Month: January 2014

Brazilian Dream Team — If it’s Musicals You Want, Möeller-Botelho You’ll Get!

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Who Are You?

Claudio Botelho & Charles Moeller receiving the Shell Award
Claudio Botelho & Charles Moeller receiving the Shell Award in 2009

I first met actor, director and writer Charles Möeller and his working partner — singer, actor, translator, adapter and musical director Claudio Botelho — a few years ago, over lunch at a fashionable Brazilian restaurant in the heart of midtown Manhattan. I came away from that encounter praising these two stellar personalities and their splendid musical-theater creations to high heaven.

Prior to meeting them, I had been talking and corresponding with Claudio for a solid year, discussing and trading opinions about numerous aspects of the musical-theater field in the land of Carnival and samba. Soon after inaugurating my blog in July 2012, I began presenting excerpts of the duo’s productions on an ongoing basis. And I continue to write about and comment upon their marvelous shows, as well as their mutual goal of bringing the neglected masterworks of Brazilian musical theater to light.

But the other day, it dawned on me that I have yet to talk about the background of this fabulous Brazilian dream team — which, if the stars and planets gather in proper alignment, will be making its belated Broadway debut later in a ground-breaking musical version of the international cult favorite, Black Orpheus.

So let me make amends for this oversight and formally introduce readers to Charles and Claudio, known throughout Brazil as “The Kings of Musical Theater” — or, in their native Portuguese, Os Reis dos Musicais. And that’s no exaggeration! For it takes more than kings to make the kinds of tasteful choices and refined decisions these two knowledgeable individuals consistently bring to every one of their musical offerings.

Their enviable string of musical-theater hits is unprecedented in Brazil. The time is ripe, I believe, for North America to make the acquaintance of these superb artists, beginning with Charles Möeller.

Getting to Know Him

Charles-Möeller in A Idade da Loboa ("Age of the She-Wolf")
Charles Möeller in A Idade da Loba (“Age of the She-Wolf”)

Born in Santos and raised in the beach neighborhood of São Vicente, Charles Möeller Falcão — the youngest of eight siblings — began his theatrical career there in 1986, as a twelve-year-old actor, in the play The Novice (“O Noviço”), with fellow santista Neyde Veneziano directing.

Passionate about the theater from an early age, Charles paid frequent visits to the sprawling metropolis of São Paulo to see every show that was within his reach. On one of these many forays, he caught a trilogy of works presented by Antunes Filho: Romeo and Juliet, Nelson 2 Rodrigues and Macunaima. With that, he decided, then and there, what he wanted to do with his life.

“One doesn’t choose to become an actor,” Charles remarked in a later interview. “Either you are or you aren’t. From earliest childhood, I couldn’t conceive of having any other image in my head that did not involve the theater. I wanted to be a part of that world.”

At eighteen he made the move to São Paulo, where for three years he participated in the Center for Theater Research (CPT – Centro de Pesquisa Teatral), founded by noted director and notorious taskmaster, Antunes Filho. This was his baptism of fire into theater life, and to the difficult career of an actor. “Imagine the torture for an eager and anxious youngster such as myself!” Charles confessed to journalist Tania Carvalho.

After acquiring sufficient knowledge of diagrams and blueprints (most of which he had previously attained while studying the subject in São Paulo), Charles became an assistant set designer to architect José Carlos (J.C.) Serroni. “I entered CPT to become an actor and work with Antunes Filho,” observed Charles, “but I came out a stage and costume designer instead for having worked with Serroni.”

From there, he ventured into costume design. In 1989, he worked with Gabriel Vilella on The Council of Love (“O Concílio do Amor”), staged by Boi Voador (“Flying Bull”) Group, a piece about the medieval outbreak of syphilis that, by sheer coincidence, mirrored the worldwide AIDS epidemic that was raging at the time. For his work on the play’s costumes, Charles won the Mambembe, Shell, Apetesp and Paulista Association of Arts Critics (or APCA) Awards. He was also featured in the stage version of John Francis Lane’s Another Time, Another Place (“Outra Vez”), directed by Sergio Viotti.

The success of The Council of Love drew the attention of TV Globo, who summoned him to Rio to audition for a part in one of their early-evening soap operas, Mico Preto (“Black Monkey”). It was his association with cast member and future director, Miguel Falabella, and others that led to a chance encounter with his future working partner Claudio Botelho, who happened to be playing guitar in a play starring the late Italo Rossi. They shared a common interest in, and unfettered passion for, movie and Broadway musicals — a passion neither artist had the faintest idea would grow into a veritable tidal wave in the years to come.

Charles Moeller (bebroadway.blogspot.com)
Charles Moeller (bebroadway.blogspot.com)

With confidence in his abilities growing by leaps and bounds, Charles began to divide his time between television and theater. Besides Mico Preto (1990/91 – TV Globo), Charles also appeared in such programs as A História de Ana Raio e Zé Trovão (“The Story of Lightning Ann and Thunder Joe,” 1992/93 – TV Manchete), Idade da Loba (“Age of the She-Wolf,” 1994/95 – TV Plus / Band) and Xica da Silva (1996 – TV Manchete), which I got to see during the first few months of my four-and-a-half-year stay in Brazil, in addition to various episodes of Você Decide (“You Decide”) and A Vida Como Ela É (“Life As It Really Is”) for TV Globo.

As a stage actor, he was featured in Athol Fugard’s Master Harold and the Boys (Antonio Mercado, 1990), Colombo (Marcus Alvisi, director, 1992), and Lake 22 (Jorge Takla, 1995). For the group The Privileged Screw-Ups (“Os Fodidos Privilegiados”), Charles teamed with directors Antonio Abujamra and João Fonseca for the play Exorbitances, a Theatrical Farandole (as actor, costume and set designer, 1996); The Wedding (sets and costumes, 1997), for which he received the Shell Award for best costume design; Compassion for the Self (“Auto da Compadecida,” set and costume design, 1998); and The Libertines (set and costume design, 2000).

Under director Ana Kfouri’s guidance, he created the sets and costumes for a variety of works, beginning with Sensuality (“Volúpia”) in 1997, and Gluttony (“Gula”) in 1999, both plays written by Kfouri.

In 1991, while residing full-time in Rio de Janeiro, Charles assumed responsibility for sets and costumes for The Alienist, a play by Machado de Assis, directed by Almir Telles; for Dorotéia, by Nelson Rodrigues (a relative of his father’s) and directed by Carlos Augusto Strazzer; and especially for Hello Gershwin, a George Gershwin musical homage, with direction by Marco Nanini that co-starred Claudio Botelho and Claudia Netto — a show that barely saw the light of day in Rio (“The main problem was the lack of funds,” Charles noted), but that later moved to the more lucrative environs of the Crowne Plaza in São Paulo.

Charles also prepared the scenery and costumes for the Irving Berlin show Cheek to Cheek (“De Rosto Colado”), helmed by actor Marco Nanini, 1993; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, based on the novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, 1994; Young Torless by Robert Musil, 1996; The Fantasticks, the long-running off-Broadway show by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones (and newly translated by Claudio Botelho), and The Future Preterite Tense, by Regiana Antonini, 1996; The Beating of Your Heart (“Na Bagunça do Teu Coração”) by João Máximo and Luiz Fernando Vianna, an early tribute to the songs of Chico Buarque, with direction by Bibi Ferreira, 1997; A Poet’s Love, by Tiago Santiago, overseen by André Mauro, 1998; and Leonard Bernstein’s operetta Candide, under the eye of Jorge Takla, 2000.

In 2002, Charles wrote an adaptation of Daniel Defoe’s The Adventures of Moll Flanders which he titled The Diabolical Moll Flanders. For this project, which starred Ary Fontoura, he assumed the dual role of director and set designer. Charles was also invited to design the sets and costumes for several operatic productions that were given at the famed Municipal Theaters of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, among them Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, Puccini’s La Bohème and Madama Butterfly, and Verdi’s La Traviata.

Architect & Set Designer Jorge Takla (blogs.estadao.com.br)
Architect & Set Designer Jorge Takla (blogs.estadao.com.br)

“It was Jorge Takla who contacted me to do them. I got paid well for my work because opera pays well. In the process I became good friends with Jorge. He convinced me to go with him to Europe after the opera was over, that going to London, Paris and New York were an essential part in the life of every artist. It was the first time I had been outside of Brazil, and in Takla’s company, who knows everything about London and Paris, I was shown the ropes.

“Takla was fundamental to my life and career,” Charles went on. “He saw in me a talent for costume and set design, and as an actor, that I never knew I had. And if I’ve visited some unforgettable places and seen things I never imagined existed, it’s to him that I owe it all!”

(To be continued…)

(The above information was compiled from the Möeller-Botelho Website, along with various excerpts from Tania Carvalho’s book, Os Reis dos Musicais, published by Imprensa Oficial, São Paulo, 2009. The English translation is by Josmar Lopes, with grateful acknowledgement to Charles Möeller and Claudio Botelho)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Mario, Mario, Mario!’ — High Notes to Die For: My Homage to Tenor Mario Filippeschi… And an Apology

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Mario Filippeschi (operaarts.com)
Tenor Mario Filippeschi (operaarts.com)

Today, I received a wonderful e-mail surprise from someone named Rosanna Filippeschi Sudano, the daughter of Italian tenor Mario Filippeschi and reigning King of the High C’s from the 1940s and 50s. In his day — and in Spanish-speaking countries –-, he was known as “la voz de oro,” or “the voice of gold.”

Born on June 7, 1907, in the town of Montefoscoli in the Tuscan province of Pisa, Filippeschi made his operatic debut near Parma on July 19, 1937, as Edgardo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. From this humble beginning, he went on to sing all over Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece and Germany, as well as Mexico and parts of Latin America. Although he never sang in the U.S., Filippeschi is best remembered for early recordings of Bellini’s Norma with Maria Callas and Ebe Stignani, Tullio Serafin conducting; and the first ever complete recordings of Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto (“Moses in Egypt”) with bass Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, and the same composer’s last opera, William Tell, with Giuseppe Taddei and Rosanna Carteri, conducted by Mario Rossi.

Signora Sudano wrote to correct me about an article I had posted concerning her father’s appearance and voice-over work in the 1946 postwar film version of Verdi’s Rigoletto. The film, which was shot on the stage of the Rome Opera House, featured such legendary artists as baritone Tito Gobbi as a marvelously lithe Rigoletto, Mario Filippeschi as the Duke of Mantua, bass Giulio Neri as a black-toned Sparafucile, and soprano Lina Pagliughi singing (but not acting) the role of Rigoletto’s daughter Gilda. The director was noted opera lover Carmine Gallone, who specialized in numerous motion pictures about the lyric art form during this and later time periods.

The correction Mrs. Sudano wished me to make was my claim that, although Filippeschi had acted the part of the Duke (stunningly, I might add), his voice was dubbed by another gigantic-toned tenor, that of the young Mario Del Monaco. To my dismay, it suddenly dawned on me that I had indeed credited the wrong Mario with having sung Verdi’s callous and womanizing aristocrat. Pulling out my notes and checking as many sources I could lay my hands on, I verified that… yes, I goofed! Del Monaco was out and Filippeschi was in. All I could think of was Floria Tosca’s cry of “Mario, Mario, Mario!” Boy, did I make a booboo!!!

Filippeschi as the Duke of Mantua
Filippeschi as the Duke of Mantua

I quickly responded to Signora Sudano’s query, assuring her that I would remove the offending credit and correct my egregious mistake this very evening. And so I have. Interested readers may now read the article, “Hollywood Goes to the Opera: More Cinematic Disparities for Your Viewing Displeasure,” through the following link and with the aforementioned modifications: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/07/23/hollywood-goes-to-the-opera-more-cinematic-disparities-for-your-viewing-displeasure-conclusion/.

As an extra added treat for opera lovers, and lovers of fine singing — and knowing that Filippeschi had pursued a mostly European and Latin-based career — I asked Rosanna if she could provide me with the dates of her father’s visits to the Municipal Theaters of both Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. I am relieved to report that Mario Filippeschi was well known in Brazil and extremely well received there, too, which pleases me to no end. Here are the exact dates of his appearances in my home country, in addition to the roles he sang:

Rio de Janeiro – Teatro Municipal

December 28, 1946: La Bohème (Rodolfo)
December 29: Concert

January 2, 1947: Rigoletto (Duke), 3 performances
January 5: Tosca (Cavaradossi), 2 performances
January 11: Concert
January 24: Cavalleria Rusticana (Turiddu), 2 performances

September 19, 1951: Aida (Radamès), 2 performances

São Paulo – Teatro Municipal

August 28, 1951: Aida (Radamès), 2 performances

September 16: La Bohème (Rodolfo), 2 performances

October 1: Concert
October 2: La Traviata (Alfredo)
October 4: Rigoletto (Duke)

Mario Filippeschi retired from the stage in the late 1950s. His singing style, while remarkably reminiscent of an earlier generation that venerated such vocal titans as Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, Giovanni Martinelli, Francesco Merli, and Aureliano Pertile, clearly belongs to this group — even though Filippeschi flourished in the period that came after them.

On records, the voice tended toward the strident side, but onstage its thrilling power and amplitude delighted audiences into a fervor. Still, Filippeschi left a fine legacy of his performances that included, along with the above items, a much admired version of Verdi’s Don Carlo with Gobbi, Neri, Antonietta Stella, Elena Nicolai, and Boris Christoff.

Thank you for writing, Rosanna! It’s good that someone has been reading my posts and, where necessary, alerted me to their content. Even the most careful of writers can sometimes trip over a detail or misread a source. I’d rather be kept on my toes than print an erroneous entry. I’m funny that way.

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘When the Legend Becomes Fact’ — Hollywood and the Historical Film (Part One)

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Introduction to “Reel” Life

Director Oliver Stone (scmlmag.com)
Director Oliver Stone (scmlmag.com)

The fall 2013 issue of Cineaste includes a feature-length article by the magazine’s consulting editor, Dan Georgakas, of a ten-part documentary series entitled “Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States: The Course of Empire.”

Known for his faux-biographical depictions of Presidents John F. Kennedy (JFK), Richard M. Nixon (Nixon) and George W. Bush (W), as well as imaginative recreations of events and personages in such films as Salvador, Platoon, Wall Street, The Doors, Born on the Fourth of July and World Trade Center, screenwriter, producer, director and lecturer Oliver Stone has also coauthored a 750-page companion book of the documentary with professor of history and director of the Nuclear Studies Institute at American University, Peter Kuznick, who contributed to the series’ script.

In the book and documentary (to be issued on DVD in March 2014), ex-Vietnam veteran Mr. Stone attempts to correct our perceptions about the numerous inaccuracies that have been foisted upon Americans with regard to their own history. Among the themes associated with his five-year project is one where Stone maintains that we have been thoroughly misled about U. S. involvement in a variety of international conflicts, beginning with (but not limited to) the Second World War — ergo the Untold History aspect of the title.

From such seminal ideas as Manifest Destiny and American exceptionalism to this country’s later foreign policy with respect to Korea, the Cold War, Vietnam, Iraq and other trouble spots around the globe, the idea of a secret basis to, or “between the lines” reading of, American history is challenged and refuted by Mr. Georgakas. To begin with, he charges the narrative of Stone’s documentary with, among other things, “a penchant for interpreting historical decisions as dependent on personalities,” as if all it took to plunge America into all-out war were the bull-headed decisions of a few charismatic leaders with gutsy feelings in their bellies.

Georgakas then takes the director to task, mostly over his use of Hollywood fiction films (“A troubling and surprising aspect”), which serve as visual manifestations of many of the events discussed and analyzed in Stone’s multi-part series. When viewing these movie clips, Georgakas contends, viewers might mistake them for the unvarnished truth — or worse, as indisputable evidence of the validity of Stone’s claims. Further, he goes on to cite an intrinsic problem that exists in this country, in that many people tend to get their history (along with their facts) from movies, television and online news services — which as many of us know, aren’t always the most dependable and, more often than not, have agendas of their own to push.

This argument raises the whole issue, then, of whether anyone — be they American or German, British or Chinese, Russian or Lithuanian — has the temerity to portray history, or past historical events, in forms (that is to say, Hollywood films) that are fundamentally at odds with legitimate or traditionally-accepted means; thereby making said forms subject to re-interpretation by a single if not a whole host of individuals — in Stone’s case, by a radical filmmaker with his own agenda to pursue.

To my understanding, this defeats the purpose of having historians, i.e., persons trained and experienced in recognizing the differences between fiction and fact, act as custodians of the past. As we are keenly aware, it’s a widely held notion that “history is written by the victors.” What this statement ultimately reveals, however, is that events leading up to those victories possess a built-in degree of ambiguity. In other words, they are dependent exclusively on the writer’s limitations as an educator or historian, along with that individual’s choice of material from among a wealth or lack of available sources, as well as specific knowledge of events.

More to the point, an element of trust must exist between the reader and the writer in accepting this individual’s finished output. If that trust is broken or disturbed, or never existed in the first place, then the fault lies with the writer and his work. But if that trust can be established at the outset and kept intact throughout, only then can we be assured of a fairly objective and reliable reading of the past — given the nature and type of quantifiable evidence relied upon.

George, Nicholas and Wilhelm book cover
George, Nicholas and Wilhelm book cover

An excellent example of this can be found in Miranda Carter’s richly detailed book, George, Nicholas and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I, wherein extensive correspondence between the three titular heads of state, their personal recollections and individual diaries and memoirs, in addition to historical records, documentation, memoranda, obscure notations, newspaper accounts, period writings, and other primary-source material helped to elucidate the topic in a thoroughly satisfying manner.

This is where reader, writer and editor Mr. Georgakas, and screenwriter, director and lecturer Mr. Stone, part company, in that the main bone of contention is the latter’s use of Hollywood fiction films as stand-ins for the requisite evidential source-work; or, to put it brusquely, the introduction and incorporation of non-traditional (read: illegitimate) forms that are hardly the last word in authenticity or accuracy.

By that reckoning, Stone’s past record of cinematic accomplishments is not exactly what Georgakas, or anybody else for that matter, would term a fitting background for this kind of “complex social, economic, and political” endeavor, thus squelching the needed trust factor from the start.

When in the “Course” of Human Events

I have always been fascinated by history. I did, in fact, major in the subject at Fordham University, while I continue to espouse a thoughtful and constantly evolving interest in Hollywood films with stories about individuals, personalities and themes related to the past (Lawrence of Arabia, Lincoln, Saving Private Ryan, Glory, Patton, The Aviator, The King’s Speech, El Cid, and numerous others). This is what attracted me to Cineaste’s piece and director Stone’s prospective thesis.

The magazine itself has even devoted whole issues to the subject. In fact, their spring 2004 edition included a “Film and History Supplement” that was published with “special support provided by the Academy Foundation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.” The editors of Cineaste, as well as this author, concur with and categorically accept the notion that film can bring clarity and purpose to historical subject matter in more entertaining ways than traditional methodologies can.

When I was a teacher of English as a Foreign Language in Brazil, I developed a course entitled “American History and Culture through Film.” The course’s aim was to chart the path the country took to become an independent nation and world power, by linking this objective to various Hollywood films that dealt with the same concerns. Commentaries from historians and movie critics, in conjunction with film reviews, critiques, pictures and clips would be shown in support of the assigned reading material.

The text that was used, An Illustrated History of the USA by Bryn O’Callaghan (published by Addison Wesley Longman, Ltd., 1990), explored the “development of the United States from its origins as a land inhabited by scattered Amerindian tribes to the culturally diverse but united country that we see today.”

Reflecting back on my course as it relates to Georgakas’ article, I realized, to my surprise, that perhaps I had been performing the same function back in my pedagogical days that Stone was attempting to perform today — and via similar methodology. The difference being, however, that back then I claimed no right to historical accuracy in my use of Hollywood fiction films. By providing, where needed, the appropriate explanations and clarifications to what my students were viewing, the readings on culture and history assigned them worked hand-in-hand with the images I intended to show. Still, numerous questions came to mind as I was planning and preparing my course for presentation.

As an indication of this thought process — and, to be perfectly honest, the thought processes of my students — I have listed many of the questions below. The answers to these questions have been provided where feasible, although for the most part they remain open-ended, which, for all curious and supportive teachers everywhere, is as it should be.

To begin with, what is history? What is the difference between what we call “history” and a simple “story” — a word derived from the same Latin and Greek roots? Why do we study history? How is history different from, say, myth and legend? For one thing, history is the study of past events, or events known to have occurred in the past. We may also define it as a search for the truth. The reason we study it is self-evident: to understand how and why these events occurred and, if possible, avoid a repetition of those mistakes that led to their occurrence.

Discounting the influences of religion, how is history conveyed and preserved? One of the ways that history can be conveyed is by oral means, which is not the most practical or reliable. One of the ways it can be preserved is by the written word, which turns out to be quite practical, but can also become unreliable. Other methods of conveying and preserving history are visual, i.e., through pictures, photographs, film, TV, video, and digital, electronic or hard-copy formats.

Frame of Zapruder's 8mm film (usatoday.com)
Frame of Zapruder’s 8mm film (usatoday.com)

If we look at one of these methods — film — we can see that film is a combination of many forms of preservation. We know that film is a visual record of an event (for example, Abraham Zapruder’s 8mm footage of the Kennedy assassination). The event can be current or one that took place in the past.

A documentary, then, is a real-life record of an event or occurrence, either currently or in the past. We also have fictional records of an event, which can be defined as a recreation of the past, albeit one where the narrative is subject to embellishment so as to incorporate a specific story line or plot. Representations of future events, or events yet to have occurred, are labeled science fiction. To this we add a level of speculation about the future and what that future might hold.

When filmmakers decide to recreate the past on screen, it’s instructive to ask how one can transform an event that has already taken place into one that has yet to occur. To put it another way, when we see a cinematic representation of a past historical event, do we ever wonder how the past could suddenly have become the present? Upon completion of our viewing of a film, how often do we notice that the present has now become the past? Why is that important? What influence does the past have on current events? How about on future events?

As we ponder the range of possibilities implicit in the above queries, keep in mind George Orwell’s famous warning from his novel 1984: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” The implication here is that by controlling the past one can also control both the present and the future.

Film, as far as we know, is the end-product of a vision of many people, a collective vision of a talented and diverse group of individual mind-sets. Among the individuals involved with that collective vision are the film’s director, producer and screenwriter, the production designer and art director, the costume designer and cinematographer, the soundtrack and Foley artists, the composer and special-effects artists, and dozens upon dozens more. How do we bring all these disparate elements together into a coherent whole in order to tell a viable story? For that matter, what story do we want to tell? How does one choose a story from the past from among so many stories available to us?

Here’s a little exercise you can do in the privacy of one’s home or apartment. Take an incident from your childhood, say, your first day at school. Now think about the main characters involved in that incident.

Next, take the main events of your story and telescope them by mapping out a timeline of events. Narrow the focus down to the essential ingredients; try concentrating on one specific event at a time, one major highlight of your tale that will help tell the story visually. What events do you use? Which characters do you include? Which ones do you reject?

Think about the time-lapse of events, what we call foreshortening, as a way of telling your story. Do you want a visual representation of these events (“plain vanilla”), or a verbal and visual one (“mixed bag”)? How would you present them and in what order?

The next part is more thought provoking. From the above mental exercise, determine if your final product will be a “true” representation of the past or a fictionalized account. Could actors really take the place of real people in your story? Who would you hire to play the major roles? Who would be the lead? Who would direct the film version? Who would write the script? Compose the score? Shoot the footage? Decorate the set? So much to think about, so little time to spare. This is the dilemma of all those professional story-tellers out there we call filmmakers — welcome to the club!

Revisionist History and the Distance Problem

What do we mean by revisionist history? Theoretically, revisionist history (also known as historical revisionism) is the process of finding inaccuracies or fallacies in the historical narrative or record and making corrections to it. Hand-in-hand with correcting the narrative is the added difficulty of having to challenge people’s long-held views of the past and their inability, as we perceive it, to concede to their revision.

Robert Redford & Dustin Hoffman in All the President's Men
Robert Redford & Dustin Hoffman in All the President’s Men

Is this what is meant by a “modern interpretation” of past events, for example, the aforementioned Kennedy assassination and the supposed “lone gunman” theory (JFK)? What about the plot to kill Adolf Hitler (Valkyrie), or the Watergate scandal (All the President’s Men), or Iran-Contra (Clear and Present Danger), or the hunt for Bin Laden (Zero Dark Thirty), or any number of past occurrences?

As a prospective movie-maker, a potential Oliver Stone in the making, can you get away with revising the past — and to what degree? What’s to be gained by doing so, and is it right to engage in revisionism for artistic purposes, the so-called “art for art’s sake” excuse? How can we escape the dangers of historical revisionism? Shouldn’t we present these events as they really were? That’s the province of investigative journalism, isn’t it, of the kind that figured prominently in the movie, All the President’s Men.

Let’s take the stories of individuals from the past. Some recent film subjects include King George VI, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Nelson Mandela. These are all famous subjects who made their lasting mark in the past. Distance from a subject can bring with it a kind of physical as well as mental distortion.

Try this experiment: take a small object — your smart phone, for instance — and place it in front of you. You can still read the phone’s contents, can’t you? Now place the phone farther and farther away from you. It becomes progressively more difficult to read the contents, doesn’t it? Bring it closer to you, and it becomes clear again.

Let’s look at a postcard, any postcard, of your favorite haunt or vacation spot. Postcards have a sharper focus “close up” than they have when held at a distance from one’s prying eyes. One can’t read the inscription on the back when the postcard is away from your field of vision. One must rely on one’s memory of what the inscription actually says. But memory is a fragile thing, as we know, and many times the memory of what was said or written fades into obscurity. Now you can understand and appreciate what distance can do to history. This is what we call the distance problem.

This experiment can be applied to politics as well as to history. Do politicians really believe that their constituents will remember what they promised to do for them once they get elected? With the invention of the Internet and YouTube and other electronic devices and means of preservation, we now have the ability to instantly fact-check what those same politicians have promised and thus correct the historical narrative, i.e., those inaccuracies and fallacies, not to mention distortions, of the recent past that were once taken for granted. It’s a dream come true for historians.

To Film or Not to Film

Clint Eastwood as William Munny in Unforgiven
Clint Eastwood as William Munny in Unforgiven

Which films can be used to describe the historical narrative? While my course was basically concerned with films on or about American history, any halfway decent representation of the past can be utilized as long as one prefaces their use and content with the following caveat: “This is only a fictional reenactment of the events or persons depicted” — that is, “It ain’t necessarily so, folks.”

Some subjects have an enormous quantity of available footage to select from (Westerns, Lincoln, the Civil War, and Vietnam). Others have a very limited field from which to choose (the American Revolution, FDR, and Nixon). While most of the films can be about actual historical events or situations in the past, some are purely fictional representations (Gone with the Wind, The Manchurian Candidate) with factual aspects thrown in. Nevertheless, I attempted to highlight as much of American history and culture as possible in my choice of movies, without boring the students. Since I was dealing with a Brazilian mind-set, I chose popular films about subjects and personalities that Brazilians had a general knowledge and curiosity about.

Along the same lines, what is a film genre? Why do we classify movies by subject? Is it easier or more difficult to place a film story in a genre? What are the conventions of a genre? Let’s have a look at a typical American genre, the Western. What are the conventions of a Western? Well, there’s a good guy, a bad guy, the chase or pursuit of one party after the other, the posse (the ones who do the pursuing), and the conflict. There’s also the resolution of the conflict, known as the duel or shootout; the scenery, the horses, the Indians, the girl, and the reward.

Most people would be surprised to learn that most of the above conventions never took place, or if they did occur it was not in the manner represented on film. An illustration of this point is the story of Wyatt Earp.

Before 1900, Earp was almost a totally unknown figure. Then, a story teller took his tale and transformed it into a dime-store dreadful called Frontier Marshal, which made Earp’s name a legend. Afterward, the legend became myth and the myth became one of the most famous Wild West stories of all time. This bred other tall tales, including those of Jesse and Frank James, Billy the Kid, Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill and a myriad of others.

John Wayne & James Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
John Wayne & James Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

There are numerous examples of films that discuss how fictitious events become fact. The “facts,” such as they are, get converted and distorted into legend, which later become myth. John Ford’s Fort Apache, and especially The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, bring this facet of myth-making to practical and disturbing life. A modern interpretation of this phenomenon is present in Clint Eastwood’s unforgettable film, Unforgiven, in which the lead character, William Munny, is faced with having to live down his murderous reputation, while simultaneously being challenged to live up to that same reputation in order to collect a monetary reward at the end.

This brings us back to the essential problem of history and the historical film, which can be encapsulated in the famous line spoken by one of the reporters covering the funeral of the John Wayne character, Tom Doniphon, in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. After listening to the real version of events surrounding the shooting of the notorious killer, Liberty Valance, by former governor of the state and U.S. Senator Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart), the newspaper man unhesitatingly burns his notes and declares to Stoddard, “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” which is exactly what many historical films do.

And no history remains “untold” for very long, as we will see in Part Two.

(End of Part One)

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘The Magic Flute’ — Abridged, and in English at the Met: ‘It’s a Bird, it’s a Plane. No, it’s… Papageno?’

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Birds of a Feather Sing Together

Papageno & Dancing Flamingos (Ken Howard/Met Opera)
Papageno & Dancing Flamingos (Ken Howard/Met Opera)

If movie and theater director Julie Taymor struck out with Spider-Men and Green Goblins, then she had much better luck elsewhere with lions, tigers, and bears (oh my!). A good seven years after her fabulous 1997 hit, The Lion King, dazzled Broadway audiences, Ms. Taymor hit her stride with a thoroughly entertaining, sumptuously staged, geometrically-arranged rendition of The Magic Flute.

The Metropolitan Opera revived her 2004 production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s final work for the stage in a condensed English-language version for boys and girls of all ages (David Kneuss was put in charge). Featuring a number of elaborate cartoon-like figures — i.e., colorful dancing flamingos and impressive mammoth-sized bruins (but no alligators or hippopotamuses, thank goodness) — this family-friendly affair proved a treat for listeners in the first radio broadcast of the New Year, given last Saturday afternoon on January 4, 2014.

The Magic Flute, or Die Zauberflöte as it is known in the original German, comes from a tradition of suburban theater presentations described as “magic opera.” One part farce, one part frolic, and several parts rollicking revue, with a number of special scenic-effects scattered between moments of high-mindedness, this two-hour pageant (the Met presented its version in one continuous act) came at the tail end of the Austrian composer’s busy life.

The premiere took place in Vienna on September 30, 1791. A little over two months later, Mozart was no more. Although reviews of those performances are non-existent, by all accounts (mostly word of mouth) the opera was a phenomenal success. Wolfgang had the time of his life conducting the score from the pit while his librettist, the barnstorming singer, sometime playwright and actor, and full-time impresario Emanuel Schikaneder, pranced about the stage as the flamboyant birdman, Papageno.

No fool when it came to the theater or his public, Schikaneder was clearly attuned to the popular tastes of his time. As a consequence, he asked his old friend and fellow Freemason Mozart to compose the music for a proposed comic extravaganza, which soon took on humanistic overtones. He even wrote a nice, fat part for himself, a pleasant little diversion for a performing artist, wouldn’t you say?

The opera — actually, a Singspiel, which stresses spoken dialogue over sung recitative — derived from several sources, including a collection of Oriental tales compiled by Christoph Martin Wieland, and a contemporary stage play, Kaspar the Bassoonist or the Magic Zither [sic], by Schikaneder’s chief rival, an individual named Marinelli.

Despite the tomfoolery present in Milos Forman’s 1984 Oscar-winning film adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus, the opera enjoyed a vogue among serious musicians. Why, Beethoven himself held it in high esteem as a worthy stage vehicle. More than that, it’s a supreme challenge for directors and producers alike. The principal roles are no pushover, either. Any artist who believes The Magic Flute to be a “walk in the park” is in for a very bumpy ride indeed. In order to pull this opera off, the cast must be comprised not only of decent singing actors (both comic and serious), but of superbly trained musicians as well.

Nathan Gunn as Papageno (nytimes.com)
Nathan Gunn as Papageno (nytimes.com)

Fortunately, the Met had an ample supply of them, starting with everybody’s favorite baritone, Nathan Gunn as Papageno. Gunn, who’s been busy of late performing in such Broadway classics as Carousel, Camelot, and Showboat, was the splitting image of a walking, talking (and humming!) bird-catcher dude.

A Mr. Green Jeans-wannabe, his Papageno was so infectiously appealing, so charmingly charismatic, and overflowing with likability, that Gunn aroused the audience’s sympathy merely through his sighing. You can catch his performance of the part on the DVD/Blu-ray edition of this production with other Met artists. But for me, no matter whom Nathan Gunn appears with, all eyes and ears will be on his Everyman Papageno — as funny and sad, amorous and playful, naively deceitful and human a trod-upon soul as I’ve seen or heard.

The part was tailor-made for Mr. Gunn’s talents, and he did not disappoint. From his engaging entrance song, “I’m Papageno, That’s My Name,” to his feigned suicide attempt, this birdman took off on feathered wings in high-flying vocal fashion. Well done, Nate!

His counterpart, Papagena, played and sung by soprano Ashely Emerson, gave as good as she got. She and Gunn made beautiful music together in their delightful duet near the end (“Pa-pa-pa, Pa-pa-pa”), while Ashley’s laughter-inducing speaking voice as the Old Hag provoked snickers from the younger members of the audience. And, most important in such a dialogue-heavy piece as this, every word the couple spoke was clearly and audibly enunciated.

Tamino & the Bears (nytimes.com)
Tamino & the Bears (nytimes.com)

Alek Shrader’s Tamino was persuasively delivered, too, although I sensed a bit of tentativeness as he approached some of his notes. The sound became more constricted the higher up the scale he ventured, although his first-act aria, “This Portrait’s Beauty,” wherein he praises Pamina’s loveliness, was earnestly phrased. In addition, his diction was well-nigh perfect. Shrader was the English-language Count Almaviva in last year’s abridged edition of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, with lyrics and text by poet J.D. McClatchy, who also provided the English translation for The Magic Flute. I wasn’t especially enamored of The Barber, but The Flute rang truer for me this time around.

This year, the tenor repeated the feat by excelling in the part of Tamino, who goes off in search of the supposedly kidnapped Pamina. Along the way, he meets up with any number of various and sundry individuals, among them the birdman Papageno, the Three Ladies in Waiting, the vengeful Queen of the Night, a wicked blackamoor named Monostatos, an aged Speaker, the High Priest Sarastro, Two Armored Men, and a certain magical flute. Oh, and he also undergoes the trials of fire and water, as well as takes a vow of silence. (If more temperamental singers would do the same, the world would be a happier place…)

His Pamina was elegantly sung by soprano Heidi Stober. She drew much applause for the poignancy of her second-act number, “Now My Heart is Filled with Sadness,” bemoaning the loss of Tamino’s love. Stober wrung every ounce of emotion and pathos from this piece as could be expected, without letting it descend into mawkishness.

Pamina & the Queen of the Night (Photo: Jeff Busby)
Pamina & the Queen of the Night (Photo: Jeff Busby)

Her mother, the evil Queen of the Night, was taken by coloratura Kathryn Lewek, who was up to the challenge of this brief but demanding assignment from the get-go. Her introductory air, “My Fate is Grief,” gave only the barest hint of what was to come. It constantly amazes me how anyone can sing those sixteenth notes in alt without pausing for breath. Lewek hit every one of them fully and solidly, while sailing through this vocal and histrionic exercise handily and with aplomb. She received the loudest and most prolonged ovation of the day for her superbly rendered “Vengeance” aria.

The remainder of the cast included the mellow-voiced Sarastro of bass Eric Owens, who plumbed the role’s depths (and lowest notes) to fine effect in his aria, “Within Our Sacred Temple”; bass-baritone Shenyang as the dramatically alert Speaker; tenor John Easterlin as a comically devious Monostatos (who tossed out the opera’s funniest line, “If I can’t have the daughter, I’ll try the mother,” with exaggerated relish); Wendy Bryn Harmer, Renée Tatum, and Margaret Lattimore as a mellifluous trio of Ladies in Waiting; Thatcher Pitkoff, Seth Ewing-Crystal, and Andre Gluck were appropriately “in tune” as the Three Boy Spirits who get to ride around on a floating cloud; and Anthony Kalil and Jordan Bisch sang what was left of the Two Armored Men.

Finale to Act 1 - The Magic Flute
Finale to Act 1 – The Magic Flute

Lest we forget, this was an abridged Magic Flute. And as such, about an hour or more of the music was trimmed from this sparkling score, to say nothing of the lengthy passages of spoken dialogue that were snipped away and re-calibrated for the kiddie crowd.

The most regrettable cut of all, however, was the missing overture: a resoundingly showy piece of music that touches upon both the comic and serious aspects of the work, it’s one of Mozart’s finest compositions. Overlooking this glaring omission, British conductor and early-music specialist Jane Glover led a highly-polished reading of the opera in buoyant, stiff-upper-lip fashion. In fact, there was little to find fault with in this revival, which proved a great start to the New Year’s opera season. A Happy 2014 to all!

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘7’ the Winner! The Brazilian Musical Comes of Age — Part Two: ‘Ele Vai Voltar’ (‘He’ll Come Back, I Vow’)

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AN ANALYSIS OF MÖELLER & BOTELHO’S 7 – THE MUSICAL, ONE OF THE FINEST MUSICAL-THEATER PIECES EVER TO HIT THE BRAZILIAN STAGE

The characters of 7 - The Musical: Amelia, Old Stepmother, Carmen, Rosa, Odette
The characters of 7 – The Musical: Amelia, Old Stepmother, Carmen, Rosa, Odette

At first glance, I was heedless of 7 – The Musical’s innate Brazilianness, nor was I prepared for the show’s startling revelations when they eventually came. Accordingly, I am indebted to Claudio Botelho, Charles Möeller, and Ed Motta for having stressed this singular aspect of their work and the different shades of meaning to be mined from it.

However, as I delved more deeply into the plot and characters associated with their opus magnum — and, above all, the musical’s score and its ingenious placement within the context of the drama — it all started to come together for me.

As in all great works, “7” has a good deal of psychological acuity associated with it, which the show’s music convincingly conveys. The story unfolds, starkly and resolutely, in seamless fashion, with each new disclosure set atop the previous one, until, in the end, the inexorability of the characters’ plight is unveiled and the cycle begins anew.

The show’s dramatis personae are treated with a degree of compassion, if not the cold, calculating hand of a trial lawyer. In this analysis, the audience participates as both judge and jury: “witnesses” are called on to present their “case,” as the “evidence” begins to mount either for or against the protagonists. Theatergoers are then left to their own devices in rendering a “verdict” on the characters’ individual motives.

This marks 7 – The Musical out to be a psychodrama, albeit one that boasts some terrifically lyrical moments. Ample in scope, unsparing in its criticism of Brazilian society’s moral failings and full of emotional density, Möeller & Botelho’s show is redolent of a brutally pessimistic view of human nature at its most repellent (a trait shared with Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd). Yet, it’s blessed with a clear-eyed perspective that allows for sufficient appreciation of what these characters have gone through — characters who desperately need to be understood, to say nothing of being loved.

In this climate, even the troubled personality of Amelia, while engaging the audience’s sympathy from the start, would fill whole volumes of case histories in modern psychosis. Furthermore, the entire play is a study in obsessive-compulsive behavior, a doctoral thesis on how far individuals will go to obtain the object of their desire.

The Past is Prologue

The play begins at a railroad station in Rio de Janeiro. It’s not a “real” railroad station, of course, but more of a mental waiting room — a close cousin to Sartre’s No Exit, where people are trapped by past events beyond their control. It’s a symbol, much like that of a wedding ring (the image of family unity) or other key objects: the train, leaving the station, takes its passengers to another realm. This “Rio of the mind,” then, is a drab, uninviting place in a non-existent, not-so-Marvelous City, a bleak and dismal stopover point only a writer of, say, Edgar Allan Poe’s Gothic sensibilities could dream up.

The first notes to be sounded from the seven-man orchestra are from Amelia’s solo, “Ele vai voltar” (“He’ll Come Back, I Vow”), which she sings a bit later in the act with respect to her philandering husband, the handsome Herculano. His absence at the beginning of the drama, made constant by this recurrent theme, is the spark that sets the plot in motion. In sum, this musical reference all-but guides and drives the story forward.

A huge clock is lowered onto center stage, a clock with no hands on its face — a clue we are dealing with the literal suspension of time and space. To illustrate this point, the clock glows brightly in the manner of a full moon in autumn.

The clock and 7 - The Musical (Rogerio Falcao)
The Clock and Train in 7 – The Musical (Courtesy: Rogerio Falcao)

Beneath the clock is the silhouette of a young girl lying on a bench. This is Clara, the ward of Old Stepmother. As the music dies down, Old Stepmother enters and begins to count off the numbers from one to seven, to the tune of “He’ll Come Back.” She then relates the story of Snow White — probably for the thousandth time — to a thoroughly disinterested Clara, who storms off in protest, followed by the stepmother.

“Song of the Wishes”

The scene dissolves to find Amelia, an excitable young woman in her 20′s, in a heated exchange with the clairvoyant, Dona Carmen. Passions boil over as the women argue back-and-forth about their differing points of view concerning Amelia’s tasks, in particular the unnamed seventh task:

Um rato branco
Sementes de romã
Um dente siso
Sapato de mulher
Um livro bento
E uma aliança…

A pale white rodent
Some pomegranate seeds
A tooth that’s rotted
A lady’s high-heeled shoe
A Holy Bible
A wedding band…

Amelia insists it can’t be done, but Carmen counters that it’s the most important task of all. We get bits and pieces of information as to why Amelia is there in the first place: to get her man back. But in order to get her man back she must perform this task within a specified time frame. Desperation sets in on Amelia’s face, while Carmen attempts to soothe her with a cup of red tea — a very potent tea, it would seem.

“He’ll Come Back, I Vow”

The scene changes to a deserted street along the Lapa Arches, where Amelia, disguised as a hooker, lures an unsuspecting gentleman to a bench. Her ensuing actions, we soon learn, become part of the seventh task. There’s a clever riff on the theme of Jack the Ripper with an ironic twist, in that Amelia is transformed into a knife-wielding assassin who tears out her victim’s heart. Not out of lust or hate, but simply out of necessity, a clever joke pulled off by Charles and Claudio.

You see, unbeknown to Amelia, who takes a wedding ring from the gentleman’s finger, she has just killed the notorious Belt Strangler, a vicious fiend and murderer who’s been prowling the streets of Rio dismembering the bodies of other ladies of the evening — seven of them, to be precise. By eliminating this cold-blooded killer, Amelia now becomes the very thing she has dispatched.

Concurrent with the above, Old Stepmother resumes her recitation of the fairy tale of Snow White to Clara. On top of Amelia’s savage act, a one-note theme is repeated over and over again, with Old Stepmother recounting the point in her story where the Evil Queen orders the Huntsman to kill the innocent Snow White. This is juxtaposed with Amelia’s raising of her knife high above the Dead Man’s corpse and bringing it crashing down onto his chest. The blows are punctuated by her cries of despair and eerie notes high up in the strings, reminiscent to discerning ears of Bernard Herrmann’s score from the movie Psycho.

Myths, legends, and fairy tales all have their basis in fact. But here, the lines of each are blurred as to what is real and what is fantasy. Boundaries have been crossed; the so-called lines of demarcation are breached, until we finally lose count of the number of times the realm of fantasy takes over the reality portion of the characters’ minds.

After the heinous deed is done, Amelia washes her hands clean of the crime. With that, the “Ele vai voltar” melody returns, the pacing slow and deliberate, like that of a funeral dirge — portentous, foreboding, full of ominous dread and, most tellingly of all, of pain. Short phrases are interspersed with extended vowel sounds that predominate in the original Portuguese (given below). They reinforce the sense of longing and inevitability, along with a certain satisfaction, on Amelia’s part, for what she has done in the name of love:

Ele vai voltar
Vai voltar, vai
Certo como o sol
E a lua vão voltar no céu
Sempre
Sem nenhum senão
Sem pensar, sem
Ele vai ser meu
Meu dono, como eu sempre quis
Sempre, meu bem

He’ll come back, I vow
He’ll come running back
As the sun and stars
The moonlight will come out as well
Always
No exceptions, none
No thoughts or words, none
He’ll be mine I swear
My lover, as I’ve always dreamed
Always, I swear

The tune is stretched almost to the breaking point, the notes of the opening lines (“Como um cão que fugira / Como um filho que torna / Como velhos amigos / Como a água no rio / Como tudo na vida” – “Like a runaway servant / Who returns to his master / Like a dear old companion / Like a wave on the water / Flowing one after another”) search in vain for the main melody, as well as reflect Amelia’s agitated state of mind. It’s a powerful yet subtle example of the psycho-acoustic properties of music.

The closing portion of her song, “As portas que vão fechar / Atrás de nós, meu bem / Meu cálido amor” – “The doors are now closing / Closing fast, my love, my heart / The one I adore” — especially the oft-repeated line, “the doors are now closing” (a recurring theme throughout the drama) — represent a combination portal to the past and doorway to the future, an indication of the shifting time-frames the characters must go through as their stories are told. The melody will be repeated once more, near the end of the show.

In this instance, the window of opportunity is left open for Amelia to achieve her goal of getting Herculano to come back to her side, along with fulfilling the seventh task (and her tragic destiny), which is to bring Dona Carmen “A heart that’s strong, still young and vibrant, happy and free” (“Traga um coração ainda moço, quente e feliz”).

Dance Around the Dead Man

There is a comic interlude in which the three prostitutes, Dona Odette, Madeleine, and Elvira, who figure prominently later on in the drama, come upon the Dead Man’s body and mockingly comment on its rapid deterioration. The hookers get the shock of their lives, however, when the presumably deceased Belt Strangler rises to perform an uproarious song-and-dance routine (“Dance Around the Dead Man”), to their utter consternation.

With its jaunty, hurdy-gurdy-like orchestration and infectious tap-dancing rhythm, this is an outlandishly bizarre episode, filled with a touch of the macabre — a thoroughly ghoulish scene that, while we may scratch our heads in wonderment as to its relevance to the plot, is just another of those inside jokes planted by the authors to remind us that perhaps what we’re really witnessing is a true hell on earth, where the dead refuse to stay dead. This is another way of advertising one of the show’s pet themes, i.e., that one’s past actions and misdeeds won’t stay buried for long (which we will see).

“Take This Woman Far”

Clara & Old Stepmother (Photo: Paulo Ruy Barbosa)
Clara & Old Stepmother (Photo: Paulo Ruy Barbosa)

We move on to Old Stepmother’s balcony, where a Rapunzel-like Clara complains to her stepmother of the sheltered life she’s been leading as a prisoner in her own home. The scene shifts to Carmen’s parlor, where we meet, in flashback, Amelia’s “godmother,” Dona Rosa. The two witches, one “good” and one “bad” (which one is which can be deemed interchangeable), state their individual cases with respect to the girl Bianca. Amelia remembers her as the pretty little tart that lured Herculano away.

In the middle of Rosa and Amelia’s conversation, Bianca’s figure appears in the background. She’s seen sewing at her window, which mirrors the Snow White story Old Stepmother repeated to Clara earlier on. Bianca pricks her finger on the needle, whereby blood is drawn. This is followed by Amelia’s remark of how the woman does nothing but stare out her window, waiting for Herculano to pass. Rosa insists she’s not a woman at all but a mere child, which if one recalls Bruno Bettelheim’s Freudian interpretation of Grimm’s fairy tales, the bleeding is tantamount to Bianca’s having achieved her womanhood — in other words, Rosa’s assertions can’t support this physical confirmation that the child is all but grown up.

Carmen and Rosa, each in their respective time period, tell Amelia the facts of married life: of husbands that abandon their wives for “other women,” and the women who chase after them, in the bluesy number, “Leva essa mulher” (“Take this woman far”). They pronounce a curse upon Bianca, wishing her the worst of luck, not realizing that, despite their imprecations, bad thoughts can only produce more bad thoughts. To their knowledge, it’s always the “other woman” who makes out best.

In view of Herculano’s abandonment, neither Amelia nor Bianca, nor (strangely enough) any of the other characters ever question what led to his leaving, or why the blame for his having fled Amelia’s embrace rests solely on poor Bianca’s shoulders. There is no consideration of Amelia’s involvement in the matter, which or may not have precipitated his departure.

Considering the feeble fellow that Herculano turns out to be, there’s no need for explanations. Indeed, all the males in the story are depicted as feckless and weak-willed. They’re empty-headed and vapid, with continuously roving eyes for a pretty face, which is why the seven young men, who perform the function of a typical Greek chorus, are described in the libretto as “dwarfs”: they are short not in their physical stature but in the shortsightedness of their relationship to women.

Similarly, the women are portrayed as having a like-minded purpose, which is to keep their men from wandering at all costs — even if those men are undeserving of their love, as they often prove throughout.

“Sleep My Little Babe”

In another change of scenery, we are finally in the presence of Herculano and Bianca. Bianca, a raven-haired, rosy-cheeked beauty, is in a hallucinatory state. She spots Amelia’s visage everywhere she turns. To Herculano, the man unworthy of either woman’s affections, Bianca is “seeing things.” It’s all in her head, of course. We take note of how Amelia is frequently shown as complaining about her fate while, on the other hand, her counterpart, Bianca, is equally unsatisfied with her station in life. Contrast this with Clara’s own whining in regard to her situation above.

No sooner has Herculano spoken, when Amelia approaches, watching and waiting behind the scenes. Bianca holds the child she conceived with Herculano in her arms. The baby starts to cry, but Bianca is unable (or incapable?) of silencing it. Taking the child from her, Herculano soothes the wailing infant with a lullaby: “Dorme meu neném que o bicho vem” – “Sleep my little babe, your daddy came.” Bianca continues her lament, insisting she’s being punished for stealing another woman’s spouse, blaming it on a spell that’s been woven around her, with more mischief to come.

The past continues to collide with the present. The characters appear to live in the present and the past simultaneously. All that’s left for them is the “possibility” of change; a dissatisfaction with how things are and an overpowering urge to alter their situation now, which can only affect how things will be in the future.

Somber chords return for the next scene. Amelia, who is faced with Dona Carmen’s rejection of both the Belt Stranger’s heart and wedding band (“This ring is worn. If it belongs to the owner of this heart, it’s an old heart. It’s worthless!”), gets more and more despondent as the time for completion of her task grows shorter and shorter. Feeling somewhat sympathetic toward her client, Carmen suggests an alternative plan. Why not seek out Dona Odette, a longtime friend, who “owes” her a favor or two?

Carmen writes down some instructions and tells Amelia to give them to Odette, who will know what to do. In the interim, Amelia need have no more concerns about Bianca or Herculano. “Leave them to me,” she gloats. Carmen hands Amelia a black book of spells, with directions to practice the dark arts during her stay with Odette and her (ahem) “girls,” as a way of strengthening Amelia’s resolve. Amelia does just that.

“It’s Off to Work We Go”

Glockenspiel and bells are heard, as Clara recreates Snow White’s discovery of the Seven Dwarfs’ hut in the haunted forest, to the tune of “Heigh-Ho.” Interrupting the proceedings, Old Stepmother launches into a spell of her own by reciting the part where the Evil Queen turns herself into a kindly old lady: “Now, begin your magic spell,” she cries.

Madeleine, Odette & Elvira (Photo: Paulo Ruy Barbosa)
Madeleine, Odette & Elvira (Photo: Paulo Ruy Barbosa)

There is a quick scene change, back to Odette’s boarding house, where Amelia, alone in room number 7, is reading rapidly and excitedly from the black book of spells. At the same time, Carmen is in her parlor, exhorting her tarot cards to show her a sign that all will be well. “Ask, and you will receive,” she sings. “It’s all in the cards!”

Amelia becomes the witch, guiding her life as the book of spells suggests. Carmen is reduced here to the job of observer, coaxing things along and nudging Amelia towards the inevitability of her fate. Carmen disguises herself as a vendor, just as Old Stepmother indicated above, and goes to see Bianca in her home, thus fulfilling her promise to Amelia to “take care” of the young girl.

Transition to Bianca, on her balcony — again, the analogy to Rapunzel trapped in her tower. Carmen pays her a friendly visit. She is outgoing and concerned, and succeeds in worming her way into Bianca’s fortress-like abode.

“Scrub That Dirty Stair”

Meanwhile, the two prostitutes, Elvira and Madeleine, put Amelia to work. They treat her harshly, in the manner of the two stepsisters who made Cinderella’s life a pure hell, by working her fingers to the bone. Amelia is doing the most menial of tasks: scrubbing the floors, washing the clothes, cleaning the staircase, and ironing the clothes.

Suddenly, Amelia has a vision of Herculano: “Seu rosto me persegue em tudo / meu coração é seu – “Your face is with me here, my darling / my heart is in your hands,” she sings, which foreshadows the melody of the ensemble (“De noite o principe me espera / em todos os umbrais” – “At night my prince is waiting for me / his fate is in my hands”) that closes the act. At the height of her confrontation with the whores, Amelia faints from exhaustion. Dona Odette orders that she be put to bed.

Just then, the pure fool Alvaro arrives at the residence. Odette pays little heed to this apparently wet-behind-the-ears boy who wants to be initiated into manhood. However, upon learning he’s the son of her oldest client, Odette suggests an appropriate companion, to be found in room number 7. “But do give her some time to… pull herself together,” she adds.

“The Light of Day is There”

The stage dynamic changes with Bianca’s crude transformation from a gorgeous young girl to a hideous she-creature: disfigured and disguised, her beauty marred and youthful appearance gone, Bianca’s hair is shorn of its luscious locks, while her face is made up to coarsen her features. Softly and gently, the music repeats the theme associated with the Dead Man’s dance, but the intent is drastically different: it’s now a siren’s song, calling Bianca to venture out into the city — Carmen’s invitation to take a figurative bite out of the apple, thus initiating her into Rio nightlife to which she is unaccustomed:

A luz do sol
Espera por você
Manhã calor
Calçadas pra você

The light of day
Is there waiting for you
The morning glow
The sidewalks just for you

Now begins the most revelatory number in the act, “Se essa rua” – “If this pathway,” sung by Bianca and Herculano as a duet. The analogy here is of two ships in the night going in opposite directions and passing each other by, with the road less traveled for one of them (i.e., Bianca) leading to new horizons. Herculano attempts to prevent Bianca from leaving — but is he really there? The scene plays out in Bianca’s imagination as a projection of her innermost wants. The fact is: Herculano isn’t present at all. Still, their duet could conceivably have taken place at an earlier time.

The dwarfs materialize with their umbrellas — protection from the wind and snow? Perhaps, or possibly to spare them the fallout from the lies the characters have been wallowing in. Bianca can never convince Herculano to mend his ways (neither can Amelia, only she doesn’t know it yet). Love means something else entirely to this man than it does for Bianca. His idea of marriage is having Bianca locked up for her “protection” and personal use. “Don’t go outside,” he admonishes. “It’s dark, it’s cold, and the wolf is lurking about.” Bianca sees things from a different angle: her future is outside their door (or beyond the portal). It’s another life she longs for, one that Herculano is unwilling to give her. Their scene ends with a deep and passionate kiss.

“Before I Forget Myself in You, Stay”

We’re now in room number 7. Alvaro and Amelia are alone. She takes a dagger out from under the pillow and places it in her hand. Here’s her chance, the heart that she’s been waiting for, one that has never known love. Her goal is within her grasp, her task almost complete. So what does Amelia do? Like Bianca before her, she kisses Alvaro, tenderly, passionately, on the mouth, with Carmen’s voice buzzing in her ears:

Traga um coração
Ainda moço
Quente e feliz

Bring me a heart that’s strong
Still young and vibrant
Happy and free

Try as she might, Amelia can’t kill the boy. Instead, she sings a seductive little ditty to accordion accompaniment (reminiscent of French cabaret music), the love song “Agora para sempre” – “Now and forever”, while she undresses the boy. It’s her version of the siren’s song, similar to yet so different from Carmen’s ode to Bianca: bouncy, flavorful, and in three-quarter time. Miraculously (or maybe not), the two young people fall in love. They’re all over each other on Amelia’s bed, as they give themselves over to their passion.

“Time and Again, Nighttime Has Come”

A change of scene finds us back at the Lapa Arches. Men are also looking for “love,” in the arms of other women. Women are plying their trade by exchanging “love” for money. Flash forward to Bianca, who’s trying to get home. Having lost her way, she is desperate to get back to her daughter before Herculano returns. Locked out of people’s homes and hopelessly alone, Bianca is exposed to the elements of wind and snow, which begin to pick up. There’s a veritable blizzard onstage, emblematic of the storm that’s raging inside the characters’ souls.

We return momentarily to Amelia’s room. She tells Alvaro to leave, but he naively refuses. The full moon reveals itself, towering over all. It has replaced the clock from the opening scene as the harbinger of time running out. Amelia insists that Alvaro must go — now! She tells him about the spell, but he contends that there is no spell, that it’s all in her head (sound familiar?). Bianca knocks on every door she finds, but no one responds. The portal is now closed!

Finale to Act 1 of 7 - The Musical (arteview.com.br)
Finale to Act 1 of 7 – The Musical (arteview.com.br)

The chorus of dwarfs and prostitutes sing of Prince Charming, waiting for his princess. They invade Amelia’s bedroom to remind her that nightfall has arrived: “Mais uma vez / A noite cai” – “Time and again / Nighttime has come.” Bianca repeats the words, “A rua, a rua, a rua, a rua” (“The pathway, pathway, pathway, pathway”) over and over, to no avail.

Clara now comes back onto the scene. She takes a bite out of an apple, the forbidden fruit of truth (or what-have-you). “Snow White still lives,” Old Stepmother announces, “and she’s a thousand times more beautiful than you, Evil Queen.” With that, Amelia lets out a primal scream. She has no one else to turn to, nowhere else to go. She’s at the end of her rope. Whatever will she do…?

BLACKOUT

End of Act I

(To be continued…)

(With gratitude and acknowledgement to Charles Möeller, Claudio Botelho, Ed Motta, and Tania Carvalho)

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

‘Pedaço de Mim’ (‘A Little Slice of Me’) – Chico Buarque’s ‘Ópera do Malandro’ in Review (Conclusion)

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Thoughts on “The Street Hustler’s Opera”

Set for Opera do Malandro (mandrake.pt)
Set for Chico Buarque’s Opera do Malandro (mandrake.pt)

On the eve of Moeller & Botelho’s first show of the New Year, All of Chico Buarque’s Musicals in 90 Minutes (set to premiere on January 9, 2014), it’s worth noting that the team’s first high-profile production of the singer-songwriter’s show Ópera do Malandro took place over a decade ago in Rio de Janeiro — on August 14, 2003, to be precise, at the Carlos Gomes Theater.

Having been privileged to see Claudio Botelho and Charles Möeller’s revival of Chico’s Malandro in a courtesy DVD of their show — while also having written extensively about the origin and background of the path-breaking work itself — I felt sufficiently equipped to view the 2003 production with a discerning eye.

Keeping in mind that Ópera do Malandro had been filmed in a format that was still in its relative infancy in Brazil — and which was preserved more for its historical and theatrical significance than for its video or sonic quality — the appearance at the outset of the two-tiered set of arches (the visual representation of Rio’s famous Lapa Arches) on the upper stage platform was a bit of a letdown. However, once I became accustomed to the idea that this was a show with a limited budget, I settled down for an entertaining night of viewing. In that, I was not disappointed.

Those arches were accompanied by individual semi-circular units on the lower stage platform. Although at first glance they seemed to evoke little of the local ambiance called for in the text, they were in fact quite workmanlike and useful for quick scene changes.

The story takes place in 1940s Rio, with Damon Runyon-type characters and situations that would not be out of place in an Abbott & Costello comedy of the same period (think Buck Privates, Who Done It, or Hold That Ghost). Outside of the arches (the real ones exist today as tourist attractions, but were used back in the day as an aqueduct for transporting fresh water to the city), the costumes were flavorful and more than acceptable.

The sound quality of the recording was far from ideal, but this may have had something to do with the equipment that was used. Again, from my extensive research into Malandro, the directors have gone on record as saying they did not have much money to spend at the start of production, which might have contributed to the overall Spartan look and variable sound quality (as indicated above).

For the most part, the acting was quite solid and typical of Brazilian comic theater as a whole, despite this being a 2003 revival. There was a liberal use of four-letter words, which is fairly characteristic of theater productions from that period. I recall seeing a 1985 São Paulo presentation of the play O Analista de Bagé (“The Analyst from Bagé”), based on the character created by writer Luis Fernando Verissimo. My father and mother both howled with delight at this extremely bawdy yet totally hilarious show, so I was not at all surprised by Malandro’s coarse language.

I’m told that Claudio trimmed about an hour or so of dialogue from the original text. The need to substantially cut down on the talk in order to make room for more of the music turned out to be a godsend in better integrating the spoken lines to the dramatic context. (For a complete plot summary, see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2013/06/02/opera-do-malandro-the-street-hustlers-opera-whats-it-all-about-max-overseas/).

Maestrini, Schumacher, Ravenle, Mendonca, Lins (ww2.uol.com.br)
Maestrini, Schumacher, Ravenle, Mendonca, Lins (ww2.uol.com.br)

There are several key roles, particularly that of Duran (played by veteran actor Mauro Mendonça) and his wife, Vitória (singer Lucinha Lins); and that of Max Overseas (Alexandre Schumacher), portrayed onstage as a Latinate Clark Gable, which makes perfect sense. His two love interests, Teresinha (Soraya Ravenle, who will appear alongside Claudio Botelho in All of Chico Buarque’s Musicals in 90 Minutes) and Lucia (a very young and very talented Alessandra Maestrini, four years before 7 – The Musical), are strong female types. Although Lucia is a relatively minor part, she has two standout musical numbers, “O meu amor” (“My True Love”) and “Palavra de mulher” (“The Word of a Woman”).

And then there’s Geni (wonderfully played by baritone Sandro Christopher), who happens to be gay. He has an extraordinarily over-the-top show-stopper in Act II (“Geni and the Zeppelin”). Imagine what a Nathan Lane could do with this piece! Flamboyance is no hindrance to success, I pondered, and neither is farce. Let’s remember what Lane did for The Addams Family, a musical that was panned by just about every critic on the planet, but in the end turned out to be a real moneymaker. Police Inspector Chaves (Claudio Tovar), called Tigrão (or “Big Tiger”), is another key figure throughout, along with Duran’s hookers (very individualized, by the way) and Max’s malandros (not so well individualized, but good singers and dancers all).

At the time of my viewing, I felt more dance numbers were needed — much more dancing in fact, such as in the opening number and in the memorable “Las Muchachas de Copacabana” ensemble that closes Act I, a song that was not part of the original show, but was inserted into the unsuccessful movie version from 1986.

"The Hovel Tango" with Soraya Ravenle
“The Hovel Tango” with Soraya Ravenle

All in all, Malandro was a great show that required a bit of tightening here and there. If ever this musical were to make its way to Broadway, an experienced English adapter would need to update and revise the material extensively, some of which is comprised of stale jokes about the hookers’ sagging bottoms and the typical gay-bashing by various characters (so politically incorrect nowadays, but perfectly acceptable in its period).

To summarize, Ópera do Malandro is definitely in the tradition of Brazilian musical theater, with serious overtones that it shares with several of its American cousins. You could call it a Brazilian-style Guys and Dolls, mixed with elements of Married to the Mob and Kander & Ebb’s Chicago (with hints and shades of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas tossed in).

The play is a little rough around the edges, but that’s what gives it its charm, even innocence. Max Overseas is a lovable, Clark Gable-like rogue (vide Manhattan Melodrama), and he’s played that way throughout — except in the Act II scene when he’s locked in Big Tiger’s jail. We then get a glimpse of Max’s human side, his fears, his worries, and his dashed hopes for the future.

It’s our hope too, that one day the Great White Way — and the rest of the theater community — will get more than a bird’s eye view of this revolutionary Brazilian work in a modern-day staging worthy of its creator.

Well, a little slice of him, anyway, which is the least that can be expected.

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes