A Shock to the System
Carmen Miranda’s shocking end and tumultuous Rio de Janeiro funeral produced a staggering outpouring of grief in the country — a vivid example of pent-up guilt feelings for the way the nation had treated the dearly departed movie icon when she was alive.
It also struck a foreboding chord with Bidu Sayão, Brazil’s other international musical exponent, and a fervent follower of the once energetic entertainer. Only a month before Bidu had suffered the loss of her first husband, the late Walter Mocchi, recently interred in a Rio cemetery. And, in a manner of speaking, she had witnessed the slow and steady passing of her own Metropolitan Opera career, what with her having to contend with a regime change at the company she had so long been associated with.
The new administration, put in place in October 1950 and headed up by crusty general manager Rudolf Bing, was peculiarly unreceptive to the popular Brazilian singer’s request to perform in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, one of her Gallic specialties. Bing it seemed had an aversion to the standard French repertoire, but his firm support of Verdi and Puccini, and outright backing of the Mozart canon, gave Bidu renewed hope that she would be given a fair stab at some of the meatier items on the Met’s operatic dinner-plate of works.
Such was not to be. She sang in only four presentations of La Bohème, the last of which, dated February 26, 1952, was her adieu to the old house. It was followed two months later by a final April 23 performance on tour, in Boston, as Manon, the role of her Met debut.
“I was proud,” she would later remark, “and I did not want to wait until I was asked to leave.” It was commented on at the time that Bidu Sayão had left the Metropolitan at the top of her form, and with few regrets.
Cutting back on her operatic appearances, she limited her future engagements to the concert hall, but wallowed joyfully in her newly acquired freedom away from the lyric stage. In the same year as Carmen Miranda’s wedding in Beverly Hills, Bidu and her husband, Giuseppe Danise, purchased a home in Lincolnville, off the coast of Maine and reminiscent of her family’s littoral abode in Botafogo. They called it Casa Bidu. After her retirement from the Met, she and Danise would spend considerable time there together, interspersed with occasional side visits to New York City.
But more shattering news would arrive in January 1957: Arturo Toscanini — mentor, admirer, advisor, and steadfast supporter — died at his home in Riverdale, New York, at the ripe old age of 89. This was too much for the sensitive soprano to bear, as she now resolved to terminate her singing career before the year was out.
“That decision,” Bidu admitted to Maria Helena Dutra, in a December 1972 interview for Veja magazine, “came about as well because my 90-year-old mother had been extremely ill. And my husband complained constantly of being left alone, because I was leading a gypsy lifestyle. I felt then that my family needed to come first.”
Bidu bid a fond farewell to concertizing, in the same historic location (Carnegie Hall), singing the same lyrical showpiece (La Demoiselle Élue), and with the same orchestral forces (the New York Philharmonic) as those of two decades prior, when she was first introduced to American audiences by the incomparable Italian-born Toscanini; except that on this occasion, the program in question was in the capable hands of a noteworthy Belgian, conductor André Cluytens. He would solemnly assist Bidu in drawing a final curtain on the predominantly classical cycle she had begun for herself back in the spring of 1936.
“It’s hard to quit,” she told The New York Times, “but how much better to do it when the public remembers you well. Now I could smoke, stay up late at parties, and [even] catch a cold.” Reminiscing about those years to Veja, Bidu explained that, for a while, she lived with her “past glories, surrounded by journalists.” When she finally called it quits, “all of a sudden there was this tremendous void” in her life, but the choice was made and she embraced it with open arms.
Within a few years of that defining concert, second husband Giuseppe Danise would join the celestial ranks of the other prominent figures in Bidu’s life: Uncle Alberto Costa, soprano Elena Theodorini, tenor Jean de Reszke, Madame Emma Carelli, impresario Walter Mocchi, maestro Arturo Toscanini, and composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, a lifelong collaborator and close personal acquaintance. All had made incalculable contributions to her profession and art. While each had received their just reward, Bidu would continue to be feted, honored, and fawned over, for years to come, by ardent aficionados both here and in her native land.
With all that she had seen and done in her field of choice, what was there left to say about Brazil’s most exalted opera personality? Taking note of her award-winning 1945 Columbia Records rendition of Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 and her status as a major interpreter of that composer’s works, along with those of the less familiar-sounding Hernani Braga, Henri Duparc, Gabriel Fauré, Reynaldo Hahn, and Francisco Mignone, Bidu’s many stage and recorded milestones went far beyond the norm for a native-born classical performer of her time.
In fact, there was no denying, or even downplaying, her importance as a pivotal player in the development and spread of opera in-and-around the Brazilian landscape. Although some critics would go so far as to admit that her (and Carmen Miranda’s) peak period of activity spanned the length of U.S. involvement in the Second World War — with its emphasis on the Good Neighbor Policy and the resultant rationing of the gene pool of foreign artists; that she had not appeared in her native Brazil between the years 1937 and 1952, it was not supported by the evidence.
“I get offended when people tell me that I’m not patriotic,” she told Veja magazine. “I’ve always represented my country with much dignity. All my Metropolitan Opera colleagues were naturalized citizens. Except me, who has lived in the United States for the last 35 years.”
Life is a Carnival
But what was it that made the little diva so endearing to opera buffs? What carefully guarded secret had she possessed that so inspired the loyalty and admiration of even the most hardened of music critics?
On the whole, it can be added that in almost every respect the lovely lyric singer exuded that rare and indecipherable star quality known as charisma. Added to her matchless stage deportment, it manifested itself in the purity and ease with which she projected her small but penetrating instrument; beautifully self-contained within a miniature yet finely sculpted frame; and perfectly suited for the nobility and majesty of only the most theatrical of dramatic contrivances — chiefly, the opera.
With her usual, self-effacing modesty, Bidu Sayão saliently and quite succinctly summed up her own precious vocal artistry in a 1989 broadcast interview for New York radio station WQXR:
“I had something appealing. I don’t know what: the sincerity of my singing. I give my heart. I give my soul. I give myself.”
She gave of herself one last time, when, in 1995, the Beija-Flor Samba School of Nilópolis invited the elderly but still determined petite dame of grand opera to appear in the annual Rio Carnival parade. Bidu’s life story had been transformed into the school’s theme for that year, and she was more than happy to oblige, as it provided the bona fide Brazilian charmer with a legitimate excuse to visit her Cidade Maravilhosa (“Wonderful City”) once again.
Her attire was that of a typical Northeastern baiana, the only conceivable dress she could have worn under the circumstances — and a most fitting personal tribute to the memory of Carmen Miranda in her prime. With that simple gesture, two hitherto incompatible entertainment forms had, for one brief instant, successfully melded into a singularly grandiose public display.
For what is Carnival and opera, anyway, if not outsized representations of all that we would like for reality to be?
Characteristically, the nonagenarian Bidu stole the show.
* * *
On March 12, 1999 after a brief illness, soprano Bidu Sayão permanently left the world spotlight. She died at Penobscot Bay Medical Center in Rockport, Maine, two months short of her 97th birthday.
Her death brought to a quiet close a most remarkable chapter in Brazilian music history, one that Bidu had so conspicuously made her own. “[D]uring her career days, she held audiences in the palm of her hand,” remembered Schuyler Chapin, ex-Commissioner for Cultural Affairs in New York City and a former general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. “Whether on the opera stage, the concert hall, a living room, or just in conversation… she was, hands down, one of the public’s favorites.”
But the length of an individual’s physical life did not necessarily translate into longevity in the public’s mind, especially where it concerned the new and unconventional in music.
Alas, few of the current generation of Brazil’s knowledgeable music lovers have even heard of Bidu Sayão, much less been made aware of her past classical accomplishments. Yet ever more enthusiastic disciples of Música Popular Brasileira have become thrilled all over again by the flashing eyes, the free-flowing arm movements, and the fluttering vocal lines of that too short-lived curio named Carmen Miranda. A major reappraisal of her work appears imminent and overdue, and is sure to follow in the wake of this modern reevaluation.*
In the brief time she spent with us, Carmen’s musical and entertainment legacy had apparently won out over — or even surpassed — Bidu’s now overlooked ones. Indeed, her tragic, unforeseen death and subsequent reacceptance into contemporary Brazilian cultural society can be read, should we choose to, as the final triumphant victory over her earlier career adversity. ☼
Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes
* Brazilian-born actress and singer Marília Pêra, herself a native carioca, has put on several one-woman shows depicting the life and times of Carmen Miranda, the first of them in 1972. These were followed by other revivals, including one in 2005 in Rio. On the stage, Pêra has also impersonated paulista power-diva Dalva de Oliveira, as well as Greek-American opera star Maria Callas. Her latest theatrical incarnation was of the legendary French cosmetic queen, Coco Chanel, in Paris.