Birth of the Rio Blues
On June 1, 1922, when Bibi Ferreira let out her first wail as the newborn infant of theater actor Procópio Ferreira and his Spanish-born spouse, the ballerina Aida Izquierdo, neither Rio de Janeiro, the city of her birth, nor the country of Brazil looked anything like they appear today.
Looking back on that period, in February of that same year the Semana de Arte Moderna (Week of Modern Art) in São Paulo had finally brought the Modernist movement into the front line of Brazil’s literary, artistic, and musical establishment; Bidu Sayão was at or near the beginning of her vocal studies in France with the legendary Jean de Reszke; Carmen Miranda was a precocious 13-year-old whose only ambition in life was to enter a convent; Heitor Villa-Lobos, who made his bow at the Semana de Arte Moderna, had his first series of piano pieces, A Prole do Bebê (“The Baby’s Family”), played in Rio by Polish virtuoso Artur Rubenstein.
Contemporaneous with the above, American jazz, which musicologists confirm grew out of turn-of-the-century New Orleans, was about to secure a beachhead on Brazilian shores; on that note, one of the acknowledged icons of the Jazz Age, dancer and entertainer Josephine Baker, was poised to leave an indelible mark on the Great White Way during the Harlem Renaissance; and the music/dance form known as samba, as well as Rio’s colorful Carnival parade, would soon emerge from their mutual confinement.
For me, a Brazilian-born naturalized citizen who grew up in parts of the Bronx and mid-Manhattan, seeing a personality of the magnitude of Bibi Ferreira, the “Grande Dame of the Brazilian Stage,” as she is so often billed, in a lightning-fast tour of North America enlivened my own visit to the Big Apple in ways I never expected.
It was on the afternoon of September 20. I had finally settled into my hotel room, a short walking distance from the Empire State Building. After unpacking my bag and hanging my belongings in a smallish but conveniently spaced closet, I leafed through the usual tourist pamphlets left there by the hotel’s concierge. Opening up to an advertisement in Time Out magazine, I noticed a full-page spread by the Ministry of Culture and a talent agency labeled Montenegro e Raman announcing the presence of Brazilian Musical Icon, Bibi Ferreira, on the evening of September 20 and 23, at 8 p.m., at Symphony Space on Broadway and 95th Street.
I could hardly believe what the ad was telling me: Did this mean that Bibi Ferreira was going to appear on September 20, the same date as my arrival? No, that couldn’t be right. I must have misread the notice. Yeah, that’s it. How silly of me! Still, the thought of being in New York on the first day of Bibi’s concert continued to nag at me. Trying to get some clarification, with care I re-read the magazine ad. Sure enough, the concert was going to be held that very evening.
Holy cow! What was I waiting for? This was the opportunity of a lifetime. Never, in my wildest dreams, could I have imagined seeing and hearing Bibi Ferreira, live and in the flesh, in a New York City concert hall. It was too good to be true. On a hunch, I quickly rang the Symphony Space’s box office and managed to secure a ticket for that night’s performance. Mercy me! How lucky could a guy be?
A Worthy Pedigree
The show was titled “4X Bibi” (“Quatro Vezes Bibi”), that is “Bibi Times Four.” This indicated that the former Abigail Izquierdo Ferreira, or “Bibi” for short, who, as the story goes, was introduced to the stage at barely a month old, would be performing a program of songs associated with her previous one-woman shows by four of the world’s most unique talents (none of whom were Brazilian): Portuguese fadista Amalia Rodrigues, Argentine tango singer Carlos Gardel, French chanteuse Édith Piaf, and Hoboken-born pop idol Frank Sinatra. Not only was this show in celebration of Ole Blue Eyes’ one hundredth birthday, which took place last December 2015, but also Bibi’s 75 years as an artist and entertainer.
An acclaimed stage and screen icon; a memorable interpreter of classic Broadway musicals, and of popular songs and romantic ballads; a dancer, director, and theater manager, with numerous productions to her credit; a raconteur and television personality — though never as flamboyant as her contemporary, the bawdy Dercy Gonçalves — 94-year-old Bibi has long been associated with the cream of Brazil’s performing talents in virtually every artistic category.
Among the more familiar names are those of her father Procópio; the actors Paulo Autran and Cacilda Becker; playwright Paulo Pontes (her former husband) who died tragically of stomach cancer at age 36; singer-songwriter Chico Buarque; Walmor Chagas, Marilia Pêra, and Marco Nanini. She has also appeared in or directed works by Pontes, Flavio Rangel, Ferreira Gullar, Lillian Hellman, and Sergio Viotti, in addition to producing shows for Maria Bethânia, Clara Nunes, and dozens more.
In other words, we are talking about theatrical royalty, an enviable title to set alongside such accomplished personalities as Fernanda Montenegro, Gloria Menezes, Nicette Bruno, Eva Wilma, and Laura Cardoso, among others. On the Broadway side, we have Fanny Brice, Gertrude Lawrence, Ethel Merman, Constance Bennett, Mary Martin, Judy Garland, Gwen Verdon, Chita Rivera, Carol Channing, Barbara Cook, Patti LuPone, Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli, and Audra McDonald. Indeed, Bibi Ferreira’s name is as worthy of inclusion in the company of all these great artists as any performer I know.
While waiting on the ticketholder’s line, I spoke to several Brazilians, including a fellow named Patrick, the owner of a Brazilian churrascaria (barbecue steakhouse) in midtown. He introduced me to his mother, a lady of about 70, who told me that she had first seen Bibi in concert when she was a little girl. Once inside the theater, I took my seat in the upper balcony, it being a relatively small, shoe-box shaped auditorium with decent sight lines and more than acceptable acoustics.
Before the show started, I was engaged in an informative conversation with the couple in front of me, Seu Roberto and his wife, who came from the northeastern state of Bahia and were spending their vacation in the city. They, too, had seen Bibi perform on previous occasions, and were eager to see her again.
Brazilians are a gregarious and outgoing lot by nature, and will often open up to strangers with little to no effort. With that in mind, Seu Roberto clued me in on what one of Bibi’s shows would be like: her band leader, maestro Flávio Mendes, would lead Ms. Ferreira to the center of the stage. During the course of her presentation, Mendes or one of the other gentlemen would stop to offer refreshment or ask if she needed any assistance.
One of the members of her group, Nilson Raman, a former model, actor, producer, and Bibi’s manager, as well as the head of the Montenegro e Raman agency that brought her to the Big Apple, would provide a running commentary, taking turns with another participant (whose name escaped me) about her life as a performer.
Even though the concert was scheduled to begin at 8 p.m., the theater was far from full. I caught maestro Mendes peering out from behind a curtain. He was checking to see how much longer they could wait before Bibi made her entrance. The crowd, made up of the elite of New York’s Brazilian expatriate community (the average age must have been well over 50), along with some obvious initiates, took its time to fill the theater. No one seemed to mind, however, that the show was delayed by half an hour. In fact, it gave the populace additional time to chat among themselves.
One by one, the band of twelve musicians ventured forth and took their positions on stage. Finally, the star herself came out, slowly and cautiously at first, befitting her advanced age. Bibi was led to the front of the stage platform with Raman to her right and Mendes to her left. The other gentleman, many decades younger than Bibi, took over for Mendes as the two narrators assumed their spots at stage right.
There stood Bibi Ferreira, in fabulous form. Wearing a stunning white gown with diamond earrings dangling from her ears, Bibi was glamour personified. Her hair was a burnished red-brown color. Her eyebrows were thin reddish wisps of straight lines. Her face was taut, her skin pulled back tightly. Settling down in a chair before the microphone, Bibi blew kisses to the waiting audience who answered them with whoops, shrieks, and squeals of delight at the presence of such a beloved figure.
A standing ovation greeted Bibi as she entered. This was before she even had a chance to open her mouth. In all my years of theater-going (if I had to calculate, I’d say there were 40+ in total), I have never witnessed a case where the audience stood up to honor an artist before he or she performed. Only with someone of the unquestioned acumen of a Judy Garland, a Liza Minnelli, or a Barbra Streisand, or quite possibly Sinatra himself, might such a thing have occurred. There were rounds and rounds of applause for Bibi, so much so that it was hard to get the show going. Truly, this was a moment to be savored, a loving tribute to a living legend.
Just as Seu Roberto had predicted, the concert opened with each of the commentators intoning a brief narrative about the star and her past exploits. They spoke in Portuguese-inflected English, which could have used the tighter editorial hand of an experienced translator (such as me perhaps?). Despite some lapses in pronunciation — for example, “try-byoot” instead of “tribute” — the narration tended to flow smoothly.
Bibi began her show with fado, most of them associated with Amalia Rodrigues, to include a brief bit from “Uma casa portuguesa” (“A Little Portuguese House”) by Vasco Matos Sequiera and Artur Fonseca. I missed the bell-like plucking of the twelve-string Portuguese guitar, and the participation of a cellist and accordionist onstage were certainly no substitute for the real thing.
In between numbers, there was some fascinating history imparted about Os Mouros, the Moors who inhabited Portugal nearly 400 centuries ago. They practically invented the genre, we were told, specifically in the Mouraria section of Lisbon where fado was most strongly ingrained. Bibi, whose paternal grandparents were natives of the island of Madeira, eased into her set by lavishing these wonderful solos with her impeccable Lusitanian Portuguese. She stirred the soul of her listeners (this writer included), and would do so for any Brazilian whose ancestors were descended from the mother country. Audience members were heard humming along with Bibi. Consequently, this first section was greeted with a rousing ovation.
Tangos by Carlos Gardel followed soon after, which began with “Esta Noche Me Emborracho” (“I Think I’ll Get Drunk Tonight”). We learned from Bibi’s own lips that her mother, Aida Izquierdo, insisted she only speak Spanish to her as a child. So for the first seven years of her life, Bibi’s primary language was, in fact, Spanish. By the merest coincidence, it happened that my father’s siblings (and dad himself, so he informed me) also learned to converse in that tongue, thanks to my Spanish-born grandparents.
Bibi went on to reveal that Argentine tangos are loaded with slang, which made some of the words and their meaning difficult to comprehend by non-natives such as herself. Repeating a line she had sung only minutes before, Bibi insisted she had no idea what it meant. The puzzled look on her face alone was worth the price of admission, more so for the candor with which she expressed this tantalizing bit of trivia.
After several years of touring with her mother, Bibi returned to Rio where she met up with her estranged father (her parents had separated soon after Bibi was born). Because she was refused entry to a local school, Procópio sent his daughter to London where she was enrolled in an English academy. This meant she became equally fluent in that language as well. “I only spoke perfect English,” Bibi joked in her British-accent, as she stood up for a bow. More laughter and applause rang out at this charming little gesture.
Taking frequent sips of water and softly dabbing her nose with tissue paper, Bibi occasionally sought the need of a strong arm to steady her stage deportment. There was a moment when her manager, Nilson Raman, bent down to repeat a question Bibi hadn’t heard. The only other concession to age was her use of a TV monitor which scrolled the lyrics to each of the songs in case her memory faltered. There was little chance of that! Bibi was a true professional throughout, right down to her bones.
Start Spreading the News
Songs celebrating the extraordinary career of Francis Albert Sinatra were next on the agenda: “Night and Day” and “I Got You under My Skin,” by Cole Porter; “Old Man River” by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II; “That’s Life” (Grammer, Beam, and Rose) and “The Lady is a Tramp” (Rodgers and Hart).
Of course, no concert by a Brazilian of Bibi’s generation, especially one born in Rio, would be complete without classic bossa nova from the Antonio Carlos Jobim songbook. This penultimate section featured a rousing “Água de beber” (“Water to Drink”) with lyrics by Carmen Miranda’s ex-bandleader Aloysio de Oliveira; “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars” (“Corcovado”) in Norman Gimbel’s poetic English translation; and a dreamy trance-like rendition of Jobim and Newton Mendonça’s “Meditation,” in both the original and English versions (also by Gimbel).
In this portion of her program, it felt obvious to me, and probably to the viewers in attendance, that bossa nova came more naturally to Bibi than the other Sinatra specialties. Once you’ve heard Sinatra sing these numbers, it’s impossible to imagine anyone else doing them justice. Still, Bibi gave it her best shot. It’s not her fault she was born a contralto and not a basso profundo, as she struggled with the low tessitura of “Old Man River.”
And finally, we had the impassioned repertoire of the incomparable Édith Piaf, to include the ever-popular “Non, je ne regrette rien” (Dumont and Vaucaire) and “La Vie en Rose,” written and composed by Piaf herself. As an added attraction, there was an infectious duet with Nilson Raman, delivered by both star and manager in exceedingly colloquial French. Raman sounded like a cross between Charles Aznavour and Yves Montand, whom Piaf discovered and who became one of the Little Sparrow’s lovers.
In recreating one of the pivotal roles from early in her career, Bibi saved her best for last: she performed the number, “Gota d’água” (“Drop of Water”) from the play of the same name. Although the title translates to the American expression “The Last Straw,” the narrators gave the literal meaning instead. In this extract, a modern adaptation of the Euripides tragedy from Greek mythology, Bibi played Joana (aka Medea), the wronged wife of Jason. It was a gut-wrenching aria, as close to an operatic scena as one could get. The audience was given a glimpse into plain old-fashioned stage acting: her facial expressions, her body language, the cultivated way in which she enunciated the text, indeed every part of Bibi’s anatomy and being was utilized in conveying Joana’s regret. This was a priceless master class in raw theatricality.
In her introduction to the piece, Bibi, in a side note, remarked that the play was written by dramaturgist Paulo Pontes, her husband at the time. “He died much too early,” she added brusquely. Bibi took a moment to compose herself before continuing on. I was moved by this confession of feeling, seemingly buried deep down in her bosom, and brought out for the occasion. You could say it was part of the program, or call it “stage acting” if you so choose. To those of us who were watching, it was an intimate look inside an artist’s psyche — one she shared willingly with her public.
Bibi ended her program with a stirring encore of “New York, New York,” by Kander and Ebb, which brought the predominantly native audience to its feet. I couldn’t help wondering that when Bibi goes, whole generations of actor-singers will be deprived of this generational link to a lost performance art. Despite the passage of time, and the infirmities a person her age must no doubt endure, Bibi carried herself with a pride and elegance few performers would dare to mimic, and many younger ones would envy. Her good cheer, her honesty, her ability to laugh at herself, and especially her joie de vivre, were as simple and straightforward at the start as they were towards the end.
This icon of an incontrovertible Golden Age, where Nelson Rodrigues, Chico Buarque, Oduvaldo Vianna Filho, and Paulo Pontes once ruled the roost; of Amalia Rodrigues, of Carlos Gardel, of Édith Piaf, and, most notably, Sinatra and Jobim, seemed ageless and free from care. Who can take her place? One might as well ask, Who could ever replace the irreplaceable? These are rhetorical questions, of course, with the answer more than self-evident.
At the conclusion of her show, Bibi was handed two beautiful bouquets. Slowly but securely, she was escorted off the stage by the maestro and her manager. Her voice was surprisingly strong and full; the emotions, for the most part, firmly in control. Bibi never faltered, even when her microphone malfunctioned. Refitted with a livelier mike, she delivered the kind of performance rarely seen in our day.
We know that popular music is not what it was when Bibi came of age. Of the hundreds of copycat artists out there, of the thousands of faux aspirants to be heard on such TV shows as The Voice and America’s Got Talent, not a single one has demonstrated a tenth of the charisma, the drive, the tenacity, or the staying power that Bibi Ferreira still possesses.
The thing that impressed me the most, however, was how perceptive Bibi has grown about her past relationships. Her clear-eyed appraisal of her mother, although wrapped in warm and fuzzy tones, was nonetheless tinged with a hint of mild resentment. Her fond recollection of her marriage to Paulo Pontes — her last of five previous unions — was as clipped and to the point as a trained clinician. How like an actor’s daughter she was! I trust my assessments of her virtues and defects, at this late stage in her career, are equally pointed.
With all that, I can categorically confirm that Bibi Ferreira is four times the artist of anyone I have ever encountered. Her concert proved, once and for all, that age is no impediment to great art. True, she doesn’t look anything like she did when she first appeared on the scene some 60 or 70 years ago. Of one thing I am certain: not in another 94 years will we see her like again.
Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes