Month: May 2014

Brazil’s Brightest ‘Prima Donna’ — A Candid Talk with Director, Writer, and Producer Gerald Thomas

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Gerald Thomas at Livraria Cultura
Gerald Thomas at Livraria Cultura

Trying to explain one’s motivation and art, while defending an individualistic view of the same, can be a time-consuming impediment to progress for any professional artist, as it surely must be for most people inside or outside the public domain.

But to say that Gerald Thomas, the talented director, writer, producer, illustrator, and graphic designer, has a particularly “individualistic” point of view is clearly an understatement: he is absolutely, without hesitation, Brazil’s most controversial contemporary stage figure to date.

His copious plays and uniquely identifiable theater pieces, along with an impressive and ever-expanding body of operatic work — not to mention his London Dry Opera Company and previous collaborations with composer Philip Glass — have enlivened the dramatic and performing arts to no end (See the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2012/09/10/getting-to-the-bottom-of-gerald-thomas/).

With constant “exposure” of his avant-garde ideas in the press and in the theater, however, Thomas has been forced at times into expressing his own level of frustration at audiences in no uncertain terms, as evidenced by his much-ballyhooed butt-baring episode at Rio’s Teatro Municipal, back in August 2003 — an episode that elicited an enormous amount of media coverage.

Residing in London for most of the remainder of that year, he returned to New York in March 2004 for the opening of his play Anchorpectoris (The United States of the Mind) at La MaMa Experimental Theater, on E. Fourth Street in Greenwich Village — the scene of his first stage triumphs with ex-mentor, the late Ellen Stewart, and the works of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett.

In this interview, originally completed in the U.S. in December 2005, shortly after the successful Brazilian run of his Um Circo de Rins e Fígados (“A Circus of Kidneys and Livers”) with actor Marco Nanini, and updated during parts of 2008-2009, Gerald quite candidly delved into, and expanded upon, a wide range of topics, including his early career as an illustrator and in the opera house; his major artistic and literary influences; his personal recollections of John Lennon’s death and 9/11; his criticism of Brazil’s former Minister of Culture, Gilberto Gil; and his future plans, among which were his long-awaited, stage-acting and directorial film debuts, as well as the release of his book, Suicide Note.

Politics mingled with art — ah, there’s the Thomas rub! And if ever there were an example of the two intertwining and becoming indisputably one, then Gerald Thomas — an individual whose palm print can be found on every facet of the performing arts — would be held up as the premier exponent, Brazil’s poster-boy for artistic and political activism, and a true, modern-age Renaissance man for the new millennium.

Josmar Lopes—The first thing I’d like to know more about, as I’m sure our readers would, too, is the origin of your name: is it really Gerald Thomas?

Gerald Thomas—It’s my first and middle name. The full name is Gerald Thomas Sievers.

J.L.—Have you had any identity crises or cultural clashes because of your American-sounding moniker?

Young Gerald
Young Gerald

G.T.—I’ve always been a “Nowhere Man” or, when I was a kid in school, a “Nowhere Boy.” I came to realize that very soon, because I never, ever fitted in. I was always from “abroad,” from “another culture.” At home, we never ate what the people of the country we lived in ate and that made me feel terrible. I remember the very first time I was invited (by the neighbors on the ground floor in Leblon, Rio) to come and eat dinner with them. I was stunned at the amount, the variety of different foods on the table, amongst which [were] black beans. We had been in Rio for about a year and all I knew was boiled potatoes and meat of some sort or another. Suddenly, this colorful rainbow opens up and I felt so great about Brazil.

J.L.—You learned recently that you were born in New York City but moved to Rio at an early age. Despite most articles claiming you were from Brazil, how has living in places like the Big Apple, Rio de Janeiro, and London contributed to a better or worse sense of your own individual identity?

G.T.—In Brazil, I have to say that I was born there, given the nature of my criticism of the government and Gilberto Gil, the minister of himself. No foreigner would ever be able to say such things without being thrown overboard. But a real and intriguing question does exist about the place where I was born: I do have three birth certificates and I do carry a German passport. It’s weird in a way to feel as though you belong to all of those places and, yet, the only place I can really call home are a couple of blocks on the East Side of Manhattan, between St Mark’s Place and E. Third Street on Second Avenue. I guess my parents must have registered me every time my father was moved by Lloyd’s Insurance from one country to another. That may have been a smart move.

J.L.—Indeed it was. But have you ever experienced a feeling of loss when you go abroad because of your country of origin or your Jewish background, in view of the apparent pride you have in being Brazilian?

G.T.—I know that the Jewish thing should play an enormous role here…but it doesn’t really. I guarantee you that I would be a rich man now if I had played that card but reality has it that I never felt very comfortable with those rituals. My bar mitzvah was awkward, I felt terribly awkward, having to memorize all that stuff phonetically. Plus the “father that brought me up” wasn’t Jewish himself and, during the years as a volunteer at Amnesty International in London, I got to know a lot of Catholic priests who were protecting political prisoners in Brazil. I thought that those people were so great. They showed me Italy for the first time. It was through their eyes that I saw the Vatican, its little holes and labyrinths…

J.L.—It’s a fascinating place. Since then, you’ve been all over the world, practically, and you’re always on the move. Are you comfortable with the ever-increasing globetrotting demands of your career?

G.T.—Always less comfortable because traveling nowadays is a problem, it consumes far more energy out of you with all the “checkpoints,” and cities are growing out of control, making traffic impossible, irritatingly so. I used to be productive in planes: open up the laptop and work. Nowadays, the guy sitting next to me in business class is just concerned with getting drunk. So no, thanks. I’m not going to wait until his margarita spills all over my PC.

J.L.—I don’t blame you. In contrast, throughout his life composer Richard Wagner was often referred to as a man “possessed.” Are you similarly possessed, and by what?

G.T.—I try to stay away from things like that. And as for what’s written about “mythological” characters, one never knows. Was it really so? Some people are furious, some are angry, others are simply frustrated and have tantrums and History can turn all that into “being possessed.” I am as cool as can be because when I have dealt with the actors, I remain in the theater and deal with all the other technical aspects of the play or opera I’m staging.

J.L.—That’s probably the best approach. With opera being such an international endeavor, how many languages are you fluent in?

G.T.—I really only speak three languages: English, Portuguese and German. The rest is parroting my way around the world.

J.L.—Yet you speak with a slight British accent. Would it have been more difficult for you career-wise if your name had been Caetano or Chico and you had spoken with a Brazilian accent? Or spoke no English at all?

G.T.—Well, that is difficult to answer since there are thousands of British or American or Australian or Canadian directors in the world who’ve achieved nothing in spite of their well-spoken English. I think that I owe my position in the world to my talent. Bluntly speaking, that’s it.

J.L.—I agree. Speaking of talent, who was the person or persons whose views influenced you the most as a youth?

G.T.—Samuel Beckett and Caetano Veloso, Hélio Oiticica and Haroldo de Campos. Marcel Duchamp, Marcel Duchamp and Marcel Duchamp. Saul Steinberg, Steinberg and Steinberg.

J.L.—That’s quite an impressive list. Where did opera first come in to play and how did you eventually come to stage it?

G.T.—That was in 1987 in Rio, and The Flying Dutchman was the victim. A very conceptual piece to begin with, I decided to stage it in such a way that the place was Berlin, East and West, divided by the Wall. The dead man (the Dutchman) and his vessel would appear on the East Side, and Senta would be waiting for him on one of those wooden platforms built by the Allies, forced to look over onto the other side. But all of that was metalanguage, since it all played as an installation watched by a “false” audience inside a mega-exhibition hall: the Kassel Documenta. So, two years before the fall of the Wall, it had already become an “installation of the past, an artwork worth nothing compared to the thousands dead trying to cross it.”

J.L.—Have your musical and operatic tastes subsequently evolved over the years?

G.T.—Yes and no: I have gone back and decided on opposite extremes such as Mahler and Schoenberg. I could sit all day and just vary between recordings of their works…

J.L.—You seem to show a strong affinity for “modern” music, i.e., Arnold Schoenberg, Philip Glass, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Ferruccio Busoni, and others, which you’ve used frequently in your pieces. Is there a specific reason for this?

G.T.—But I also steal from Wagner and from Mendelssohn and from Haydn. There isn’t a specific choice for the moderns, though it gives me pleasure to work with someone who is alive and well, rather than some corpse.

J.L.—Have you ever used or thought of using Brazilian classical or popular music in any of your works?

G.T.—Other than Villa-Lobos, I know very little about Brazilian classical music. I do know how to drum the samba, since I am one of a very few allowed into Mangueira to be part of the drum section of their victorious samba school.

J.L.—Then you must know Marisa Monte, whose father was connected at one time to Velha Guarda (“The Old Guard”) da Portela Samba School in Rio?

G.T.—I was an “adviser” to her, when she first put her legs and voice on stage, through the hands of Nelson Motta: that was in 1986.

J.L.—You started out as a graphic artist and illustrator—a very good one, I might add. How has this early background in art and design bolstered your work on the stage?

Gerald Thomas art work
Gerald Thomas art work

G.T.—At age fourteen I managed to creep my way into the rehearsals of Victor Garcia’s version of Genet’s The Balcony in São Paulo. Undoubtedly one of the greatest stagings of the twentieth century, this vertical production not only caused a hell of an impression on me, but I also learned a great deal about the theater while being there, every day (and night, ALL night!!!). I learned what “modern and experimental theater” was and how that somehow integrated with the visual arts. In other words, I was experiencing a live Bosch painting, as it were. Then, two years later, in London, I sort of “infiltrated” the Royal Shakespeare Company while Peter Brook was rehearsing his Midsummer Night’s Dream. So, all the visual arts and dramatic arts came together as a whole.

J.L.—You once worked at The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and other newspapers. Do you still find time to illustrate for publications that are outside your normal field?

