vigorous head… His gaze shone with a tropical sparkle, which quickly turned to flame when he joined the amused conversation around him… When I finished my presentation, Villa-Lobos came up and said to me in a confidential tone: ‘I too play the guitar.’ ‘Marvelous!’ I responded. ‘So you’re capable of composing directly from the instrument.’ Extending his hands, he asked me for the guitar… And when I least expected it, he struck a chord with such force that I let out a yell, thinking the guitar had shattered. He burst out laughing and with a childish giggle said to me: ‘Wait, wait…’ I waited, restraining with difficulty my initial impulse, which was to save my poor instrument from this vehement and alarming display of enthusiasm.”

We can gather, from the above extract, how utterly irresistible the Brazilian composer must have seemed to those operating within close proximity. It was on or before this same time that “Villa,” as he was more affectionately known to friends and colleagues, completed work on his thirteen Canções Típicas Brasileiras (“Typical Brazilian Folksongs,” 1919); the Epigramas Irônicos e Sentimentais for solo voice and orchestra, with the text supplied by poet De Carvalho (1921-23); and the Serestas (1925-26), a fourteen-song, voice-and-piano cycle reminiscent of Portuguese serenades, referred by musicologist Vasco Mariz as “the climax of Villa-Lobos’ vocal output and of the genre of Brazilian literature set to music.” These unfamilar concert works deserve much wider exposure than they have been subjected to in the past.

On the debit side, some of Villa’s more, how shall one phrase it, “elaborate” fictional forays had begun to trickle back down to his fellow Brazilians. To make matters worse, they were not amused by what they heard and read:

“Although the speed within the communications media in the 1920s was not what it is today, Villa-Lobos’s tales soon reached his hometown’s local press, and disgusted his countrymen; they felt that their compatriot in Paris had done a serious disservice to Brazil and had caused embarrassment to Brazilians. This did not make much impression on Villa-Lobos, in spite of the fact that in those years he was not yet recognized in Brazil as the country’s leading composer…”

Back in the High Life Again

Not being recognized as Brazil’s “leading composer” may actually have helped to put this annoying business behind him than Villa-Lobos had cared to admit at the time. On the contrary, his best musical days still lay ahead.

Getulio Vargas & Villa-Lobos (abi.org.br)

Getulio Vargas & Villa-Lobos (abi.org.br)

Having done well for himself, artistically speaking, under the Old Republic, Heitor Villa-Lobos returned to Brazil less sure of his standing with the newly installed Vargas regime. He need not have been concerned. Despite the ludicrous yarns that were spun during his absence, the authoritarian Getúlio was most receptive to the composer’s nationalistic leanings and fully embraced his public-spirited stance.

This happy coincidence dovetailed perfectly with both Villa-Lobos and the administration’s long-term plans to bring music and choral education to the nation’s culturally deprived youth — and, as an added benefit, lend a much-needed air of legitimacy and support to the Brazilian strongman’s cultural and social platforms.

For quite unlike the captivated Carlos Gomes, who became, in his musical language and lifestyle, every inch the European the more he was exposed to Continental culture — taking as his wife the Italian-born pianist and teacher Adelina de Conte Peri, a former Milan Conservatory graduate; and adding along the way a bevy of contessas and duchessas to his string of society conquests — the worldly Villa, a bon vivant by nature, remained wholly and ingratiatingly Brazilian to the core. He inspired one Modernist poet, Manuel Bandeira, to write upon the composer’s re-emergence in Brazil:

“One would expect whoever has just returned from Paris to be full of Paris. However, Villa-Lobos has come back full of Villa-Lobos.”

Villa-Lobos himself, in response to habitual complaints that his so-called modern music “hurt the ears” of his listeners, went on to expound eloquently upon his own innate and, for the times, uncharacteristic sense of Brazilianness:

“I don’t write dissonance for the sake of being modern. Not by any means. The way I write is a cosmic consequence of the studies I’ve done, of the synthesis I’ve arrived at, to mirror a Brazilian nature. When I sought to develop my culture, guided by my own instincts and experience, I realized I could only come to a conclusion of conscious knowledge by researching and studying works that, on the surface, had nothing to do with music… I went on, comparing my studies [of the people and the natural wonders of this land] with foreign compositions, and I sought something to support and strengthen my personal approach, and the inalterability of my ideas.”

While his passion for, and pride in, his native country proved most refreshing, and endeared him overall to the populace at large — and to the powers that be — they tended to alienate him completely from so Western European an art form as the opera, to the unfortunate detriment of the domestic product.

(End of Part Two)

Copyright © 2012 by Josmar F. Lopes


* Some 40 or more years later, a bashful carioca native by the name of Antonio Carlos Jobim would find himself in similar straits. He, too, would make the acquaintance of one of the era’s best-known intellectuals: the poet, playwright, musician, and performer Vinicius de Moraes. Quite beyond either of their expectations, they would change the face of Brazilian pop music for all time.