Born nearly a century ago, the man known as “The Little Poet” lived la vie de Bohème and wrote the play Orfeu da Conceição, while bringing the sumptuous sounds of bossa nova to the musical forefront
Saturday, October 19, 2013 marked the centenary of the birth of one of Brazil’s most recognizable and controversial personalities. A talented man of letters, as well as a poet, a composer, musician, performer, and lyricist, Marcus Vinitius [sic] Cruz de Moraes — more widely known as Vinicius de Moraes — was born in Gávea, a suburb of Rio de Janeiro. He earned a law degree in his native city without having to give up his all-consuming interests in music, philosophy, dance, theater, and cinema (in particular, the silent cinema), along with his love for English literature and language, which he studied at Oxford University (1938-41).
Upon his return to Brazil, Vinicius began writing film criticism for a Rio daily, in addition to answering letters in an “advice to the lovelorn” column. In line with the above, he also worked as a civil servant, had close encounters with maverick filmmaker Orson Welles and social critic Waldo Frank (1942), both of whom made extended visits to Brazil and were instrumental in increasing his awareness of social causes; published several books of verse; spent quality time in Hollywood (1946-50); and participated in film festivals throughout Europe — all while serving in the Brazilian Foreign Ministry.
Vinicius had a weakness for the opposite sex, and was rumored to have married a total of nine times. While in Hollywood, he, along with his first wife Beatriz (nicknamed Tati) and their young daughter Susana, practically resided in Carmen Miranda’s Beverly Hills household. They were close friends until Carmen’s unforeseen demise.
In 1954, on the advice of another poet, Vinicius entered a draft of his play in verse, Orfeu da Conceição, in a writing contest. It won one of the top prizes. On leave from his post with the Foreign Service, Vinicius united with a fledgling composer named Antonio Carlos “Tom” Jobim. Together, the Little Poet and the publicity shy Tom brought Orfeu to the stage of the Teatro Municipal, in Rio, on September 25, 1956. It was the beginning of a beautiful songwriting relationship that resulted in a flurry of classic tunes, among them “Chega de saudade” (“No More Blues”), “The Girl from Ipanema,” “Once I Loved,” “How Insensitive,” “One Note Samba,” “Se todos fossem iguais a você” (“Someone to Light Up My Life”), and many more.
In 1962, Vinicius, with the presence of Jobim and the young João Gilberto, made his singing debut at the Au Bon Gourmet nightclub in Rio. From there on, the Little Poet followed the performing path, later teaming up with a new partner, Toquinho, from the 1970s up until his death in July 1980.
The release and popularization of the film Black Orpheus (1959), produced by Sacha Gordine and directed by Marcel Camus, and the subsequent worldwide acclaim it garnered (including the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and the Oscar™ for Best Foreign Film) brought renewed focus on Brazil — especially on Vinicius’ subsequent work, which numbered some 400 songs, many of them with the top talents of the day: Jobim, Pixinguinha, Baden Powell, Carlos Lyra, Ary Barroso, Chico Buarque, and Toquinho.
Orpheus, the Myth and the Man
Notwithstanding these myriad activities, Vinicius’ serious side was reflected in Orfeu da Conceição, in which he expressed outright concern for the poor and disadvantaged. But why did he choose this particular subject to dramatize?
To put it simply, the Orpheus legend happened to be one of those recurring motifs that have managed, in both theory and practice, to adapt themselves rather easily to other media — most opportunely to the operatic, cinematic, and theatrical art forms.
For starters, such foreign-born dramatists as Oskar Kokoschka, Jean Anouilh, and Jean Cocteau, along with their American counterpart, playwright Tennessee Williams, all drew inspiration from his mythological fable, with varying degrees of success. Until Black Orpheus made its initial worldwide impact in 1959-60, French poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau‘s pairing of Orphée (1949) with his later The Testament of Orpheus (1960) had previously blazed the cinematic trail, while Sidney Lumet‘s The Fugitive Kind (1959), starring Marlon Brando and Anna Magnani, in turn took up the slack from the American side; it was supposed to have been the film adaptation of Williams‘ talkie stage play Orpheus Descending (and a not very good one, at that). Next to Cocteau’s classics, it bombed badly.
As one might have guessed, there were scores of lyric versions lying about the opera house, too, beginning with those of early Baroque masters Jacopo Peri, Claudio Monteverdi, Georg Philipp Telemann, and Christoph Willibald von Gluck. In the mid-19th century, the wildly popular Jacques Offenbach, a German-Jewish émigré to Gay Paree, composed the comic operetta Orpheus in the Underworld. And in the early 1920s, Kokoschka‘s Expressionistic play Orpheus und Eurydice was transformed into a modern opera by the Austrian Ernst Krenek, creator of the Jazz-Age hit Jonny spielf auf (“Johnny Strikes Up”); while in our own time, an offbeat addition to the standard repertoire (by American minimalist Philip Glass) caught moviegoers by surprise with an ingenious musical rewrite of Cocteau‘s art film as an operatic tour de force.