G.T.—No fun no more! I illustrate the programs of my own plays and the posters and I “design” or draw each and every one of the scenes that are to be staged…but that’s about it as far as drawing is concerned, commercially. I have a lot of recent material, but I keep all that to myself. Who knows… one day there will be an exhibition?

J.L.—Most recently, you’ve designed the posters and programs for Um Circo de Rins e Fígados (“A Circus of Kidneys and Livers”), starring Marco Nanini and staged at Teatro SESC in Vila Mariana, São Paulo.

G.T.—Yes, I’m involved in every single aspect of the theater, even in the soundtrack. Too involved!!! Some call me obsessed but I just find it normal since it’s an object of my creation and nobody else knows exactly what’s going on in this head of mine. So, instead of spending hours explaining, I might as well just do it myself.

J.L.—Do you prefer doing it all yourself, or do you leave certain tasks to others?

G.T.—Well, let’s say I delegate a little.

J.L.—Is this a form of “control” over the creative process?

G.T.—Look: we play being God! So, in the black box we can control the temperature, the smoke, the lights, the volume, the exactness of everything. That’s why I am present as much as I can at every performance. I have a little corner where I hide and even communicate with the players and gesture to them frantically, according to how the performance is going that night. Since I give all the cues, I can change things on the spot. I tell the actors in a clear voice that they can understand (when the PA system is loud enough) and, there it is: a brand new scene, created on the spot, on that very night for that specific audience, depending if there was some MAJOR news that day.

J.L.—Moving on to Brazilian pop music, bossa nova, seventies rock and Tropicália, were you attracted to any one style over another?

G.T.—I was very involved with the Tropicalistas. Still think that this was one of the most innovative movements ever! On the other hand, I was going to The Royal Albert Hall to some classical symphony, or to Berlin to watch Herbert von Karajan, or to see and listen to Jimi Hendrix or Led Zeppelin here at the Filmore or at the Earl’s Court Arena.

J.L.—Do you still enjoy the music of Jimi Hendrix? The Beatles? John Lennon?

G.T.—I progressed as times progressed. I loved Nirvana and Pearl Jam and so many new bands out there that this interview would become as long as the Yellow Pages. But I still go back to the old icons, sure!

J.L.—You do resemble Lennon, you know, especially in your earliest photographs. You once portrayed him on the stage, did you not?

G.T.—Yes, that was meant to be a joke. Os Reis do Ié Ié Ié (“A Hard Day’s Night”) was the reunion of the Dry Opera Company and it was to have had only TWO performances. But you know how things go. Offers come in and the whores that we are…we end up accepting them!

Daniela Thomas & Director Gerald Thomas (NY Times)
Daniela Thomas & Director Gerald Thomas (New York Times)

J.L.—You posted a poignant remembrance of the twenty-fifth anniversary of his death on your blog, http://www.geraldthomasblog.wordpress.com. Do you remember the shooting?

G.T.—As if it were yesterday! It was a spooky day for me, because it so happens that I had brought a former political prisoner from Brazil, a poet himself—Alex Polari de Alverga and wife—and all he wanted was to be photographed in front of the Dakota building. So, that’s what we did that day. Almost all afternoon we were there, outside Lennon’s door. Little did I know what was to follow: When I dropped the couple off at an apartment that I was vacating and driving myself to my new Village loft, I heard Scot Muny come to the microphone and make the announcement. Unbelievable. I rushed over to the Upper West Side (out of instinct, I don’t know…) and found a bunch of people there in tears…

J.L.—You were an eyewitness to 9/11, and from your apartment window, if I’m not mistaken. How did that terrible event affect you personally?

G.T.—I am not the same any more. I’m on medication. I lost friends. Witnessing what I did, as did millions of other New Yorkers… it changed my life, Joe. It changed the world…Sometimes I’m up at night rethinking the entire scene, over and over and over and over…

J.L.—How did these feelings about 9/11 compare to what you felt after Lennon’s untimely end?

G.T.—If the “dream was ever over,” it is NOW.

J.L.—Have these two tragedies soured you on living in large cities?

G.T.—Which two tragedies do you mean, 9/11 and Lennon? I wouldn’t even begin to compare… Terrorism is something so abominable and incomparable to individual murder by a crazy lunatic!

J.L.—Let’s talk about literature and poetry, something that has occupied you personally and professionally for the better part of forty years. When did you first learn about concrete poetry and the de Campos brothers?

G.T.—I was fourteen years old, living here in NYC with Hélio Oiticica, and he wouldn’t stop talking about the de Campos brothers. And he had some of their early works. So, I picked up whatever I could and started to read them, or leaf through those “pages.” I was fascinated, as you can imagine, because there I saw a mixture of words and images, almost something in 3-D, touchable and so “lucid,” inexplicably so. Words meaning others and it came to my perception that early on there was this “thing” called metalanguage. I was addicted at that age. Have been since.

J.L.—What other literary figures impressed you the most as an artist?

G.T.—Oh, there is Beckett—which also later developed into a personal relationship lasting until his death—James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Joseph Conrad, Hegel, Kafka, Kafka, Kafka, and the Greeks, and as I sat in the British Museum Reading Room doing my studies, so many authors came across my eyes: it would be silly to name all of them. It would also trivialize them. But there was this one William Shakespeare who still hasn’t left me and I am not intending to leave him either.

J.L.—You’ve presented numerous works by your close friend Mr. Beckett, along with Shakespeare, Brecht, Kafka, Heiner Müller, and others. What contributions have they made toward the overall formation of your art?

Caricature of Gerald Thomas (Carvall
Caricature of Gerald Thomas (Carvall)

G.T.—No, I’ve never done Brecht (not that I can remember), but I have been a guest of the Berliner Ensemble, during the days when Berlin was still divided by the Wall. Well, all of those playwrights are—combined—part of what I am. If put together, vertically and horizontally, with what I have lived through empirically, the stories I was brought up with (the Holocaust) and the theater I built into my wardrobe as a child in order to “be somewhere”… what I’m trying to say is that ALL of which I have read and seen (and still do) causes an enormous impression on me.

That’s why I still don’t know exactly what to make of 9/11 and seeing the World Trade Center being hit. Being that the WTC were the towers of my generation: except for the Citicorp building, the rest of NYC was all built. I saw those two faceless monsters going up: they were the Warhol buildings (multiplications) or the Godot buildings: “nothing in two acts,” as Walter Kerr once described it in The New York Times. He later resigned, this critic that is, because he realized that Waiting for Godot was indeed THE masterpiece of the twentieth century and he didn’t have perception then, in the fifties. He said goodbye to his readers by saying that he must have ruined hundreds of lives of talented authors and actors and the like.

J.L.—You’re a prolific writer yourself, as well as a playwright and journalist, having contributed a number of articles to Folha de S. Paulo, Jornal do Brasil, O Globo, and other publications. Have you ever considered giving up show business for a career as a critic or political commentator?

G.T.—Never! I keep a journal. This journal is, finally, going to be published next year. The title is Suicide Note. I was offered a column in the most prestigious page in the most prestigious paper in the world (just guess), but in order to do that, I would have to give everything else up. I would have to be a “political traveler.” As much exposure as that would give me and throw me right into the limelight of mainstream AmeriKa, I declined because I cannot justify breathing on this planet without the theater or the opera. So, I will continue doing my work and other people, such as Wladimir Krisinsky, David George, Haroldo de Campos, Flora Süssekind, and so many others, will contribute with their opinion. Um Encenador de Si Mesmo (“The Staging of the Self”) is a compilation of such texts.

J.L.—Your stage productions bear the hallmarks of silent cinema, German Expressionism, Surrealism, Dadaism, film noir, and Theater of the Absurd—have I left anything out?

G.T.—Yes. You’ve left “me” out.

J.L.—I stand corrected! In fact, you’ve peeled away most theatrical elements down to their barest essentials—that is, little or no dialogue, stylized acting, non-specific sets, and dramatic, sophisticated lighting. Is this what you’ve tried to accomplish with your Dry Opera Company?

G.T.—No, that is because I’ve chosen such scenes to go on a tape to travel commercially around the world. I chose precisely the most viable scenes to go on such a tape: but if you saw the pieces in their entirety, you’d see a lot (and some people actually have complained in the eighties that there was “verbal hemorrhage”) of text in those plays.

J.L.—A while back, a New York Times piece hinted at your early fascination with light and shadow—and there’s certainly no shortage of light, shadow, and smoke on display throughout most of your works. Are you still as captivated by these effects as you once were, or have you moved beyond this aspect of your art to other things?

G.T.—I think that, like everyone else, I go through phases. This latest play, A Circus of Kidneys and Livers, has very little of those: it’s basically the text and the actors that matter.

Um Circo de Rins e Figados ("A Circle of Kidneys and Livers")
Poster for Um Circo de Rins e Figados (“A Circle of Kidneys and Livers”)

J.L.—Good point. That said, Orson Welles was once described as the “boy wonder” of the stage, a master at multitasking who could act, write, paint, design, produce, direct, market, and promote his works—all at the same time. As formidably talented as he undoubtedly was, Welles spent his entire life actively selling the myth of his supposed “genius” to all comers. Would you categorize yourself as a genius in the Welles mold, i.e., someone who writes, directs, produces, markets, promotes, illustrates, and innovates, with the same non-stop intensity as he showed in his youth?

G.T.—No, but I fake it just as he—later in life—claimed he did. F for Fake is a great film. I would throw rotten eggs at any artist who would consider himself a genius! Seriously! At this day and age, after deconstructivism, iconoclasty… genius? Give me a break!

J.L.—Besides physically, what characteristics differentiate you from a Welles?

G.T.—Well, if I had accomplished Citizen Kane at age twenty-five, I would seriously give myself up as satisfied. It’s one of the best movies ever, EVER made. I’ve never thought of myself as anything close to Welles. In fact, while he was still alive, I almost came close to inviting him to play Hamm, in Beckett’s Endgame. That was right after directing the legendary Julian Beck, who died while we were touring with The Beckett Trilogy, 1985.

J.L.—Many felt that Welles peaked early on and never recaptured the inspiration he initially showed with his classic Citizen Kane. You’re 55 now—that’s more than twice Welles’ age at the height of his fame—and you’ve accomplished so much more in the theater than he ever did. What would you still like to do that you haven’t done as yet, theatrically?

G.T.—You must be joking! Welles was truly an INTERNATIONAL CELEB, and with clout. Whether what he did or didn’t do in the theater was good or not, I don’t know. The photos make things look rather kitsch. People who have seen it and described it to me say that it stank! But who am I to judge? Look at where the boundaries of my work stop and look at Welles!!!!!! My obit will be one paragraph long (if that!), while his…

J.L.—Your most favorable reviews have been for works that thrive on controversial subjects. Do you identify personally with the struggles of the protagonists of Moses und Aron, Doktor Faust, Tristan und Isolde, and Don Giovanni?

G.T.—I actually do. Moses especially, with the stuttering problem. And with the fact that it was a “spoken/notated” part, especially difficult to memorize for a player, when the entire orchestra is blasting notes of a completely different nature. Plus, that biblical subject matter does interest me very much—always has—so… Schoenberg’s life itself has always interested me, or, rather, fascinated me. So, putting it all together: Busoni and Schoenberg go hand-in-hand; Faust by Goethe is my favorite book (and until this date I have not entirely deciphered it, either in German or in English, or in Haroldo de Campos’s version: Deus e o Diabo na Terra de Fausto—“God and the Devil in the Land of Faust”). There you have the perfect subjects for me to delve into the darkest areas of the humanities, so to speak.

J.L.—You changed Faust’s profession from alchemist to artist—a painter, to be exact. Was this a conscious choice on your part, a sort of autobiographical statement?

G.T.—Certainly autobiographical…

J.L.—Were you deliberately placing yourself into the stage action and are you a frustrated actor at heart?

G.T.—Not anymore! I premiere, as an actor, next April 2006, in Asfaltaram o Beijo (“A Kiss Cemented Over”), an homage I pay to Beckett and the years we spent meeting in Paris.

J.L.—Do you regard yourself as more of an individualist and outsider, much in the manner of a Moses or a Faust?

G.T.—A total outsider, always. I was talking to Philip Glass just now and was telling him about the success Circus had, and how one has to constantly renew this pact with the world “within”, with the audience and with the press…It’s as if the world were a big memory bank that, given a month or two of our absence, would forget us altogether.

J.L.—Have you thought about tackling other characters of this type, for example, Britten’s Peter Grimes, Wagner’s Tannhäuser, or Berg’s Wozzeck?

G.T.—I am ready for all three of them.

J.L.—Aren’t you really more like Moses’ brother, Aron, a sort of manipulator of language and the spoken word?

G.T.—The image of me in the press certainly may appear so. But that has to do with the fact that the press is lazy. I ask you: how can any one person manipulate the press? How do you do that? With money? Drugs? Chocolate? Sex? How exactly? What does that phrase mean? As in a previous answer, I am timid and profoundly involved with sensitive questions about the nature of who we are. I am also very traumatized about the nature of who we are and what we are capable of doing. Aron wasn’t concerned with any of that: he merely wanted to sell his golden calf.

J.L.—Nothing you’ve done on the stage could possibly be construed as being a part of the mainstream. Has this “inaccessibility” to the general public, as it were, bothered you in any way?

Fabiana Gugli & Gerald Thomas (patrickgrant.com)
Fabiana Gugli & Gerald Thomas (patrickgrant.com)

G.T.—Sometimes the media builds this image out of nothing, just as it always has throughout History with not-so-easily-consumable-artists. But when some audience member walks in openhearted, he/she will find that my work isn’t all that inaccessible after all.

J.L.—Wouldn’t you prefer to be less on the cutting-edge and enjoy rather more widespread critical success?

G.T.—I’ve been given all the awards there were. The Molières and the (forget the names, really). I dropped the last Molière just to show the audience in Paris that it was made of chalk and not marble, and said quite bluntly that I hated to be endorsed by the middle classes. Those awards are given out by critics. I have no complaints, except for financial ones.

J.L.—In your opinion, is the notoriety you’ve obtained the best measure of triumph in your case, or are there other modes of measurements?

G.T.—I think that everyone who earns a certain amount of notoriety does so because of a number of factors: the media construct its own circus and make you into a “complex” and complicated “personality” (o polêmico) and the rest, of course, has to do with the work, with the fact that I am, in a way, untouchable, because I work in so many countries and have the endorsement of the top critics and the top houses in the world.

J.L.—Your frustration did manifest itself strongly at Rio’s Teatro Municipal in 2003, where you bared your buttocks after being roundly booed for Tristan und Isolde. Would you care to elaborate on what led to that encounter?

G.T.—I had received news that Haroldo de Campos had died just before the opening. That had already left me in a state. The boos don’t bother me. They actually amuse me. You can see that in the tape I sent you where I deliberately include minutes of it, as I enter the stage, during the curtain call after Flying Dutchman. But when I hear a rehearsed chorus from the first few rows, “Judeuzinho, volta pro campo!” (“Little Jew boy, go back to the concentration camp”), that… made my blood pressure rise up and… I lost it. It took me a year to get acquitted, and in Brasília, by the Supreme Court!

J.L.—Did the ruckus have anything to do with the appearance of a third major character introduced by you into the drama, namely Dr. Sigmund Freud?

G.T.—Absolutely yes! And the fact that I used cocaine as an analogy for the love/death potion given by Brangäne to Isolde. A mess from the start. Pressure from the start because the artistic director of the Teatro Municipal knew my concept an entire month before I left London, since I had published it in my column, at the time, in the now nearly defunct Jornal do Brasil.

J.L.—That was quite an unusual touch, wouldn’t you say, to have the title characters analyzed by modern history’s most famous shrink?

G.T.—That’s my job! Otherwise, just have the conductor stage the damned thing, as Karajan did so many times. Why call me? To sell tickets and fill the house. The Municipal has never been so sold out EVER!!!!!

J.L.—Do you find Brazilian audiences are less tolerant of these sorts of novelties than other audiences are, say, the Americans or the Europeans?

G.T.—No, they’re just as open minded. But not when it comes to Richard Wagner! Man! Wagner is stronger in Brazil than anywhere else… I mean, the traditionalists. But on the following nights we saw none of those problems. And may I point out that the troublemakers were just a handful within two thousand five hundred well behaved, opera-lovin’ people.

Gerald Thomas
Gerald Thomas

J.L.—But do think about staging Wozzeck one day—hopefully sooner than later. I had a brainstorm while listening to the Saturday afternoon Metropolitan Opera broadcast wherein I imagined the whole thing set at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, with the title character a U.S. Army soldier just returned from Iraq; haunted by visions of prisoner abuse at Abu Gharaib; then acting out his delusions by killing his live-in girlfriend—it has your signature all over it!

G.T.—What a great idea!!!!!! But which opera house would invite me to do such thing? As far as I’m concerned, I’m standing in line already! But where, and when? That’s the problem: like with anything else in today’s world, the titles offered to me are either totally unknown avant-garde or the very well-known and overdone pieces.

J.L.—What are your views on the current state of classical music and opera in Brazil?

G.T.—You know as well as I do that Brazil moves in waves and nothing lasts. Some say this is a good thing, some say it’s bad. It’s certainly the opposite of Europe and their secular cultural struggles, which never seem to end. It’s still the eternal anti-Schiller play and so on, or the latest version of the “anti-Hamlet” for the hundredth time. So, Brazil is very creative since this lack of tradition liberates its artists from this heavy commitment to battle these ghosts. Yet, I find that this also leaves an incredible emptiness which leads to the popularity of the soap opera culture (novelas) and the overwhelming LOVE Brazil has with television, more so than the U.S. (I find). So, as for your question, classical music and opera haven’t made a mark in Brazil because year in, year out there will be a Sala São Paulo, for instance, with heavy emphasis on classical programming—which is fantastic. But will it last past this current mayor? Or the next?

J.L.—What can be done to improve the unfortunately low expectations for classical artists and the performing arts there?

G.T.—Famine and poverty are the first priorities. To hell with the arts!

J.L.—Has the Ministry of Culture done much in the past few years to give aid and comfort to the arts?

G.T.—Gilberto Gil has certainly done a lot for himself! He is the Minister of Himself, and the ministry is called the “Ministério Gilberto Gil de Morte à Cultura” (The Gilberto Gil Ministry of Death to Culture). His fees for performing around the world have tripled and he simply loves to travel with Lula and shake hands with heads of state worldwide. It’s a scandal, it’s a shame and, yet, nobody says anything about it because the PT (Partido dos Trabalhadores—Workers’ Party) is a true Stalinist revengeful party and it wouldn’t amaze me if, soon, there were a blacklist: something equivalent to the McCarthy era here, except in reverse. Dreadful!

J.L.—What are some of your future plans with respect to opera? Is there anything you can talk about openly?

G.T.—I’m involved in certain German operas at this moment that are almost embarrassing to mention: I call them train station noise (at 5 a.m., when the trains are pulling in) but I have to direct these so-called “avant-garde” things because they pay and they pay well. There is also an opera “in development” with Philip Glass, which is based on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and Bayreuth says it wants me in about one hundred years from now.

J.L.—This latest Thomas-Glass collaboration is exciting news for fans. In the past, many theater and film directors often ventured into opera. There was a time when Luchino Visconti, Franco Zeffirelli, Alfred Lunt, and Margaret Webster were all actively involved with its staging. This trend has returned somewhat with the operatic participation of Werner Herzog, John Schlesinger, William Friedkin, the late Anthony Minghella, and even Woody Allen. Do film directors have a better “eye” for stage detail than, say, the average opera or theater director has?

G.T.—I usually find that film directors are a total flop on the stage: here are two completely different languages. You might as well call a bricklayer to do the job! People are under the impression that “performing art” is one and the same. That is the biggest and dirtiest mistake ever. Imagine if you were to call Picasso to retouch or restore the Sistine Chapel, or Francis Bacon, for that matter. Michelangelo and the two I’ve mentioned are all involved in the “painting” media, but sectors are not to be confused.

J.L.—Have you given any thought to directing your own movies?

G.T.—Yes, I begin shooting Ghost Writer in about a year from now. I’m still developing the screenplay.

J.L.—What else would you like to direct, if given the chance?

G.T.—I’m an obsessive writer, so I’ll just continue to write my pieces. I think that History needs to move forward and we need to tell the stories of the times we live in, in whatever way we can. If we just keep on re-staging The Seagull over and over and over, or the classics, we won’t be telling people five hundred years years from now what the twenty-first century was about.

J.L.—That’s so true. By the way, do you have many friends or acquaintances in the movie business?

G.T.—Yes, I’m very close to Hugh Hudson, who directed Chariots of Fire, amongst other wonderful films, such as American Revolution; and Cacá Diegues, the Brazilian filmmaker.

J.L.—You made a cameo appearance in the film Terra Estrangeira (Foreign Land) by Brazilian director Walter Salles Jr. (Central do Brasil, Dark Water). How did it feel to be directed by someone else instead of your doing the job yourself?

Terra Estrangeira ("Strange Land") Photo: Daniela Thomas
Terra Estrangeira (“Foreign Land”) Photo: Daniela Thomas

G.T.—Oh, please don’t remind me of that. If I could…if I had the money I’d buy those frames and cut myself out of that movie…I wasn’t directed. Someone just said “roll” and there I was.

J.L.—You’re probably the most well-known, most talked about, and most written about Brazilian stage personality on the world scene today. How do you feel about that lofty position?

G.T.—I am very lonely and suffer just like anybody else when I turn on the news. Frustration kicks in, just like with anybody else. I don’t feel special, in fact, I don’t feel anything: all [that] I’ve done, I feel, has somehow been reduced to ashes. Don’t ask me why or how. It’s just a holocaustic feeling but, all the same, true. It’s vapor, it weighs nothing. I must reinvent myself, especially in this current world of NO values, of information overload, of shopping malls, of super-consumerism, iPods, internet, where people don’t really learn (they just copy and paste or use it for chats). This globalization has flattened Columbus’ world. It’s one with no memory or a weak one: it’s drugged, drunk, money-driven or driven by one god against another. We’re back to the Middle Ages, except that we have modern tools. It’s a horrible place where my profession doesn’t exist, really. So, all that I read about myself—I feel—I’m reading about someone who doesn’t exist; i.e., someone else or a ghost: a GHOST WRITER.

J.L.—I sense the theme of your screenplay at work. Can you give me some clues as to the movie’s plot and how it’s been coming along?

G.T.—What can I tell you about it, really, other than sending you bits and pieces of scenes or sequences, or scenes from my book (not yet published) by the same name on which this crazy pumpkin is based? Strangely enough, it is coming along: we’ve got money from the Independent Brits and the Danish (formerly known as) Dogma—they grew up seeing my plays all through the nineties when I started performing in Copenhagen: 1991 to be exact. We have DEUTSCHES money and we really don’t need that much more, or else I’ll start getting nervous about having to make a “hit,” when all I want is just to be able to experiment with the raw material and a funky story, surreal as hell, where the actual event always seems like dejà vu because, indeed, it IS being written by a Ghost Writer (unlike The Truman Show). This is an Arab/Western conflict which takes us back to ancient visions of Europe and the Founding Fathers of America. And Jihad. And the war of the Gods.

J.L.—Wow! I’m intrigued. What about the cast—any word yet on that?

G.T.—We’re casting in Turkey for a youngish Arab-looking boy, a teenager (same characters) and an older Arab man. There will be lesser or maybe even bigger names. I really don’t know… I will be one of the cameramen, but obviously not the cinematographer. They’re talking about some Italian (highly praised and awarded) and [paraphrasing Glauber Rocha’s famous statement about Cinema Novo] ALL I WANT “É UMA CAMARA NA MÃO E UMA IDÉIA NA CABEÇA” PORRA! [“…IS A CAMERA IN HAND AND AN IDEA IN THE HEAD,” DAMN IT!]

J.L.—Has the constant exposure in the press hampered you to any degree? You don’t seem intimidated or ambivalent by all the attention. How do you maintain your composure as well as your personal privacy?

G.T.—It’s impossible to have privacy when you’re having dinner and people are coming up to you constantly wanting to take a snapshot of you (with them, preferably).

J.L.—Thank you so much, Gerald, for your openness about yourself and your art.

G.T.—Thank you, Joe. ☼

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

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‘7’ the Winner! The Brazilian Musical Comes of Age — Part Four: The Beginning or the End?

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

"The Heart in the Forest" with Clara (Marina Ruy Barbosa) (Photo: Paulo Ruy Barbosa)
“The Heart in the Forest” with Clara (Marina Ruy Barbosa) (Photo: Paulo Ruy Barbosa)

In this final chapter of my multi-part study of Charles Möeller, Claudio Botelho, and Ed Motta’s masterwork 7 – The Musical, wherein we left readers with an in-depth analysis and appreciation of Act I (see the following link: https://josmarlopes.wordpress.com/2014/01/05/7-the-winner-the-brazilian-musical-comes-of-age-part-two-ele-vai-voltar-hell-come-back-i-vow/), we conclude with the major occurrences of Act II (Reader Alert: Spoilers ahead!).

Prologue on the Ice: “The Heart in the Forest”

The prelude is taken (quite appropriately, one might add) from the “Seven Curses” ensemble in Act I. After a brief exchange between Madeleine and Elvira atop a balcony, the curtain rises on an ice-covered lake. Just below the surface is the frozen body of a young woman, Bianca, who was last seen wandering the streets in search of safe haven from the storm. The premise is that she must have fallen into the lake by accident (a possible stand-in for Rio’s Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas).

The seven young men (or dwarfs) assume the roles of motorized musicians, the type once found at amusement parks. In this instance, the dwarfs are providing a musical diversion for the ad hoc skating rink. Each of the men is playing a different instrument (piano, trombone, maracas, accordion, etc.) in robotic fashion. Clara is frolicking behind them, tossing her dolls into the air and giggling uncontrollably like a child.

The scene opens with an impressive number, “The Heart in the Forest,” which recounts some peculiar plot points:

Eis o coração no bosque
Eis mais um príncipe
Mais uma abóbora
Quantas doze badaladas
Quantas sete luas

There’s a wounded heart in the forest
There’s your Prince Charming
A pumpkin, a coachman
A clock will strike at twelve
A calendar that reads of seven

The next stanza is directed at Clara’s rescue from the “castle” that Old Stepmother has allegedly imprisoned her in (another nod to the Rapunzel story):

Eis o caçador
Eis o alazão
Quem invade o teu castelo?
E vem te enfeitiçar com beijos
Rubros
Loucos?

Hunter with a horn
Rider on his horse
Who will then invade my bastion?
And when will he enchant me with feeling,
Ardor,
Passion?

These are but the musings of a prepubescent girl about to reach maturity, who still dreams of a knight in shining armor to sweep her off her feet and carry her away on his mount. A mysterious voice — that of the frozen Bianca, whose head protrudes from a hole in the ice — interrupts the goings-on by emitting a few coloratura scales in melodious counterpoint to Clara and the dwarfs.

“Mop That Dirty Floor”

The scene shifts to Old Stepmother’s house. She’s barely concluded a portion of the Snow White story, when Clara asks a question of her: “Do you love me?” Old Stepmother conveniently sidesteps the issue, but Clara insists that deep down inside, “You love me as if I were your own daughter!” To this the cantankerous old woman snaps back that she is Clara’s stepmother and, as such, demands that she be respected. She sends the girl off to make her bed and takes her leave.

"Mop that Dirty Floor" - Clara (Marina Ruy Barbosa) (Photo: Paulo Ruy Barbosa)
“Mop that Dirty Floor” – Clara (Marina Ruy Barbosa) (Photo: Paulo Ruy Barbosa)

Scrubbing the floor in as resentful a manner as she can manage, Clara expresses her annoyance by repeating the old lady’s instructions in sing-song fashion (“Mop that dirty floor, tra-la-la-la-la…”) to the same melody that Elvira and Madeleine used on Amelia in a comparable situation at the brothel. Overhearing Clara’s mocking tone, stepmother orders her to keep silent. Clara hurriedly exists from the room. Old Stepmother repeats to herself the words she has just hurled at Clara: “You don’t know who I am. You don’t know who you are…”

“A Little Babe Came Knocking”

At that, there is a flashback to 20 years prior, when Dona Rosa, Amelia’s “godmother,” recalls how she came to be in possession of baby Amelia (Note: an extended scene that was cut from the original text included Dona Carmen and Dona Odette as well). “It was a dark and terrible night of rain,” when Rosa heard a knock at the door. A man dropped off a baby girl whose name was Amelia; the man turned out to be her father. We are told that Dona Rosa embraced Amelia as her own child, an abandoned orphan with no past and very little future. Now we know who Amelia is, but who is Clara?

“Oh, Look at Me”

Returning to room number 7, where Amelia has been “entertaining” her client Alvaro, we hear the “Song of the Wishes” as intoned by the young men, along with Carmen’s admonition to Amelia to bring her “a heart that’s strong, still young and vibrant, happy and free” — only this time it’s sung by Alvaro, the young man whose strong heart now beats for Amelia, and that Amelia so desperately needs in order to complete her task.

Repeating the same motion with the knife that tore open the Belt Strangler’s chest in the early going, the enamored Amelia cannot bring herself to kill the fetching lad. Her reasoning: “He loves me, the boy loves me!” The clairvoyant reminds her that she’s not herself, that both she and the boy have been bewitched by the magic spell. Again, we see the past intruding upon the present, as the couple finds itself trapped in a time warp, unable to break free. Amelia and Alvaro make plans to run away together. They will meet at the train station at midnight.

Carmen warns Amelia that if she fails to comply with the seventh task, she will face a terrible curse. Amelia looks at her in disbelief: “What curse?” Carmen obliges with a riposte: “The seven years curse. Whoever fails to complete the spell will live seven years in one.” “How’s that?” Amelia inquires. “You are going to get seven years older with each passing year,” Carmen admonishes. “The circle must be closed.” She holds up a hand mirror to Amelia’s face. But instead of reacting with alarm, Amelia can only gaze at her pale features. She stares blankly into the mirror, transfixed by what she sees (the fairy-tale phrase, “Who in the land is fairest of them all?” comes to mind).

"Oh, Look at Me" (Alessandra Maestrini)
“Oh, Look at Me” (Alessandra Maestrini)

Amelia now begins her song, “Olhe pra mim” (“Oh, Look at Me”), the most insightful and psychologically potent number of all. The young men surround Amelia while they hold hand mirrors up to her face. But what does Amelia see? Speculating on the possibilities, perhaps she can peer inside herself — inside her soul, that is —and outside, at her fading beauty.

In fairy tales, mirrors can represent windows to the soul. Here, Amelia’s soul is reflected back at her as a form of punishment for the evil she has done — and still intends to do. Beauty is only skin deep, so the saying goes, and the face that turns men “on” can also turn them “off,” a cruel lesson for any woman to learn:

Diz que me viu
Como eu era
Meus azuis
Os verdes meus
Meu mar, meu mar

What do you see?
My life as it was then
My true self
My dark side as well
My calm, my calm

In the concluding moments of her song, the words “Que as portas já vão fechar, fechar” – “And the doors will be closing soon, so soon” ring out loud and clear. It’s the darkest of sentiments, a remarkable display of chromaticism at work (note the presence of piano and vibraphone), along with the sophisticated use of melody and harmonics — a marvelously atmospheric piece!

Intermezzo

We segue directly to the most sensuous, indeed the most dreamlike passage in the entire musical: the scene of Clara, slowly and deliberately, descending the steps to Old Stepmother’s house. She is wearing a revealing, low-cut gown that had once belonged to her mother. For the first time the girl is in touch with her own sexuality. We marvel at the radiance of her hair which is straight and combed for the occasion, the contours of her form, the loveliness of her skin and face — in sum, she’s an exquisite flower of the night that has come into bloom.

First the violin, then the cello, play a sumptuous solo passage based on the opening section of “There’s a wounded heart in the forest,” but the pace is languorous, the atmosphere sexually charged, the entire episode appearing to take place in Clara’s mind. This sequence is in sharp contrast to the number that opened the act, where Clara, in the last throes of her childhood, is found still playing with her dolls, laughing and carrying on over the frozen lake — the lake that encases Bianca’s frozen body.

Clara (Marina Ruy Barbosa) descending the stairs
Clara (Marina Ruy Barbosa) descending the stairs

Old Stepmother chastises her for wearing her mother’s gown and tells her that “mommy” was a worthless tramp, that Clara is “ugly, very, very ugly.” Our eyes, however, tell a different story. We see an ugly duckling transformed into a gorgeous swan. Clara sways her arms in time to the music as she glides down the staircase, in delicately choreographed movements that provide ample proof of her swan-like transformation. The audience, too, becomes aware of the moment, i.e., of her entry into womanhood — just as Bianca before her had experienced with the pricking of her finger.

Toying with the girl (probably to get back at her for her prior misbehavior), Old Stepmother observes that “Mirrors are a woman’s worst enemy,” which only leads to Clara repeating the hackneyed phrase, “Magic mirror on the wall / who in the land is fairest of them all?”

After telling her again to keep her mouth shut, Old Stepmother rudely berates her. The poor heart-broken girl bursts into tears and runs off to her room. Right on cue, the seven young men repeat the opening stanza of “There’s a wounded heart in the forest.” We know now whose heart has been wounded, among so many unfortunates: “There’s your Prince Charming, a pumpkin, a coachman / A clock will strike at twelve / a calendar that reads of seven.” It’s the plot of the musical itself, brilliantly encapsulated in verse and song.

“Mommy’s on Her Way”

We are back at Dona Odette’s house of ill repute. Amelia is preparing to leave. Not wanting to lose such a valuable “employee,” Odette invites her to stay in room number 7 for as long as she wants. But Amelia reveals that she is taking the midnight train back to her home.

Odette dismisses the two whores (who realize they must do all the housework themselves) and contacts Carmen by phone to apprise her of the situation: Amelia is on her way at last. Their plan worked! The two women “go back a long way together” as Carmen once hinted. They have worked out the details of their scheme to perfection and, if we are perceptive enough to notice, have succeeded in sparing themselves the curse’s wrath by luring Amelia to the appointed spot before the clock strikes twelve.

We see Herculano through a window of the house he shares with Bianca. He hums a lullaby to the child, the melody of which belongs, ironically enough, to Elvira and Madeleine’s number, which was taken up by Clara. He is interrupted by a phone call telling him that Bianca’s body has been found on the beach. Next, we find Bianca lying on a bier — in juxtaposition to the episode in the Prologue to Act I, where Clara was seen lying on a bench underneath the huge clock while holding a lily in her hands. Bianca, too, is holding a lily, only she is unconscious. The seven young men are there, surrounding and protecting her much as the seven dwarfs would do.

Old Stepmother (Ida Gomes) and Clara (Marina Ruy Barbosa) (Photo: Paulo Ruy Barbosa)
Old Stepmother (Ida Gomes) and Clara (Marina Ruy Barbosa) (Photo: Paulo Ruy Barbosa)

Shifting rapidly to the next scene, Clara and Old Stepmother argue whether Prince Charming had arrived in time to rouse Snow White from her poisoned slumber. Old Stepmother complains that Clara always interrupts her at this point. Clara counters that Old Stepmother hates it when Snow White gets kissed and awakens to live happily ever after. “Your mother died, my dear,” the stepmother proclaims coldly. “There was no prince to wake her. She died while drowning.” The contrast between Snow White and Clara’s mother is purposely done in order to create a play on words as well as inject a little levity.

In another scene change Alvaro enters and is captivated by Bianca’s frozen form. He impulsively kisses her on the lips. This startles the other men as well as the two prostitutes peering over the balcony. Unexpectedly, Bianca sits up with a start — the dead have come back to life again, raising the “specter,” if you will, of whether any of them were dead to begin with, or merely feigning death. This issue of permanence (or the lack thereof) is the insoluble dilemma of the play: is there such a thing as the separation of reality from fantasy?

Another brief scene features Amelia speaking to Dona Rosa on the phone, telling her that all is well and that she should prepare two places for breakfast in the morning. “From now on, I’m going to be happy… very happy!” she announces gaily.

As Bianca and Alvaro walk off in the distance, the seven young men sing Amelia and Alvaro’s love song, the cabaret number with its eerie allusions to clocks and to the past:

Clocks with all their hands
Will stop and say: stay
Shingles on the ceiling fall and say: stay
Say I found you here
Pray, no one comes near
All that’s been forgotten’s in the past,
Stay

Pick a Card

In imitation of the conclusion to Act I (and with the same hurried theme music), Herculano rushes in, desperately seeking Bianca. But her bier is empty and Bianca is nowhere to be found. Herculano asks the passersby if they’ve seen his wife and rudely barks orders at them, all the while holding the infant in his arms. Carmen materializes and instructs him to pick a card. Dubious at first, Herculano obeys her command.

Dona Carmen (Zeze Motta) Photo: Renata Jurban / AE
Dona Carmen (Zeze Motta) (Photo: Renata Jurban / AE)

Drawing a card from the deck, he hands it to Carmen, who sends him scurrying off to the train station to meet his wife. However, she neglects to mention that Amelia, his first wife, will be the one waiting for him, not his precious Bianca. Semantics and the deliberate misrepresentation of words and their meaning is the staple of many stories, including the tale of Rumpelstiltskin, a fable about individual identity and the power of names over persons or situations.

Looking at the card that Herculano has just picked, Carmen provides the audience with a characteristic fare-thee-well: “I’ll bring your love back in seven days! Seven days!” And with that she vanishes.

“Like the Day of a Wedding”

Bianca and Alvaro are standing on the beach. She has longed to see the ocean. The orchestra plays the “If this pathway” theme, as she and Alvaro form a close bond. Has she finally found her pathway? That remains to be seen. They hold each other’s hand. Alvaro asks to stay with her. Bianca has lost all memory of her past. All she knows is that she loves Alvaro. Alvaro, in kind, has also forgotten the past, especially the reason for his going to the train station: to rendezvous with Amelia.

“All that’s been forgotten is in the past,” the last line of Alvaro and Amelia’s love song, gives us a clue as to where Bianca and Alvaro’s relationship may be going. Sealing their passion with a kiss, Bianca fails to notice that it was in this exact same manner that she bid goodbye to Herculano before she ran away from home.

We are both at the beach and at the train station. There’s a duet between Amelia and Bianca. The music of “He’ll Come Back” returns but with new words: “He’ll arrive on time.” Once more, there is a musical theme in search of a melody that mocks Amelia’s search for her lost love. The two female voices join together, albeit temporarily, the one unbeknown to the other. They are on opposite ends of the stage, the physical separation indicative of how far apart they are in temperament.

Their brief duet is a fascinating blend of the characters’ differing states of mind, each with her own view of where fate will lead them. Neither is aware of how much they have changed since the start of the drama, nor will they ever know. Bianca departs with Alvaro in tow, leaving Amelia alone, to wait for Alvaro at the train station.

Finale: “My Heart on Your Heart”

The music reverts to the “He’ll Come Back, I Vow” theme. As we have seen, the sequence of events is recurring in reverse order from those at the start of the play. All the musical numbers will follow this reverse course. We are going backward in time, edging ever closer to the end… or are we?

Amelia counts off the numbers in sequence: one, two, three, four, five, six — each one voiced more desperately than the preceding one — until Herculano arrives on the scene with the baby still in his arms. Sheepishly, they turn away from each other as they talk. Their conversation is broken up into short spurts — it’s stilted and formal, not what you’d expect from husband and wife. Amelia sees him with the child and inquires, “Is this your daughter?” “Yes, she is,” he replies. “Her name is Clara.” “She looks just like you,” Amelia comments. Clearly, Herculano did not wish to meet Amelia there, although Carmen did say he could find his “wife” at the station.

Amelia (Alessandra Maestrini) & Herculano (Jarbas Homem de Mello)
Amelia (Alessandra Maestrini) & Herculano (Jarbas Homem de Mello)

Noticeably uncomfortable with this forced arrangement, Herculano excuses himself by claiming he needs to get cigarettes — the same excuse he offered at the start that led to his leaving Amelia. Baby Clara is now in Amelia’s arms. Not knowing what else to do, she sings a soothing lullaby to keep the girl quiet:

Meu peito no seu
Meu colo, meu calor, meu sal
A lua que vai
Voltar enfim ao meu quintal
Meu pródigo amor!

My heart on your heart
My kindness, my passion, my all
The moon in the sky
Will rise again tonight, my heart
The one adore!

For the last time, the huge clock is lowered onto the stage in exactly the same manner as at the beginning. A train whistle is heard in the distance, sounding closer and closer to the station. Resolutely speaking the words, “Está na minha hora” (“It’s time for me to go”) Amelia takes the baby and suitcase and disappears behind the clock.

From the opposite side of the clock, Old Stepmother emerges with Clara. She sings the same lullaby that Amelia just sang to the baby. Clara lays her head on her stepmother’s lap. It’s obvious the two most important women of the story, Amelia and Old Stepmother, are one and the same person, that the girl Clara is the product of the union between Bianca (Snow White) and Herculano (Prince Charming), and that she was abandoned — as Amelia was — by her mother.

Taking up where she left off, Old Stepmother begins to tell the story of Snow White anew: “Once upon a time,” she commences. Tired of the routine, Clara interrupts Old Stepmother to ask why is it they have to go to the station every week. To which Old Stepmother responds: “I’m waiting for someone.” “But we’ve been coming here for years,” Clara complains, “but so far…” Old Stepmother cuts her off with a phrase she’s been muttering every day of her life: “There were seven tasks and I fulfilled them all… except for the seventh one… Now, what was that task again?” She looks at Clara for a moment and, absentmindedly waving the thought from her mind, declares simply, “I forget.”

Old Stepmother (Ida Gomes) & Clara (Tatih Koehler)
Old Stepmother (Ida Gomes) & Clara (Tatih Koehler)

“That’s because you’ve grown old,” Clara concludes. Perking up, she poses a rather curious question to the old woman: “Will I live happily ever after?” Looking forlornly at the girl, Old Stepmother shakes her head and replies, but not in a cruel way: “No, my darling.” She then resumes the Snow White story. But instead of Old Stepmother reciting, we hear Amelia picking up the thread as she voices the oft-spoken line: “Magic mirror on the wall / who in the land is fairest of them all?”

At the same time, the music changes to a cello solo and the theme of “If this pathway,” as a young man with a suitcase comes striding in. It is Alvaro — Clara’s knight in shining armor — several years older yet none the wiser. What’s happened to Bianca? We may never know. He is wearing an overcoat to protect him from the elements (the elements of shock and surprise, no doubt) as he glimpses the couple seated together.

Old Stepmother recognizes the young man. “Alvaro!” she gasps in astonishment. Immediately, she rises from the bench and rearranges her hair in a provocative manner. Alvaro moves closer to the pair. Old Stepmother smiles expectantly, but he passes right by her, as if she were never there, a shadow of her former self. He sits on the bench in her place and looks deeply into Clara’s eyes. It’s love at first sight!

Amelia chooses that exact moment to come out from behind the clock. As she does so, we hear the same pulse-pounding notes that began the musical, Amelia’s “He’ll Come Back” motif. And, indeed, he has come back, hasn’t he? But not in the way she had hoped.

The two women face each other for the first and only time — the young Amelia and her older embodiment — while Clara and Alvaro sit alone on the bench, gazing longingly at one another. Finally breaking the silence, Amelia and Old Stepmother speak the words that by all rights should bring the story to its end: “Aqui começa o teu sortilégio!” (“Here begins your magic spell!)”

But the curse continues. The circle refuses to close… And the story never, ever ends…

BLACKOUT

Curtain

                                                             *             *              *

According to Spanish philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Not only is this the real cause of Amelia’s sorrow, but the central plight of all the characters in 7 – The Musical.

They have been duped by their own mad obsessions into forgetting the past. Recalling only their present predicaments, Amelia, Carmen, Bianca, Rosa, Odette, Clara, Herculano, and the rest are forced, one by one, to re-experience their transgressions: to wallow in self-pity over such monstrous indulgences as adultery, murder, prostitution, deceit, abandonment, infidelity, black magic, and other debaucheries.

Relief from this vicious cycle is not to be had: their fate has been sealed, the portal remains closed — predetermined from the outset by Carmen’s powerful spell. They are all condemned to endlessly repeat their mistakes — complicit bystanders in a living hell of their own making, existentialism taken to the ultimate extreme. A revisionist No Exit perhaps? Absolutely!

Musical director Claudio Botelho once told me that “7” is very much like Sondheim’s Passion, in that it’s “a story about love and loss, about being left by the one you love, about losing your mind for someone else,” until you spend every waking hour in a fruitless search for that which you have lost. It’s a grown-up tale with a grown-up vision and viewpoint — the very model of a modern major musical.

The Brazilian musical has indeed reached its maturity. And, like the memorable characters of Bianca and Clara, it has come of age at last: long may it thrive.

If I were a gambling man, I’d be willing to wager that in a game of chance “7” would come up the winner every time. You can bet on it! ☼

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

English lyrics by Josmar F. Lopes – Copyright © 2014 All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

 

Nobody Special — A Human Interest Story

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Rick
Rick

Rick wasn’t anybody special. Just another homeless guy. Someone who lived on the street, begging as he went about his business.

He was soft spoken, quiet. He never got rowdy or violent. Rick was well behaved, unlike some of the other poor unfortunates we’d encounter in the street. He never bothered anyone. He was just looking for a handout or a pack of cigarettes — Pall Malls were his favorite brand. With the little money he’d get from passersby he would buy cans of beer, maybe bum a smoke or two off somebody. He was no bother, really; never made a fuss, never complained about life. He just shuffled along, minding his own affairs.

Rick lived under the overpass. It sounds like a joke, but that’s where we’d find him, curled up troll-like in a corner. For the past eight years my wife and I fed him, gave him water, and clothed him as best we could. He’d thank us. “God bless you,” he’d say. He was kind and polite. A perfect gentleman. He never disrespected us. He was grateful for what little he had and what little he received.

He was weather beaten. His face would turn beet red from too much sun. His beard and hair grew scraggly and dark. He couldn’t bathe every day, but he never smelled bad. That was odd, wasn’t it? He was good humored and liked to laugh a lot. He had a contagious chuckle to his tone. His teeth were bad. We noticed he was missing one or two of them whenever he opened his mouth to talk.

He wasn’t tall. Maybe 5 feet 9 inches, more or less. He had blond hair at one time, and the bluest pair of eyes you’d ever seen, like the afternoon sky. His grip was firm, although lately he couldn’t put much force behind his handshake. He’d often joke with us and we’d fire the jokes right back at him. He reminded me of the actor Jeff Bridges, only shorter. Looked just like him, too. He spoke with a Southern drawl. We learned later he was from Charlotte, that he was married at eighteen and had two kids — a boy and a girl — with his young wife.

He left them after a few years. He said he committed some crime or other, spent time in jail, about fourteen or fifteen years. When he got out, he went to live on the streets. And that was that, no further explanations were necessary.

He rarely spoke about his personal life. If you’d ask him, he would tell you. We never asked. We respected his privacy. If he wanted to tell us something, he would. Otherwise, we never encouraged him. His life was his own. Some things should stay buried, unless one felt the need to talk about them.

He wasn’t anybody special. Just another homeless guy.

“I’m an alcoholic,” he would whisper, sounding a bit like Walter Brennan. He had that unmistakable accent, a Western twang of sorts. But he knew he drank too much. “I was a drug addict once,” he explained, when the mood suited him of course, but that he had kicked the habit, or so he told us. But drinking? Nah, he couldn’t give that up. “Ain’t got nothing else to do,” he added. Yeah, we know.

Rick had some friends. They’d help him find shelter, or panhandle beside him by the exit ramp. We would see him hold up a sign that read: “HOMELESS, NEED HELP.” More times than not, Rick would stick out his hand for coins. When he could walk on his own, he’d get around at a pretty fast clip.

One night, Rick got so drunk he passed out beside the overpass. But he didn’t see where he was sleeping. When he turned over, he fell about twenty feet onto the street. He started to holler, screamed bloody murder. His friends, who were scattered across the road in the woods, came out to see what all the noise was about. They found Rick on the ground, writhing in pain from the fall.

“My hip! It’s broken!” he cried. Someone called the police, who took him to the nearest hospital. Boy, he really did a number on himself! He was a total mess. The doctors had to operate right away. They put stitches in his side, set his hip best they could, put his leg in a makeshift cast, and gave him some pain medication. Rick stayed in the hospital for a week, maybe two, I forget how long.

When they checked him out, they told him he needed to see a physical therapist. A lady, I don’t know who, took him to the therapy sessions in her van. She would pick him up at the corner and drive him there. Rick couldn’t do it himself. He was in a wheelchair now. Disabled, incapacitated. He’d broken his hip all right, even showed me the scar. It was a nasty looking thing. Still, he was lucky to be alive, after the fall he’d taken. Yeah, lucky.

He loved that wheelchair. My wife tried to get him into a home, someplace permanent. Any place but the street. We’d bring him food, water, but never money. He’d only buy booze with it, maybe injure himself again. She would continue to buy him his Pall Malls, though, whenever she’d get a chance. He wasn’t able to buy them himself anymore. “The people in the store always chase me out.” No one wanted him around. He was too much trouble. “Can’t deal with that,” they’d say. Even before he had broken his hip, Rick was persona non grata. Afterwards, forget it!

One winter, we brought him a sleeping bag. Someone at church had donated it, along with some socks, a pair of long johns, T-shirts, and clean underwear. But that sleeping bag was great! A deluxe model, fit for the great outdoors. The police raided him soon after, in the dead of night. It was freezing cold, 18 degrees Fahrenheit. They hauled him off to jail, where at least he was warm. But they confiscated the sleeping bag, left him with nothing. The clothes and food were gone, too.

Why not? He wasn’t anybody special. Just another homeless guy.

We didn’t see Rick for a while. When we found him again, he didn’t look well at all. His friend, Steve, who had been with him through thick and thin, said his toes were turning purple. And his feet were swollen. They hurt like hell. We talked to Rick for a few minutes, convinced him to get help. We gave Steve some money so he could take his friend by cab to a shelter, or better yet to the hospital.

A few days went by. Nothing, no news… Then we saw him, still in the wheelchair. “How you doing, Rick?” we asked. “I’m fine,” he answered. “They cut off some of my toes.” “Your toes?” “Yeah, they got infected.” Not a good sign, I thought. We didn’t know if he was diabetic or not. He did look thinner. His grip wasn’t so strong. He was ill, going downhill fast. My wife, through our church, got hold of the names of some people who might be of help. Rick had refused to go to therapy, wouldn’t even hear of staying in a shelter. After a week of therapy, he didn’t want to go through it anymore. “It just hurts,” he said. That was the first time I ever heard him complain.

We tried hard to get him to a shelter, or a home for disabled folk. Someplace where they could keep an eye on him, take care of his needs. Give him a bath, a shave, a haircut, and get some decent sleep. He looked more and more like Jeff Bridges in that movie Crazy Heart. But this was for real. No red carpet night for Rick, no Academy Award for Best Performance by a Street Dweller. Rick didn’t need to act the part. He was a street dweller.

And he wasn’t anybody special. Just another homeless guy.

The system failed him. The police, they hassled him constantly, put him behind bars. After they released him, he would disappear for weeks on end. Then suddenly, he’d turn up again on the corner, begging for money or food.  He’d wave to us as we drove by, smiling to us with that cheery grin of his — that Jeff Bridges grin — with his hair growing longer and dirtier by the day. Oh, and the wheelchair? It was in worse shape than he was. He used it so much it started to break down. In fact, it got to where he would push the wheelchair instead of the other way around. “Sure could use a new one,” he’d reply whenever we asked him about it. We tried to get him another one, but it was not to be.

One day, we saw Rick walking — hobbling was more like it — but without his trusty conveyance. “What happened to your wheelchair, Rick?” “The police took it.” But he seemed to be no worse off without it. He’d make due no matter what. Now that he was on disability, he seemed chipper than ever. Turned out someone at the hospital, or maybe it was that social worker I’d seen him talking to on occasion, had linked him up with the Social Security Administration. However it came about, Rick was getting a little money. He could buy food and drink. He just couldn’t find a permanent place to stay.

On the first of the month, he and Steve, or whoever he was with, would check into a hotel somewhere on Capital Blvd. They’d spend the weekend there, sleeping on soft beds with covers and sheets, with the air conditioner going full blast, keeping cool for once, instead of sweltering on hot, muggy sidewalks. Or turn the heat up on icy cold nights. This went on for a few years.

It was after one of their hotel stays that Steve told my wife about Rick. We hadn’t seen him in a while. We’d left his food at the usual place, but no sign of Rick. Then, my wife saw Steve on the corner, at the exit ramp where Rick would normally be. “Where’s Rick? How’s he doing?” “I’m sorry to tell you, ma’am, but Rick’s gone. He passed away.”

In shock, my wife pulled the car over and spoke briefly to Steve. Fighting back tears, she heard the story of how Rick had died. It was two weeks ago. He was feeling feverish it seemed, and sweating profusely. Just a month ago Steve had informed her that Rick’s feet were bothering him again. That he couldn’t get them into his shoes they hurt so bad. At the hotel, Steve had turned up the a/c to keep his friend from roasting, and went back to sleep. When Steve woke up the next day, Rick was no more.

He was downcast as he told his story. It made him sad to think about his friend, what he had gone through all those years, eight of them in total. He said that Rick always spoke of us with fondness and gratitude for what we had done for him. He mentioned that Rick had an older brother, who was well-to-do and had served in the army at one time. He was proud of his brother, Steve claimed. Real proud.

Rick was asleep now. We learned that he’s in repose at the Wake County Morgue, waiting for someone to claim his body, along with a permanent resting place.

After all, he was somebody special. And he wasn’t just another homeless guy. Rick was our friend.

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

Gluck’s ‘Iphigénie en Tauride’ — It’s Greek to Me: Great Performances at the Met

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The Reformer Reformed

Susan Graham & Placido Domingo in Iphigénie en Tauride (Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera)
Susan Graham & Placido Domingo in Iphigénie en Tauride
(Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera)

He was known in music history as a reformer. But what was it that composer Christoph Willibald von Gluck (1714-87) reformed? For starters, the German-born musician brought order to the chaotic world of Baroque opera. Acknowledged as belonging to the Classical period (roughly the years between 1730 to about 1830), Gluck’s reforms encompassed a whole range of improvements over the stylized conventions that had hitherto prevailed with the advent of Handel and others of his ilk.

These reforms, which among other things extended to a greater prominence of orchestration, the importance of musical recitative (or récit in French) to further the dramatic action, and a more fluid transition from recitative to the aria proper, as well as an increased emphasis on the text, brought Gluck wider fame in Paris, where many of his most successful works (i.e, Orphée et Eurydice, Alceste, Armide) had their world premieres.

One of these works, the four-act Iphigénie en Tauride, based on Euripides’ play, is typical of Gluck’s revolutionary style. At just under two hours, it’s a well-concentrated, fully-conceived condensation of the Greek tragedy of Princess Iphigenia, her brother Orestes (Oreste in the opera), and the professed bond that exists between them and the Greek prisoner Pylades (or Pylade). The bulk of the action takes place in a Scythian jail cell, where both Pylade and Oreste are held captive, with the major thrust being the motivations of both Iphigénie and Oreste, whose identities are suspected but unknown to one another.

The Met Opera’s February 26, 2011 revival — originally heard on a Saturday and re-broadcast as part of the Great Performances at the Met series — epitomized this very concentration of action. In director Stephen Wadsworth’s 2007 production, the emphasis was clearly on characterization. And for that, Wadsworth had a handpicked cast of first-rate singing actors at his disposal: mezzo-soprano Susan Graham as Iphigénie, tenor (now baritone) Plácido Domingo as Oreste, tenor Paul Groves as Pylade, and Lei Xu, Cecelia Hall, Gordon Hawkins, and David Won in other roles, with Julie Boulianne as the goddess Diana, the deus ex machina wielder of the plot.

A “Placid Sunday” Indeed

Previously known in this country, and at the Met, in a German-language version created by composer Richard Strauss, the opera had not been given at the house since its 1916-17 debut. Wadsworth’s use of the original French, however, was a masterstroke, as was his deployment of the services of Mr. Domingo.

As readers of my blog are aware, I’ve been a most outspoken critic of the former tenor’s de facto return to the baritone repertoire. To summarize, my argument with Domingo’s unworthy venture is that he simply does not sound like a normal baritone should, nor at this stage in his lengthy career does he maintain the heft and timbre called for in most Verdi or any other composer’s works.

I was deeply dismayed, then, to learn that next season Plácido will once more grace the Met stage in a revival of Verdi’s Ernani — not in the titular tenor part, mind you, but in the high-lying baritone role of Don Carlo. Normally, that would not be an issue in itself; however, at 73 (and, at the time of the Ernani revival, he’ll be 74), Domingo will be much too old to impersonate a young and virile potentate such as Don Carlo was reputed to have been.

Nevertheless, if his voice continues to hold out, the tenor-cum-baritone could very well pull off the coup of a lifetime. I say this based on his miraculous makeover as Oreste in the Gluck opera. As the perpetrator of his mother’s death (his mother, you may recall from Greek literature, was the villainous Clytemnestra, herself responsible for her husband Agamemnon’s murder), Oreste has a perpetual dark cloud hanging over his head. With his more aged mien, drawn and wan expression, bearded and long-haired form, in addition to visually expressive arm and hand gestures, Domingo became the tragic hero personified.

It’s hard to tell whether Wadsworth had a hand, so to speak, in Domingo’s transformation from his usual stand-and-deliver style to this wholehearted assumption of the doom-laden Oreste. By some miracle of conservation (or deus ex machina intervention perhaps?), the star’s voice held firm throughout the proceedings. This is not a particularly taxing role vocally, but the acting component is what makes Oreste the main attraction for star baritones of the magnitude of a Simon Keenlyside, for example.

In that department, I was most pleasantly surprised, not only by Mr. Domingo’s cheek in tackling such a part as Oreste, but in his complete identification with the character’s dilemma. There’s hope yet that Señor Plácido has indeed made the right career move.

Susan Graham & Furies
Susan Graham & Furies

As for the other participants, there is no artist better at conveying the ever-changing facets of a character than Susan Graham. Her voice, body language and tone, her physical embodiment and total involvement in the princess Iphigénie’s plight spoke volumes before she sang a note of the score. This is as unconventional a role as any in the standard classical repertory, one that looks forward to Strauss’ own psychologically probing reinterpretation of Mycenaean events in his one-act Elektra, to be featured a few seasons from now in Patrice Chéreau’s posthumous production.

Graham is no stranger to classical heroines of this type, as her Dido in Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens and Marguerite in the same composer’s The Damnation of Faust, have proven time and again. Her stature as this country’s most charismatic spokesperson for opera in general, and for the Metropolitan Opera in particular, has earned her acclaim from almost every corner.

Here, Ms. Graham showed exemplary command not only of the French singing style but of Gluck’s way with language and music, an integration of these two art forms that culminated in the rise of such diverse artists as Luigi Cherubini, Gaspare Spontini, the aforementioned Berlioz, and, of course, the imperturbable Richard Wagner.

Paul Groves (left) with Domingo (Ken Howard)
Paul Groves (left) with Domingo (Photo: Ken Howard)

Along with Graham, Paul Groves’ model French diction and vocal ease above the staff won hearty applause at the curtain for his finely wrought portrayal of Pylade. His short exit aria before his departure from prison, and especially his well-blended duets with Domingo, were all perfectly executed with emotional commitment and tonal luster to spare. Floating in at the last (in true “god from a machine” manner), soprano Julie Boulianne delivered the goddess Diana’s lines with gravity and gusto.

The Met’s corps de ballet and the reduced Met Chorus, under the direction of choreographer Daniel Pelzig and chorus master Donald Palumbo, respectively, took well-deserved bows for their fine work.

Holding it all together was conductor Patrick Summers, who is best known as Artistic and Music Director of Houston Grand Opera. Maestro Summers, who first appeared at the Met in 1998, has been a frequent guest conductor for several seasons. His varied repertoire covers the full gamut of operas: from Rossini’s La Cenerentola and Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas to Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Britten’s Peter Grimes, Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men and André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire.

He showed his firm grasp of the Classical idiom by allowing the Met Orchestra to outshine itself in this neglected masterpiece. May Summers continue along this eclectic path for many “seasons” to come!

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

April Love in Rio — Old Winter’s Song on Nat ‘King’ Cole’s Lips

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A Brazilian Affair

Nat "King" Cole at Rio's Maracanazinho in 1959
Nat “King” Cole at Rio’s Maracanazinho Stadium in 1959

No matter what your calendar might say Old Man Winter still holds sway in many parts of the U.S. With temperatures hovering near or above the freezing mark (especially at night), one would think that Jack Frost’s icy grip just plain refuses to let go.

Nevertheless, back in April 1959, a few short months before our family immigrated to America — with the first whiff of spring already in the Northeastern air — a reverse voyage was taking place in Los Angeles. Mirroring what would soon occur in the States, the summer heat was raging full force below the equator, bringing with it not autumn leaves but the oh-so-soothing sounds of a mellow-voiced troubadour named Nathaniel Adams Coles, known to millions of music buffs as Nat “King” Cole.

At the time, Cole and his family had taken off on a whirlwind tour of Latin America, an historic trip that not only brought them to Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Mexico City but to the Brazilian hotspots of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.

In a 2009 piece by former LA Times writer Geoff Boucher celebrating the 50th anniversary of her father’s visit, Carole Cole, one the late singer’s daughters (who regrettably passed away shortly after her interview), recounted the staggering outpouring of love and affection that greeted Cole as he toured Rio’s jam-packed streets.

“There was so much affection it’s hard to describe what it was like,” Ms. Cole declared. “It was almost like the entire population of Rio de Janeiro turned out en masse to welcome him and throw roses at his feet. He and my mother were invited to stay at the presidential palace [in Laranjeiras], where he was treated like royalty” — an action befitting a man with the middle name of “King” (after the children’s nursery rhyme, “Old King Cole”).

Carole wasn’t the only family member to have experienced fond memories of the event. Multiple Grammy Award-winner Natalie Cole, an exceptional vocal artist in her own right, was a child of eight when her famous father recorded his first Spanish language album, Cole Español, in 1958. It became a huge international hit. Shortly afterwards, Natalie traveled with her dad on his seven-week excursion, where she “witnessed firsthand the adulation and esteem that Latin American fans showed” for the African-American crooner.

Brazilian President Juscelino Kubitschek greets the "King"
President Juscelino Kubitschek greets the “King”

“They loved, loved, loved him,” Natalie recalled, which was quite unlike how he was received at nightclubs in the South, or how he was mistreated by neighbors in L.A.’s upscale Hancock Park where he had bought a home. His own TV program, The Nat King Cole Show, which debuted on NBC in November 1956, was pulled from the air after only fourteen months for lack of sponsors, many of who feared a boycott of their products by skittish Southern viewers.

Earlier that year, Cole was attacked onstage during a kidnapping attempt in Birmingham, Alabama. Undaunted, he pressed on with the show. After the incident, Cole issued this prophetic statement: “You can erase a lot of things by gaining the respect of both races. Through the medium of my music I hope to make many new friends and change opinions regarding racial equality. I have always believed that by living as a full American dedicated to the democratic principle, I fight bigotry by example.”

“To All My Latin Friends”

In fact, the trail-blazing entertainer had set the example as far back as 1943, when he hired Carlos Gastel, a native of Honduras, to be his manager. It was at Gastel’s urging that the singer resolved to lend his talents to the first of three Latin-based albums.

His follow-up to Cole Español, A Mis Amigos (Capitol, 1959), was recorded in Rio with local musicians, and featured three contemporary tunes in Brazil’s native Portuguese: the rumba-like “Suas Mãos” (“Your Hands”) by Antonio Maria and Pernambuco; “Caboclo do Rio” by Idalba Leite de Oliveira; and “Não Tenho Lágrimas” (“No Tears to Shed”) by Max Bulhões and Milton de Oliveira, a fast-paced samba that Cole managed to toss off in animated if slightly inauthentic fashion.

A Mis Amigos (Capitol, 1958)
A Mis Amigos (Capitol, 1959)

As for Nat’s less-than-impeccable handling of the number’s tongue-twisting text, let’s say his ever-present charm and unaffected earnestness overcame any barriers in that department. At worst, he captured the music’s flavor and swing — and that’s what counts.

I can vouch for my fellow Brazilians’ fondness for this merry old soul, in his day one of the best loved of all American entertainers. My mother’s youngest sister, Noemia, remembered quite vividly the celebrated star’s initial appearances in São Paulo, relayed to listeners through live feeds. And indeed she should. For Aunt Noemia, besides having been a passionately devoted fan, owned dozens of Cole’s records, to eventually encompass his then-most recent effort, A Mis Amigos (a third album, More Cole Español, was recorded in Mexico and released in 1962).

Cole at the Copacabana Palace in Rio
Cole at the Copacabana Palace in Rio

Back then, Cole’s schedule of personal appearances in Brazil included seven performances at the Night and Day Club in Rio (April 13-19), fourteen shows at the Paramount Theatre in São Paulo (April 21-25), and three television and radio programs broadcast simultaneously from the Paramount.

Speaking nary a word of Spanish or Portuguese, Cole insisted on learning the lyrics of his numbers phonetically. Aware of his most-favored-singer status below the border, above all he wanted to show respect for his “many new friends” in the best way possible: by singing in his public’s native tongue. This helps to explain why Aunt Noemia — and countless other Brazilians — had made him “numero um” in their living rooms.

Will Friedwald, a New York-based journalist, music critic, and author, in a 2010 interview, explained that Cole “was naturally amenable to the idea of working in other languages and doing songs in other markets. There are examples of him singing in German, Japanese, and French.”

Although he admits the singer may not have been the first to start that lucrative trend, “he certainly did get on the bandwagon.” A savvy businessman who also happened to be closely attuned to the popular tastes of his time, Cole saw an opportunity to extend his reach beyond the home front.

According to Friedwald, Cole “had a natural ear for sounds. He just worked at it. He did get the accent and the pronunciation wrong at times… [Still], he definitely has the emotion. He tells the story. Obviously he couldn’t interpret a song in Spanish [or Portuguese] the way he could a Cole Porter lyric. But it’s still a love song no matter what the specific words are. Nat knew what he was singing. You certainly get that warm romantic feeling.”

The View from Abroad

“That voice, that style, he was so special, there was no one like him,” commented Bebel Gilberto, the daughter of bossa nova pioneer João Gilberto, who although born in New York and raised in Rio grew up hearing about Cole’s visit to Brazil from family and friends (much like this author has). “He meant so much to people all over the world,” Bebel continued. “I think he meant more to Brazil and Latin America than he did even to his own fans in America…”

It wasn’t only Cole’s immaculately produced smooth-as-silk tones that touched so many hearts, but his cultivated persona as well. “I remember hearing him sing and then when I saw him — so handsome — I wanted to know more about him and his music. He was the sound of America to many people.”

For someone with the soul of bossa nova in her bones, Bebel lamented the fact that the “King” never got around to recording a tribute to the popular Brazilian music genre. Friedwald concurred. “Obviously if Nat had lived, he would have gone on to do a bossa nova album. That was the next new thing. But of course he died in 1965 just as the bossa nova [craze] was taking hold in America.”

Cole did leave one tune for Brazilians to remember him by. His 1962 single, “Brazilian Love Song” (Breno Ferreira / Hoffman / Manning / Cole), originally associated with pop singer Wilson Simonal under the title “Andorinha Preta” (“Little Black Swallow”) and which Bebel Gilberto did a remix of on the album Re-Generations, includes the following lines:

Fly my Brazilian love bird
Fly to the one I love
Fly my Brazilian love bird
Fly to the one I love

Please won’t you tell her
That I’m the one who cares
Please bring to me her answer

Nat “King” Cole cared about other nationalities to the point of reaching out to them in their own words. Wherever he went, he brought warmth and April love to new friends and fans by means of Old Winter’s song.

As if that weren’t enough, he helped change many people’s views and opinions about race and racial equality through the medium of music — which, as we all know, is the universal language.

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes