Brazil’s Fat Lady Can’t Sing, But She Can Still Do the Bossa Nova (Part Two)

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A Continuation of My “Personal and Cultural History of Opera, Popular Music, Soccer, Musical Theater and the Cinema in the Land of Carnival and Samba”

Radio Days

Interior of the Metropolitan Opera
Interior of the Metropolitan Opera in New York

The broadcasts would all begin around 1:30 p.m., Eastern Standard Time, and in the same imperious manner: “Texaco presents the Metropolitan Opera. Welcome opera lovers in the United States and Canada to the Saturday afternoon broadcast season.”

Imagine my surprise when, instead of the familiar strains of Manhattan-based radio announcer Peter Allen,* I heard the Italian-inflected speech patterns of one Walter Lourenção, who spoke these same words not in the mid-Atlantic English I had become accustomed to listening, but in perfectly produced Brazilian Portuguese.

For over 80 years the radio transmissions of opera performances, “Broadcast live, direct from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City,” have been a greatly anticipated annual event, commencing in early December and lasting until the spring, and relayed to hundreds of radio stations across the country and around the globe.

But the news in June 2003 that the following season’s broadcasts would be the last to be sponsored by Chevron Texaco — the then-current configuration for the multinational oil company and longtime supporter of the arts — was most disheartening to devotees of the form. The Met, meanwhile, was in the market for a new radio sponsor to continue the popular weekly series.

As a former resident of the megalopolis of São Paulo, I too listened with rapt attention to the regular Saturday afternoon broadcasts, heard there over the facilities of Rádio Cultura FM. But to hear the opera in this foreign format was a bit of a shock for me, as there were no “Opera News on the Air” intermission features, no “Texaco Opera Quiz” games, and no revelatory interviews with venerated Metropolitan Opera stars, conductors or stage directors. In their place were the lucid and erudite comments of maestro Lourenção, who glowingly described each week’s work in dulcet-toned reverence.

It seemed altogether fitting, I thought, to be tuned in to a radio feed of a fabulous musical event from the Big Apple in the South American equivalent of São Paulo — the very pulse of the artistic, economic, and industrial heart of Brazil; christened after the Biblical firebrand, the Apostle Paul; and, along with Rio de Janeiro, the one-time cultural capital of the Sudeste (“Southeast”), now as much of a neglected backwater for live opera as the dry and arid Northeast has been.

Over in the extreme right-hand corner of the state, another event was also beginning to take shape. Only, this was to become part of the annual music celebration called Festival de Inverno, or Winter Festival, in the resort town of Campos do Jordão, where recitals of chamber music, lieder, opera, jazz, and choral works are presented each year by a dazzling assemblage of international personalities — concerts that have attracted over half a million people during the month of July alone.

Like an army of invading ants, they climb the Serra da Mantiquiera mountain range in a mass migration to this charming but hopelessly over-crowded, Alpine-like abode, about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the big city of São Paulo.

Dubbed the Suíça brasileira (“Brazilian Switzerland”) for its cool European climate and quaint Swiss-style chalets, Campos do Jordão — a direct translation of which can be given as “Fields of Jordan” — has fast become one of the few spots left in the country where classical music of a reasonably high order is performed on any kind of regular basis, and in the dead of winter.

With piped-in broadcasts of live opera from the Met, beamed direct to Brazil “for the pleasure of opera lovers everywhere,” and the yearly pilgrimage of rabid music fans ready to brave the freezing temperatures for the sake of a few short-lived moments of inspired music-making, this somewhat incongruous modulation in the travel habits of middle- and upper-class paulistanos is occurring at a most precarious time for the classical music industry — and for Brazil as a whole.

The reasons for this turbulence are both manifold and complicated, relating partially to the ups-and-downs of the roller-coaster Brazilian economy; to the revolving-door aspect of culture ministers and artistic directors; to the lack of conviction (read: funding) on the part of the federal government; and to the popular perception of opera and classical music as strictly elitist forms of entertainment, originating in Western Europe, and the intellectual province of patrons, princes, and prima donnas.

But the most confounding condition of all — i.e., the noticeable lack of domestic singing talent, ready and willing to satisfy the voracious demands of inveterate opera-goers — has become ever more pronounced with the years, until it has turned into a veritable scavenger hunt for native-born performers of international renown.

What’s Up with Opera?

Scarpia, Tosca & Cavaradossi (San Diego Opera)
Scarpia, Tosca & Cavaradossi (San Diego Opera)

But what is it about the opera in particular that attracts people so? Why has this art of “belting it out to the rafters” suddenly afflicted so many newborn enthusiasts with the same fascination and fanaticism usually reserved for rock stars and movie icons — and in Brazil, of all places?

To begin with, opera is about personalities — the beautiful soprano heroine, the dashing tenor lover, and the villainous baritone scoundrel; characters that have been fashioned from both literary and historical sources, and re-shaped into melodramatic plot points some discerning audience members might find reminiscent of the next chapter in the latest television soap opera.

It is about the extremes of human emotion and the depths of human passion. It is about love and about hate, about jealousy and rage, bedrooms and betrayals, laughter and folly, sorrow and solace, treachery and deceit. Indeed, the likely analogy to a Latin telenovela is not at all a stretch in correctly depicting it — and Brazilians do seem devoted to their nightly dosage of drivel in ever-increasing numbers.

Yet despite the stereotypical trappings surrounding both genres, opera demands equally strong human personalities to fling those raw emotions across the footlights and into the laps of modern-day audiences; it needs real flesh-and-blood figures to populate the flowery wardrobe and don the powdered wigs; and, above all, it requires the utmost dedication and sacrifice on the part of its participants, more so than most other art forms.

For the die-hard music fan, this quintessential human involvement becomes the single most important ingredient in any successful production. But it won’t ever make it to that lofty point sans funding and resources, the current bane of opera companies everywhere.

Be that as it may, the operative words here are “passion,” “emotion,” and “personality,” easily the most applicable of Brazilian traits. And the gregarious Brazilian people, made up of countless colorful characters with equally diverse natures and individual personality quirks, are nothing if not passionate and emotional about life, and that includes their sports, their movies, and, of course, their brand of music.

This personal observation about the history of opera and opera singing in Brazil, then — our own version of the ever popular Fat Lady — along with its close cultural ties and ongoing relationship to pop music, Carnival, soccer, musical theater, and the Brazilian movie industry, begins and ends with extraordinary personages. From the least exceptional theater performers to the most fervent vocal and field interpreters, in essence they are what drive classical and popular entertainment to do what they do best: to allow us to look into, and identify deeply with, our innermost selves on the world stage.

Reality Check

Gilberto Gil (
Brazil’s former Minister of Culture Gilberto Gil (

The propitious announcement in early 2003 of the appointment of popular singer and tropicalismo co-founder, Gilberto Gil, to the post of culture minister was greeted with mixed rounds of tepid approval and critical brickbats, thrown at former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s administration for its choice of minister.

The criticism was leveled at Gil’s perfectly innocent yet revealing remark that despite his elevated cabinet status he would continue to tour and perform as an entertainer to supplement his meager minister’s earnings. Gil did vow to campaign for more of a piece of the dwindling budgetary pie in order to provide further funding for arts projects, to be financed through a combination of tax breaks, fiscal incentives, and additional private investments.

A quick perusal of the latest headlines from the local newspapers, however, revealed that the financial resources of the federal government had been stretched to the legal limit; that the then-current combination of high unemployment, low growth rates, and economic stagnation had dealt a severe blow to the initial optimism surrounding funding for the arts, especially with regard to the opera.* It had taken a reluctant back seat to the administration’s primary objectives of providing new jobs and resolving deep-seated social problems, all worthwhile and noteworthy pursuits.

This desequilibrio (or “imbalance”) between what the government says it wants to do and what it can actually accomplish, given the harsh realities of the situation at hand, came as no surprise to avid Brazil watchers, for this has always been the case in the country.

I myself have never known an instance in the nation’s past that has not been fraught with government intervention of one kind or another: from its frequent attempts to stave off hyperinflation, to addressing the ballooning federal deficit; from reforming the bloated public pension system and thwarting bureaucratic and political corruption, to confronting constant currency devaluation.

Even in Italy, the so-called “biological parent” of opera, where this sort of administrative template has been the norm for a good number of years, the perennial parliamentary crises found there — reflected in the accompanying anarchic conditions that have traditionally pervaded such historic institutions as the Teatro alla Scala, in Milan, and the Teatro La Fenice, in Venice — serve as the rule rather than the exception.

This state of political and artistic unrest, invariably ending in last-minute cancellations, substandard performances, and dubious musical presentations — not to mention constant labor strikes and employee unrest — has never prevented Italian opera houses from attracting delirious fans to their doorsteps. The same holds true for France, Germany, and many other European nations, where funding for the arts is officially a matter for the state.

No, the causes for Brazil’s severe classical drought must be found elsewhere and remain as elusive as the long sought-after Ring of the Nibelung. But perhaps they lie more within the nature of the Brazilian national character than in the financial pages of the now defunct Gazeta Mercantil, the self-styled Wall Street Journal of the South.

The Spanish Conquest

Baritone Paulo Szot (
Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot (

The relative paucity in Brazil of opera performers of the highest professional caliber may indeed have had something to do with the way Brazilians have traditionally looked at themselves, what Joseph A. Page, in his instructive guide The Brazilians, once described as an inbred inferiority complex and fundamental lack of self-esteem. When it comes to the positive aspects of their own cultural distinctiveness, Page wrote, Brazilians often tended to emulate the standards first set by their European and North American counterparts — not necessarily a bad thing, when it comes to the opera.

And there has certainly been no lack of laudable talent for lovers of fine singing to look up to and imitate. A quick scrape below the surface of artists past and present will unearth an impressive lineup of the Spanish, or Latin American, breed of romantic tenor, to cite only one major example from among so many.

Going back as far as the time of Gioachino Rossini, there were the Spaniards Manuel García, who sang in the 1816 premiere of the composer’s The Barber of Seville; the legendary Julián Gayarre from the late-nineteenth century; and the laudable Miguel Fleta and Hipólito Lázaro, both of who graced the world’s lyric stages during the roaring twenties. The late thirties, forties, and fifties gave us the thrilling Otellos of Chileans Renato Zanelli and Ramón Vinay, and the powerful Samson of José Soler from Cataluña.

In the sixties, the Count Almaviva of Peruvian-born Luigi Alva warmed the cockles of our hearts, as did the Duke of Mantua of Alfredo Kraus (Canary Islands) and the Alfredo Germont of Giacomo Aragall (Spain). The seventies and eighties brought the vocal splendors of Plácido Domingo (born in Madrid, but raised in Mexico City) and his Spanish compatriot José Carreras (via Barcelona), as well as the fireworks generated by Mexican tenor Francisco Araiza and Argentine bel-canto specialist Raul Giménez.

Today, there are ever more willing pretenders to the title of operatic superstar, and from just about every Latin contingent, including Argentina (Marcelo Álvarez and José Cura), Mexico (Ramón Vargas and Rolando Villazón), Peru (Juan Diego Flórez), and Venezuela (Aquiles Machado). But where are the contributions from South America’s largest country to this United Nations of vocal ambassadors? The single representative exponent, encompassing the categories of tenore di grazia, tenore di forza, lirico spinto, and lirico robusto, from the vast Brazilian continental expanse is nowhere to be found. He is, to say the least, completely unaccounted for and made more conspicuous by his very absence.

From the sports arena to the world’s fashion runways, Brazil has always brought to the forefront no less than certifiable world-class competitors in every major field of endeavor. Indeed, the rarefied names of famous racecar drivers (Ayrton Senna, Emerson Fittipaldi, Nelson Piquet, Hélio Castroneves), tennis pros (Maria Bueno, Gustavo Kuerten), top models (Gisele Bündchen, Susana Werner, Adriana Lima), movie directors (Glauber Rocha, Carlos Diegues, Bruno Barreto, Hector Babenco, Walter Salles Jr., Fernando Meirelles), stage and screen personalities (Carmen Miranda, Bidu Sayão, Fernanda Montenegro, Sônia Braga, Rodrigo Santoro), and soccer stars (Garrincha, Pelé, Ronaldo, Rivaldo), have all been acknowledged as the “best of the best” at what they did, or continue to do, as professionals in their spheres of influence.

With comparatively few exceptions, no other country can quite approach the luxury, the ebullience, and, yes, the passion, that Brazil’s God-given, natural-born talents have brought to the areas of jazz and pop (Airto Moreira, Flora Purim, Egberto Gismonti, Naná Vasconcelos, Sérgio Mendes, Ivan Lins), Música Popular Brasileira (MPB) and Tropicália (Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, Chico Buarque, Milton Nascimento, Tom Zé), samba and bossa nova (João Gilberto, Luiz Bonfá, Elis Regina, Marisa Monte), literature and poetry (Machado de Assis, Monteiro Lobato, Jorge Amado, Vinicius de Moraes, Carlos Drummond de Andrade), art and architecture (Cândido Portinari, Aleijadinho, Oscar Niemeyer, Hélio Oiticica), stage and theater (Nelson Rodrigues, Augusto Bial, Gerald Thomas, Charles Möeller, Claudio Botelho), classical performance and dance (Guiomar Novaes, Magda Tagliaferro, João Carlos Martins, Márcia Haydee), and musical composition (Carlos Gomes, Ary Barroso, Dorival Caymmi, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Tom Jobim).

What the Future May Hold

The Fat Lady Sings Again! (
The Fat Lady Sings Again! (

So why have there been so few appearances by the proverbial Fat Lady from Fortaleza, singing of the wealth and pleasures of an invisible Valhalla in Wagner’s Die Walküre, or before the inevitable inundation in The Twilight of the Gods? Perhaps that twilight has already descended upon her, and a more appropriate death knell now needs to be tolled for opera instead.

But if lesser, more volatile Latin nations can inspire their young people to pursue a classical-music career abroad, then why can’t the more educationally advantaged and, undoubtedly, more politically, more competitively, more musically, and more culturally diverse Federative Republic of Brazil do the same?

How can a nation so steeped in musical tradition, so rich in rhythmic vitality and lyrical invention, so wrapped in melodic and harmonic subtleties, with a boundless energy and enthusiasm for public celebration, produce no recent homegrown opera talent of international repute?

What of Brazil’s abundantly rich musical past, in particular its world-famous bossa nova and pop-music heritage? And what can be said about her soccer and cinematic credentials? How have they contributed to, or detracted from, this overall perception of decline and decay? Must the country’s cultural woes always boil down to money issues (or mainly, the lack of it), or are there other, more cogent possibilities left to be explored?

These puzzling thoughts, as well as quite a few others, have remained a conundrum in my mind for more years than I care to account for. And, as far as film historians, musicologists or sports commentators having had any particular knowledge or insight into any of them, it can be safely stated that the underlying causes for these continuing concerns have never been fully examined, neither have they been satisfactorily explained or resolved — to any extent — in my lifetime.

Nevertheless, my blog postings over the past two years have endeavored (and will continue) to dissect these fascinating subjects into a multipart series of studies, some of which looked at the ups and downs of Brazilian opera; examined the dual careers of entertainer Carmen Miranda and soprano Bidu Sayão; covered the ever-changing world of Brazilian cinema; concentrated on the Brazilian World Cup Soccer phenomenon; presented a hodgepodge of individual Brazilian artists; analyzed the bossa nova craze’s effect on American jazz and popular music; and discussed topics that, in more ways than one, attempted to point the way towards a better future for opera, musical theater, sports, and the cinematic arts in the mystery that remains Brazil.

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes
*Originally, American radio personality Milton Cross, a native New Yorker, served as the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts’ first and, for an exceptionally long time, only regular program announcer, spanning the Depression and war years from Christmas Day 1931 until his death, on January 2, 1975, at the age of 77.

*According to a 1997 Culture Ministry survey, almost half of the money targeted for cultural projects, or roughly US$60 million at that year’s exchange rate, came from state-owned companies, with the largest percentage of funds going to the Brazilian film industry. We can thank the enactment of the Audio Visual and Rouanet Laws, in the early 1990s, for that fortunate state of affairs. The laws provided generous tax exemptions to firms, both inside and outside the country, for their initial infusion of cash.

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