A Brazilian on Broadway: Bibi Ferreira, the Grande Dame of the Brazilian Stage, Takes a Slice Out of the Big Apple
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 her 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
Life is What You Make of It
Telling my parents’ life stories, and, at the same time, getting the facts of their courtship straight, haven’t been easy. The main problem is that they have long since departed: my mother died on December 16, 1985, at age sixty-one, from kidney disease; dad left us on October 23, 1993, of congestive heart failure at seventy-one — a mere eight years between deaths.
Even when residing and working in São Paulo as a teacher of English, I was barely able to communicate with relatives from either side of the family during the time I had spent there (September 1996 to January 2001). Hence, you will forgive me if the details of my account must depend primarily on anecdotal evidence.
It’s not enough to claim that Annibal Peres Lopes (or Lopes Peres, as recorded on the marriage certificate) and the former Lourdes Ferreira eventually wound up in each other’s arms. True, it wasn’t anywhere near the way Charlotte Vale and Jerry Durance’s romance blossomed in Now, Voyager.
If you recall, the enamored pair were stranded for days on end after their motorcar crashed near the foot of Sugar Loaf Mountain. Still, I have to admit: in their unique way, mom and dad did have what, in Hollywood parlance, would come to be called a “meet cute.”
In the numerous documents my father left behind, he gave his São Paulo street address as Rua Rio Bonito No. 1293. This was close enough to, if not in the general vicinity of, where my mother had worked and lived (i.e., Rua Dr. Vergilio do Nascimento). Based on who did the actual telling, this is where their stories diverge.
In dad’s version, he had seen my mother several times before they actually met, but had no idea she was related to one his helpers, her adolescent brother Rubens. Dad would see her walking with a group of young women, one of whom, her sister Iracema, happened to be engaged to Agostinho Pires, another of my father’s partners. One day, dad playfully asked Rubens if he had a spare sister for him to date. Just then, mom rounded the corner with her siblings.
“There she is!” shouted Rubens.
“But, I know this lady!” dad answered back. And from that moment on, they hit it off.
As my mother would relate it, she and her sisters were on their way to a church social or similar get-together. They had come upon some friends who, quite by chance, happened to know so-and-so, and/or so-and-so’s brother or sister. That’s how young people in the neighborhood got to meet and greet one another, through mutual acquaintances.
All the same, mom was waiting with her sisters at the local bus stop, called o ponto de onibus — a literal wooden stake, or “point,” shaped like a giant pencil planted in the middle of the block or street corner.
In a reversal of mom’s narrative, it was dad who suddenly put in an appearance with his buddies. They were dressed to the nines in their immaculately pressed suits and silk ties. By force of habit, dad would never, ever venture forth from his mother’s residence in anything but a white long-sleeved shirt, starched to the hilt by one of his sisters. With him was his ever-present cigarette in hand.
Having admired my mother from afar and taken a liking to her calm, reticent manner (quite unlike that of most girls he’d been dating), dad started a conversation with her. When he learned she was going to church with her sisters, he asked if he could tag along. Mom nodded in agreement, and they all boarded the bus together as it approached. Dad accompanied my mother inside and waited for her to find a suitable spot. Once she sat down, he dutifully planted himself on the seat next to hers.
In the meantime, his buddies had followed the couple on board the bus, all the while snickering behind their back and cracking loud jokes at my father’s expense: “Hey, Annibal, you bum! Watch those hands! We can see your every move! Oh, will you look at that! He’s making goo-goo eyes at her! Behave yourself, you dog, or we’re calling her parents!”
Dad ignored their crude remarks. He was too busy focusing his gaze on the shy, young woman to his side. For her part, mom was enraptured. In what seemed like no time at all, the chubby, bespectacled second-oldest daughter of Francisco and Ana Ferreira (an early portrait of my mother struck me as a carbon copy of Jerry Durrance’s daughter Tina) was engaged to the handsomest, most charming bachelor of Alto do Pari. “Um pão de homem” (“A hunk of a man”) was how the locals described him, with dark, wavy hair, olive complexion, and chestnut-brown eyes. Not only was he fastidious about his looks and dress, but dad boasted a muscular build, a slender face, and a strong chin, topped with a neatly trimmed mustache.
Oh, he was quite the catch, all right — with one hell of a Latin temper to match. Notwithstanding mom’s Protestant fervor, as a concession to her future mother-in-law the religious ceremony took place in a Catholic parish ministered by the local priest. Mom also agreed to have her firstborn child baptized in the same parish, that of Igreja São João Batista. Wedding pictures from that period bore witness to her miraculous change from a self-professed ugly duckling to that of a gorgeous September bride. Mom looked smashing in her lace bridal gown with matching flower bouquet and crown. She and dad were beaming with delight.
And to think their storybook marriage almost failed to come off! About a week before the big day, dad’s partner “Noca,” who was known to take a nip (or more) between trips, crashed their truck into a ditch. There went dad’s sole means of livelihood. Before desperation began to sink in, our relatives came to my father’s aid: they were able to recover the vehicle and bring it back to its former working condition in time for the wedding ceremony.
Immediately after the reception, the couple honeymooned in nearby Santos, which for paulistanos was the seaside equivalent of Rio. When they returned from their trip, the newlyweds moved in with my father’s family. His father, Alfredo, had died years earlier when dad was only nineteen. Since then, his mother had taken up the challenge of running the Lopes household as she saw fit. Grandma Encarnación — La Abuela, as dad pejoratively referred to her — ruled with an iron rod. Charlotte Vale’s bully of a parent was child’s play compared to this formidable grande dame. Dressed all in black, my foreign-born grandmother would don the mantilla, which enveloped her long, gray-streaked hair, held tightly in a bun and comb. Her face was heavily lined, and her speech was spiced with a thick Spanish accent.
Mom suffered at the hands of her in-laws. Because of her total dedication to being a model wife and mother, with one or two exceptions (my aunts Marina and Herminia, for example) the others were uniformly resentful of her presence. Mom’s gentleness and timidity, along with the quiet, nondescript way she went about her business —and in particular, her good nature — were frowned upon in a home where clamor and name-calling were a common way of life.
They were jealous as well of mom’s daily visits to her mother, who lived only a few blocks away. Since Vovó Encarnación had been treated harshly by her alcoholic husband, she regarded everyone around her as worthy of being treated in like manner. In turn, Grandma was callously treated by her own children (including my dad). Now grown up, the harshest of the sisters felt it only fair to take their frustrations out on my mom.
On one of these visits, she expressed to her mother Ana the deep sorrow and profound distress she experienced while staying at her in-laws. Vovó Ana, who was well-schooled on the theme of rude relations, counseled her to carry on in the face of her difficulties; that the good Lord would provide an answer to her seemingly inescapable dilemma.
Shortly thereafter, mom became pregnant with her first child (yours truly). Because of this, my father resolved that mom should have a home of her own. For which he arranged a move to a new apartment above a local real estate office on Rua Pedroso da Silveira, a mere stone’s throw from her mother’s dwelling. Mom was overjoyed at the prospect. Since dad traveled so frequently, she would be better-off living close to her own kin than to her in-laws. They could care for her, too, in the event he was unable to be present for my birth.
It took years for Vovó Encarnación to recognize the precious jewel she had in her daughter-in-law: that hard-working, dedicated, and utterly selfless individual I grew to love and admire was forced to overcome her natural reserve in order to endure almost unrelieved anguish. During the time she spent with her in-laws, mom refused to argue back, but neither did she buckle under from dread. Moreover, she maintained her composure throughout the year-long ordeal, never once offending those who took it upon themselves to offend. Through her example, mom went on to earn their respect, if not their ardor. In time, dad’s relatives came around and softened their approach. There would always be someone that continued to harbor unmerited animosity towards her, but overall mom triumphed through kindness and resilience, and by never giving in to despair.
As for La Abuela, she continued to regard my mother warily, but with a noticeable degree of deference. After all, she was a full-blooded Spaniard. If anything, Vovó Encarnación applauded mom’s ability to care for her children (my brother, Anibal Jr., was born a year and three months after me) and, in all honesty, Grandma treated us kindly. Mom’s diligence in that department would serve her well in the biggest and farthest move of her life: to a home in the South Bronx, in the northeastern part of the United States, far from the familiar surroundings of Alto do Pari.
Dad paved the way for us in May 1959. With his inherent independent streak, he had wanted to get away from his relatives for some time, to live his own life free from their constant prying and whining. After securing employment at a lamp factory as well as putting a down payment on a three-story house at 942 Stebbens Avenue near Fort Apache in the Bronx, dad sent for his wife and two sons.
Mom had never left the State of São Paulo, nor had she set foot outside her native land, until the day she boarded a six-engine TWA transcontinental airline. It took twenty-four nonstop hours to reach Idlewild Airport in Queens. Mom traveled alone with her two boys, aged five and three-and-a-half. She spoke not a word of English. What courage she must have displayed! What strength and single-minded purpose! One can only imagine the thoughts that had gone through her head, or the hardships that would lie before her.
She once told me that leaving her mother behind was the hardest thing she ever had to do. She would have stayed in Brazil — willingly, at that — if only her mom had asked. The story goes that the wrinkled old woman took mom’s “little hands of gold” in hers. Staring gently but gravely into her searching eyes, Grandma Ana gave my mother this piece of advice: “Filha, seu lugar é com seu marido” (“Daughter, your place is with your husband”). And that settled that.
Mom learned to speak and understand a reasonable amount of English in the twenty-five years she lived and worked in New York. She braved the freezing cold winters and the blisteringly hot and humid summers as best she could. She even managed to get around with facility, taking the subway and the bus to wherever she needed to go. When neither was available, she made it under her own power.
She continued the daily grind almost up until the week she passed away. I had only seen my father cry twice beforehand, once at his mother-in-law Ana Joaquina’s demise, and again when my Aunt Marina’s husband, Uncle Frederico, died suddenly a week after New Year’s. When news reached him that his own mother had passed, I remember him sitting alone in the living room with the lights turned off. No tears were shed that night for Encarnación Peres Leimones, but they poured forth like a tropical rainstorm when our mother breathed her last, much as he had done for his mother-in-law when she had gone.
Dad lived another eight winters. He had suffered three heart attacks up to that point, the second of which, in the summer of ‘79, forced him into early retirement. His years were filled with frequent hospital visits — among them, for a triple bypass graft and carotid-artery endarterectomy — amid various nursing home stays. After experiencing multiple transcient ischemic attacks and strokes, aggravated by anxiety neurosis, a type-A personality, high blood pressure, an elevated cholesterol count, and hardening of the arteries, dad expired in the early morning hours of October 23, 1993.
Lourdes and Annibal Lopes were both cremated, their ashes preserved in solid brass urns that resided side-by-side, for a time, at the famed Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. They were finally buried together, along with their urns, in 1996, at the Cemitério do Tremembé, in the North Zone of São Paulo, Brazil, the city and country of their birth.
Their life together was never an easy one. They might have looked at it as the story of two dissimilar spirits, wandering the earth with a shared purpose: to survive by any means at their disposal, and at any cost — even to their own lives.
They never asked for the Moon. And they never quite got hold of the stars. But for thirty-two consecutive years they were content to have each other, and that’s all that mattered. ☼
Copyright (c) 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes
Flames Over Rio 2016: Brazil’s President ‘Burns’ as the World Watches the Summer Olympic Games (Part One)
Celebrate Bad Times, Come On!
It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. And it most certainly wasn’t part of anyone’s game plan, either.
This was going to be the twin jewels in the crown of Brazil’s former president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whose personal efforts on behalf of his country’s pitch to the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) and to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) resulted in a dual victory of sorts.
The first prize was awarded on October 30, 2007, in Zurich, Switzerland, with Brazil being chosen as the site for the 2014 World Cup Soccer Tournament, its first since the contest took place there in 1950 (and we know how that venture turned out). Next up, the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio, which were formally announced in Copenhagen, Denmark, on October 2, 2009.
That was seven seasons ago, when Lula was at the height of his fame and esteem, with an astounding 75 percent (or more) approval rating among his fellow Brazilians. Lula wept visibly, and uncontrollably, as then-IOC president Jacques Rogge called out the name of “Rio de Janeiro” as the first South American host city in the history of the modern Olympic Games. Time to party!
Brimming with pride and self-confidence, Brazil sauntered forth in preparation for two of the world’s most prestigious sporting events. If anything, Lula and his Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party), or PT for short, had every right to believe that Rio would make itself ready to receive close to half a million visitors, without undue controversy or delays.
If only …. !
When I was a boy, I remember hearing my dad reminisce about the countless times his foolhardy compatriots would brag that Brazil was on its way at last. “Dessa vez vai!” they would shout at him, in defiant assurance. “This time for sure!”
Over the course of the last two years, however — ever since Brazil suffered a humiliating 7-1 defeat to Germany in the World Cup semi-final match — the country has had nothing but uphill battles in its attempts to overcome the odds of mounting a crowd-pleasing, if not financially rewarding, 2016 Summer Olympic Games.
Throughout Brazil’s summer and into the fall there was plenty of “trash talk” from news outlets the world over, calling for cancellation of the quadrennial event. At the very least, the games must be postponed, journalists hinted at loudly. If not, they would dissolve into an unqualified catastrophe.
Athletes from around the globe, including those of the host nation, would become infected with the dreaded Zika virus, spreading its harmful effects (i.e., infants born with shrunken heads and severely impaired brain function to women of childbearing age) in a full-blown pandemic. They conveniently overlooked the fact that winter had settled upon the region, which meant the mosquito population carrying the virus would be at its lowest point.
Needless to say, dire warnings of the end of civilization as we know it were foisted upon anyone willing to listen to these modern-day Cassandras, as if Italian explorer Christopher Columbus’ introduction of venereal disease to the New World had left a less damaging legacy.
Astonishingly, the organizers of the Rio games, as well as the unruffled IOC members, didn’t see it that way at all. As a matter of fact, they maintained an unwavering Pollyanna-ish outlook on the situation. “Everything is awesome,” they seemed to be spouting. “No Trojan horses here, of that we are certain. So it’s on with the show!”
And what a show it would turn out to be. But before dealing with the main event, South America’s most populous nation would have to wade through a lightning round of preliminaries. With forecasts of a calamity worse than the plagues of Egypt, commentators openly implied that those self-same “preliminaries” would be better by far than the games themselves.
Was it possible they could be right?
Light That Torch
On May 3, 2016, the Olympic torch finally arrived in northern Brazil. It made the long, arduous journey through the country’s five major regions, eventually winding up in Rio’s mammoth Maracanã Stadium in time for the opening ceremony.
In many instances, Brazilian runners carrying the renowned sports symbol were met with a bizarre combination of cheers and jeers, and unbounded exuberance mixed in with outright antagonism.
On more than one occasion the torch relay was interrupted by masses of noisy protesters lining the route. Among the demonstrators were striking teachers from Angra dos Reis, in the state of Rio, who were dispersed later on by military forces when tear gas and rubber pellets were haphazardly fired into the crowd.
One such torch bearer, a woman, collapsed on the pavement from sheer exhaustion. Another bearer, surrounded by police jogging alongside and in unison, was sprayed with the contents of an extinguisher. (What part of “light my fire” did they not get?) The police quickly rushed in to tackle the offender.
These and similar incidents continued unabated, up until show time. However, to be fair most foreign viewers and participants were left speechless by the boundless good will and easy camaraderie shown by their Brazilian hosts during the actual games.
All the drama and tension of a two-act theatrical production, with lengthy intermission features and triumphant medal winners, were spaced strategically apart from incidents that took place before and after competition began.
Politics Rule the Day
To start with, Brazil’s political system had been in virtual freefall. President Dilma Rousseff’s suspension, on May 12, 2016, from the nation’s highest office — nine days after the Olympic torch had landed — along with the Brazilian Senate’s historic vote for her impeachment on August 31 — exactly nine days after the Olympic closing ceremonies on August 22 — had thrown the ruling Workers’ Party into a tailspin.
Dilma had been tried for the crime, such as it was, of falsely propping up the economy in order to cover up the “true” state of the federal government’s deficit-ridden coffers during her 2014 re-election bid — a technical accounting maneuver that past presidents had taken full advantage of.
Only in her case, the implications were indicative of what some critics had foreseen as a personal grudge against an unpopular, uncompromising, and totally unbending head of state, a convenient scapegoat for the country’s economic woes.
Having won a narrow victory in the November 2014 runoff election, Rousseff implemented an array of measures that did little to prevent the country from slipping further into recession. Despite having been Lula’s handpicked successor, and by dint of her carrying on with his policies of lifting the living standards of Brazil’s impoverished under-classes via the enormously effective Bolsa Família (Family Aid) program, Dilma’s mishandling of the coming fiscal crisis had riled the nation’s elites into action.
“I may have committed errors,” Rousseff admitted to her accusers, “but I never committed crimes. It’s the most brutal of things that can happen to a human being — to be condemned for a crime you didn’t commit. There is no more devastating justice.”
After more than a decade of social uplift and federal handouts initiated under Lula and the Workers’ Party, Brazil’s “traditional ruling class,” consisting of influential oligarchs with vast monetary holdings (an eerie nod to the U.S.’s own circumstances re: Citizens United), saw an opportunity to take back the reins of power.
There were those within this select group of career politicians who were more corrupt than the person they were pursuing. Let him who is without sin cast the first impeachment vote.
Some even insisted on going forward with proceedings against Brazil’s first woman president on the grounds of her poor command of the Portuguese language. This wasn’t so much a crime as it was a clear-cut expression of the deplorable state of the Brazilian educational system.
Be that as it may, Dilma’s vice president and sidekick, Michel Temer, from the opposition Partido do Movimento Democrático Brasileiro (Brazilian Democratic Movement Party), or PMDB, while temporarily in charge of the government in her absence, has himself been implicated in corruption activities.
The charges stem from his alleged solicitation of illegal campaign contributions from the then-head of the transportation unit of the state-owned Petrobras oil conglomerate. The accusations were part of a much larger investigation commonly known as Operação Lava-Jato (Operation Car Wash), in which an ever-widening circle of Brazil’s politicians were caught with unclean hands, including possibly ex-President Lula himself.
In addition to which, Temer’s brand of right-wing politics, his handpicked all-male (and all-white) cabinet members — in a country where 60 or more percent of the population has some kind of black African roots — and austerity measures that plan to cut back the very programs that helped poor Brazilians out of their misery, have infuriated those who deem his efforts as geared primarily towards saving his own party’s skin and the monied interests of the ruling elite. He remains almost as unpopular as Dilma had been.
As of this writing, Temer has been confined to serving out the remainder of Dilma’s term of office through 2018. With all that has transpired in the political arena, the Brazilian people as a whole have been left with little credibility in their leaders to shake the weary nation out of its torpor.
“This time for sure” remains as unfulfilled a slogan as it ever was.
Oh, We’ve Got Trouble, Right Here in Rio City
The escalating violence — over 60,000 or more unsolved murders in the past few years alone — has continued to upend efforts by both government and paramilitary groups to control drug traffickers and their constant turf wars for dominance in Rio’s squalid slum areas, known universally as favelas.
The city’s own fiscal crisis, wherein it spent over $11.9 billion on Olympic facilities as well as expansion of the existing infrastructure — much more than was taken in to make the 2016 Summer Games a profitable endeavor — has only contributed to the once nascent BRIC nation’s problems, leading to a 4 percent drop in average wages and a staggering 11.6 percent increase in the unemployment rate. (Note: The estimated “unofficial” figure has been pegged at nearer the 37 percent mark, which takes into consideration the number of undocumented workers, the so-termed clandestinos, who make their living the unofficial way.)
Brazil’s gross domestic product, or GDP, also fell 3.8 percent in the second quarter of this year. According to the Website Focus Economics, this was considered an “improvement” over the first quarter’s tumbling of nearly 5.4 percent. Didn’t they say there were no Trojan horses?
This unfortunate reversal of fortune, in a country once touted as the most likely to break through to the level of a First World state (the letter “B” in BRIC stands for Brazil), has brought about a massive recession the likes of which has not been seen since Brazil’s military leaders staged a nonviolent coup back in 1964. You would have to go back to the Depression and war years to find a comparable situation.
As if all that weren’t enough, the raw sewage dumped into Rio’s picturesque Guanabara Bay was rumored to have been detrimental to swimmers and rowers’ health. Despite assurances by the IOC and the city’s planners, who continued to claim progress in “cleaning up” the filth and muck, the situation will continue to rankle long after the games have ended. Problems in Rio’s sewage treatment plants were to blame, allowing for a paltry 20 to 30 percent success rate in eliminating the contamination.
Along the same lines, reports of incomplete or faulty construction, involving the accidental deaths of workers on one of the newly built bike paths in the upper-class neighborhood of São Conrado, as well as the use of cheap labor and shoddy materials, renewed concerns over the slipshod working methods employed in building the Olympic Village and other select venues.
Poor or nonexistent accommodations, faulty wiring, intermittent power outages, cost overruns, and related structural issues were an unavoidable nuisance, a constant reminder that problems continued to plague the seaside paradise of Rio de Janeiro.
Added to which the colossal upheaval to the city’s mass transit system has led to constant disruptions in service to a public entirely dependent on its functionality for getting around town. Detours, work stoppages, and miles upon miles of snarled traffic have contributed in many cases to bringing Marvelous City to a marvelous standstill.
All this gloom and doom was projected to bring about a correspondingly Olympic pool-sized fiasco. The opening ceremonies would be a joke. The lighting of the Olympic flame would be doused by Brazil’s inability to meet expectations, et cetera, et cetera, and so forth.
On the other hand, the “nattering nabobs of negativism,” to coin a phrase once used by Vice President Spiro T. Agnew (and attributed to writer William Safire), would rue the day they badmouthed Rio to a skeptical sports world.
Goodness, gracious me! Has there ever been a more negative view, in anyone’s experience, of a host city’s ills? And we thought the situation with Athens 2004 was bad! If “Greece” is the word, what would Rio 2016 spell in the wake of these impending disasters?
(End of Part One – To be continued…)
Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes
THE QUEEN “B” OF HOLLYWOOD MADE HERSELF AT HOME IN OUR LIVING ROOM — AND IN MY MOTHER’S HEART
Obviously, my parents were not Boston natives but citizens of São Paulo. They were born in the same neighborhood — that of Alto do Pari, near Brás — and in the same month of September. They also shared the same astrological sign of Virgo. By tradition, those born under this sign are supposed to be exacting, nitpicking perfectionists. I can vouch for that conclusion where my father was concerned. My mother, however, followed the “gentler” attributes of Virgos: that of a loving, sincere, and caring human being.
Dad came first, on September 26, 1922,* with mom following two years later, on September 12. Her parents named her Lourdes, while he was christened Annibal. By sheer coincidence, the civil ceremony took place in September as well, on the first day of the month, in the year 1953, followed by nuptials at Igreja São João Batista on September 3, which remained the officially recognized date. And again, purely by accident, mom immigrated to the U.S. on September 3, 1959, the sixth anniversary of her church wedding.
She was the second of seven siblings, and the second daughter of Francisco Antonio Ferreira and the former Ana Joaquina, who were of Portuguese descent from the province of Trás-os-Montes (Behind the Mountains) in the northeastern corner of the country. My dad’s parents, Alfredo Estanislau Lopes Más and the much younger Encarnación Peres Leimones, came from Spain (Granada and Múrcia, respectively). They too had seven children: three sons and four daughters, with dad the second youngest of the lot.
In the movie Now, Voyager, Bette Davis’s character, Charlotte Vale, is the youngest (and only daughter) of an upper-class Boston family of four. She suffers from low self-esteem, brought on by her sharply critical, brow-beating mother (played by Gladys Cooper). This dowager matron treats Charlotte so harshly, keeping her life under wraps, telling her how to dress, what to eat, when to get up, where and when to go out, and with whom, that in time gives way to her daughter’s breakdown.
Realizing she needs professional help, Charlotte’s family members engage the services of a sympathetic shrink named Dr. Jaquith (the dependable Claude Rains), who successfully treats her at his sanitarium. He even arranges a little ocean voyage for Charlotte to romantic Rio de Janeiro, where the former ugly duckling, now transformed into a swanlike vision of loveliness and sophistication, meets the handsome and oh-so-charming Jerry Durrance (Paul Henreid) — an unhappily married man with a problem child of his own. I’d be giving nothing away if I said that, in due course, these two troubled souls wind up in each other’s arms.
As the story progresses, the lovers decide to part ways, until fate brings them back together. When Charlotte returns home to Boston after breaking off her engagement to another man, she has a bitter quarrel with her mother. Strengthened by her newfound independence (acquired through Jerry’s love, no less), Charlotte stands up to the old biddy, admitting to her that she never asked to be born; that she knew she was unwanted as a child, made to suffer needlessly for having appeared late in her mother’s life. Mrs. Vale is aghast at her behavior; so much so that, unable to accept this boldly assertive position, she has a fatal seizure and dies. Of course, this leads to a dramatic relapse, with the guilt-ridden Charlotte once again seeking Jaquith’s aid.
Upon re-entering the sanitarium, who should she meet but her ex-lover Jerry’s homely teenage daughter, Tina (Janis Wilson). Charlotte recognizes the equally unwanted girl’s situation as close to her own, ergo she allows her motherly instincts to take over. In an effort to bring Tina out of her shell, and with Jerry and Dr. Jaquith’s consent, she takes Tina under her wing, as one might say, and befriends the impressionable youth. Tina now becomes a conduit for the expression of her amorous inclinations, the means by which she and Jerry can maintain a semblance of their earlier relationship, while still keeping up appearances.
In the final scene, Charlotte and Jerry share a moment of repose. It’s another of those classic film sequences: Charlotte offers him a smoke. Jerry reaches into the box, takes out two cigarettes, and places them in his mouth. He then lights both cigarettes with his lighter, giving one of them to Charlotte. She takes the cigarette, gladly, and, with tears welling up in her eyes Charlotte responds to his query as to whether she will be happy with having just a part of him in Tina.
“Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the Moon. We have the stars.”
In life, my mother was prone to low self-esteem, which had nothing to do with her parents’ treatment of her. In all likelihood, her poor self-image can be attributed to sibling rivalry, what with an older sister and three younger ones to contend with, including two younger-aged brothers. That, and the fact that mom wore glasses, was physically on the “chubby” side (which made her exceedingly self-conscious), and had a more compliant nature than her sisters, may have contributed to how she saw herself with respect to relationships inside and outside the family circle.
Raised as a Methodist in a community dominated by the Catholic Church, mom made up in religious fervor what faith she lacked in herself. No matter what troubles befell her, or her brood, my mother maintained an unwavering commitment to the Golden Rule. She would be forced to rely on that commitment once she had left her mother’s side.
There were few career choices back then for girls her age: either you learned to handle a Singer sewing machine or you mastered the Remington typewriter. Mom chose to sew as a profession. At age eight, she completed primary school; she then spent the next half-dozen years learning to be a seamstress. Mom completed the course and received her diploma in “Garment Making and Sewing” on December 12, 1938, from Escola Santa Clara, located at Rua Rio Bonito No. 26-A, in São Paulo. The document was signed by Elisa Amelia Affonso, the director of the school.
Not only was mom an outstanding dressmaker, but she also designed and sewed her own wedding gown, along with those of her sisters, cousins, and family friends. By virtue of these unique gifts, she was given the pet name mãozinhas de ouro, or “little hands of gold.” Much later in life, mom would be employed by the Calvin Klein Sportswear Company in Manhattan’s fabled Garment District. On occasion, fashion designer and founder Calvin Klein, a Bronx native, would journey down to the showroom (where mom’s “little hands of gold” were at their busiest) to mingle with the predominantly female labor force.
Growing up in a large working-class family, mom was used to self-sacrifice. She saw her sisters Alzira and Deolinda, and brother Manoel, marry and move out of her parents’ house long before she herself started dating. Always willing to lend a helping hand, mom picked up the slack by doing double duty at her father’s butcher shop, catering to customers and making change, plucking the chickens and learning the ropes of how to provide for her family in times of need. When oldest sister Alzira’s husband died prematurely from tuberculosis, mom helped raise her little niece, Martha, through her formative years while the widowed Alzira went out into the working world.
Her weekends were spent in mild recreation. A devoted member of Igreja Metodista do Brás (Methodist Church of Brás), mom praised the Lord in spirit and song as a contralto in her church’s choir. She took a good deal of pleasure, too, in going to the movies, visiting with friends, conversing with relatives, and attending picnic gatherings with her siblings. Because of her inherent modesty, mom rarely, if ever, participated in Carnival celebrations, except as an inquisitive bystander. It goes without saying that she neither drank nor smoked.
It is also no cliché to suggest that my Carnival-loving, opera-going father Annibal was the polar opposite of my mother in outlook and disposition. The drive and self-assurance he exhibited at home, and around others, came early in life. On an impulse, dad left school at a tender age to become a “surveyor” in the Mato Grosso region of south-central Brazil. All told, he spent six months in the jungle brush, where a lifelong smoking habit was acquired so as to ward off the nightly swarm of mosquitoes.
Doing odd jobs for a time, dad eventually landed a position as a stock clerk and correspondent, first with a textile company and later for a German-based paper mill. In spite of his only having a secondary school education, he became proficient in Portuguese and Spanish, reading, speaking, and writing both languages equally well, and would jabber away in Italian, too, when the spirit moved him.
After twelve years inside a stuffy, poorly lit office, dad decided to quit the paper mill to tough it out as a self-employed traveling salesperson — more out of frustration at being passed over for promotion than any latent entrepreneurial skills. He invested what money he had earned in a franchise with the Confiança Company (Indústria de Produtos Alimentícios Confiança), a growing concern that specialized in selling candies and sweets. The company later changed its name to Balas Kid’s (“Kid Candies”), to more accurately reflect the nature of the business.
With his partner “Noca,” my father would set off on extended road trips, first to the south of Brazil (Curitiba, Porto Alegre, Paranaguá) and an established customer base; then, up to Minas Gerais (Belo Horizonte and its environs), and back down again to the interior of São Paulo State. He would be gone for weeks at a time, so mom was left to fend for herself. Upon his return, dad would sport the darkest suntan known to man, one that made him all-but unrecognizable to us kids.
When my parents and I visited dad’s family in Vila Maria, São Paulo, in July 1985, I happened to come across an old photo album that his youngest sister Marina had taken out of storage for our amusement. Leafing through the album’s pages, I spotted the snapshot of a runty-looking lad, aged twelve or thirteen, with spiky jet-black hair, darkly-colored skin, and strong, penetrating eyes. He was staring intently at the camera, his expression telegraphing his innermost thoughts: “Go ahead, start something,” the boy seemed to be saying to gawkers such as myself. “I dare you!”
I asked my aunt who that boy happened to be. Within seconds, dad came over to where I was sitting. He stared briefly at the photograph, and, with a broad grin and a snicker in his voice, blurted out, “Sou eu!” (“That’s me!”).
I was speechless. That unmistakable look of determination, of someone who knew exactly what he wanted out of life, and was willing to do whatever it took to obtain it, was plainly visible in the facial features of this puny child in short pants.
I thought to myself: How did two such disparate individuals as my mom and dad, with varying backgrounds, contrasting personalities, and entirely different priorities and perspectives, manage to come together and make a successful marriage out of so many incompatible elements?
(End of Part Two)
Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes
* The September 26 date meant that dad was technically a Libra. However, for some inexplicable reason he always insisted that his actual birth date was September 18. Perhaps this dichotomy had something to do with his being born on one day and baptized on another. That may well be, but I have been unable to verify this claim or determine the whereabouts of his baptismal certificate – not that it would have mattered, since dad was far from a practicing Catholic.
Brazilian Dream Team — Möeller & Botelho (Part Three): Celebrating 25 Years of Making Beautiful Musicals Together
Time to Remember…
A lot has happened in Brazil these past few months. Why, the headlines of the major news organizations are filled with the goings-on from below the equator. The problem is they haven’t been on the positive side of things, if reporters and media pundits are to be believed.
From the political crisis involving President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment proceedings to the worst economic downturn in nearly a century, Brazil has been reeling from a plethora of terribly bad to steadily worsening bulletins.
Unemployment is up, while GDP is down. Despite claims to the contrary, the Zika virus continues to worry athletes and participants of the upcoming 2016 Summer Olympic Games; while the threat of bacterial infections has raised concerns with World Health Organization officials over the growing unsanitary conditions found in Rio’s Guanabara Bay.
Add to this the increasing climate of violence due to widespread police killings; the mind-blowing and ever-expanding corruption scandals at all levels of government; the shortage of available housing brought on by the massive number of evictions from Rio’s poorest districts; delays in construction and infrastructure projects that have led to cost overruns and overly optimistic projections of a return on the government’s investment.
All these factors have contributed to the disquiet and unrest that have gripped the Brazilian nation for well-on two years now.
Despite the gloomy forecast, there remains one bright spot — an oasis in the desert of political and economic instability — and that is, the continuing esteem Brazil’s musical theater has been held in by the paying public. It’s as if those MGM wartime musicals had been recreated strictly for the Brazilian market, in the way they used to divert audiences from the horrors of real life.
Today, this has been made possible by the presence of two uniquely talented individuals.
I’m referring, of course, to the Brazilian Dream Team, that dynamic duo of the Rio stage, the “Kings of Musical Theater”: director, writer, costume and set designer Charles Möeller and musical director, translator, adapter and lyricist Claudio Botelho.
I’ve given extensive coverage to Charles and Claudio’s efforts in this vein ever since I began corresponding with the “Boys from Brazil” back in October 2010, and regularly after I had met them in Manhattan in September 2011. Their work, in particular a remarkably entertaining and thoroughly absorbing theater piece named 7 – The Musical, left no doubt they were on the cusp of international stardom.
It happened that at the end of December 2015, Charles and Claudio celebrated their 25th season together as working partners and business associates. In recognition of their hitting the quarter-century mark — and in expectation of bigger and better productions on the immediate horizon — the pair granted a year-end interview to Rio de Janeiro’s Globo News.
After perusing their comments and listening to the enthusiasm they appear to express when discussing their chosen profession, I’m sure readers will agree that with Möeller and Botelho, the sun will always come out on their shows — if not tomorrow, then the day after.
And the day after that and the day after that … And boy, do we need it now!
Recounting the Duo’s Success Which Led to 38 Hit Shows
One is sarcastic and self-contained. The other is open and expansive. The very different and quite opposite personalities of these two gentlemen prove that Charles Möeller and Claudio Botelho were born to complement each other as they embarked on a direct path to success.
They’re celebrating 25 years of a professional partnership that has borne such marvelous fruit as Cole Porter — He Never Said He Loved Me and Spring Awakening. There have been nearly 40 works signed off by the team that has also given birth to numerous other partnerships in their field: iconic actors and actresses, as well as those they have seen rise to stardom.
Here is the most recent conversation with this accomplished Carioca twosome that has become a reference point in the genre of musical theater in Brazil.
Charles Möeller: The secret of a professional relationship is in knowing when to pick your battles. The argument is the most beneficial thing that exists in a relationship because it can determine who gets the last word. When you realize there’s something bigger at stake and come to believe that it’s really worth fighting for … then the argument can only make it better. Friction is what moves us to action and causes us to accept these differences of opinion. We’re two regular guys who enjoy a good fight! Anybody who stands next to us can’t believe what they’re witnessing! You’d think we will never be able to look each other in the eye; but five minutes later we’ll act as if nothing’s happened (laughs).
Claudio Botelho: In the past we would argue almost to the point of coming to blows (laughs). Knowing how to fight is the secret, no doubt about it. If one side is right and the other side is wrong, the end result will demand at lot from us both: we always have to prove we’re right. What makes me the happiest guy in the world is the recognition we get from our work.
Charles Möeller: We met each other as soon as I moved to Rio de Janeiro, in 1989. I was performing in a soap opera called Mico Preto (“Black Monkey”), playing Miguel Falabella’s son, who was then directing the play Um e Outro (“One and the Other”) in which Claudio was part of the cast. I attended an open rehearsal and, as soon as we started talking about musicals, we identified with each other. He was already an expert on the subject and had this goal in mind of an artistic career, while I had just left the company of Antunes Filho and had an aesthetic affinity with the genre. There was a meeting where I provided the stage pictures for a musical and Claudio provided the songs. Duos need to play off one another; those that don’t usually backfire. The neat thing is to be different.
Claudio Botelho: Musical theater is basically a craft made for twos and threes. No single person can go it alone. We only succeed because of one another. When we first met, I realized I had found someone with the same reference points as I had. It was extremely rare for someone my age to have seen the same movies as I had. We had so much love for musicals that, from one day to the next, something clicked. I thought: there’s no way we can do this [type of thing] here [in Brazil] (laughs)! I wanted to show people what I loved the most about musicals; I wanted to share with them what I found so amazing about them. I get excited when I can finally convince the public of this. My greatest pleasure is to sit in the audience and see the place go wild with what we’ve brought to the stage.
Reference to Type
Charles Möeller: We’re obsessed with the genre. It’s not a passing fancy with us, nor are we following the demands of the market. What motivates me to want to do musicals even today is the same motivation I had from the beginning: that the show transforms me and takes me out of myself. We strive for the professionalization of the genre, and lavish it with great technical care. In that way we become a brand.
Claudio Botelho: We changed the type of public that goes to musical theater, which used to be a much older crowd. The generation that watched our show Cole Porter, which really lifted us to success, doesn’t go to the theater anymore. It was Spring Awakening that brought younger audiences to the theater and exposed them to the genre. Our main focus, then, became entertainment for the whole family. We concentrate on the needs of the market, on what the competition has to offer, but without setting aside artistic quality.
All Work, All the Time
Charles Möeller: I have my favorites, but each piece I present takes such a huge chunk out of my life that I always feel the last play I work on is the one that best reflects who I am at the time. I still want to work with so many artists. I love to call on unusual people to partner with, and they end up becoming quite close. My dream is to work with Fernanda Montenegro. I also admire the work of Domingos Montagner and that of Fernanda Torres.
Claudio Botelho: It’s that old cliché of asking which child do you love the most (laughs)? The most important “child” of our career was, curiously enough, the one that made the least money: ‘7.’ It was our creation, one that garnered many awards, but the public wanted to hear more familiar tunes. Still, it was an important benchmark in our history. I, too, dream of working with Fernanda Montenegro and feel this can happen at any moment.
Charles Möeller: Next year  we’ll present an adaptation of the movie The Apartment, in the musical Promises, Promises with Marcos Veras and Maria Clara Gueiros. In the second half of the year we’ll be bringing Pippin to the stage, with a huge cast of unknown performers!
Claudio Botelho: I’m certain that Pippin will bring the same audience that saw Spring Awakening to the show. In addition, we’ll be releasing the film Os Saltimbancos Trapalhões (“The Bandit Stooges”), and we just bought the rights to the movie Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, which has been adapted for the theater. We’ll be responsible for the world premiere showing!
By Globo Theatre, December 25, 2015
(Translation by Josmar F. Lopes – Copyright © 2016)
Who’s That Guy?
Less than a minute into the 2006 documentary Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos and simultaneous with the opening credits, the figure of an unidentified individual enters the frame.
He approaches from the extreme right-hand side of the screen. Wearing sweatpants, a green-and-white baseball cap, matching green-and-white jacket, and aviator-style glasses, the gentleman joins Cosmos winger Steve Hunt and midfielder Nelsi Morais in congratulating their team’s superstar, the incomparable Pelé. We see him mouth the word “GOAL!” as he moves in for an impromptu group hug of the above-named players.
In the blink of an eye he’s gone, to be replaced by other “golden-age” highlights of the era including familiar voiceovers and more than a few talking heads.
As the film progresses, this anonymous entity continues to put in an appearance at key moments in the story. And not just side-by-side with Pelé, but with the members of the extended Cosmos “family,” most notably Italian striker Giorgio Chinaglia, German midfielder Franz Beckenbauer, fellow Brazilian Carlos Alberto, Warner Communications chief Steve Ross, and a host of influential others.
He can even be spotted in numerous photographs, snapshots, video clips, and film footage covering the eight-year period from 1974 to 1982. In all, he is shown a grand total of fifteen times during the course of the feature.
However, the most surprising thing about this person is that he is never labeled or acknowledged in any of the scenes or photos he appears in, not even when serving as Pelé’s interpreter at the legendary 21 Club in Manhattan.
No doubt there is a valid reason why this fellow is pictured so prominently (albeit fleetingly) throughout the documentary. One should add that the bespectacled gentleman in question remains the unsung “hero” of the Cosmos organization, one of several participants who helped legitimize the game of soccer in the U.S. — and who, along with a player named Edson Arantes do Nascimento, aka Pelé, made the sport what it is today.
That fellow is Julio Mazzei. And this is his untold story.
It’s been claimed that Mazzei and Pelé were bonded to each other in a uniquely symbiotic relationship. The Professor, as he was called by those who knew him (by virtue of advanced degrees in physical education, coaching, and sports and recreation), would often make light of his closeness to, and association with, the world’s greatest soccer player: “People assumed we were joined at the hip,” was how he jokingly phrased it.
But the joke was on them, for in ways both inevitable and prophetic it was their mutual participation in the sport that brought these two personable talents together.
Born on August 27, 1930 in the town of Guaiçara, in the interior of the state of São Paulo, Brazil, Mazzei came from a large family of Italian extraction. He grew up surrounded by sports, principally the one favored by his ethnic background (calcio in Italian, or futebol as Brazilians like to refer to it). While he was still small, the family moved to the municipality of Araçatuba, and later to Araraquara. It was in both these cities that Mazzei’s life-long passion for group sports and physical activity were cultivated and expanded.
In the early 1950s, Mazzei temporarily left Brazil to study at the Institut National des Sports in Paris. A year later, he and his bride, Maria Helena, traveled to Michigan State University in East Lansing, where Mazzei continued his postgraduate studies in sports education. Learning and speaking English was another of Professor’s principal achievements. In the interim, Dona Helena occupied herself with natural childbirth classes, which she took full advantage of later on in order to assist expectant soccer wives during their labor.
Professor became affiliated with Palmeiras Soccer Club in São Paulo around the year 1962, where his love of coaching and training was first put to the test. In 1965, after expressing dissatisfaction with the Palmeiras organization, Mazzei moved with his young family to the beachfront community of Santos in the capacity of the club’s conditioning coach and assistant trainer. This was also the team where the sixteen-year-old Pelé had gotten his start. In addition to which Mazzei was the assistant coach to the Brazilian national team from 1964 to 1965.
In the years before Professor and Pelé were invited to come to New York, Mazzei had developed the physical conditioning methods (known variously as Interval-Training and Circuit-Training) that would make him a known quantity in his native country. He would go on to guide that “goal-scoring machine” called Santos and, eventually, the New York Cosmos into the championship clubs they eventually became.
Upon leaving Brazil, Mazzei joined the Cosmos organization in 1975 as a fitness instructor and assistant coach, and in 1979 he became the auxiliary coach. He went on to serve on the board of directors from 1980 to 1982, when he was appointed the team’s head coach through November 1983. When he left the team, Mazzei had the highest percentage of wins of any of the North American Soccer League’s coaches.
None of this background is indicated or even hinted at in Once in a Lifetime. To those unfamiliar with Mazzei’s extraordinary contributions to the game, he’s a faintly elusive individual in soccer history, a somewhat shadowy behind-the-scenes figure who occupies the fringes of yesterday’s sports pages. This is a misconception the film inadvertently perpetuates and which this piece will endeavor to correct.
In my mind, the real issue is why a man of Professor’s unquestioned qualifications and repute went unmentioned in the 97-minute retelling of the decade-long rise and precipitous fall of the Cosmos soccer team and the accompanying North American Soccer League.
For that, we must delve into the documentary itself.
No Fat Ladies Allowed, Only Fat Men
The opening montage of Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos shows a variety of individuals talking about the team, and about the “best and worst of what soccer in America was” back in the mid- to late sixties. Narrated by actor Matt Dillon, directed by Paul Crowder and John Dower, and written by Mark Monroe, with the story credited to Mr. Monroe and Mr. Dower, the documentary is basically a tell-all record of the brief time when soccer first captured the attention of American sports fans.
We learn that soccer was imported to the U.S. by immigrants who came through the gates of Ellis Island. Much like the millions of other ethnicities that over a century ago came to this country, soccer was the property of “hyphenated” Americans: Italian-Americans, Polish-Americans, German-Americans, Greek-Americans, and Slavic-Americans (even us Brazilian-Americans). No matter where they came from or what language they spoke, the thing these new arrivals had in common was their love for the game.
By way of comparison, the documentary mentions the copious starts-and-stops in American sports, for example, when seen on television and as demonstrated by those frequent breaks for commercial messages. These are contrasted with soccer’s continuous ebb and flow with no natural breaks — except, of course, for halftime activities and timeouts for unexpected injuries.
Shifting gears, we transition to tenor Giuseppe Di Stefano singing the aria, “Nessun dorma” (“No one sleeps”), from Puccini’s last opera Turandot. “What is opera doing in a documentary about an American soccer team?” you might ask. As near as we can figure, it may have been an unsubtle signal about how the Cosmos players, including their top-drawer goal-scorers, would spend their “off hours” partying into the night. But that was still to come!
Soccer is likened here to a two-act play, whereby the game is concentrated into two action packed halves of 45-minutes duration each, with a 15-minute interval in between. Be that as it may, initially there was no passion for soccer in America during the first half of the twentieth century because, as strange as it may seem (especially with all those new arrivals) there was no soccer at all — certainly not in 1960. We’re told the U.S. was a barren landscape for the sport, which I can personally vouch for.
Enter Mr. Steve Ross, a charismatic, highly successful businessman who went on to develop the media aspects of the game from scratch. Ross did this before those titans of cable-TV land, Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch, had begun to make their own mark in the broadcasting field.
There were others beside Ross who actively campaigned to transform the American brand of soccer into something else entirely — specifically, two brothers from Turkey, Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun, who founded the R&B label, Atlantic Records. They brought to the northern hemisphere a fanatical devotion to the sport as well as a knack for spotting latent talent.
Moving on to the 1966 World Cup final at Wembley Stadium between England and West Germany, England won the game in overtime. As an impressionable twelve-year-old boy, I distinctly remember watching the final with my father and younger brother on ABC-TV, the only network that transmitted the live event to our apartment. At the time, football was about to enter its prime, with the Super Bowl and some extremely successful teams flourishing and coming into their own. This made the competition for ratings and TV airtime fiercer than ever.
Four years later, a pivotal matchup occurred between two-time champions Brazil and Italy at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico City where Pelé made his final tournament appearance. Unlike the previous cup, this time there wasn’t a single TV station in the greater metropolitan area that bothered to show either the qualifying matches or the final. For that, our family had to take the IRT subway line to Madison Square Garden to see the games on giant closed-circuit screens.
In the meantime, Ross brought the Atlantic Records division into the Warners fold and with it the Ertegun brothers’ worship of the game. With Brazil’s third World Cup victory fresh in their minds, these two farsighted entrepreneurs saw the potential for starting a homegrown soccer team literally from scratch. In fact, they were unabashed in singing the sport’s praises to a somewhat skeptical but willing-to-try-anything Mr. Ross.
As a result of their efforts, Clive Toye was hired as general manager of the nameless team. Almost immediately Toye began to recruit players. But what the franchise needed above all else was a catchy name and a star attraction. Once the “Cosmos” moniker was agreed upon, British head coach Gordon Bradley was welcomed aboard in 1971. Back then, the newly christened team was comprised of such unknowns as Werner Roth, Shep Messing, Randy Horton, and a ragtag collection of semi-professionals. As the saying goes, big things come from small beginnings. And they couldn’t have come any smaller than this bunch.
From its conception the Cosmos had been playing their matches at Hofstra University in Long Island. To persuade the fans to come to their games, Ross made the shrewd decision to move the team closer to the city, to Downing Stadium on Randall’s Island. That was in 1974. Despite this bold maneuver, the Cosmos still needed a high-profile player to draw the crowds and make both the team and the league as financially lucrative as possible.
But who would be willing to join a no-name, startup soccer league in America — and for what price?
(To be continued…)
Copyright © 2016 by Josmar F. Lopes
It’s not often that one gets to communicate with a living legend.
Carlos Lyra — known also by the diminutive “Carlinhos” — is anything but diminutive in his talent and in his abilities. A marvelous singer, songwriter, performer and recording artist, as well as a raconteur par excellence, Lyra, whose name is synonymous with his favorite instrument, the “lyre” (or rather, our modern-day guitar), was present at the dawn of Bossa Nova. His collaborations with such giants of the genre as Vinicius de Moraes, Tom Jobim, Stan Getz, Marcos Valle, Ronaldo Bôscoli, Nara Leão and others is well known to fans of the period.
Now in his early 80’s, Carlos continues to explore the essence of the music he first heard and loved as a boy growing up in the middle-class neighborhood of Botafogo, in Rio de Janeiro.
Fresh from a live show at the Vivo Rio nightclub with longtime friend and associate, Roberto Menescal, and singer-guitarist Toquinho, the ageless icon has kindly consented to the use of his original blog entry entitled (in Portuguese) “O Que é Bossa Nova?” (“What is Bossa Nova?”). In this highly cultivated piece, Carlos shares with readers the myriad factors that helped shape Brazil’s music and culture.
It’s a view shared strongly by this author as well.
WHAT IS BOSSA NOVA?
Recently I gave an interview about Bossa Nova for the BBC in London. Knowing that I faced a well-informed audience, I expanded upon my usual responses in a way that was almost cathartic. It became apparent to me that Bossa Nova is a most misunderstood phenomenon that deserves some additional considerations.
To begin with, Bossa Nova shares a strong affinity with the thirteenth century Provençal School, also known as Fin Amors [or “courtly love”]. It was there that Eleanor of Aquitaine, the mother of Richard the Lion Heart, became acknowledged as the poet who surrounded herself with troubadours and minstrels that, through the sound of the lute (the ancestor of the guitar) composed ballads that were whispered in ladies’ ears.
Similarly, Bossa Nova is also whispered and never yelled. Romantic and elegant, yet never vulgarized, it conforms to the description set forth by filmmaker Luis Buñuel in the movie, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.
Indeed, for Bossa Nova is nothing more than a product of Rio de Janeiro’s middle class that addresses itself to the world’s middle class. A middle class in Rio that, besides our Cariocas, took in a Bahian by the name of João Gilberto, the capixabas [people from Espirito Santo] Roberto Menescal and Nara Leão, paraibanos [people from the Northeast] such as Geraldo Vandré, João Donato from the state of Acre, and from São Paulo, Sergio Ricardo and Wanda Sá, as well as future songwriter Toquinho.
It should be noted that during my lifetime as a performer, I came across something curious: that artistic talent is completely independent of intelligence, culture, good character and mental or physical stability. I have met or heard about artists endowed with undeniable excellence, but who were devoid of one or another of the qualities or gifts mentioned above.
A composer of Bossa Nova who cherishes his art suffers a series of influences that begin with the impressionism of Ravel and Debussy, along with [the music of] Bach, Villa-Lobos, Stravinsky, Brahms and Schumann. He suffers the influence of bolero from Mexico by [the likes of] Agustín Lara, Gonzalo Curiel and Maria Grever — the same bolero that in Brazil took the form of samba-canção; of the French songwriters Charles Trenet and Henri Salvador.
In quick succession, by the influence of the five major American composers: Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin and Richard Rodgers; and by the following artists, i.e., Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Shorty Rogers, Barney Kessel, Stan Kenton and the Modern Jazz Quartet who, much as we ourselves were, are identified with West Coast Jazz.
Finally, Bossa Nova owes its existence to an effervescent cultural outbreak (not a movement, as many have wrongly stated) that took place in Brazil during the 1950s and which manifested itself on the stage with the Arena Theater of São Paulo, the Brazilian Comedy Theater [or “TBC”], Teatro dos Quatro and Teatro Oficina. In the visual arts with Lygia Clark, Lygia Pape, Hélio Oiticica and Wesley Duke Lee, among others. In architecture with Oscar Niemeyer, Lúcio Costa and Burle Marx.
In the automotive industry and in the sports world with Pelé and Garrincha at the Soccer World Cup; with Éder Jofre in boxing, Maria Esther Bueno in tennis, Ademar Ferreira da Silva in the triple jump, and with the Miss Universe Beauty Pageant where Iêda Maria Vargas was crowned.
Bossa Nova was, nothing more, nothing less, than the musical background to it all.
As to the name “Bossa Nova,” that came about during a presentation we gave, in 1958, at the University Hebrew Group in Flamengo: myself, Silvinha Telles, Menescal, Ronaldo Bôscoli and Nara. There was a sign on the club’s door with our names on it, followed by the words “… and the Bossa Nova.” I asked the producer and director of the social club what that meant. His response was: “That’s the name I invented for you.” So we adopted it. We learned later that this creative little Jew had moved to Israel.
After that, we never heard from him again.
CARLOS LYRA — Guest Contributor
SUNDAY, JANUARY 31, 2016
(English translation by Josmar Lopes, and printed with the gracious permission of Carlos Lyra and Magda Botafogo)
Link to the original entry on Carlos Lyra’s blog, ALÉM DA BOSSA NOVA: http://carlos-lyra.blogspot.com/2016/01/o-que-e-bossa-nova.html