There was even a modern dance version, titled simply Orpheus (1948), commissioned by the Ballet Society of New York, with music by the always-acerbic Igor Stravinsky and choreography by Russian ballet master George Balanchine. These tantalizing tidbits of the Orpheus legend were but the tips of the musical iceberg.
This was all well and good, but what attributes did the Little Poet find in the myth that would eventually lead him to produce such an influential hit? Vinicius expressed interest in the tale as far back as the early forties. His own words will suffice as to where and how his inspiration might have been derived:
“It was around 1942 that one night [at the home of my uncle, the architect Carlos Leão], after reading once again about the [Orpheus] myth in an old book on Greek mythology, I suddenly realized that it contained the framework for a tragedy set among the black population of Rio. The legend of the artist who, thanks to the fascination of his music, was able to descend into Hades to search for his beloved Eurydice… might very well take place in one of Rio’s shantytowns…
“I started to jot my vision down into a few verses, which then became a full act, finalizing it just as the sun rose over Guanabara, now visible through the window. It was another six years after that, while living in Los Angeles, that I was able to add the last two acts, and even later in 1953, after misplacing the third act and having to rewrite it, in Paris, before it was completed.”
On September 19, 1956, one week before the musical play’s official opening of September 25, at the imposing Teatro Municipal in downtown Rio de Janeiro — and three months after the commencement of stage rehearsals, which were constantly interrupted by his consular activities — playwright and poet Vinicius de Moraes dashed off this poignant dedication:
“This play is an homage to the Brazilian black man, to whom I owe so much; and not just for his organic contribution to the culture of this country — but more for his impassioned lifestyle that has allowed me, with little to no effort, by a simple spark of the imagination, to feel in the [inspiration] of the divine Thracian musician, that same inspiration [born of] the divine musicians from our own native carioca hills.”
The all-black, all-Brazilian cast — by and large, a fairly radical undertaking for its time — starred Haroldo Costa as Orfeu, Daisy Paiva as Eurídice, Léa Garcia (who played Serafina in the French film version) as Mira, singer Ciro Monteiro as Apolo, and Zeny Pereira as Clio. Other members of the troupe included Adalberto Silva (Plutão), Pérola Negra (Proserpina), Waldir Maia (Corifeu), Francisca de Queiroz (Dama Negra), Clementino Luiz (Cérbero), Abdias do Nascimento, one of the founders of Brazil’s Experimental Black Theatre, as Aristeu the beekeeper, and Olympic gold medalist in the triple jump, Adhemar Ferreira da Silva, as one of the choristers as well as the skeletal Black Death figure in the movie.
Orfeu da Conceição packed them in at the Municipal for a solid week, up through September 30; after which it moved to the Teatro República (no longer in existence) for a month-long stay. A last-ditch effort to switch venues to São Paulo, however, collapsed due to a lack of available funding and space.
Truth be told, Vinicius saw himself as Orfeu. He certainly put much of his own tastes, passion, and outlook into this noble creation. Notwithstanding the fact that Orfeu was black (or what we might describe as Afro-Brazilian) and the playwright was white (of Portuguese descent, with traces of German, Italian, Hungarian, and Argentine blood in his veins), Vinicius commonly referred to himself as “O branco mais preto do Brasil” (“The blackest white man in Brazil”).
Always a heavy drinker, he rarely performed on stage without his trusty bottle of whiskey close at hand. A forerunner and follower of the liberated lifestyle of the swinging 1960s, as the decade began Vinicius had given himself over to the life of a sensualist. Consequently, some things had to go by the wayside. For neglecting his diplomatic duties, he was expelled from the Foreign Service in 1969. After a series of health crises (stroke, heart problems), brought on by his continuing alcoholism, Vinicius finally expired in his bath on July 9, 1980. It is said that he died in the arms of his last song partner, Toquinho.
Despite the controversies that surrounded him in life, Vinicius de Moraes was officially reinstated into the Brazilian diplomatic corps in 2006, in recognition of his many contributions to the cultural and literary life of his beloved Brazil. Finally, in February 2011, with President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva present and the surviving members of the Moraes family in attendance, the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies elevated him to the posthumous post of Ambassador, with all the requisite honors intact.
Vinicius lived, Vinicius loved — wildly, passionately, without restraints. He went through Hell, much like his forlorn Orfeu. And like Orfeu, he came back from purgatory — cleansed, triumphant, renewed, and absolved of his sins… while searching for his drink.
Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes